Do You Ever Think About Being A Hobbit?

I stumbled into the Tolkien novels as a teenager (in the 60’s). They were a gift from an Aunt and so collected dust on a shelf for a year or more. A virus turned me into a shut-in for a short season, and I dusted them off out of sheer boredom. I extended my illness for a couple of weeks until the whole series was finished. It was a journey into another world, one that had a way of changing the world I lived in. There were no elves that suddenly appeared nor was there an army of orcs invading my town. But there was an ache that I felt as I read that seemed to match an ache in my life. It took some years to discover the connection.

People have told stories from the earliest days of our existence. We do not have the words of the earliest stories, but we have seen their illustrations, recorded on the walls of caves. No one knows what how the stories went, but they seem to have involved animals. The beauty of those animals tells us that the stories included wonder.

People have a way of seeing the world as a story. Israel was God’s chosen people, whose very presence in their land was an on-going saga of purpose. The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey that described their own lives as intertwined with the gods. Poor Rome, lacking a great story, found its voice in the Aeneid, a work of pure fiction written into the ancient Greek stories, and imagining Rome as a new inheritor of that divine drama.

We live in a story that calls itself the “modern world.” It is about the “time” we live in. It invented terms such as the “Classical Period,” the “Dark Ages,” and the “Middle Ages,” naming history in such a way that it inevitably yielded modernity. It is the story of progress and evolution, not the unfolding of a divine plan, but the successive work of increasing understanding, science and compassion.

It is not surprising that the “modern” world plays host to a growing number of people who identify as atheists or non-religious. The narrative of modernity has no place for religion, other than a condescending tolerance for people who “like that sort of thing.” Religion is frequently cast as the villain of the “Middle Ages,” and, thus, something that does not belong to our own day and age.

Of course, the narrative that is the story of modernity is fictional. It’s power and strength come from repetition. Modernity did not end war; human suffering has changed but not disappeared; prosperity has come to some but very unevenly; democracy has created universal suffrage to little or no effect; human dignity is a popular slogan, but largely without content. Has the world truly left behind superstition and ignorance in an ageless march towards a consumer paradise?

Modernity is only a story: it is a narrative disguised as history. The emptiness and pointlessness of the modern narrative begs for questions. I suspect it’s why our hearts ache from time to time and dream of Hobbits. The narrative of Middle Earth, though fictional, has a transcendent meaning and purpose, something that calls for the deepest courage and makes every sacrifice to be significant. That Mordor and Isengard both embody elements of the industrial revolution, endangering even the Shire, are not accidental. They intentionally represent the flaws of modernity. Tolkien’s mythology imagines that such forces can be defeated.

In Tolkien’s world, the characters of Sauron and Saruman make it easy to discern the dark and evil hand behind the engines of change. The diffuse and hidden character of modern powers, masked by the institutions that claim legitimacy, presents only the face of propaganda, the relentless cry of freedom, human liberation and prosperity. There is no spiritual center. Modernity offers freedom for an unknown purpose, liberation for the latest popular cause and a prosperity whose banality mocks the public welfare. The very same mantra has also given the world weapons of mass destruction and placed them in the hands of madmen (including our own). War has become a ceaseless business unlike anything in human history.

The most insidious part of the modern world order is its claim to normalcy. Its myth of progressive history casts modernity as the “natural” outcome of historical processes, something that is inevitable. It ignores and obscures the clear philosophical commitments that underpin it that are arbitrary and anything but “natural.” Its account of the world as a self-existing, secularized neutral-zone, in which any reference to God or transcendent values are viewed as suspect, is contrary to the human instinct of every era and time. Worse still, modernity’s narrative hides the economic and political powers that manipulate the present order, describing them as “market forces,” or other purely natural processes.

The genius of Tolkien’s Shire was its ability to live as though the larger world need not trouble their way of life. Of course, there were guardians who made that possible. There comes a time when even the guardians cannot stand against the opposing powers. The defeat of those powers depended not on a reply in kind – one of force and power. It depended on the very virtues forged in the Shire itself: kindness, comradeship, an ability to endure, and, above all, the love of something greater than power. That alone made the journey towards Mount Doom possible.

The technological consumerism of modernity is not the stuff of paradise, even though it advertises itself as such. The Shire is much closer to a proper ideal. Life is not made for managing but for living. It is this tender reality that whispers to the hearts of modern folk when they pick up Tolkien. It is not a demand that there be no technology, but that the spiritual center of the world be restored. We do not need to become Hobbits. We do need, however, to return to being human.

110 comments:

  1. Hit it in the head. We need to be human. And may I add, we need to be in the Human, Jesus Christ.

  2. I have never thought of being a Hobbitt, but I married one. She is simple, kind, hospitable, indomitable and a lover of God who makes the best biscuits I have ever tasted and has brought me the joy of the hearth. She does not have big hairy feet though.

  3. The only way out of the madness of Modernity is the Way. Naught else makes sense. I do like second breakfast though. You sum up the disease of the modern world so well Father. It is anti human. We do need to become human beings again.

  4. I know of a college level professor who once scornfully derided Frodo Baggins as the weakest literary character ever. He was right of course, and that was the whole point. Had Frodo simpy flipped the ring into the fires of Mt Doom it would have been an affirmation of our assumed human (Hobbit) ability to solve our problem with evil and sin – a victory for modernity. The brilliance of Tolkien is veiled to the modern mind, but perhaps the ache you speak of is yet discernable, serving as a bridge to the other side.

    Truthfully, I’ve always considered myself Dúnedain, far more glamorous. But with the passing of time I know I’m really just a Hobbit at heart.

  5. “Life is not made for managing but for living.” (Thank you for this reminder!) And for all this article:
    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! I very much appreciate your reminders that “modernity” is insidious and “un-real.”

  6. Fr. Stephen,
    Last evening my wife and I were at a high school volleyball game in which our grandson participated. The “music” was so blaring and strident that we couldn’t even talk. Couldn’t understand the words but that is probably just as well. My ears and heart ached from the environment we give to our kids. That morning we had attended a funeral at the monastery.
    It was beautiful and moving. The priest gave a wonderful short homily at the graveside. All of this fed my heart. The difference between these two “worlds” in one day was jarring. Most know only the world modernity has provided. This also makes my heart ache.

  7. I saw a couple of news items this morning that made my heart sink. I’ll not repeat them. I think that the dissolution unleashed in the modernity project, which has gathered steam over the past number of decades, is largely an unstoppable process. It’s the opposite of “progress.” I grieve that it is so. However, I believe that none of that dissolution can prevent us from living an intentional life – truly living. It will buffet us and be jarring, and the effort will have to be made. These are sad times. But, Christ is risen and all of this will one day be swept away – may he grant you paradise.

  8. And now for a rabbit trail…

    What do you mean Middle Earth is fictional!?! (grin)

    It is a commonly held Orthodox belief that there is a thin veil between this world and the next. Using that knowledge and other bits collected here and there, I am prepared to believe in a lot of things that I cannot see or prove: elves, dwarves, orcs, huge eagles and the like. But I realize in my heart that knowing of their existence is… Well, it’s probably better that I don’t. God’s given me the cross I bear, the path I tread, the things I need to work out my salvation. If those mythical creatures exist I don’t want to expose them to my nature which is so susceptible to corruption. Let me finish my journey in this life and then hopefully I will be restored enough to treat with them. I would so love to, but the time is not yet.

  9. Father Bless,

    Reading this post brought to my mind a song from my favorite Boston Straight Edge band:

    “i see the body robbed of soul
    to be the fuel for your control
    i see the standing knocked to their knees,
    and i’ve seen the human beings you treat

    like machines

    MACHINIST
    i am not, i am not, i am not a machine
    i am, i am, i am a human being”

    I think this push toward that which is anti-human is felt by those within the church and without.

  10. Fr. Stephen thank you for this warm and insightful article. There is a question which I struggle with. In previous articles you’ve expressed diffuse criticism of “The Benedict Option”. And I take this critique to heart where it touches on temptations, such as vainglory or pride. Yet, how can we view a return to the Shire as anything but a Benedict Option? We are called to form stronger parishes, stronger relationships, more loving conditions for those with whom we live in community. If these things are done with love they are good, yes? What is incompatible between the Shire and the BenOp? Please understand I am asking out of humble, sincere inquiry and not to be provocative.

  11. Chris,
    I think that most of my Ben-Op critique is a critique of the American penchant for projects. We see problems and we’re driven to solve them. That, incidentally, is itself part of the modern mindset. The matter at hand is not how to change society – it’s a non-starter and beyond the scope of our understanding – it is how to live rightly in the society that surrounds us. And, yes, the answer is the parish Church, and must be. Movement away from a displaced, consumerist model would help.

    For example, slowly, without a lot of planning and such, we have had families across our larger metropolitan area, choose to relocate to be closer to the parish. No one asked it – they simply desired it. And it’s only a few here and there – but every such decision greatly strengthens what is here and moves it ever closer to what a parish needs to be. We don’t live in villages much in the US – though it is one of the most natural of all human patterns. The suburban sprawl is unnatural, created only in a consumer economy based on automobiles. People move into neighborhoods with almost no knowledge of their neighbors. Imagine. That’s actually weird when it comes down to it.

    I think that decisions about jobs and living locations are among the most fundamental moral decisions of the Church in the modern period. The rule of St. Benedict is built on poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Those of us in the world do not vow poverty – but what we own should largely be seen as something held for the common good. We do not practice chastity (unless unmarried), but we practice faithful monogamy, committed to children and family. We do not practice obedience – though we look to the commandments of Christ and understand that doing our own will and shopping with our own pleasure in mind are contrary to the gospel. Stability is the hardest in a culture that demands we move and move often – that we worship change as the means to everything good. My parish is in its 21st year. Many things we do now could never have been done even 10 years ago. Stability through time is important and is transformative.

    That’s my version of a Benedict Option in the parish. It’s not glamorous but rather practical. I certainly favor parish schools and such as well.

  12. Thank you Fr. for the thoughtful and helpful reply. This is a very personal topic for me so I appreciate it. God bless you and your parish.

  13. I see many articles and many comments on the internet and TV that make it seem as if there is no hope, but there is because He has overcome the world. For some reason I am not getting notified of additional comments on this blog. Could you see what the problem may be Father?

  14. “The matter at hand is not how to change society – it’s a non-starter and beyond the scope of our understanding – it is how to live rightly in the society that surrounds us.”

    You taught me this, Father, And it continues to change my life.

    Thank you.

  15. Thank you Fr Stephen, for this article and for the commenters’ responses. These have brought my heart and thoughts needed ‘bread’ for this day.

    My father’s family lived in a kind of ‘shire’ in rural Pennsylvania. Very similar to what you have described, Father, they lived in the same place over several generations. They built a ‘meeting house’ (they were Quakers) and a (boarding) school for their children. The school itself is a structure of more than a couple hundred years old, built for the farming families’ children and for their children’s children. Although these were farming families, they were well educated despite their humble ‘station’ in life.

    I didn’t grow up in this ‘shire-like’ place but visited it from time to time in my childhood. My own childhood more closely resembled that of the ‘modern’ project. We moved from place to place across the entire United States. Then when my parents died, I was ‘allowed’ to spend my last year of high school in the ‘shire’ school. The contrast in the life and experience was eye-opening and life changing, even for a rebellious teenager that I was.

    In my childhood I was told that I had a close resemblance to my father’s aunt who was the ‘shire’ school nurse. She died of ‘old age’ while I was an infant. She never married and had dedicated her life to the farming family children who came to this school.

    I never took seriously the family resemblance talk, until one day I went into an old “inn” pub-restaurant in the ‘shire’. The young man at the cash register was an adult who closely resembled a famous painting of a child that hung on the wall behind the cash register counter. I asked the man whether he was the child in the painting. He said that he was. The information suggested then that the young man had spent his entire life in this shire. The next words he spoke shocked me, because I had never met him before. He said he knew my family and he correctly named them. I asked him how did he know (there were no credit cards those days). He said he ‘easily recognized’ me due to my family resemblance. Even to this day, this conversation has stuck in my mind. I never lived in that ‘shire’ but my father’s family had done so for generations. People knew each other’s family’s stories. All of these family stories were the stories of the ‘shire’.

    Very little remains of that shire today. The school is now a heritage building and now serves to school the ‘elite’ and very few, if any, local farming families. I walked in its halls about a decade ago, and noticed a relatively new mural on the wall pictured one of my father’s ancestors. This past it depicted is now its ‘quaint history’.

    As you have said, Father Stephen, and what David Waite reiterates, what the shire is and where it is depends on how we live our lives in the society that surrounds us. May we take these words ‘to heart’. May we live near our parishes and support and enliven our parishes with the love and devotion they need to flourish as our own ‘shire’.

    And many years to the ‘Gandalfs’ that guard them!

  16. “We do not need to become Hobbits. We do need, however, to return to being human. ”

    Reminded me of a phrase in the book, “The Outermost House,” by Henry Beston, which was something like this . . . To be less than human is to be a beast; to be more than human is to be a monster.

  17. I taught an adult education class in our parish on the Ben Op centered on Rod Dreher’s book. Here is what I learned:

    1) Rod is a political and cultural commentator, a journalist by trade – he has his limitations.
    2) One of those limitations is his tendency to emphasize the political shape and character of modernism and its top down character, as opposed to its roots in our hearts and minds.
    3) Rod’s critique of modernism, and how generalized cultural Christianity has come to reflect the world rather than Christ is essentially the same as Fr. Stephen’s, even if it lacks Fr. Stephens depth in the Fathers and Orthodoxy’s ascetical understanding of our humanity and our Cross.
    4) Rod is willing to critique our modern parish churches (and “the church” more generally) and how they are the answer to modernism, not because they are not “the answer” in principle/ideal, but because in practice they have come up short. There are several reasons for this, all of which point to the fact that those in these parishes have accepted and are living secular/modern presuppositions in one way or another . He does not provide definitive answers or “projects”, only reflections on and descriptions of those who have come up with “a” solution in the way they live.

    It is often asserted that the Ben Op is essentially a yearning for a return of Christendom – a “restoration” of a culture and society where Christians can live a sort of “Christ and Culture” free from the cross of our current “Christ against Culture”. I don’t see this however (not in Rod’s work), and one of his central criticisms is that Christianity, even “Traditional” Christians, even “Orthodox” Christians, have compromised too much with modernism. Rod is unapologetic and forthright with his criticisms of how the sexual revolution, consumerism, and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has taken residence right in the heart of even our most pious and “Orthodox” parishes. Some feathers have been ruffled from this, but nobody here would say this is not as it should be.

    Significantly, it was those with children in the class that were most sympathetic to Rod’s cultural and church/parish critique. Those childless or with grown children tended to see everything with a certain distance, as a “philosophical” commentary, and were more concerned about the optics of “judgement” and whether Ben Op is somehow a repudiation of the Great Commision. They did not see the irony in the fact that the vast majority of their grown children are not even nominally Christian, let alone Orthodox. There were several practical follow ups to the class. For example, I have a background in IT and so I was able to point families to resources on how they can filter and supervise what comes in to their children’s computers and screens. Several families have made a conscious effort to steer our children’s peer group formation in the direction of the parish, to the extent possible.

    At the end of the day, I tell folks that the Ben Op comes with a “your mileage may vary” caveat. If it connects with you and your particular situation vis-a-vis the culture, the family, the Church, and the parish and helps frame and understanding and response to some important things, then so be it. If all you see in it is a “retreat” or some mal-adjustment, then leave it alone.

  18. “I think that the dissolution unleashed in the modernity project, which has gathered steam over the past number of decades, is largely an unstoppable process.”
    Father, with all due respect, that type of pessimism is a gift to our enemies and can only be a strategem of our chief Enemy; there is an exact parallel with what happened to Denethor, Steward of Gondor, in the LOTR. The Church (by which I mean all who confess Christ) has many Denethors, capable of mightily opposing the Adversary together, but blind to one another’s existence and thus isolated and on the brink of despair.
    The difference between us and our opponents is that they are unceasingly dedicated to their cause, and tend to set aside what they rightly identify as minor internal disputes in order to combine their resources and efforts in pursuit of victory. While we should never emulate their ruthlessness and frequent disregard for truth, we could learn something from their dedication as well as their ability to unify in pursuit of their goal(s). We Christians ought to be unified in our pursuit of Christ–not the minutiae of right/historical/Traditional doctrine–and, illumined by Him from within, be enabled to scatter spiritual darkness. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, if we can avoid being a schizophrenic Bride of Christ.

  19. Brilliant! Thank you!

    I discovered THE HOBBIT as a castoff paperback in Viet-Nam. Bilbo sure helped me through some rough times.

  20. KM,
    I think you don’t understand what I am describing and that you are describing something else. The ‘dissolution unleashed in the modern project’ is simply the crumbling of modern civilization, not the Kingdom of God or anything Christians are called to be concerned about. Modernity has been the dominant philosophy for over 200 years and has simply been working its way along. A majority of Christians in the “modern” countries are themselves pretty committed to most aspects of the modern project – particularly those in America.

    No one should confuse the Kingdom of God with merely conservative “Christian” ideas. What passes as the conservative Christians movement is about as modern as things get – it has a few opinions on moral matters that differ from non-believers, but not much else. It is dominated by consumerism and delusions of progress. Denominational Christianity is purely a product of modernity.

    There is a much deeper and longer battle – that was long ago determined and won. Christ is victorious always. But we have no promises about civilizations. They come they go much like the tide of the ocean – only much slower. We are living in a time of dissolution and collapse. There is nothing at present that will change that. Christians who marry themselves to the world will have to endure the collapse as well. And since we live in the world, it will affect us in various ways.

    But the Christian way of life (that I’ve compared to the Shire) can be lived anywhere and at any time – nothing prevents us from doing that. But if you imagine that there is some civilization (like Gondor) that can be saved from the present dissolution – then you’re living in a fantasy. There is no such civilization. America is not and never has been a classical Christian nation. It was built on modern ideas by Christians whose theology was already far from the classical teachings of the faith. We have not been a good nation, and have yet to repent of our most serious sins. Indeed, we continue to repeat them.

    I’m not sure what kind of Christianity you’re describing – other than a parachurch, non-sacramental creation that is not building up anything. It’s just a symptom of the dissolution.

    I am an Orthodox Christian priest. Orthodox Christianity has existed from the beginning and endure every form of torture and persecution, both ancient and modern. It is still here. It abides.

    I am not a pessimist. I am a Christian. I hope in God. I have no hope in men.

  21. What you just wrote, Fr. Stephen, got me to thinking of this analogy, though very imperfect. Wish I were an engineer. Anyway, the large sprocket on a bicycle represents the Kingdom of God. The chain is the Holy Spirit which drives, underpins all. The smaller back sprocket is Scripture, only correctly interpreted by the Holy Spirit.
    When I’ve asked evangelical Christians what they believe to be the “bulwark and foundation of truth” most will say the Bible. I would have at one time, though the Bible issues forth from the Church and the Church predates it almost 4 centuries. It takes a real paradigm shift to move from one sprocket to the other. At a fast food restaurant this week, my wife and I sat next to 6 ladies speaking Armenian. They also spoke English. Anyway, I discovered that the lunch was a weekly ritual after a Bible study together with other ladies. She was very sweet, had very soft eyes. Yet years after being Orthodox I now can only see the blessed Scriptures as part of the Church, not standing on their own. And I ask myself, how can they possibly know that what they are studying is the truth, apart from the Church and Her Tradition? Anyway, nothing new, is it? It is ancient, this quest for truth, and it certainly cannot be had apart from the Source of Scripture, the Holy Spirit working through the Church.

  22. Dean,
    I would offer one corrective viz. the Scriptures and the Church. We cannot say the Church predates the Scriptures by almost 4 centuries. The statement of the Canon of Scripture, more or less in the 4th century, did not mean that these books were not Scripture already or not read by the Church as such. It was simply a formalization of something already settled.

    In fact, it’s a good example of Tradition at work. The Church read what it received from the Apostles and Evangelists – and was able to judge and discern them from the false writings because of Holy Tradition.

    I make this note because there are people who would misunderstand and think it meant that the writings of the New Testament did not happen until 4 centuries later – which would make them more than a little problematic.

  23. Thank you Father. I posted what I wrote right before my bedtime…should have sent it this a.m., after sleep. Yes, the Gospels and epistles were read and part of the Church before. It was not until 365 to 397 that we see the lists more formalized.
    The Holy Spirit and the two “sprockets” He energizes all work together in perfect synchronization. They do not work alone, i.e., Church apart from Scripture. Thank God that all this has been “traditioned” to us, that we/I do not have to sort things through alone, but in the community of Christ’s living body.

  24. Father,

    Your comment above about suburbia made me notice something that has become an obsession in the past 20 years. In mid to large cities, parents have become obsessed with school districts. They will sell a house in one suburb to move to another house in a different suburb twice the cost just because of a perceived change in school districts. Parents talk about school districts at social events, at work, and at church functions.

    Then, I meet their kids. They are the most anxious children I have ever met. They seem to shake with anxiety.

    It is all about the modern project.

  25. Allen,
    Sadly, we concentrate on things like academic success and neglect more fundamental things. I point out to parents that there is only one correct answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer: “A good person.”

    We want “success” in the American manner, but neglect the only things that actually bring true joy and contentment. It is the nurture of the soul that should have our attention.

  26. Allen’s comment about suburbia made me think of granolashotgun.com. Someone mentioned it in the comments of this blog a couple years ago and I’ve been following it ever since. The blogger is a social commentator on US infrastructure, housing, and the fact that what exists right now is largely all we have to work with (highways, malls, municipal services, etc.) . And so how therefore shall we live? He often showcases ways average people are making a life and a living despite all the zoning regulations and other roadblocks.

    I highly recommend it if you’re attracted to that particular area of human life and observation. He’s not a Christian but is well-respected in planning circles, is a great writer, and has a lot of good insights.

  27. I think it is interesting how science and technology is always cast in this villainous light in literature and movies. Whether it is Cervantes’ Don Quixote jousting with windmills, Shelley’s Frankensten, or Jurassic Park’s John Hammond and his bioengineering company InGen, science is always cast as the villain. I don’t really understand that. Even in the Star Wars films the Empire is technologically much more advanced than the rebellion. In fact, Campbell interprets Darth Vader as someone whose humanity has been supplanted by technology.

  28. KM, your definition of the church really struck me. It brought to mind one of the key difficulties today’s Christians suffer from: a tenuous grasp on the reality of the Incarnation.

    Neither Jesus Christ nor His body are ephemeral shadows that are held together somehow by our belief. They are real, present and do not require our belief to exist like Tinkerbell.

    Their existence “Everywhere Present and filling all things” since before time draws us to see and acknowledge them. That acknowledgement is the first step in union with our Lord. Living a life of repentance, sacramental thanksgiving, prayer, alms giving, fasting and forgiveness in joy and humility allows us to enter into greater union and be transformed into a fully human being.

    There is no ideology (all creations of human belief) which can compare. The modern project is an ideological delusion which requires belief and blood sacrifice to continue. It has no reality to it and therefore must crumble. It is inevitable.

    Jesus Christ is fully human and fully Divine without mixture or confusion. The Church understands this, lives this, guards this and is the door way into that oneness. The fullness of that reality (despite our sinfulness and disregard) is only in the Orthodox Church.

    As the delusional world crumbles, so to will all delusions derived from it including ideological Christianity based solely on belief and custom. This will hit all of us.

    Yet He has attained the victory and all things shall be made new. But we will pass through fire and judgement.

    If you have not read St. Athanasius “On the Incarnation” forward by C.S. Lewis. I urge you to do so. It is an old book filled with the life of the Holy Spirit.

  29. granolashotgun.com

    Drewster2000, I may have been the person that referred to this blog. I greatly enjoy the writer’s insights as well and noticed you were commenting there!

    I point out to parents that there is only one correct answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer: “A good person.”

    Father, this seems painfully generic although I understand that the point is the focus on our own hearts. But is seems to be something even an atheist could say with conviction. I have no doubt that their view of “good person” would be substantially different though.

  30. David,

    This may seem obvious but I suspect science and technology are often painted as the bad guys because they represent magic to us. Someone once said, magic is anything we don’t understand.

    So for one thing when something is a mystery, our first reaction is to fear it. Probably stems from the self-reservation instinct. (wink) But another point is that we would find it simultaneously boring and uncomfortable if we were to focus on the true source of evil around us: our own hearts. Instead let’s project that into something “out there” which we only need to keep at arm’s length and then we’ll be safe.

    And sometimes that’s for the best. God knows that given enough time we will be able to achieve anything – but without the maturity and discretion to go with the ability. So sometimes us being scared is probably the appropriate response, kind of like the 5 year old who’s afraid of the road. He should be, until he’s ready for it.

  31. On one hand there is the pessimistic critique that decries modern progessism (please forgive the neologism). On the other is clear-eyed prophetic voice pointing to the progressism and saying “The Lord is my life and my salvation, whom shall I fear.” Too often it seems that popular cultural/political critics fall on the side of pessimism. I trend that way if I start following politics too closely.

    Evgeny Vodolazkin’s essays, published in First Things, “The New Middle Ages” and “The Age of Concentration” (links below) are an optimistic forecast that provides a healthy counterweight to the various dooms pronounced by conservative commenters and critics. The pessimism of these cultural critics may seem more in line with reality, but I am beginning to see it as merely the reverse of the same coin that has “progressism” as its obverse. Vodolazkin’s vision of hope is the better way to respond to the progressive-utopian-cum-dystopian-anti-humanism toward which we seem to be hurtling.

    Another example is the wonderful address by Kh Krista here: http://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/holy_virgin_cathedral_ninth_annual_pan_orthodox_lenten_retreat/kh._krista_west

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/08/the-new-middle-ages
    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/06/the-age-of-concentration

  32. David,
    In your comment about the ‘science bad guys’, I know there are those commenting here who know more about the history of the Protestant reformation (Fr Stephen specifically among others) who can provide a more nuanced presentation on this topic. However, from the conversations I have read thus far, I sincerely believe that the ‘sides’ for whatever people say and think they are, have come from dialectics between Protestants and/or protestant-thinking influences on science (better known as the philosophy(s) of modernity). It seems that when I read an atheist-scientist’s ‘argument’ against the veracity of the existence of God, he or she are invariably speaking about the ‘sky-god’ described by Fr Stephen in a previous post and appears to be a (if not ‘the’) hallmark idea in the Protestant reformation.

    A few weeks ago my husband picked up a book by an ‘atheist’ physicist and he asked me to take a look at it and tell him what I thought. I read a few of the author’s points, and my husband was surprised, however, when I said at least in the specific points the author made that I read, I would agree with the author. In other words, I didn’t believe in ‘that god’ either.

  33. David,
    I will make one more point, which may seem like splitting hairs. There is an important distinction between science and applied science (technology). Sometimes I think that this distinction is becoming blurred in conversations and sometimes this blurring is intentional and not helpful. A scientist needs (or at least ‘ought’) to know what science is and isn’t. But this wouldn’t necessarily be the case for a technologist.

  34. Byron, it seems painfully generic until one considers the cultural environment. I keep coming back to an recent odious automobile ad. It asks that very question at the beginning and gives an answer that seems decent BUT then then the music and the announcers tone change. No, being a good responsible person is not enough. You want more, you want to dominate and control and rule. For that you need our car.

    I know my son struggles with being a good person because of the pressures around him. My step-son struggles with how to keep his young daughters protected from the predators out there.

    Knowing what a good person is? That is a lot.

  35. Applied science is just an extension of experimental science and interdisciplinary endeavors the experimentalists and the technicians work in the same building and sometimes in the same lab. Im not sure there is a hard distinction there any more.

  36. David,
    If I understand you correctly I appreciate your point, it would depend on the knowledge base of the technologist. The distinction iis no longer blaring but this lack of distinction ie recognizing what one is in contrast to the other isn’t helpful, particularly in the academic sphere where the distinctions have been more carefully taught in the past. The question one might ask is why we rarely hear the terms ‘pure’ science or ‘basic’ science anymore. The disappearance of the line as far as my point above has less to to do with semantics but more to do with how the public at large may have difficulty recognizing what science is.

  37. Dee,
    Good point. I think that the reason you don’t hear the terms “basic science” or “pure science” is that these aren’t the sexy projects that are going to snag the grant money. Public funds have to be invested with the anticipation of the possibility of an application or translation in medicine. Unfortunately, we are rewarding hype with grant money most of the time. What this fails to take into account is that by far most of our biggest discoveries were made BY ACCIDENT while basic research was being conducted.

  38. I grew up loving “science”–the exploration into the nature of the creation is how I saw it. I started as a chemistry major in college but I did not find my heart there. At the same time as my encounter with Jesus on the hill, I switched to history and found the same kind of spirit but more agreeable to my heart-journeying into the nature of human thought and community. It has produced a great fruit in my life as it became the avenue Jesus used to draw me nearer to Him and His Church.

    Dee, you comment that “atheist” scientist being against a false God rings true to me but at the same time they and many others seem to accept the authority of those who promulgate the false God. They seem to assume that there is no other possible God.

    A great sadness to me has been the public face of science has turned against what I know to be true sometimes in very explicit terms. It is a joy to me to see so many scientists here. It makes me think that I fell into the same fallacy. It is a fallacy born of an ignorance of the real and a passive acceptance of the loudest voice in one’s environment.

    I did not have a way into a knowledge of the real science for a long time. Thank you all for opening a small widow. I find it fascinating once again.. A bit of a return to my youth and a great complement to my own experience.

    Still, culturally/spiritually great damage has been done by the iconoclastic spirit of Protestantism and the secular mind masquerading as both science and theology I think.
    But at least I can begin to see how I was misled.

  39. Changing the subject a bit, Father . . . in case you haven’t seen this about a major new translation about Solzhenitsyn.

    “Our civic and political maturation, in line with Solzhenitsyn’s vision, is happening right here and now. For many years, Solzhenitsyn kept pointing out that the mid-17th century church reforms that had provoked the schism of the Old Believers was one of the direst and most calamitous events of Russian history. Nothing could be more pathetic than a struggle against the most pious and hard-working part of the Russian nation. But we nowadays see a determination to heal that old wound from within both the government and the Orthodox Church.”

    http://www.unz.com/akarlin/prophet-solzhenitsyn/

  40. I second Michael’s joy of communing with the scientists here. I regret the propaganda against science I encountered in the church. So very narrow-minded and growth stunting. It is a blessing to be among scientists who are Christian where the perspective is put back in its proper place…God first, throughout, and last. It must be hard to work among non-believing scientists. I bet because of your belief in God you see things more clearly as you go about your work. In other words, you are one step ahead of the game. True?
    I am not naturally drawn to the type of science Dee and David speak of, so I welcome the learning. What did come naturally was the social sciences…psychology, sociology, which eventually led to work in Nursing. It is such a joy and glory to our God that He gives us diverse talents…in science, education, trades, ecclesiastics (!), With an eye to God, He will fulfill our work with meaning and purpose…which is the drawing of all things to Him. Good to do our work with a purpose, isn’t it! God is good.

  41. I’d like to contribute to the interaction between Dee and David on science vs. applied science, so here goes.

    I like the term “natural philosophy” a great deal better than “science” for what Dee identifies as “pure science”. I think it puts the right focus on the subject matter and the means of apprehension of it. It is the studious pondering of nature, of creation. It is led by the affective self (the right hemisphere, concerned with apprehension of the world as it is – and God bless the commentators who have also read “The Master and His Emissary”) and only supported by the effective self (the left hemisphere, concerned with aligning the world to a self-limiting paradigm). What David describes as the blurring of these lines is, to me, the erosion of the affective self by the effective self. It has nothing to do with the nature of the work, and everything to do with the nature of the people doing the work.

    My training is all in engineering, but my favorite course to teach is thermodynamics – because it is natural philosophy. There is wonder and mystery in the way energy moves through the material world. But for the past five years I have been working on NASA-funded research missions, and NASA and my department are quite dedicated to the application of advanced technology towards the hypothesis of a-biogenesis (life coming from not-life, or at least, life coming from not-here). This is not science. This is fantasy. There is no supporting evidence and there is a huge improbability involved (see the Drake equation, another long conversation). But the affective self has been banished from the room. Nobody is allowed to ask whether it’s a good idea, whether it’s a wise use of resources, whether it’s in any classical sense “sane” to pursue this agenda. This is the effective self run amok. Keep making and using tools regardless of the worth of the work.

    So I quite agree that there is a blurring, at the practical level, of these two modes of being-in-the-world, but they remain very different. One is sometimes called a liberal art – befitting free minds and free men. The other, a servile art, fit for service, not leadership. (An aside, this is the great indignity of the STEM agenda, science/tech/engineering/math- the S and the M do not belong with the T and the E). One points up, to the unity and glory of glory of God the creator. One points down, to the endless possibilities of manipulating creation.

    At any rate, those are my thoughts on the matter. If they help anyone think about the applied/pure science question, well and good. If not, please forgive me.
    In Christ,
    Mark

  42. To the unitiated, science has a mystique about it. Much like the way mathematics or an ancient language may elicit an esoteric sense. But once you are inside it, it’s business as usual. Once you work up to a certain level of proficiency, then the rest is routine. Everything has a routine. And once you see something from the inside–the ideological battles, the worship of personalities, the crap that gets published as “science”, and the push for grant funding–it is kind of disillusioning.

    As someone who doesn’t shy from a debate I have fought my fair share of atheists, mostly know-it-all graduate students who don’t know anything. To be honest, I love ‘good’ well-crafted arguments against the existence of God. Because if you pay close enough attention they are making our case for us.

  43. Mark M,
    I appreciate your comments, but I would like to ask you a question: Can you name one process in the cell cycle that does NOT obey the laws of biophysics?

  44. I will bumble into this conversation for a moment from a theological point-of-view. I have a favorite phrase regarding God’s work in the created order: “causelessly causes.” It is similar to the phrase from Exodus, “with a secret hand.” Were science to actually come up with some sort of demonstrable mechanism to account for biological life arising from non-life (or however that should be phrased), it should not cause even the least ripple on the surface of Christian theology. I would almost find it odd to imagine a non-physical account of that startling event – a sort of “magical” leap. Christians too often are guilty of having no theological imagination or depth. We want to insert God into a universe we imagine in mechanical, linear terms (which might be insufficient for describing the universe itself, much less God’s work). We are stuck in 19th century conversations.

  45. “Can you name one process in the cell cycle that does NOT obey the laws of biophysics?”

    This is a tautology. The answer can only be no. The method (i.e. the meaning of “process”) is methodological materialism, but what is the *presuppostion*? Methodological materialism (i.e. science) is a kind of anti-metaphysics, but people do science and the question become what *kind* of people do science? Ones with whose faith/philosophy/first principles/world view is a philosophical materialism, or ones whose faith is something else – Christian or perhaps something else,anything else.

    Mark’s point about “natural philosophy” and “affective vs effective self” is a point about the self, world, and God when the bubble of methodological materialism is seen for what it is from the point of view of real humanity. What a strange world we live in that many (most?) think the bubble IS the horizon. It takes a mighty faith to be a philosophical materialist…

  46. Fr.,
    I couldn’t agree more. The debate over evolution is a waste of our time. If you’re doing it for kicks and giggles, fine. But we aren’t changing anyone’s heart and mind in that debate. When has anyone ever changed anyone’s mind?? That’s just not realistic. Any god whose existence you can prove by appeal to evidence and any god whose existence follows necessarily from reason is not God. And a corollary with this is neither does faith. Faith does not follow necessarily from demonstration either evidentiary or rational. Our faith and life is always at the level of mystery, sacrament and revelation.

  47. Christopher,
    The question is not tautaulogous.

    Mark’s reservations regarding the emergence of life from nonlife (abiogenesis) was cast in a cynical tone. However, if we conclude that the life cycle of the cell follows the laws of biophysics, then there’s no reason to dismiss the idea that those same laws could have allowed for the abiogenic origin of life to begin with. And my only intention in trying to make this very simplistic point is that even if our methods bring us inexorably to the conclusion that life is explained strictly in empirical terms, thats okay. That does not alter our faith.

    I am very glad science does not involve itself in the speculations of metaphysics. Science is difficult enough already without introducing material that is entirely subjective.

  48. I am reading Dr. Zhivago (for a first time). Earlier efforts always got derailed for some reason. But I am being repeatedly struck by Pasternak’s ability to describe mystery and wonder in the encounter with things. The novel is quite lyrical in places. It is very unlike the American film, by the way. Much more complex (like any Russian novel). My book is being translated into Russian and is presently scheduled to be published in October. I’m working on a preface for the Russian edition. I’m struggling to find the words to describe the importance of Russian culture and Orthodoxy to my life. It has been many of its most lyrical and non-modern aspects that whispered, not of hobbits, but of a one-storey world. Prayers would be appreciated.

  49. I can’t help but say I’m really enjoying this ‘science’ conversation. I hesitate to stir the pot more, but I humbly disagree with the definition of science as ‘methodological materialism’, knowing full well that’s apt for how science is described in philosophy of science conversations.

    I have a Native American background/upbringing and was first taught ‘science’ by my mom, who had lower than a third grade level understanding of math. Science in the context of my mom’s culture was/is important approach in nature to understand nature partly for our own survival, true, but also to ‘commune’ with nature. I’m not sure that ‘commune’ part aligns well with the ‘methodological materialism’ concept.

    A few years ago I was Chair of regional section of the American Chemical Society. My eventual resignation came about mainly out of frustration with local (to my area) scientists, who would go out into the ‘bush’ and try to ‘teach’ Native Americans ‘what science is’. They came back with a report that in summary said, “Native Americans don’t want to learn science”. I laughed, but it wasn’t all that funny, really. I asked those delivering the report whether they had thought to ask the people they interviewed, to teach their knowledge of science, instead. They (the scientists delivering the report) said no, because they already knew they (the Native American people they had interviewed) knew nothing.

    I want to say that I dearly appreciate this conversation. I probably wouldn’t be having it anywhere else at this time. Thank you all, David, Michael, Mark, Christopher, Fr Stephen, and Paula for your contributions. You have all made my day today!!

    Being a science hobit is fun, and sometimes magical!! Please forgive my mirth, I just feel a lot of gratitude. : )

  50. Dear Fr Stephen,
    You most certainly have my prayers. I appreciate your mentioning, Dr Zhivago. Curiously I’ve been thinking about reading it too. Thank you for mentioning it and for your writings. I believe I can speak with confidence that we all dearly appreciate your work.

  51. Father.
    Looking forward to the completion of your book.
    A while back you asked for prayer for the finishing of your book. I believe since then many of us have done so. I am not always consistent, but yesterday I remembered and briefly said a few words. Nice to see your comment above, and a beautiful confirmation of how He is so very present among us all. It is wonderful how God works…knowing your desire to do the best for Him, He impresses upon you the flow of thought of this Russian author. Good stuff, Father!
    May God grant you just the right words. No doubt He will!

  52. David,

    You speak as if Mark’s “cynicism” comes from within methodological materialism. The tone of his criticism (as least as I read it – both you and I are perhaps making too much of Mark’s few words) comes from without these narrow confines. Anther tautology:

    ” …even if our methods bring us inexorably to the conclusion that life is explained strictly in empirical terms, thats okay. That does not alter our faith.”

    Methodological materialism has, can, and will only ever explain “life” in empirical terms because that is all it can do – it’s a method (and a very good one) for doing what you say, “does not involve itself in the speculations of metaphysics.” It fails in the end however because you can’t do epistemology without a metaphysical presupposition, even if it is a metaphysics of (almost) pure negation. For example, when you end with

    “Science is difficult enough already without introducing material that is entirely subjective.”

    Well, behind your use of “subjective” is a whole host of philosophical/metaphysical debate and dilema originating in Aristotle and culminating in the “High Middle Ages”. This leads to the “solution”, as it were, of methodological materialism, fideism, spirit/body and God/world dualism of the our current two story civilization and minds. In the previous post you say:

    “. Any god whose existence you can prove by appeal to evidence and any god whose existence follows necessarily from reason is not God. And a corollary with this is neither does faith. Faith does not follow necessarily from demonstration either evidentiary or rational. Our faith and life is always at the level of mystery, sacrament and revelation.”

    The hinge is “evidence” and “reason”. As a Christian man (same is if I were Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim – just about anything other than a modern) I don’t grant methodological materialisms’ definition/restrictions, even while granting this methods right to do so *within its own domain*. So I agree with you in a sense, but with the caveat that “mystery, sacrament and revelation” are not only “reasonable” presuppositions from which reason can start, they are actually MORE real, right, and true than methodological materialisms’ anti-metaphysics.

    Not only that, because of this I grant “mystery, sacrament and revelation” (Christianity) an authority from which a man can *judge* (both prudentially/morally, AND “metaphysically” or noetically) when this method (science) is straining its borders and overreaching. Thus, I can agree with Mark that this particular experiment (or rather hypothesis) is questionable, namely because it can only come up short (by design) on its own terms (i.e the method). It is not “cynicism” that leads me to this judgement, but reason itself.

    The trick of Christianity is that it avoids fideism and the two story universe by placing the material in the context of God, thus avoiding “materialism”. The trick for the modern scientist is to place the practical method of methodological materialism in the context of Christianity, or at very least in the context of the epistemological and metaphysical context of real persons doing science…

  53. I was wondering why my spell check kept trying to put in habit instead of hobit. Now I know.

  54. Dee,
    ” They came back with a report that in summary said, “Native Americans don’t want to learn science”. I laughed, but it wasn’t all that funny, really. ”
    Oh girl, I know that laugh! Thank God we can do that (and nothing worse!) in the face of preposterous statements.
    Although I have having difficulty understanding Christopher’s “wrenches” (not the first time, huh Christopher?!) and get a bit nervous at his wording , ie “methodological materialism” (which can also be taken as cynical), I look forward to future replies.
    Nevertheless Dee…no forgiveness needed….we “mirth” with you!!

  55. Christopher,

    How in the world would placing methodological materialism in a Christian context change how science is practiced?

  56. “How in the world would placing methodological materialism in a Christian context change how science is practiced?”

    Depends on what you mean by “practiced”. If by “practiced” you mean the method itself, Christianity has no more to say on that then it does on how a person should hold and swing a hammer, or rather society should drive on the left or the right. If by practice you mean what the *meaning* of the method is in the wider context of Man, God, and the Good life, then Christianity has everything to say.

    Marks example is one where science is (over) reaching for “life”. The word “life” only has meaning in wider metaphysical/moral context of God and the Tao as C.S. Lewis put it (i.e. just about every philosophy in the history of man). On the border, within the hierarchy of Christianity, like when the method comes into contact with “life”, not only can, we should judge.

  57. Christopher, I dont know what youre trying to say. Maybe you can simplify it for me and if not thats okay, God’s peace.

  58. Christopher,
    OK, I’m getting past the “wrenches”, which were actually my inability to grasp your thoughts. I now recall your reminder to me (Fr. Lawrence’s blog) that your comments reflect your focus on two areas: Christology (Anthropos) and the Enlightenment. Finally, this ‘clicked’ and began to shed ‘some’ light on your words. Much appreciated, thanks.
    Thank you all again for this discussion.

  59. David,

    I mean only to give a good reason why Mark’s *humanistic* judgement as to why a certain kind of ‘science’ is anti-human. To be Christian we first have to be human. When we for whatever reason allow a thing (such as methodological materialism) to escape its domain we fall in to confusion at best (often we are spiritually or physically harmed). Mark is interested in how the method fits into a larger understanding of Man and God, a Cosmos that is not a mere “materialism”. This is not a threat to the method (it has its virtues and domain), it however is a threat to the diabolical categorical confusion of this age.

  60. Oops, I meant to say

    “I mean only to give a good reason *in support of* Mark’s *humanistic* judgement that a certain kind of ‘science’ is anti-human.” …

  61. David,
    A while back…3 years? Father and comments addressed this issue of how we should read the OT. It was very helpful. Might do a search. I’m not very good at it as I only have this phone. Brain a little brittle too!

  62. Dean, I understand. But, before there was a noetic understanding of the OT there was a nation with detailed records of chronology and ancestry. These were recorded within the context of the nation’s history along with a mythology of the origin of the Israelite people. All of this was taken quite literally as is attested by Stephen at his martyrdom.

  63. If I came across as cynical, please forgive me. It is a sin, and one I wish to flee from. Please guard against reading motives into comments without clarification!

    Yes, my main point is the difference in attitude between the person exploring and the person manipulating. Whether or not these occupy the same lab (or even the same mind at different times) makes no mind to me. The comments about abiogenesis relate to the difference between exploration and confirmation bias, the latter of which occupies the same self-limited world as the manipulator.

    Christopher’s comments about humanity/humanism are appreciated, though I defer the definitions of those terms to Fr. John Behr’s books on the matter, not to the enlightenment or even necessarily to the “Christian Humanists”. Though I think that Lewis’ space trilogy captures the spiritual realities of the modern research enterprise very well in N.I.C.E…

    With love in Christ, the second person of the life-creating Trinity,
    Mark

  64. I regularly speak to people who use the CRISPR-CAS system to alter the genome of organisms, plants and bacteria. I personaly know graduate research students who work at the neutron spallation source. And others who study computational design of antibiotics on TITAN the largest super computer in the US. Most of these folks find philosophy irrelevant. There’s a job to do and the doing of that job isn’t going to be improved by philosophy. Regardless of that some of the most sensitive people to the relevance of science to human dignity are atheists. They don’t see themselves as atheists or agnostics or anything else. Religion and God just aren’t on their radar. They don’t care because it just doesn’t occur to them that they should care. I agree completely with that way of doing science. An Orthodox Christian is going to do good science in the exact same fashion as an atheist. The distinction between explorer and manipulator is a philosophical distinction that has doesnt have any relevance in practice. Philosophers make things more complicated than they need be. Too much metacognition.

  65. Mark M.,
    I suspect that the model of NICE in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is more likely to be found in departments other than science. It does us no good, when thinking about modernity, to demonize science (or scientists). We do best to search for enemies (if we do at all) within the realms of marketing, mass media, government – but primarily within ourselves. Modernity was invented by Christians (not Orthodox). It is a Christian heresy. As such, it can best be diagnosed by Christians and corrected (if that ever happens) by Christians. But first there needs to be much careful understanding of what has taken place. The demonization of science has been a bit of a trope within American Fundamentalism (yes, the real stuff). I doubt very seriously that American Fundamentalism, which is solely a product of modernity, will ever get much of anything right. If we find ourselves in agreement with them, we should go back and think very carefully.

  66. David, there is a fundamental error in what you are saying but I too ignorant of actual science to address it in that context. So, I go back to my father’s wisdom. He was an MD of high achievement and an extrodinarily creative and compassionate director of community health. He told me frequently that everybody has a philosophy of life and that said philosophy was interelated with everything we thought said or did. It was impossible for human beings not to have a philosophy.

    If people are unaware of their own philosophy that creates an enormous possibility for bias.

    That being said faith in Jesus Christ is not philosophy, it is ontological. The ontological transformation involved in the Christian Life of repentance and thanksgiving can, does and will change the way you perceive everything else inculding observed data. More importantly it could very well effect what you do that data. There are somethings that can be done that should not be done. There are some ways of doing things that should not be tried.

    There is no human activity that is value netural or without consequences. Anything and everything we think, say or do effects everyone else to some degree. Anyone who believes otherwise or who thinks they can act as if that is do is living in a dangerous place.

    You may not be saying that scientists do that, but that is what I perceive you are saying and that troubles me deeply. Perhaps a same trouble is why Mark compares science to NICE. The disease he has is not necessarily realated to any Fundamentalism or anti-intellectualism. It can very easily be the product of the data in our own experience that tends to show a deep apathy within the public face of science to the care of actual human beings. The metaphor of the Borg is more apt I think.

    It may not be real, but it is something that real scientists cannot afford to dismiss. You need to engage it, understand it and respond in ways which the rest of us can comprehend. It also means consciously and connsistrntly addressing the use and development of technology on a higher level. We outside the scientific world cannot do that.

  67. Father Stephen, I rarely find myself in disagreement with you on anything but I think your criticism of Mark and his attitude toward science is off target. First of all the simple use of the word Fundamentalism in almost any context has become an ad hominum attack. It is a useless word that actually describes nothing.

    His concerns need to he addressed and not dismissed. It seems to me you dismissed them without real engsgement. That is not something I expect from you. Please forgive me if I have over reacted.

  68. The anti-sacramental “no space for God here” and “keep your God tucked in your private life” notions of secularism that Father Stephen has often expounded on seem to be staples of what modernity has adopted as the only acceptable foundation for science. However, there are certainly other foundations too… I am familiar with (the now Metropolitan) Nikolaos Hatzinicolaou -ex Nasa, Harvard and MIT- who, understandably for his particular background, has spoken a great deal on these issues.

  69. Michael Bauman,
    I’m so sorry, but there is no error in what I said. The scientific method is a method that specifically addresses the reduction of systemic bias. Here is a simple example, someone has an educated hypothesis about how to deliver small molecules to bacteria so that the molecules pass through both the cell wall and the cell membrane. In order to know if your proposed mechanism works there are so many things that have to be controlled for in order to know that the difference between the control or baseline and the experimental condition is really due to the experimental condition. The method of how to rigorously demonstrate that the hypothesized mechanism is most probably the mechanism for that delivery has nothing to do with philosophy. You have to control for confounds, you have to control for bias in terms of alternative hypotheses (what did the researcher falsify?), etc. So, of course, science across many fields (physics, drug discovery, bioengineering, gene editing, protein folding, and systems biology) all work at the level of mechanisms that are controlled by biophysical laws and we can address these phenomena at the level of mechanisms. And that is completely appropriate for the task at hand. Now none of this has anything to do with the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Stenger, and Harrison who argue that science implicitly points to the meaninglessness of the universe. First. these guys aren’t in science. What research does Dawkins do? What would they even know about it? Second, every scientist that I know that, in my opinion, are doing strong work find that kind of philosophizing tedious and exhausting and a waste of time. Scientists are not out here to undermine the value we place on human life, existential meaning, and spirituality. They are just doing a very specific, methodologically driven, and onerous work that once it loses its mystique and you get down to the day-to-day routine of it…it is really kind of boring.

  70. I did not mean to suggest fundamentalism with regard to Mark. Only that there can be a science critique similar to theirs that is mistaken. I understand the critique Mark is describing. I only mean to caution against overstating the case and demonizing something. The critique needs to be measured and cautious.Some if that is out of respect for those doing science who read and comment here as well.

  71. Michael,
    Sorry, I was at a wedding reception – no place to respond to a blog comment. I did not mean to imply any fundamentalism on Mark’s part – and probably should have simply left the observation out of my comment.

    But, I’ll try to say clearly what I think viz. science (and theology). First, good science is essentially math. They go hand-in-hand and nothing in science (that we know) has ever abrogated the mathematical laws and principles that we know. Math has had to constantly expand to work with science: calculus, differential calculus, etc.

    If I’m doing math, say 2+2=4, (my level of math), the answer is going to be the same whether someone believes in God or not – unless they are suggesting something that is not mathematically true…and, today, nothing would surprise me. But, you’re not going to get any arguments with it in a science lab.

    If a scientist wants to test the hypothesis for something like abiogenesis, he’ll have to do the work that conforms to the methods consistent with the math of reality. If someone announced tomorrow that they had proven just such a thing, I would have absolutely no theological problems about it. I could not say (and would not want anyone to say), “We can hypothesize about abiogenesis because that would be theologically wrong.” That’s as much bad theology as it is bad science.

    Here’s the deal. An atheist breathes the same air I do and uses the same math that I do. Both of them are created by God. He might not believe in God, but he cannot work anything out unless he is using the tools that God has provided. The tool of math (some theoretical physicists call it the “language of God”) is a God given tool.

    Now, I have pondered from time to time, “What is math? And why is it that the universe is actually mathematically true – that what we see actually behaves according to mathematical principles?” It’s like asking, “What is music?” Those are profound theological/metaphysical questions – and are outside the scope of science. Science can observe that it is so – but cannot say why it is so.

    The dangers presently associated with science are not due to bad methodology as far as I can see – and I don’t hear Mark saying that it is. The present dangers are found in the use/abuse of science by the forces of consumer capitalism and globalization. It is those forces that are anti-human and use everything only for their own twisted ends. They misuse math as well, no doubt.

    The demand that math be “secular” is a terrible misunderstanding of the term. There simply is no such thing as secular – everything – including the math – belongs to God. We have no other tools, no secular tools. “Secular” is simply an anti-God philosophy that is self-contradictory at almost every turn. But if the scientists stick to the numbers, they’ll still be doing true work. The evil will come from the pay-masters and the puppet masters who would have us all as their consumer slaves.

    I simply find attacks on science, per se, as beside the point. Math cannot be anti-God – He owns the numbers.

  72. Alas, I must not be very clear. Forgive me.

    Father, I would have agreed at one time that the scientific disciplines were not affected by relativism in the same way as the “_____ Studies” majors. After practicing as a researcher, teacher, and engineer, I think that what began in the English department with Nietzsche, Dadaism and Finnegan’s Wake has overtaken all fields of study, including the ones we call the hard sciences. This occurs in varying degrees in various places. I would probably like Villanova more than ASU, but as you say, the current western culture (myself included) is heir to a schismatic and infinitely subdividable worldview. Again, it’s not about fixing culture, but living faithfully (the theme of the post).

    To David’s direct question, which Christopher already addressed somewhat, I cheerfully suggest the resurrection. Not that our molecular biology is less predictable because Jesus chose to take up his life again, but it did change the cosmos. Living as though it didn’t is to exclude the most relevant fact. And your job sounds fun. I would rather share my home or coffee than qualifications, but I do speak from the inside.

    Michael made some very good comments on the matter above, they are much appreciated. I would not dream, however, of comparing science to NICE, simply the present state of the research enterprise. A focus on transcending humanity is prevalent everywhere, in increasing intensity. But this is also the ancestral sin (be like God, on your own terms), Babel, and seizing the inheritance of the vineyard after doing away with the heir. I pray for my colleagues. The response isn’t another project, argument, or counteragenda, but just the simple difficulty of being faithful every day, to Christ and neighbor. And to feed on the body and blood of Christ, the simple meal of the Church. Hobbits like food.

    In Christ,
    Mark Miner

  73. Mark M, I’ll be honest with you. I don’t understand half of what you write. I’m not sure why that is. Let’s assume I’m a simple person. So, I give you permission to speak very simplistically to me. For example, you write, “I would not dream, however, of comparing science to NICE, simply the present state of the research enterprise.” I don’t know what that means. What do you think the “present state of the research enterprise” is? Remember…simple terms for a simple person.

  74. A simple answer to the unconsciously (or maybe consciously) modernist-godless ‘agenda’ of the “present state of the research enterprise” is to be found in the types of topics that easily earn vast grants and the ones that struggle.
    An example of this bias (largely stemming from the pre-existing agenda of those who hold the funds), could be found, e.g.: in research in arms-friendly technology as opposed to research into technology that might impact the military industrial complex negatively.
    Others find that it is far easier to do research and be funded in one’s research (as you clearly can’t do this stuff without money) when your findings are aligned to certain other interests, say, someone funds a project in the hope of finding alien life, so if you –the scientist- go persistently looking to find some proof of amino acids in meteors, you get more funds; if however, you go trying looking for any evidence supporting the opposite – funds seem to start getting cut of and interest is lost by your sponsors.
    There is a load of …’hot topics’ nowadays (which come with predetermined desired outcomes!) earning easy research support and others that fail to achieve this.

  75. Mark, David, Dino
    “The current state of the research enterprise” should not be confused with science. It’s like confusing the fact that Hitler built tanks with the existence of the internal combustion engine. The research enterprise is, as I’ve said, a matter of consumer capitalism and the globalist political elements. Those elements certainly would like to transcend being human, or redesign it, or just kill it for various reasons. They are the NICE. And, there are scientists who work for them. But, as usual, evil cannot make anything of itself. It can only misuse God’s good creation. Science is a good thing – much of the “enterprise” is not. Targeting science, I think, plays into the hands of the modernists who would like to paint us as Luddites.

    And, I very much agree that the difficulty is in being faithful every day to Christ.

  76. That is a vital clarification Father. I am not sure if this is entirely right, but I would think the targeting of science (and technology) itself, (which can certainly play into the hands of the modernists “who would like to paint us as Luddites”), often stems from the issue that greater funds might be directed towards, say, in the above used example, combustion engines (if their purpose is the use in tanks), than combustion engines (if their purpose might have been free energy for all). And the form and type of combustion engines researched and developed eventually becomes ‘coloured’ towards a certain ‘direction’.
    It’s as if the favoured use (If the use is 99% good and 1% bad or the exact inverse, 99% bad and 1% good) of knives (a neutral tool), whether for food preparation (good) or stabbing (evil), eventually imbues their accepted ‘raison d’etre’ as well as their preferred form.
    But I believe the greater perpetrators, and the ones who most desire this confusion of “the current state of the research enterprise” and “science”, are, actually the secularists/modernists rather than their opposite. (The Dawkinses, Hitchens, Stengers, and Harrisons, as David put it)

  77. “I am not a pessimist. I am a Christian. I hope in God. I have no hope in men..” – Fr. Stephen

    Least of all me. I have no hope in me. My only hope is in Christ. As I live, may it not be I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.

    This is my prayer. This is my hope. God grant that it may be so,

  78. Fully acknowledging the above clarification (against confusing science with “The current state of the research enterprise”) and the importance of this clarification, I can think of a few current examples –like Biomedics, especially genetic engineering for instance– where the efforts of science are not efforts for life, but efforts against nature…
    This, of course, can be thought of as no more than a criticism of ‘the application of science’.
    The more typical criticism I hear (and am not unsympathetic to) is either against ‘scientism’, or how one’s underlying viewpoint (e.g.: godless – random or Godly – teleological) inevitably influences the eventual formulation of a scientific hypothesis and one’s interpretation of certain data.

  79. Here’s what’s interesting to me. I keep hearing people talk about Science as if it a monolithic institution–and its not. Ive been involved in research in three different academic institutions in three different states and I have not seen the caricature of science that I keep hearing about here.

    On the one hand, science in industry and the private sector are different beasts than science in academia. Industry science is designed to maximize profits. It doesn’t matter whether its pharmaceuticals or biotechnology. And I can definitely see that someone might leverage these criticisms against the so-called indistrial science. But, science in academia is quite benign, its driven by agendas to further our knowledge and solve real problems, and the people doing this work probably live in your neighborhoods and shop at the same grocery stores you do. I think that people are insisting that Science is this or that and it is a reification on one hand and a overgeneralization on the other.

    As far as bias goes there is only one systemic bias that really concerns me and has been alluded to earlier and that is the bias towards a statistically significant positive result. No one wants to spend millions of dollars of tax payer moneying proving what is NOT the case. So there is a bias towards getting positive results. However, as was alluded to earlier, negative results are many times more interesting and informative that positive results. But, its hard to engineer solutions to the energy crisis based on negative results.

    But people do report research that challenges the status quo. That isn’t uncommon. In fact, recently two papers were published by a lab that poses serious challenges to the RNA world theory. The impact of this is recognized by the field. But no one just throws a theory out at the forst signs of falsification. Science is a field of consensus and that implies a component of time to reach that consensus.

  80. “Targeting science, I think, plays into the hands of the modernists who would like to paint us as Luddites.”

    How about an assessment of what science really is? You go some way towards this by saying “good science is essentially math”. More accurately, it “is” measurement (to simplify it for the context of this conversation). Is measurement (math) realist or nominalist? Are the people/creatures who do science realist or nominalist? Can measurement be separated from the creature who does the measuring, such that there is an actual epistemic AND metaphysical space that is real and in which the purity called “science” that David (and Kant) talks about actually exists? The attempt separate philosophy and science is in vain because science rests on certain philosophical commitments about the nature of reality and humanity (and not just epistemic commitments as is most talked about in the modern academic exercise called “the philosophy of science”) that were solidified by Francis Bacons Novum Organum. However, Bacon himself revealed in his New Atalantis the actual commitments of this alleged purity. Christianity is in no way “Luddite” by seeing this purity for what it actually is (to say nothing of science as practiced in modernity, even in academia)…

  81. First, I find the criticism of Fr.’s comments unjustified. Period. Mathematical modelers, systems biologists, and theoretical physicists follow exactly the description that Fr. outlined. Experimentalists measure: Astronomers, ecologists, psychologists measure, etc. Anyone with hypothesis driven research make measurements. But, that doesn’t contradict the idea that there are theoreticians that can construct mathematically derived predictions for which we can design observations to see if those observations are consistent with the predictions. Second, I find it highly unusual that people who aren’t doing research are so eager to tell people who are what it is exactly that they are doing. There is something absurd about that. I understand that there are philosophers of science, and by and large scientists ignore them. I understand why epistemology is important—to philosophers. But, it isn’t clear to me how to relate genome editing to cure cancer to Francis Bacon’s Novem Organum. If we cure cancer and save lives, fine. Who cares whether or not the people developing the cure are ranting mad atheists? If they develop the cure meerely for the prestige of it, but in the mean time they save millions of lives, who cares? I don’t care. No one cares about that and I am glad that we aren’t wasting our time with that. Third, this discussion is going no where. It is unproductive.

    May I suggest that we close this discussion and move on to something else that is worth thinking about?

  82. Christopher,
    I think that there is always a point that our view of the universe/philosophy, etc. shapes what we think and do. A child using a ruler to measure the length of a stick – is he a Realist or a Nominalist? Well, it’s sort of a ridiculous question. He’s measuring a stick. Being a Realist or a Nominalist does not make you good or bad – that is, the heart. I am a Realist, of a sort, because I’m an Orthodox Christian. But I’ve know Nominalists (though they didn’t even know that’s what they were) who were better Christians than I am, because of the goodness of their heart.

    There are points to be made and understood viz. Realism vs. Nominalism – but too much can be made of it – and I think, particularly in our Orthodox drive to explain where the world went wrong, etc., we often make more of certain things than we should. There is, for example, a tendency to analyze history for its “wrong turn.” In fact, history is not made of turns – it’s exceedingly complex, filled with tiny details. When we discuss generalizations (Realism vs Nominalism) we forget the details and use too large a brush.

    The problem with Nominalism today, I would think, is its tendency to make it hard to see and know certain things and to ignore some important things, etc. It’s a problem – but it’s not the source of evil and or any such thing. The primary source of evil in human affairs is the human heart (that’s where the dividing line runs). When thinking of the scientific enterprise – it is where its practices engage the human heart that problems arise. If we were to rid the world of bad science – nothing in the human heart would change.

    I think our generalizations are largely beside the point.

  83. But, science in academia is quite benign, its driven by agendas to further our knowledge and solve real problems

    David, I understand the distinction you are making but I’m not convinced at all that science in academia is “quite benign”. I think the point that has been made is that science, as a generic term, is not the issue; the main issue is in how it is used or “pushed”, in some cases, to meet the modern agenda.

  84. And, as usual, Father made the point I was trying for in a far better way while I was typing! The problem, of course, lies in the human heart. Thank you for that reminder/clarification, Father.

  85. I think the topic has been thrashed about enough. The horse is dead. More comments in that direction are likely to end up deleted. I hope to have a new article up in the next day or so. In good news, I managed to write about 5000 words last week in the new book – which has a large theme regarding Modernity. Thanks for those who have been praying!

  86. Fr Stephen, I hope this question is relevant and not a distracter.
    On reflecting what you wrote about math and measurement may I ask why there are so much details in the measurement of the future temple in Ezekiel ‘s vision?

    Perhaps ‘why’ is not the appropriate question but how we might understand the use of such measures. It can be taken literally but the Fathers appear to look for deeper meanings even the the symbolism of the numbers mentioned.

    God’s Divine and uncreated Energy is in all things throughout all creation. If we attend to that reality, it enriches our lives and our work and our art.

  87. “A child using a ruler to measure the length of a stick – is he a Realist or a Nominalist? Well, it’s sort of a ridiculous question…”

    No no no. The ruler was given to him right (it is not his “primal” invention)? Where do the marks on the rule come from? If the child then goes on to give *meaning* to the marks in his play (e.g it has some place in the story of his imagination, say the prince is only 7 and the of the princess demands 8), then said meaning is “ridiculous”?!?

    So much of your writing is a Christian critique of the modern story and *meaning* this story provides . As such it is all “generalization”. Why is “science” privileged to be something that is not related to your general critique? Are you certain science is a mere instrumentalism to be wielded by the human heart of whatever spiritual state? This is what Bacon and his heirs would have us believe, but then Bacon is honest enough to see and describe the “utopia” (his word) that results, a cosmos and humanity free from the suffering that our concern for stories, meaning, philosophy, and metaphysics have heretofore brought upon us. Yes the generalized nominalistic/realist debate is central in this story, in all its gory generalization and detail.

    You are right, a Christian critique of “science” could never be a kind of historical mining project – figuring out what went wrong where and then coming up with a plan to “fix”/respond. As you have said many times, history is given to us and it is His Will. We are where we are supposed to be. A Christian critique of science rather would be a sober reflection on what it actually is, and the part it plays in heart of this modern story. It would be part of our repentance – obviously as particularly relevant (or not) as each person.

    Behind all this is the particulars of our story and in what way so called “fundamentalism” is part of that story. Speaking for myself, I was raised to worship “science”. Many stories but one relevant: I distinctly remember my parents scrupulousness in sitting me down in front of the TV for every episode of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” when it originally aired. I was a true believer of “science” for my formative years. In our modern world, such scientific “fundamentalism” is, just as a matter of demographic numbers, more relevant than protestant “fundamentalism”. It is what is culturally acceptable and it is indoctrinated in our education system. I am not a pastor nor a councilor, but in my discussions with my fellow parishioners I am struck by how many more struggle in the faith in reference to scientific fundamentalism as compared to the protestant kind.

  88. I just submitted before reading these very last entries— was interrupted a few times while writing. Please forgive me for any unwanted revisiting on this theme if it isn’t welcome.

  89. I posted the above before I read your request to end the discussion.

    I think it would be “a shame” to end the discussion on the idea that science is a mere instrumentalism however…

  90. Father,

    Words such as yours:

    If we were to rid the world of bad science – nothing in the human heart would change.

    always make me think of the first Psalm, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, not stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers”…

    Do most people really have such hard time seeing the difference between good and evil? What makes them choose the way that they must (deep inside) know is wrong? Does it come from experience of “getting away with things”?
    I remember one friend of my boy told them (I overheard their heated conversation in the back of the minivan): “don’t try to fool mom, she always knows. Dad doesn’t…” Is this something similar with God: at some point we choose to not believe in Him because He always knows, while with the rest of the world, we think we can fool them?

    Today is some anniversary of Hitler’s death. I read in Met. Anthony Bloom a very interesting story about where Hitler got his ideas. This is from Met Anthony’s article about death:

    “By contrast, I think of quite other people who have written books, such as the French nineteenth century writer Gobineau. Gobineau wrote some remarkable short stories, but also a miserable little treatise on the inequality of races. It is a treatise that would now be altogether and deservedly forgotten, except for one thing: it was read by Hitler. It is difficult to suppose that Gobineau shares no responsibility before God for all that resulted from his book. He was a theoretician. But his theories became practice, and they were to cost millions of innocent lives.”
    (http://www.mitras.ru/eng/eng_06.htm)

    Dino,
    Thank you for the great link, Met Nikolaos is fantastic (I have managed to listen to the first half). I want to send this video to all my faithless coworkers and other self proclaimed “believers in science only”…

  91. Christopher,
    It is probably the case that nothing is purely instrumentalist – human beings are employing the instruments. It is modernity that has philosophically made of science something that it is not. It is, I think, the prior cause, and is the right place to direct our attention.

  92. Agata,

    Met. Nicholaos is quite sublime indeed, and uniquely qualified in these topics.

    David,

    Apart from certain cases where individuals need to be quite competent in this type of apologetics (which often includes parents of rationally inquisitive kids in these issues), and even in those cases, I agree fully about needing far more “time in our cells”! All others distractions are quite like telling God, ‘let me first go and bury my father”, or saying to the devil, ‘why don’t you go have a rest since I can do your work and distract my own self from God now.’
    🙂

  93. Dino, Thank you. Tomorrow isnt promised to anyone. So, we need to keep our mind centered, guard the heart, do our work, love our families, pray, repent, and keep to our knees.

  94. This blog is uber-helpful, but you can feel when a digression has taken a turn down a dead end road. You can feel its uselessness. People talking over and past one another. The bifurcation and polarization of sides. Its no good.

  95. ….and they all lived happily ever after. 🙂

    (juss kidding…but a good ending though. Thanks guys.)

  96. Do most people really have such hard time seeing the difference between good and evil? What makes them choose the way that they must (deep inside) know is wrong? Does it come from experience of “getting away with things”?

    I think Solzhenitsyn’s quote concerning the line running through the heart of every man included an astute observation: that we do not cut the evil out of our own hearts because it means cutting out part of ourselves. And we can rationalize almost anything if it saves our own self from harm.

    It is not experience that keeps us holding to our passions but lack of humility and love of God. Just my thoughts.

  97. Byron, I like what you said and I would like to build on it. I think the reason why seeing the distinction between good and bad is so hard to do is because it requires that we ourselves clearly: A vision that penetrates the heart. I cant say that I see myself very clearly at all. And any formal obedience to what I have been told is right will yield a well-behaved animal, but not a person in the likeness of God. But that requires a vision that allows us to penetrate into the mystery of our own reality and that is a gift of grace without which we are blind and in darkness the image of God is there but it is occluded.

  98. Byron and David,
    Thank you for your thoughts…
    I especially like the thought that humility and love of God are the answer.
    May He grant us to love Him in a way that will make us into the vessels of His Grace (as Met. Nikolaos explains).

  99. I’ve been trying to find out where that image was taken above. It seems to be a beautiful place but I haven’t been able to google a similar picture. The house appears to be partially underground and perhaps the wall is round? I really like the way it was constructed with the stacked stone.

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