A blog by Paul Wallace

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    I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.

    -Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

    The deepest truth about love

    Hannah Jacobs and Lara Lee, The Darkest Truth About Love

    Trent Gilliss featured this video last week at On Being. Released earlier this year by Hannah Jacobs and Lara Lee, it takes the words of Alain de Botton, our most literate and urbane public atheist, and animates them. According to Gilliss, the video “speaks with care about the human condition.” It is, in truth, beautifully done.

    Here are de Botton’s words:

    You will never find the right person.
    Such a creature does not exist.
    You are irredeemably alone.
    You will not be understood.
    The moments of love were an illusion.
    There is something wrong with you
    And with everyone else.
    The idea of love distracts us from an existential loneliness.
    Now let’s pretend we do not know any of this.

    (O, the pathos!)

    There is a sense in which de Botton’s words provide a bracing and tonic glimpse of reality. It is a good thing to see that many of our dreams—of love, of togetherness, of being understood—are merely expressions of desire, or craving. Such dreams are often not related to anything in the actual world. It is also an excellent thing to know yourself well enough to see that you are broken. And shallow ideas of love do distract us from our essential solitude, which can be painful to acknowledge.

    But of course this is not what de Botton is saying. What he is saying is that love is in fact an illusion but we must in fact live like it’s not. We must live like there’s something more than physics, because life cannot be endured for the sake of mere endurance. Perhaps he would say that evolution has bequeathed us an illusion called “love” in the interest of our survival. Or, as someone once said, “If there were no God we’d have to invent one.” An irony, to be sure.

    But living my entire life in direct opposition to my fundamental convictions is altogether too much irony for me. Irony is like pepper on eggs: without it life (and art) is too bland to enjoy. But a plate full of pepper is inedible.

    A number of years ago I would have read de Botton’s words and watched Jacobs’s and Lee’s animation and thought they were profound. But today the existential turn—let us find the courage to pretend!—sounds silly.

    So I propose a rewrite:

    There is a good chance that, if you remain open and kind and if you wish to do so, you will find a person through whom you may learn to love the entire world.
    There are many such creatures.
    Your solitude is rooted in God, but through God you are connected to all things.
    You may be understood, but not by your trying to be understood. If you wish to be understood you must, in the words of St. Francis, seek first and only to understand.
    The moments of love were ultimate reality’s still small voice.
    There is something broken in you
    And in everyone else, but this is not the largest truth about you.
    Love is the only thing wider and deeper than existential loneliness.
    Now let’s stop pretending, because we don’t have to.

    Phyllis Tickle: I lift mine eyes unto Abell 2744


    Phyllis Tickle (1934-2015)

    Phyllis Tickle died a month ago yesterday. I am very sorry to have never met her.

    For those who do not know, Tickle was a leader in the emergence (or emergent) church.  This is a species of Christianity that has appeared over the last several decades and is neither Protestant nor Catholic nor Orthodox. The details of the emergence movement are not important for this post. What is important is Tickle’s relentlessly hopeful and joy-filled assessment of what is happening to Christianity these days, and of life itself. She was forward-looking, fearless, and humble.

    In 2014 David Dault interviewed Tickle for Things Not Seen. In the interview she talks a lot about science and how some level of scientific literacy should be a requirement for anyone who aspires to be a minister (“You want to go to seminary in the 21st century? Study physics first”). Science is the language of the age, she argues, and if you don’t know how to speak it your ministry is in danger of irrelevancy.

    She says that for a certain generation of people, “I lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” (Psalm 121.1) remains a compelling and hopeful piece of poetry. For the psalmist the hills were at the edge of known territory; the hills evoked wonder and awe; the hills were cosmic. But for those who have come of age looking at images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the hills — any hills — are too local and small-scale to produce wonder that takes us out of ourselves, that is to say heals us.  Hills can’t compete with the cosmos Hubble has revealed. Hills do not make us cry out: “Oh, my God!”

    This image of Abell 2744 is the first to come from Hubble's Frontier Fields observing programme, which is using the magnifying power of enormous galaxy clusters to peer deep into the distant Universe. Abell 2744, nicknamed Pandora's Cluster, is thought to have a very violent history, having formed from a cosmic pile-up of multiple galaxy clusters. Abell 2744 is the first of six targets for an observing programme known as Frontier Fields. This three-year, 840-orbit programme will yield our deepest views of the Universe to date, using the power of Hubble to explore more distant regions of space than could otherwise be seen, by observing gravitational lensing effects around six different galaxy clusters.

    Galaxy cluster Abell 2744 in the southern constellation Sculptor. Nicknamed “Pandora’s Cluster,” it consists of the large golden galaxies in the center as well as a number of the smaller ones near the edges of the image. But most of the points of light are galaxies that are not part of Abell 2744. The faintest points are among the most distant galaxies (and the faintest objects) ever imaged. Click on the image for a nice high-resolution version. Image source: nasa.gov

    Really, I have no personal grudge against hills of any kind. But the gap between them and Abell 2744, for example, is so great that it challenges any idea of God that tends toward the personal or anthropomorphic (challenges, I say, not obliterates). The image above looks back as far into space and time as any we have ever taken. It contains thousands of galaxies. Each one is composed of billions of stars, many (most?) of which have multiple planets and moons orbiting them, not to mention comets and asteroids, etc. That much we know.

    But the truly staggering thing is our ignorance: What is this really? What are we looking at? What is contained in this picture that, if we knew about it, would fundamentally change the way we think about life, the universe, and everything?

    In the face of this Tickle suggests putting down our ideas of “God,” whatever they may be, just long enough to consider the cosmos Hubble has revealed. And for a moment just look. Click on the picture above and check out the high-resolution version. Wander around in it awhile. Don’t filter what you see through scripture or theology or make up stories about it. Let the view through Hubble sink in.

    It’s not always easy to do. In January 1610 Galileo clearly saw four tiny “stars” following Jupiter across the sky and he quickly recognized them for what they were: satellites of the great planet. Some clerics, however, refused to admit that Jupiter could have moons. Their traditional understanding of the heavens, grounded in scripture and the work of Aristotle, did not allow for such things. Tradition distorted their vision.

    Established ways of seeing things always favor someone, and in this case it was Galileo’s detractors. They had more at stake than whether or not Jupiter had satellites — they had their careers to think about. If Aristotle or scripture was wrong their livelihoods might be at risk. They got their own selves mixed up in it, is the problem. Their insistence on maintaining tradition prevented them from seeing the obvious. Their self-interest kept them from seeing the moons of Jupiter.

    But Galileo was not distracted. His vision was not clouded by fear and insecurity and traditionalism. When looking through the telescope, he saw the view through the telescope. Tickle wants the same of us: When looking at Abell 2744, see it. Hold your response, if just for a moment, and look.

    Then make a tiny effort to learn about what you see. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. You don’t need to learn calculus or be an astrophysicist. Just read up a little. Read Bad Astronomy or Astronotes or nasa.gov. Get to know the cosmos, even just a little piece of it.

    Once you’ve done this, come back to your theology and your Bible. Does it look any different?

    Tickle thinks it will, and so do I.

    Monument to human ego on schedule in rural Kentucky


    Build it and they will come: the Answers in Genesis Board of Directors is dwarfed by what will eventually be a full-scale replica of Noah’s ark. AiG holds that the Noah story (Gen 6-9) is a factual historical account. And, thanks to donations from creationists everywhere, they’ve got the dough to prop up that belief with nonsense like this.

    Last weekend I spoke at a youth worker’s convention in San Diego. Now I’m not a youth worker and I was as surprised as anyone to find myself there. But one of the themes of the convention was science, and I was invited to talk about that. So I worked over one of the themes of my forthcoming book, which is also a theme of the book of Job: the non-centrality of human beings in the cosmos. In Job God does not share our obsession with our own kind, which, I argue, is kind of a relief. Or, as John Caputo puts it in his new book, Hoping Against Hope:

    Thanks be to the stars for their loving anonymity. The anonymity of the stars is a sign not of their indifference… but of the depths of their mysterious love. We are not to blame them for not knowing that we are here. We should instead thank them for the purity of their gift, for not trying to be omni-generous benefactors or to put us in their everlasting debt.

    On my way back from California I was leafing through the convention program and came across an ad for Ark Encounter, a “one-of-a-kind historically themed attraction” centered on a full-scale replica of Noah’s ark. It’s being built in rural Grant County, Kentucky, and will open next year. Known colloquially as the Ark Park, it will also have a petting zoo and eventually an aviary, a first-century village, a walled city, and even a Tower of Babel.

    I was a little surprised. Even more surprising was my discovery that Answers in Genesis, the creationist organization behind the Ark Park, will have a booth in Louisville when the convention runs again there next month.

    I’m giving my talk in Louisville also. So in one room I’ll be celebrating cosmic and biological evolution and considering the opportunities and challenges it affords Christians, and just down the hall the world’s largest creationist organization will be selling its message, which in all honesty is something like “evolution is a satanic lie,” using the highest of production values.

    Not sure what the convention organizers were thinking here. They decide to devote a large part of their event to science while giving an audience to one of the nation’s most prominent anti-science organizations? Is this some kind of weird variation on “teach the controversy”? Or just an honest snapshot of contemporary American Christianity? I don’t know.

    One thing I do know, though: that Ark, that monument to the human ego, will be completed next year and there’s nothing I can do about it. Millions will flock to it and to the nearby Creation Museum. 2016 will be a big year for creationism.

    Ark Encounter is indeed a monument to the human ego. Taking a literal, factual, historical view of the Bible — as AiG does — means believing that the universe is finally about us. In that view we are the reason for everything and the undisputed crown jewel of the cosmos; our naughtiness is not only the cause of the global, historical flood of Noah but is also the cause of all disease, pain, and death; animals are here solely for our benefit; and God is concerned exclusively with human behavior since there’s not anything else of interest going on in the wilderness or among the stars. God watches us because there’s nothing else to watch. In the cosmos of the creationist, we’re pretty much the whole show.

    These beliefs might have been common (and understandable) many centuries ago, but, as I say in my presentation, even the author of Job — perhaps the oldest story in the Bible — knew otherwise. In Job the cosmos is used to deconstruct the human ego machine. In that book God reveals a great affection for the remote, inhuman, and threatening aspects of reality. The gamey deer, the foolish ostrich, the bloody vulture, and the monstrous Behemoth are presented as having value in themselves and as living within their own communities, centers of reference from which it is us who are the alien and marginal creatures.

    Schizophrenic convention organizers aside, I’ll check out the AiG booth in Louisville. I wonder if any of them will come listen to me or Deb Haarsma or any of the other scientists who will be speaking. I hope they do.

    If any of you AiGers are reading this, consider it your invitation.

    We’re in there somewhere

    hillis tree

    Image source: David M. Hillis, Derrick Zwickl, and Robin Gutell, University of Texas

    Over the course of my life I have, from time to time, tended toward self-obsession. My ego trips can take me in many directions. Either fear wraps its clammy hand around my soul and I start thinking that the cosmos is out to get me, or I become convinced that I am personally responsible for every one of the world’s problems, or I blow myself up into a bright golden balloon full of pride.

    One of my wisest friends, upon noticing this tendency in me, once told me: Paul, if you take all the people in the world and line them up shoulder-to-shoulder, you’re in there somewhere.

    I was reminded of my friend’s witticism when, recently, I came across the diagram shown above. It’s a 21st-century tree of life called a Hillis Plot. This one shows the evolutionary connections between about 3,000 different species (this is about 0.18% of all known species, or about 0.03% of the nine million or so species believed to exist on the planet).

    David Hillis, the creator of the plot, selected a representative sample of species from seven divisions of life: plants (green), protists (yellow), bacteria (light blue), archaea (pink), fungi (dark blue), animals (red), and unmatched socks (purple). The relative proportions are approximately correct–there sure are a lot of fungi, and a surprising number of misfits.

    Also notice that the fungi are more closely related to us (animals) than they are to plants. It’s a strange cosmos.

    If you click on the image and maximize its size, you will see that those tiny words above “Animals” say “You are here.” That’s us, Homo sapiens. Here’s a detail (in black and white):

    Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 10.40.53 PM

    Click on it for a high-resolution version. You may also want to check out the full-size plot at Hillis’s page.

    We human beings can get a little self-obsessed sometimes. We take ourselves too seriously. We forget that there are points of view from which we appear to be not so important. We are certain that, of all the creatures in the cosmos, we’re God’s favorite.

    The Hillis plot does not say everything there is to say about Homo sapiens, of course, but it does say something true, and like all true things it bears remembering: If you take all the species in the world and line them up shoulder-to-fin-to-antenna, we’re in there somewhere.


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