Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Seeing transcendence in people and in science

“I’m no longer interested in other worlds or spiritual planes. I’ve seen enough in a mouse to understand transcendence, holiness, redemption. In people, I’ve seen even more.

Once every few months of whenever the mood strikes, I take the long way home from the lab I run in Princeton just so I can step into that church… I never bow my head. I never pray, never wait to hear God’s voice, I just look. I sit in blessed silence, and I remember. I try to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all. Always, I light two candles before I go. 

These are the final reflections of the main character, Gifty, at the end of the wonderful novel, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Gifty is a graduate student in neuroscience at Stanford, who at the end of the novel is a Professor at Princeton. Her parents immigrated to the U.S.A from Ghana and she grew up in Alabama, just like the author. Gifty's choice of research topic [which involves experiments on mice] is motivated by her life experience including her brother's struggle with drug addiction. 


The narrative naturally engages with a wide range of issues, including the immigrant experience and the associated prejudice, racism, poverty, dislocation, and alienation that are too often encountered. It considers family relationships, particularly the bond and tensions between a mother and an adult child. It gives a picture of what it may be like to be a young woman of colour in an elite institution. Then there is sexuality, white Pentecostal churches in the USA, science and religion, mental illness, drug addiction, a personal face on the opioid crisis, and the philosophy of neuroscience, including the mind-brain problem,... This does seem like a long list of issues but the author manages to engage with them in a natural and meaningful way as part of a coherent narrative.

Although transcendent is in the title, there is not much explicit discussion of it in the novel. Nevertheless, I find it fascinating that transcendence is where it ends.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

What is it about the Gospel texts that I find so amazing?

The Bible contains four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each gives an account of the life and teaching of Jesus. There are many questions that we can and should ask about these literary texts. Indeed, over the past two thousand years, many people have explored questions and engaged in debates about authorship, historicity, divine revelation, moral authority, textual reliability, and the (im)possibility of miracles. 

In this post, I want to put aside these questions for now, and just focus on the Gospels as texts and public information. In a sense I am taking an empirical scientific perspective, viewing the texts as like scientific data, that is publically available. Everyone has access to this data. There is really little room for debate about what the data is. The debate is about how to analyse and how to interpret the data. 

Over decades I have read and re-read the Gospels and read what a range of people, both Christian and non-Christian say about them. Here I want to state some of the things that I think are truly amazing about these texts.

There is an incredible literary depth. Each Gospel interweaves different stories about Jesus, his teaching, and quotations and allusions to the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament). After two thousand years, they are still considered some of the best literature ever produced and still attract intricate and subtle analysis from literary scholars. In this regard, they are in a different league to any other literature unlike any other literature from two thousand years ago, including Christian literature.

I find the most amazing thing to be the teachings of Jesus. They are radical, counter-cultural (then and now), comforting, and challenging. Jesus' teaching provides an insightful description of reality: money, power, pride, evil, human nature, human dignity, relationships, forgiveness, competing values, and self-righteousness. Although sometimes abstract and difficult to interpret, Jesus' teaching provides a very down-to-earth and practical guide for daily living. Jesus' life also illustrates what this "good life" should look like.

I delight in the creativity and profundity of the paradoxes presented. The first will be last. The last will be first. The humble will be exalted. Become great by being a servant. Save your life and you will lose it. Lose your life and you will find it. The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus is an upside-down kingdom, in stark contrast to the kingdoms of this world where money, power, privilege, and social status are exalted and determine who rules.

Jesus' upside-down kingdom is illustrated and embodied in his embrace of the marginalised: tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, widows, orphans, Samaritans, cripples, and "sinners." This makes the empathetic part of my soul sing. There is hope. And, it challenges me as a child of privilege, to follow Jesus' example.

                                      Christ on the Cross by Rembrandt

The centrepiece and climax of the Gospel narratives are the Cross: the death of Jesus by crucifixion. He is publically humiliated and executed as a criminal and social outcast. There are many dimensions to what the Cross represents: an embrace of suffering, identification with the weak, and atonement for sin, ... It is the ultimate embodiment of the upside-down kingdom as it is about power through weakness, and wisdom through foolishness. For the time and place of Roman-occupied Palestine, the Cross is about as counter-cultural as possible. Jesus' death defines a model for how he wants his followers to live.

In the midst of a messed-up world, both then and now, the Gospels present me hope, through the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of a forthcoming just judgement. Evil will be punished. Those who have suffered unjustly will experience deliverance.

I have not encountered any other literature, from any age, or of any genre that compares to the richness and inspiration I find in the Gospels.

The impact of the Gospel narratives is amazing. The early church went from being a small rag-tag band of followers to a cultural force that ultimately transcended and outlasted the mighty Roman empire. This incredible influence has been well-documented by authors such as Tom Holland and Rodney Stark.

The Gospels exhibit an amazing universality in particularity. They were written in ancient Greek at a particular time, in a particular place, and in a particular religious, political, cultural, and economic context. Despite their particularity the relevance and impact of the Gospels are enduring, transcending time, space, language, context, and culture. They are "translatable" in every sense of the word. They are accessible to all, being both profound and simple.

These amazing things raise many questions for me. Why do the Gospels have such an impact on me and on others? What is it about them that makes them so unique? Why are the Gospels so superior to other literature, both past and present? Why do they resonate? inspire? comfort? transform people? 

Taken together all the features I have noted provide hints of transcendence. Perhaps the Gospels are something more than great literature and words on a page. Could they be a living word? And who was the person Jesus described in the Gospels? Was he something more than the creation of some great literary minds, or more than an extraordinary man? Could it be that the Gospels describe what actually did happen? Could Jesus' teaching actually be true?

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were two of the most creative literary minds of the twentieth century. They considered the Gospels to be the greatest story ever told. Here are some of Tolkien's reflections.

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane. (Letters, 100–101)

 ‘this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 63).

Monday, December 19, 2022

Signals of transcendence from human experience

Peter Berger was an influential sociologist. In his book, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, Berger considers five aspects of everyday human existence that he considers are "signals of transcendence". These experiences are accessible to all and are within the domain of natural reality, but appear to point beyond that reality. [Berger wrote the book in 1969 and revised it in 1990].

Berger describes his arguments as "inductive faith" which "moves from human experience to statements about God". In contrast, "deductive faith begins with certain assumptions (notably assumptions about divine revelation) that cannot be tested by experience." (p.64-5). Deductive faith provides an interpretation of experience.

The five signals of transcendence are below.

1. An argument from ordering. Humans have the propensity to believe that the world is ordered in a trustworthy way, even when things appear chaotic. An example is a mother comforting a scared child, telling them that things will be okay. The mother is not lying to the child because "the reassurance, transcending the immediately present two individuals and their situation, implies a statement about reality as such." (p. 62)

2.  An argument from play. In all contexts, even the most "serious" ones, humans have the capacity to play. While playing adults can become like children, suspending the time structure of the ordinary life of adults. Berger quotes C.S. Lewis famous sermon, Learning in Wartime:

"Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. [It is part of our nature to create, reason, and laugh in the midst of pending disaster] to propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec,..."

3. An argument from hope. have an "unconquerable propensity to hope for the future." We hope even in the face of death.

Man's "no!" to death - be it in the frantic fear of his own annihilation, moral outrage at the death of a loved other - or in death-defying acts of courage and self-sacrifice - appears to be an intrinsic constituent of his being. There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas. While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality, goes on saying "no!" and even says "no!" to the ever so plausible explanations of empirical reason. (p.72)

4. An argument from damnation. Humans have an innate morality and justice. Even people who would identify as moral relativists, sometimes exhibit a conviction that some things are just plain wrong and must be condemned and be punished.

The transcendent element manifests itself in two steps. First, our condemnation is absolute and certain, it does not permit modification or doubt, and is made in the conviction that it applies to all times and all men... We give the condemnation the status of a necessary and universal truth, [but it] cannot be empirically demonstrated to be either necessary or universal. We are, then, faced with quite a simple alternative: Either we deny that there is here anything that can be called truth... or we must look beyond the realm of our natural experience for a validation of our certainty.  Second, the condemnation does not seem to exhaust it's intrinsic intention in terms of this world alone. Deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell. This is the point that was brought out very clearly in the debate over Aldolf Eichmann's execution.

5. An argument from humor.  Humans have not only the capacity to laugh, but also to use humour to cope with tragedy and to undermine the delusions of the powerful.

By laughing at the imprisonment of the human spirit, humor implies that this imprisonment is not final but will be overcome, and by this implication provides yet another signal of transcendence - in this instance in the form of an intimation of redemption... 

Humor mocks the "serious" business of this world and the mighty who carry it out... The one to be finally pitied is the one who has an illusion. And power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth... Power is ultimately an illusion because it cannot transcend the limits of the empirical world. Laughter can - and does everytime it relativizes the seemingly rock-like necessities of this world.

We can debate whether these are convincing arguments for the existence of transcendence. On the other hand, I think these arguments are creative and a refreshing alternative to the classical arguments for the existence of God.

I thank Vinoth Ramachandra for making me aware of Berger's ideas through a recent blogpost. 



Wednesday, December 7, 2022

When does humanity make my heart sing?

What is so wonderful about being human? Sometimes humanity does inspire awe and wonder in me.

Babies burp, puke, poo in their pants, and sometimes cry inconsolably. Yet, they are so cute and adorable. I love their little fingers and toes, with miniature nails. They explore their environment with great curiosity. Babies occasionally flash winsome smiles to the joy of those watching them. And there is the miracle of the way they grow spontaneously and mature into small children. Those cute little fingers grow to full size.

Small children have their own sense of awe, wonder, curiosity, and joy. They can be a source of inspiration and envy to staid adults like myself. Simple things delight: throwing flower petals in the air, blowing bubbles, digging in the garden, holding a hand, or cuddling a pet.

To often I struggle to see adults as cute and adorable or a source of delight, awe, and wonder. They have an incredible ability to heartlessly inflect pain on others. But sometimes adults do make my heart sing and I clamour for more. I am moved deeply by acts of service, tenderness, compassion, courage, reconciliation, forgiveness, generosity, and self-sacrifice. A poor person shares what little food they have with their neighbour. A child stands up to a bully in the playground.  A mother comforts a sick child. A highly-paid CEO leaves his position and suburban house so he can work and live in a marginalised poor community.

Relationships can be beautiful and lead to awe and wonder. Even introverts such as myself hunger for relationships and community. There is nothing quite like the connections associated with vulnerability, camaraderie, and laughter. Even those of us blessed with a stable and rich family life, desire more.

                                    Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. 

I am in awe of human creativity expressed in art, music, literature, business, science, engineering, and academic disciplines. Wow! Why can humans create such amazing things?

Humans have much of the same biology as animals: DNA, proteins, cells, organs, brains, ... Yet humans are unique in the animal kingdom. Their level of consciousness, reflection, communication, creativity, and culture is simply on a different scale from anything seen in primates. On the one hand, apes can do some fascinating things with similarities to human behaviour. However, apes do not write science textbooks, build telescopes, or create great literature.

Humans all have the same biology. But no human has exactly the same DNA as another. Consequently, each human has a unique personality, unique physical characteristics and abilities. Humans also share many common abilities and aspirations. There is unity in diversity. I delight in the diversity, even though sometimes I do wish everyone was just like me! In particular, it would be nice if everyone had the same values and perspectives as me. On the other hand, I can begrudgingly admit the world would be an even bigger mess if it was full of introverted Western theoretical physicists.

To understand the wonder and tragedy what a human is and how they behave, I find different perspectives helpful. Humans can be considered at different scales, from genetic to social. Thus, one can bring to bear perspectives from biology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology. I also have awe and wonder at humans and what we can understand about humans, again reflecting something wonderful about human capabilities.

My sense of wonder provides hints of transcendence: there is something beyond all that we observe, touch, measure, and rationalise.

There is much to celebrate and enjoy about humanity. But, sober observation acknowledges the reality of human depravity. We hurt ourselves, others, and nature. Sometimes brutally and in ways that we consider worthy of condemnation. This leads me to an ambivalence about humanity. Awe and wonder at the beauty of humanity must be held in tension with revulsion and contempt for human vulgarity. This is a paradox.

The dialectic of the human condition is captured in the narrative of the Genesis narrative, and the associated theological concepts of creation and fall. On the one hand, each person is made in the image of God, of intrinsic value, and mandated to enjoy, care for, and steward the creation. On the other hand, this image is marred. Humans are fallen, prone to violence, and alien to themselves, others, and nature.

Monday, December 5, 2022

My sense of awe and wonder at nature

 On most mornings I go for a walk with my dog, Priya in the parkland near my house. Originally this daily ritual had pragmatic motivations: exercising both me and the dog, clearing my head for the day ahead, and promoting good mental health. Over time this activity has been enriched by my observation and contemplation of the natural world. I see flowers, trees, a creek, birds, and water dragons. Two beautiful rainbow lorikeets emerge from their nest inside the trunk of a gum tree and fly off chirping. A large water dragon looks like a miniature dinosaur as it lumbers out of my path and plunges into the safety of the creek. Priya and I clamber down the banks of the creek and hop over it where it narrows and make our way through a grove of majestic bamboo trees that creak in the wind. I notice how the different trees near the creek produce an impressionist image of a range of shades of green. I am delighted to see how some of these trees have produced beautiful yellow flowers. I catch a glimpse of a kookaburra standing still contemplating its environment before it sleekly flies off in a straight line with a slightly undulating height, so unlike the random flight path of swallows.

And then there is Priya. Sometimes she walks faithfully by my side. Other times she passionately sprints in random directions, just for the sheer pleasure of it. She smells practically everything. She experiences a whole reality that I am oblivious to. These walks can be a source of joy, awe, and wonder. Nature is amazing.

If you did not grow up in Australia, you may think that some of our wildlife is weird, cute, and fascinating: kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, echidnas, wombats, and platypi. Even though they are very familiar to me, seeing a kangaroo hop along is still a delight. Until this year I had never seen a platypus in the wild. When I finally saw one from a viewing platform in a National Park I stood mesmerised as I watched this cute little creature swim and dive, while searching for food on the bottom of the creek. My heart sang. But, why?

While at university I began taking bushwalking trips in wilderness areas with friends. The trips lasted for three to fourteen days, camping and carrying all our supplies.  Within a few hours' drive of Canberra, there is a multitude of national parks, each with distinct landscapes and ecosystems. They range from stone-covered river beds at the bottom of deep canyons to alpine areas covered in fields of wildflowers. Why did I find it so enthralling? I encountered beauty. I had a sense of wonder how there was something here that stood outside the rapidly changing world of the city. Human history and personal achievements really did not matter in the wilderness. Looking over a grand vista there was a sense of our own smallness and insignificance. I had an insatiable desire for more and developed a mentality that bushwalking was my default method of relaxing and the only way I could recover from mental and emotional exhaustion.

What is it about our experiences of nature that are so special and significant? What is the origin of the awe and wonder? What produces feelings of resonance, joy, and delight? There is mystery. 

To me, speaking somewhat scientifically, the sound of a bubbling brook is "white noise" and not that different from the sound produced by a highway full of cars. But, the effect on me of the creek and the highway is very different. Walking beside a bubbling brook is delightful, calming, energising, and peaceful. Walking beside the road is stressful, tiring, and just plain yucky. Why the difference?

The mystery in my encounters with nature hints at something greater than me, something that may complete me, and something that might place my life in a grander story.

There are two things to make sense of here, nature and my response to it. How do we describe and interpret nature? How do we interpret our experience of it? There are a range of perspectives we can bring to bear. On nature, there are the perspectives of biology and ecology, ranging from genetics to how climate change affects individual species. At what scale we look at the phenomena is a matter of what questions we are asking. Our personal response to nature can be viewed through a kaleidoscope of perspectives: biological, psychological, sociological, experiential, aesthetic, and religious. The representation and communication of our experiences can be expressed in art, music, poetry, and literature. All of these may provide a window into the reality of the natural world and our relation to it.

Here, I want to explore hints of transcendence. There is something going on that is beyond DNA, physical appearances, ecology, biological evolution, and the social conditioning of aesthetics. 

Through the ages, human encounters with nature have produced rich and diverse perspectives. In reaction to the rise of scientific descriptions of natural phenomena: from Newtonian mechanics to Darwinian evolution, the eighteenth century, saw the rise of romanticism, which valued the intense emotional experience of individuals' encounters with nature.

Negative sentiments concerning natural philosophy (science) is captured in the poem, Lamia written by John Keats in 1819. 

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

This negative sentiment about science is countered by Richard Dawkins in his 1998 book, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. He contends that science reveals rather than conceals the true beauty of the natural world. A softer perspective is that of Ursula Goodenough, author of The Sacred Depths of Nature, and an advocate of religious naturalism.

For me, my experience of awe and wonder hints at transcendence. But this is not my only feeling. There is also a sense of violation and lament as I see natural beauty being defiled and destroyed. Last week, the creek I walk by each day was flooded by sewage and became black. It was so polluted that dead fish appeared on the banks. The creek smelled so bad I changed my walking route for a few days to avoid the stench. There are countless other violations that grieve me: ancient forests being felled, wilderness areas flooded, wildlife losing their home, and fields of alpine wildflowers killed by late snow dumps resulting from climate change. To me, this sense of violation has a transcendent dimension. It hints that there is intrinsic value in nature and that there is a morality associated with how humans interact with it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

What is awe and wonder?

 At times when I contemplate nature, science, humanity, and Biblical texts I have a sense of awe and wonder. What do I mean by that? I know it when I feel it but it is hard to describe in words.

Members of my family have been reading Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder, and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, by Julia Baird. In this memoir, she intersperses descriptions of her own experiences of awe and wonder, her struggle with cancer, scientific studies on the value of encounters with nature, her struggles with churches, her own faith, and what all this may mean for a fulfilling life. She includes quotations from famous people that I found helpful in considering how might define and characterise awe and wonder. 

Awe makes us stop and stare. Awe humbles us, gives us perspective, and makes us aware that the world is unfathomably larger than ourselves.

Wonder makes us stop and ask questions about the world.

Here are quotes from Einstein, Adam Smith, and Rachel Carson.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.

Albert Einstein

Adam Smith was a moral philosopher and the founder of modern economics. He said that wonder occurs

“when something quite new and singular is presented… [and] memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.”

This wonder can be felt physically, characterised by

‘that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart’.

Adam Smith, A History of Astronomy

“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties or mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life… Their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” 

Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

To me this is a hint of transcendence. There is something going on and behind this which goes beyond material reality and what we can quantify, control, and describe.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

A brilliant presentation of the power of Elijah

At church, the current sermon series is on 1 Kings and we recently came to where the prophet Elijah enters the scene. This led me to return to a favourite piece of music, Elijah, which was first performed in 1846.

Elijah is a compelling figure in the Bible. He is a prophet who faithfully seeks to follow the God of the covenant, YHWH in the midst of a declining Israel (Northern Kingdom) characterised by injustice, violence, and idolatry.  The people suffer from drought and food insecurity. Elijah does a great miracle to defeat the prophets of Baal. Intimidated by death threats from Queen Jezebel he runs away, and is exhausted, both physically and spiritually. But Elijah is cared for by an angel and has his faith and courage renewed.

Felix Mendelssohn took the story of Elijah and composed an oratorio [a composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists] that some considered to be one of the greatest expressions of that musical genre.

The text [libretto] written by Julius Schubring is brilliant and creative, composed only of interspersal of the text of Kings and other passages from the Bible, as can be seen on Wikipedia. The accompanying musical score emotionally empowers the text. This is all brought out in a beautiful and detailed commentary on the oratorio that was written by John Maclay for a performance at Grace Church in New York.