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Off Topic Warning: About the Eucharist and Then Some

June 29, 2015 49 comments

imageI will certainly be accused of going off-topic. Okay. Yes. But. And then again, I can do it anyway. It is interesting. Many times when I read or hear something profound about the Eucharist, I am reminded of Frank Tipler’s book, The Physics of Christianity. This is one of those times. So, if you can humor me for a bit I’ll try to redeem myself.

On Saturday, the Episcopal Church in the United States elected a new Presiding Bishop (In most other places in the Anglican Communion we would call him an Archbishop).  The Right Rev. Michael Curry, the 62-year-old Bishop of North Carolina, was overwhelmingly elected by the Church’s General Convention in a single ballot in the House of Bishops.  Curry, who is African American, received 121 votes out of 174 cast.  The House of Deputies consisting of priests and laypersons approved the election 800-12. Read Episcopal News Service account of the election.

Scanning for material about him I found this video. It touched me.

On to Frank Tipler’s book, The Physics of Christianity. Tipler wanted to test a consecrated host to see if two molecules, once separated, say by the breaking of the bread, maintained quantum coherence –  the spin of electrons. Why this would happen with consecrated bread was something Tipler maintained was characteristic of the Second Hypostasis of the Triune Singularity that was God. Tipler wanted to scientifically determine who was right, Anglicans (Episcopalians) or Catholics. Yes, he actually wrote that in his book.

Back in November of 2008, A. S. Haley, who calls himself an Anglican Curmudgeon and writes a blog by that name, recommended reading Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Christianity. He wrote:

. . . I regard that book as one of the most remarkable books about Christianity that I have ever read. In fact, the book is so remarkable that I have decided, at the risk of my reputation as a reliable curmudgeon, who can always be counted on to tell you what is wrong . . . to tell you instead about some of the things which this amazing book shows are inescapably correct about traditional Christian belief. . . .

I read the book – there is a lot about the shroud in it. I certainly didn’t share Haley’s enthusiasm. Tipler’s book is not so remarkable. It may be, as Haley tells us, that Tipler obtained his doctorate under John Archibald Wheeler, the man who named the black hole and whose most famous student was Richard Feynman. It is only too bad Tipler didn’t pick up Feynman’s warning: “I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.”

Frank Tipler, a Tulane University professor of mathematical physics does propose an interesting idea. He argues Christian doctrine is an expression of all cosmological reality as it can be described by modern physics: God is a triune singularity. The second hypostasis of this singularity entered history in our universe, and indeed in other universes of the multiverse, as God incarnate in Jesus for the sake of mankind. The miracles attributed to Jesus and other most other historical miracles are not violations of nature and are scientifically possible, even plausible. Two miracles in particular, the incarnation and resurrection, are indeed scientifically possible and, as Tipler sees it, essential for immortality.

Indeed, the cosmological picture Tipler paints with the laws of nature is consistent with orthodox Christianity as expressed in the Nicene Creed. At the same time, however, his hypothesis seems amazingly discordant with a Christianity grounded in history and faith.

Tipler, as you might have imagined, is not some self-acclaimed, navel-gazing, self-published guru. His previous book, The Physics of Immortality, received considerable attention. “A thrilling ride to the far edges of modern physics,” wrote the New York Time Book Review. “A dazzling exercise in scientific speculation, as rigorously argued as it is boldly conceived,” said the Wall Street Journal. Science, the prestigious, peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote, “Tipler has written a masterpiece conferring much-craved scientific respectability on what we have always wanted to believe.” It remains to be seen if this sequel will get the same attention.

Of this sequel, Bryan Appleyard, a columnist for the Sunday Times (of London), in a review that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer (June 10, 2007) wrote: “I doubt this book will make many converts. Believers will continue to believe, perhaps with a little more confidence, and skeptics will continue to doubt, perhaps a little less. But Tipler should not be ignored by anybody.”

Yes, but. As an orthodox Christian, who like Tipler, has no issues with the theory of evolution or a universe that is thirteen-some billion years old or is but one of a seemingly endless number of universes, I found myself scoffing at Tipler’s assertions. It is important to remember that physical cosmology, like biblical exegesis and theology is controversial and unfinished. Even from certain facts and generally accepted theories, cosmologists, astronomers and theoretical physicists arrive at many different conclusions about the nature of reality. Tipler’s thesis is but one of many, something he does recognize. He simply dismisses all others out of hand by declaring everyone else wrongheaded.

The theological perspectives Tipler offers on miracles, the virgin birth, the incarnation and the resurrection are worth reading. The scientific explanations offered along with the theology are interesting so long as it is well understood that they are only possibilities. He speculates far too much.

Some topics are weak. His characterization of the difference of opinion on the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of communion between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church is naïve. It is based on a smattering of mostly old documents, long since revised and amended. He quotes from the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England, circa 1571, that states that transubstantiation is a “blasphemous fable” and a “dangerous deceit” and ignores the wide spectrum of contemporary opinion held be Catholics and Anglicans. Many Anglicans do in fact believe in transubstantiation. I do. Most of his defense of transubstantiation is biblical. His interpretation from physics is just as easily an argument for a more Protestant view: consubstantiation.

Tipler’s discussion of the Shroud of Turin is worth the price of the book. Tipler clearly thinks the Shroud is genuine. So do I. But, I am far from being convinced that the so far unexplained images are the product of sphaleron quantum tunneling. Some details, particularly the proposed history of the cloth between 1204 and 1356 CE is fiercely debated among shroud researchers. Some of the scientific claims he makes lack sufficient rigorous confirmation; they should not be used to support authenticity at this time. Overall, however, Tipler presents a well-reasoned argument for authenticity.

Tipler’s scenario for the Resurrection is interesting. Jesus, he argues, may have dematerialized through a physical process known as baryon annihilation via electroweak sphaleron tunneling. By baryongenesis (what happened after the Big Bang) Jesus then rematerialized so that his followers would know he had been resurrected.

Is there in this a purpose to the incarnation? Yes. Jesus, Tipler contends, entered history inside of our space-time to show us how to achieve immortality. It is with mankind’s technology that immortality will be achieved. Not only will all people, past and present, gain immortality, according to Tipler, but that mankind will save the universe. To do so, mankind must populate the universe to its very edge. And he must construct computers and software powerful enough to emulate the mind, consciousness and soul of everyone.

Mankind can only accomplish this task by figuring out how to annihilate baryon particles (protons and neutrons are two examples of baryon particles formed by quarks). This process would provide the unlimited source of energy required for conquering the outer limits of space. By annihilating the right quantity of baryon from everywhere throughout the universe, the expansion of the universe will be halted, something which is necessary if the universe is to survive and necessary for the futurist computers of immortality to exist in space-time.

But in figuring out how to annihilate baryon particles, mankind will also then know how to build the bombs (much more powerful than conventional nuclear weapons) that will inevitably lead to the destruction of the world. So what role does Jesus have in all this? Tipler speculates that Jesus left his image on the Shroud of Turin as a clue to enable us to figure out the process of baryon annihilation.

Tipler’s technological doomsday scenario is to happen soon. Though it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime, it will happen, by his estimate, in the lifetime of most of his students at Tulane. This cataclysm, he suggests, may be the Great Tribulation foretold in Matthew’s Gospel: “For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” (24:21 NRSV)

This idea for immortality is in essence no different than what Tipler proposed in his previous book, which the prestigious scientific journal science praised by saying, “Tipler has written a masterpiece conferring much-craved scientific respectability on what we have always wanted to believe.”

Now. Did I justify showing that video? Did I redeem myself?  Of course not. It was a good try, though.

Your thoughts on the Eucharist or Tipler are welcome.

The haters are, almost by definition, stupid.

January 8, 2015 1 comment

imageThe Virtues of Know-Nothing Criticism by Noah Berlatsky (pictured) appearing in the Los Angeles Review of Books on New Year’s eve has nothing to do with the Shroud of Turin and perhaps everything to do with how we sometimes argue about it. It’s a light two-minute read:

The problem with demanding a certain kind of knowledge or a certain kind of expertise in criticism, then, is that it can end up presupposing, or insisting upon, a certain kind of conversation. And often that seems like the point: expertise is used as an excuse to silence critics — and especially negative critics. Gamergate’s response to Anita Sarkeesian is the most obvious example, but you can see it in virtually any fandom. Folks who adore, say,Game of Thrones, are way more likely to have read all the books and seen all the episodes of Game of Thrones. People who dislike Game of Thrones are less likely to put in the time. How can you watch one episode of Game of Thronesand dismiss it? How can you read half of Maus and think that it’s boring and pompous? What gives you the right? Expertise becomes a quick, efficient way to shut down naysayers. Those who love video games, or Game of Thrones, or Wonder Woman are the only ones who can truly understand; the haters are, almost by definition, stupid.

[ . . . ]

. . . Expertise, then, seems an excuse to make everyone talk about the same things in the same way. But there’s no one true way to view a piece of art; no one privileged perspective that will give you the right experience of Shakespeare, or Wonder Woman, or video games, or romance novels. A partial view may be as meaningful as a whole one, and being alienated by a work of art, or feeling you don’t want to finish it, or look at it for a second more, is as valid as obsessive interest and passionate fandom.

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A Miracle Debate

December 22, 2014 8 comments

They recognized that a universe in which miracles are possible
is a world in which science, strictly understood, is impossible.

You may wish to read Why I believe in miracles by Matt K. Lewis (pictured second) in The Week for December 9th, and the reaction a week later by Damon Linker (pictured first), The age of miracles is over — even for the religious.

Linker writes:

imageMiracles have traditionally been understood as temporary transgressions by God of the natural order. You know, like Moses parting the Red Sea, or a virgin giving birth to a child, or the resurrection of a man three days after his death. All three events and many others recounted in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are inexplicable in natural terms. They are divine incursions into the order of things, a suspension of the necessities that govern that order — like the necessity that tells us, for example, that only a female who has been impregnated by the sperm of a male of the same species can give birth to offspring. That necessity reigns supreme, without exception, in nature. But Christians believe — or are supposed to believe — that God overrode that necessity in impregnating Mary, a woman who had never had sexual relations with her husband Joseph or any other man.

imageLewis, like many contemporary believers, uses the term "miracle" to mean something very different and far less, well, miraculous. Instead of referring to a divine intervention that overturns natural necessity, Lewis maintains that a miracle is any event within the world that appears to have personally beneficial consequences. As something taking place within the natural world, the event will always be explicable in scientific terms. But the believer is also free to interpret the event otherwise — as having been mysteriously authored or brought about by the hidden hand of God. That is the kind of miracle that Lewis believes in.

Linker argues:

The great early modern defenders of science (men like Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume) understood that the belief in miracles was an obstacle to the advance of human knowledge, keeping alive the possibility that the findings of scientific investigation are at most provisionally true — true only so long as God doesn’t act within the world in a way that contravenes natural necessity. That’s why these and other partisans of the Enlightenment actively sought to explain (or rather, to explain away) miracles and undermine popular belief in them. They recognized that a universe in which miracles are possible is a world in which science, strictly understood, is impossible.

Centuries later, the philosophical critique of miracles has been so successful that many of the faithful are more comfortable affirming the truth of soft providentialism, which is perfectly compatible with science because it makes no empirically verifiable (or refutable) truth-claims about the world at all. It’s even compatible with Darwinian evolution, which posits the radically non-theistic view that species evolve through a process of random mutation and adaptation, since it’s always possible that God plays a crucial and hidden (but scientifically undemonstrable) role in the process. Perhaps God causes evolution’s seemingly random mutations, or controls the environment to which these mutated organisms adapt themselves.

The good news for religion is that it has survived the philosophical-scientific assault on miracles. But the bad news for religion is that it now lingers on in a profoundly weakened state. Where faith once confidently ventured truth-claims about the whole of creation and its metaphysical underpinnings, now it often offers mere expressions of subjective feeling about a world that science exclusively reveals and explains. That represents a remarkable retreat.

Oh? Really? I find that we have proponents of both views in the world of the shroud and, interestingly, they are not self-segregated into pro- or not-pro- authenticity stances.

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Utter hogwash

November 12, 2014 6 comments

imageIt has been mentioned at least twice in comments to postings in this blog. So here is a good article by Greg Carey (pictured) that appears in the Huffington Post:

Just this week another Jesus hoax has appeared in the media. Media producer Simcha Jacobovici has collaborated with a professor named Barrie Wilson on a book called, "The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text That Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene." I don’t wish to be rude, and I will freely admit I haven’t read the book yet, but the entire premise is utter hogwash.

[ . . . ]

We might begin with the book’s title. "The Lost Gospel" suggests the discovery of a new literary source, one that is either recently discovered or has been largely neglected. Instead, the "lost gospel" is actually an ancient Jewish (perhaps Christian) novel we call "Joseph and Aseneth." It’s well known, and it’s received quite a bit of scholarly attention. Joseph and Aseneth is included in the standard collections of ancient Jewish literature that all biblical scholars consult. This month’s Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, the most significant gathering of biblical scholars in the world, will include two papers devoted to the story. Just type "Aseneth" into your Amazon search window, and you’ll find quite a few books devoted to the story, including monographs by leading scholars.

Unfortunately, Jacobovici and Wilson describe the text as "Gathering dust in the British Library" and suggest they have "uncovered" it. Unfortunately, the media has bought into that narrative. . . . In fact, Duke University professor Mark Goodacre created his Joseph and Aseneth home page in 1999 — quite a bit before its recent "uncovering."

The new book’s subtitle reveals a second problem: "decoding." The authors claim this ancient novel carries a secret meaning. Joseph and Aseneth makes perfect sense without decoding.

[ . . . ]

It is always bad form to attack a theory by condemning its proponents, but Simcha Jacobovichi is a notorious peddler of misleading theories. He promoted an ossuary as containing the bones of Jesus’ brother James, a theory that has been disconfirmed. He also developed a documentary that claimed to unveil the Jesus family tomb, also refuted by experts, and even claims to have uncovered the nails used in Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s a shame that the media ever pays attention to him, at least when he’s talking about Jesus.

Scientific truth is a pathway to God

October 24, 2014 35 comments

As the Huffington Post describes him:

imageBr. Guy Consolmagno SJ is an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he has two degrees in planetary sciences from MIT and a doctorate from the University of Arizona. He is a past president of the IAU Commission 16 (Moons and Planets) and past chair of the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (AAS/DPS). Along with more than 200 scientific works, he is the author of six popular astronomy books (most notably Turn Left at Orion, with Dan Davis, and Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? with Paul Mueller) and the winner of the 2014 Carl Sagan Medal for Public Outreach from the AAS/DPS.

He has put together an interesting posting for the HuffPo blog: Science, Religion and the Assumptions We Make.  He concludes (but do read it from the top)

I believe that the physical universe we study was was made deliberately by God who found it good — and who makes Himself known in the things He created (to quote St. Paul). Thus scientific truth is a pathway to God. Even a scientist who denies the existence of any creator God must nonetheless worship at the altar of Truth, or else that science is worthless.

And why, at the end of the day, do I choose one religion over another? I can accept that all religions ultimately are looking for the same God. But I suspect that some religions do a better job of it than others… just as Newton’s physics was an improvement over the medieval view, and quantum physics picks up where Newton’s version fails. The religions of The Book — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — all recognize a God outside of nature who created this universe and found it good. Of these, I adopt the Catholic view because to me it is the most complete, most coherent vision of God and God’s interaction with our universe.

I find that my religion’s understanding of the universe is consistent with everything that I observe about life: not only in science, but in my experience of beauty, love and all the other transcendentals that science does not treat… including those experiences that I interpret as prayer, my direct experience of God.

It’s not a proof. But it is a consistency argument. Your mileage may vary.

And one of those things may be the shroud.

Guy Consolmagno on Science and Religion

September 30, 2014 Comments off

imageDavid Freeman writing yesterday in the Science section of the Huffington Post, How A Vatican Astronomer Views The Science-Religion Divide:

In an interview with HuffPost Science editor David Freeman, Brother Guy [Consolmagno, S.J., astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory, pictured] said he believes the antagonism between scientific principles and religious faith exists mostly among fundamentalists.

"I mean fundamentalists on both sides," he said, "because there are also science fundamentalists. And what is a fundamentalist? It’s somebody who is clinging to the fundamentals of their truth because they don’t have the confidence or the faith in their faith to be able to say, ‘I’m settled, I’m happy with this, let’s see where it goes.’ Fundamentalism is a sign of fear."

The audio of the interview is available here.

Wikipedia Entry for Guy Consolmagno.

Speaking of “our own” commenters in the big papers

February 23, 2014 3 comments

You need to click on the picture to see this screenshot from the New York Times in its full size. Recognize John Klotz, there? His comment has been featured. And it should be. Here is the link to the New York Time article, A Church So Poor It Has to Close Schools, Yet So Rich It Can Build a Palace.

image

Here is what John Klotz wrote:

I once remarked to the late Fr. Robert Poveromo, that I thought the greatest of all saints since the time of the Apostles was St. Francis. "Some of us," he replied "think he was the only one." As disgusting as the conduct of the the New Jersey Archbishop is, when I clicked the link to read of Father Grange, I was edified by an example of obvious sanctity and a compelling biography of dedication to the poor.

By what miracle, Pope Francis came to pope I do not know. I can only say that the Archbishop of New Jersey should be afraid, very afraid. Perhaps the poor priests and nuns who tend to the poor of New Jersey will get a new place to retreat and renew. Or maybe, I place for poor children to escape briefly from the dire circumstances of their life for awhile. 
However, I suspect that it will be a cold day in Hell before the Archbishop gets to live in his vacation palace.

May I suggest for him a trip in sack cloth and ashes to Rome to beg forgiveness?
As for NY Times Michael Powell, I am in awe. I have only one phrase, a modern cliche, for him and his editors at the Times. "Keep on, keeping on."

http://Johnklotz.blogspot.com

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