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Posts tagged as “Jesus and Godel”

Palm Sunday and Ordinary Miracles

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Modern movies have trained us to expect showy spectacles of power. The Emperor throws lightning from his fingers with the power of the Force; Tony Stark blows up a mountain range with the power of his mind (via engineering); Superman flies around the planet to turn back time with the power of Earth's Sun. This is true even in depictions of miracles from the Bible. Cecil B. DeMille filmed the waters of the Red Sea roaring back from the staff of Moses like he was Gandalf, but in Exodus 14:21, Moses just stretches his hand out over the sea, and God sends a strong east wind. Parting the Reed Sea takes all night. In all fairness, the Bible does mention the walls of water, which later crash in on the Pharaoh's troops, and earlier God does ask Moses to take a shepherd's staff with him to work his wonders. But it isn't mentioned in the parting of the Red Sea itself. It isn't as photogenic as we want to remember. This is true about many miracles in the Bible, especially the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels. Lazarus is brought back from the dead, but people do recover from seemingly fatal-looking illnesses. The feeding of the crowd can be chalked up to underestimating how much food people had with them. And so on. Now, there are unambiguous miracles in the Gospels - my favorite is Jesus stilling the storm and walking on water - but many of the miracles are events which you not only have to take on faith, but you have to use faith to recognize that they are even indeed miracles, much less interpret them properly. Such is the story of Jesus's triumphal entry in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He sends His disciples ahead to retrieve a donkey, which is mysteriously tied up precisely where He says it would be, and whose owners yield it to the disciples without a fuss when told that the donkey was needed for the Lord. Then, upon Jesus's entry, crowds gather and, even though they don't precisely know who He is, lay down for Him cloaks and palm branches - from where we get the name Palm Sunday. Supposedly, all the city was moved by this triumphal entry ... but only then learned that it was Jesus, the prophet from Galilee. Wait, what? How did they know to gather? Remember, this is before Twitter, before cell phones, even before CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. And Jesus didn't exactly have the largest staff - He had twelve close confidants (we call them Apostles) and sent out seventy or so followers (we call them disciples). But even so, the Bible narrates Jesus's advance team, which doesn't do more than procure some transport. The appearance of the crowds that gather for Jesus, much less the donkey that Jesus mysteriously knows about from miles and miles away, are a rational mystery. Now, if you're a skeptic, you're likely aware of "information leakage" which can cause the appearance of paranormal phenomena when in truth the "counting horse" was just paying close attention to the body language of the trainer, or the "psychic" was learning to predict from subtle smudges on the cards. A skeptic must admit that it's possible that in the six days prior to Palm Sunday, when Jesus was staying in nearby Bethany, that He sent messengers ahead to prepare the way. By my count above, plus other hangers-on in the Bible, He likely had a hundred followers, seventy embedded across Israel. So, from a skeptical perspective, there's really not anything to explain. But if you take the story on faith - if you believe that the Bible, even if it isn't literally true and is primary source material, isn't just primary source material and is inspired by faith to tell us what's important - then you see God at work. Again and again, Jesus works small miracles, things which a skeptic can easily explain away, things which don't require an extravagant budget, complex special effects, or thousands of extras. Sometimes, it's just seeing someone from afar, be it a donkey for the triumphal entry ... or the apostle Nathanael. "When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, 'Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.' 'How do You know me?' Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, 'Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.' 'Rabbi,' Nathanael answered, 'You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!'" It's a simple miracle. A skeptic would chalk it up to a cold read and go on about their business. But to a believer, it's a sign. Jesus knows who we are and what resources we have, even from a great distance, and He sees what role we can play in His Kingdom ... even if we sometimes seem very far away. God acts in the world around us all the time. Earlier in this series, I pooh-poohed the experiences some people have with spiritual or magical experiences which require a prepared mind, but it is true that there are things which we cannot easily see unless we've trained ourselves to see them. Once I was working on a logo for a startup on a very early CAD program at a friend's family printing plant, and just as I was getting satisfied with my work, one of the foremen came over, looked at my drawing, and said, "Yeah, doesn't look too good. Those little chevrons there don't line up." And, dangit, they didn't. I had a lot to learn about how to "see" features of drawings. And even though it was a pain - the custom vector-graphics program was very hard to use - I had to take the advice and laboriously fix each little chevron, because what the foreman had pointed out was absolutely true. Jesus once said that no sign would be given to this generation except the sign of Jonah - referring to Jonah's three-day stay inside a giant fish, and meaning Jesus's own Resurrection. And that is all we need, if we're paying attention, to the ordinary miracles God works around us every day. If we learn to see. -the Centaur Pictured: He is Iron Man, thanks to a suit which, both in-and-out of universe, is a very expensive effect.

Do Not Swear by Heaven or Earth

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dedekind drawing So we may be coming to an end of my Lenten series - not because Lent is over, though technically Lent ends on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, because I had been planning on writing through to Easter - but because I forgot that Lent rolled over April - and Camp Nanowrimo. Nanowrimo, for those late to the party, is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. It has two sister challenges, "Camp Nanowrimo," in April and July, and a few years ago I committed to doing all three every year, so I could finish my books before I die. I live by The Law of Prior Commitment: if you have two conflicting obligations, the one you agreed to first wins, nor do you break a prior commitment to take on a new one. In this case, I thoughtlessly committed myself to writing two essay's worth for five days, and I'm already overloaded. The Lent series must go. Now, the Law of Prior Commitment is a great law. It simplifies and de-stresses many decisions in life, because it's easy to apply, easy to understand, and impartial. When combined with a key exception - when a conflict affects my wife, I Prioritize My Marriage - it becomes easier to be fair with people. That exception is important. Sometimes the commitments I make are to myself - to take on a Lenten series, to commit to Nanowrimo, to attend the Write to the End writer's group every Tuesday. But once, back in the day, when I'd committed to a karate class, it conflicted with my new girlfriend's art opening. My future wife's art opening - her very first art opening, in point of fact. Following the Law of Prior Commitment got me in trouble - and I don't mean that she was upset, though she was; I mean that I missed out on a special experience because I was mindlessly applying a rule. As I've discussed earlier, no set of rules can be perfect for dealing with the complexities of the real world. Literally NO rules, because it's mathematically impossible. As much as we may wish otherwise, for ANY problem you have to think about with, like, your brain, the mathematician Dedekind showed arithmetic is embedded in it somewhere, and Godel's Incompleteness Theorem is lurking behind that with a club. Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us not to swear oaths: "You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, you must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool." Jesus was no doubt aware that commitments made as oaths - rules short enough to be packaged into a brief verbal spell - cannot encompass within their rules the whole of the path following Him, which involves constant course-correction towards Jesus with discernment (discretion guided by grace). In popular culture the way to Heaven is "straight and narrow" but that's a misreading of Matthew 7:14, which the Interlinear reads as a narrow GATE and a constricted WAY - hard to get through, and easy to step off the path. A straight path is easy to follow. But straight lines exist in the human mind, not nature. This is one reason I've always been a bit suspicious of religious orders - people who swear a vow - an oath - to God to live as part of a religious community. No matter how well intentioned those vows are, no matter how religiously inspired, they're replacing the simple following of Jesus with human rules. When we decide to follow a rule, or swear an oath, or even when we take on a vow to God, we are placing something finite and human - a short verbal spell, followed by our own finite judgment - over the infinite and divine example of Jesus, the Son of God, and the Person of God Himself. Following Jesus is strange and difficult, sometimes challenging, requiring discernment - again that odd word, which in plain language means just "good judgment", but to Christians, it stands for a process: "perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding." That lack of judgment is important. Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" This means more than just not judging people for their imagined offenses. It applies to all situations. If we cannot approach a situation without judgment - without being open to everyone and everything that are actually there - then we will only find ourselves regurgitating our own prejudices. Oaths short-circuit this process of discernment. An oath says, "I'm going to make a decision now, so I won't have to make a decision then." Oaths, while they are restrictive, are comforting, in a way: if one makes that promise to do a good thing now, then you can be sure not to be swayed later. Except, sometimes, we should be swayed later. You can make all the promises to yourself that you want, but you do so in a particular set of circumstances, and if your circumstances change, they could require you to re-visit the assumptions that led you to make the oath in the first place. Artificial intelligence researchers call this "defeasible reasoning." Logicians, skeptics and objectivists may want the firm certainty of deductive reasoning, which moves from true premises to true conclusions, but probability theorists, scientists and roboticists know that new information can invalidate the old. There is no substitute for taking each scenario on its own merits. No substitute for discretion; no way to eliminate the need for discretion before judgment. You can swear all the oaths you want, make all the promises to yourself that you want, but one day, your rules will fail. So, I promised to myself I'd take on a Lenten series, and that I'd do Camp Nanowrimo. But in practice, I'm going to roll into Maundy Thursday tomorrow, approach the situation without judgment, and, regardless of the rules I've set for myself, let myself decide what I ought to do to follow Jesus. -the Centaur Pictured: Dedekind, a mathematician who showed that our most basic thoughts - thinking about things, and putting them into groups, which might contain other groups - contain, deeply embedded in their implications, the full richness of the natural numbers, and beyond them, all of mathematics.

Every Supper Might be the Last Supper

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philip k dick drawing [For those tuning in from yesterday, when I wasn’t sure if I would continue these essays: I’m “at work” waiting - wading, really - through recompiles and reinforcement learning policy evaluations, so I might as well write my essay while my virtual robot chugs along.] There’s a great bit in the surprisingly dark Doctor Who holiday episode “The Last Christmas” where someone says they don’t like Christmas because every Christmas is the last Christmas for someone, and might be the last Christmas for you in particular. That got me thinking about the Last Supper. Today is Maundy Thursday, the last day of Lent proper. Working backwards, Easter commemorates the Resurrection, Black Saturday the Tomb, Good Friday the Crucifixion, and Maundy Thursday the Last Supper. At the Last Supper, the final meal Jesus shared with His followers prior to His death, Jesus ritually broke bread and instituted the Eucharist, predicted his betrayal by Judas, and may also have washed the feet of the Apostles in a show of servant leadership (the Gospels differ). While the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are critically important in the salvation of humanity (and the resolution of the problem of evil), the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist are critically important to the spiritual lives of Christians everywhere. In it, Jesus broke bread and said, “This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me,” and after supper, he shared a cup, saying ”This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” This is big league stuff. That text isn’t from the Gospels: it’s from First Corinthians, one of the most reliable books of the New Testament: Paul’s authorship isn’t really disputed, it’s found in the oldest copy of the Bible (the Codex Vaticanus), and it dates to like 50ish AD. As we discussed earlier, First Corinthians documents events happening in the first few years after Jesus’s Crucifixion - but Paul says he got his info about the Last Supper from Jesus Himself, with the words: “For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you…” My point is twofold. First, if you’re a skeptic not super interested in Christianity, sometimes you hear arguments that “Christianity” is a later invention and that maybe Jesus didn’t even exist. This is bunk: key elements of Christian worship were rolling only a year or two after He died. You may not believe that has any meaning, of course. Christian theology itself says mysteries must be taken on faith. If you’re not willing to do that, that’s your prerogative. Just, please, don’t work backwards from your disbelief to pretend verifiable things aren’t true to give you cover. My second point is this: the Eucharist is a key part of Christian worship. I know that many Protestants don’t place the same emphasis on the sharing of bread and wine that Catholics and Episcopaeans do, but according to Paul, Jesus thought it so important He told Paul personally. [I want to say that Jesus knocked Paul off His horse to tell him, but I doubt that’s actually true.] The celebration of the Eucharist, and the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus - whether you think that’s literal transubstantiation, spiritual transformation, or simply holy metaphor - are the key conduits we have to receive spiritual grace in worship. Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper directly with His Apostles, and re-emphasized it in-person after His death and Resurrection to the Apostle to the Gentile, Paul, and His Church is still celebrating this 2,000 year old institution today. Philip K. Dick once came to believe that we’re all trapped in 70 A.D., waiting for the return of Jesus. I certainly don’t believe that, but there is something timeless about the elements of Christian worship, which makes the rituals spiritually appropriate for all times. So, regardless of whether you’re an active Christian, a lapsed backslider, or an interested outsider, you should attend a Mass sometime. One day, your supper may be a Last Supper, and it will be good to have shared that last meal - metaphorically, spiritually, actually - with Jesus. -the Centaur Pictured: Philip K. Dick, who was quite the strange cat.

If Ever You Think Your Day Was Bad …

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chesterton sketch The Crucifixion puts everything into perspective. No matter what we face in life, no matter how bad things get, it’s hard to top an innocent man being tortured to death for telling the truth in a political kangaroo court - which, essentially, is the story of Jesus’s death. This is a strange comfort for me when I think I’ve had a bad day. No matter what minor mishap has triggered my internal narrative and constant catastrophizing, it really never is as bad as what Jesus had to go through to protect us from the consequences of our own sins. I feel strange even writing this. It seems like this is something that should be treated with heavy reverence - the Crucifixion is the most important event in Christian theology, and in that view, is the most important thing to ever happen in all of Creation itself. But the reverence of a prayer to our God - as regurgitated performatively to other true believers, which is what all audible or written prayers are, performances - leads to language which is the opposite of clear explanation and honest sharing with people who do not yet believe. Think of the exaggerated “JAY-zuss” you hear from televangelists. Jesus actually tells us not to pray in public: “When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.” Or think of the constant praises that Muslims offer to Allah in religious contexts: Allah, may He be glorified and exalted”, “Muhammad, upon him be prayers and peace.” In a sense, this is a performance, something which reads the best to other believers. But in another sense, these praises and exaggerations are not a performance. While I’m leery of taking much from any other faith into Christianity, especially Islam, which C. S. Lewis described as “Christianity’s greatest heresy,” one thing that I agree with Islam about is submission to God. Islam means submission to God, and as part of that submission, Muslims believe in gratitude, which leads to thanks and praise to God, and Muslims believe in scripture, citing verses from the Qur’an as a reason to bestow on Muhammad all those honorifics. Similarly, to a televangelist, belief in Jesus is the most important element of anyone’s life. He’s their guide, their Savior, their close personal friend, even if He is invisible, and every time they say His name, they want to emphasize His importance to them. In Christian theology, Jesus is God, existing before and outside Creation; but Jesus is also human, making Him the most important part of Creation - and the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection the most important event. That’s why the Crucifixion looms so large: in a sense, it is both everywhere and at the center of things. The authors G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis both had a genius for metaphor when talking about the Risen Lord, often using the imagery of the Sun when they did so. That’s appropriate. The Earth turns, and sometimes, its weight and bulk seems like it blots out the Sun. But the Sun is always there, still burning, shining its light into every part of the darkness, and it will be waiting for us when it turns around again. The light of the Sun predates the formation of the Earth, which took its current shape after the Mars-sized planet Theia slammed into the proto-Earth (which in my novels I call Hyperion), and it will shine after the Earth is gone, consumed in the swelling of the Sun into a red giant. This is one reason I’m not so worried about the discrepancies between the Bible and modern cosmology: the world wasn’t made in six days and it won’t end in seven trumpets, but echoes of those spiritual truths can be found over and over again, fractally, throughout the universe. And the largest of those looming truths is that of the Son. Like the Sun, He was here before us, His light shaped us and helped us grow, and He will be here long after we’re gone, collecting the dust of the old world and refashioning it into a new one. So today, the echoes of the Crucifixion wash over us; tomorrow, that of his Death; the day after, that of his Resurrection. And the lesson, even for our worst suffering and our darkest hours, is that suffering, followed by death, is a mere echo of a process that ends in Resurrection. -the Centaur Pictured: G. K. Chesterton. Dude had some hair.

Death is not the End

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capaldi eyebrows Black Saturday commemorates the day that Jesus lay in the tomb. If the Crucifixion is the great sacrifice, and the Resurrection is its great reward, the Tomb is the liminal space between, the moment between before and after, the place in time and space where Death reigns as supreme as it ever will. Death is a funny thing, and does funny things to people's brains. Some people fear it; others welcome it, perhaps grudgingly. Some seek it; some try to move heaven and earth to avoid it. Strangest of all is what death does to otherwise rational people's perceptions of reality - of what is "ontologically possible." Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which Spock - SPOILERS - dies, is said to have complained that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock wasn't realistic, because Spock - SPOILERS - comes back from the dead, along the lines: "It's a fantasy - people can't come back from the dead." Yeah, well, people used to not fly in space either, Nick, but you still directed a movie about it, almost a decade and a half after humanity successfully landed on the moon. A friend of mine had a similar complaint about another movie because "coming back from the dead isn't possible." Put bluntly, this isn't a rational analysis. This is treating death as Death with a capital 'D', elevating it into a permanent part of the City of Myth, like Neil Gaiman's Endless or Terry Pratchett's Four Horsemen. But Death isn't a perky, photogenic goth or a cloak-wrapped figure made wholly of bones. We are three-dimensional patterns persisting through four-dimensional space-time, and, one day, those self-maintaining patterns may cease to maintain themselves and dissolve. Put simply, someday, everybody dies. But those patterns, one day, might be restored, by any number of methods. Despite the cliche, neither death nor taxes are an unavoidable part of the structure of the universe, and that should be obvious if you engage in informed speculation about possible futures. Thinking of taxes alone, we might have a universal basic income in a robotically-powered post-scarcity utopia. While the resurrection method in Star Trek III leaves a lot to be desired - it's beyond scientific speculation and fully in the realm of "treknobabble" - if you're already talking about starships traveling faster than light crewed by psychic space elves, please, don't start talking to me about the realism of Death. Death doesn't deserve its capital letter. One day, we might scientifically conquer it - I wear a cryogenic suspension bracelet around my wrist for precisely this purpose - and, to Christians, Jesus has already conquered it, with His ministry providing the gateway of belief to His death and resurrection. Black Saturday remembers this time. One day, death will reach us all - it is inevitable, even though it might be reversible - but the promise of Jesus's resurrection is the promise that one day we all may go beyond the dissolution of our physical patterns and into a new mode of existence that is eternal. -the Centaur Pictured: the eyebrows of Peter Capaldi, known for playing a man who knows something about coming back from the dead.

Easter is Just the Beginning

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the empty tomb And so comes an end to Lent, and my Lenten series, with Easter. To Christians, Easter not just the commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his Crucifixion, but an event happening in a very real sense right now, reverberating through time and space. If the Crucifixion is when Jesus atoned for our sins, the Resurrection is when He brings the promise of eternal life to us, and begins his work moving the spirits of the people of the world towards the path of following Him into the Kingdom of God. Forthcoming, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, will take over that work; but now, we are in another time, not liminal, like Black Saturday, but celebratory, in which we give thanks for Jesus's Resurrection and worship with joy in the remembrance of it. This was perhaps the hardest Lenten season I have ever undertaken: writing roughly 1,000 non-fiction words a day every day on top of all my other responsibilities was quite the challenge. But Jesus can resurrect anything, and He certainly resurrected my connection to the faith this Lent. And now, on this day of rest, I close this Lenten series. I've much more to write on the "Jesus and Godel" thread, but I am going to take a break, and be grateful for the glory of the Resurrection, the promise of eternal life, and most importantly, for the Christian values that guide me towards Jesus. -the Centaur Pictured: a quick graphic of the opened tomb.