Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Universe Abridged, Part 1: We apologize for the inconvenience

Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us, and to die)
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to man.

From Alexander Pope's 'Essay on Man'.

I had a bunch of increasingly weird electives in high school, the administration was experimenting with a college-like system and used extracurricular subjects as guinea pigs. Still, a lot of those turned out to be fairly useful. By far the most remarkable was philosophy, because of who taught it. The guy was a Russian Orthodox priest. And I mean, he was a proper Father, with robes and a considerable beard.

That said, for a cleric he was an exceedingly well-adjusted personality. The class was separated into two parts, for the first semester he introduced us to Greek philosophers so our parents wouldn't bitch about him talking to us about the Bible for the second one. Now, he was obviously extremely well-versed in old Greeks, that sort of thing just comes with being a fairly senior Orthodox cleric. His lessons were interesting, and he was fundamentally disinterested in grades. If you could start mumbling in the right general direction at the exam, he would continue for you, then ask you if you remembered it now, and give you an A. If you couldn't recall anything, he repeated the lesson from the start and gave you a B. Needless to say, we were happy with the arrangement.

But the truly remarkable bit was how he taught us the Bible. It was as if he had no intention at all of installing in us a belief in God. Many people know the story about the Virgin Mary (the word used in the Hebrew source meant "young woman", and was erroneously translated to Latin), but he told us another one. The bit about creating the world in 7 days? Translation error. The Hebrew word denotes a fixed period of time, i.e., you speak of multiple equal periods without specifying their length. He said that scientists were correct that the universe was about four billion years old; the ancient Jewish nation that put together the Old Testament had understandable issues grasping it, so they adapted to it.

Incidentally, in Judaism very few things are actually the Word of God. The Torah is an educational history and the Talmud is a collection of really good suggestions from people who were much smarter than you. The notion of treating the Old Testament as literal gospel is laughable.

The Father taught us about religion in that vein. The Bible, he said, was a guideline on behavior, and had a very good reason for saying what it did. To this day I feel that the Bible makes a bunch of really valid points, tragically obscured by the fact that people think they came from God.

If you've studied English and European history, or at least read Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything, you will have noticed that Enlightenment scientists were all quite religious. From Newton to Galileo, they never criticised God, but only man's understanding of God. In fact there was a singular exception, made infamous by his defiance - Cyrano de Bergerac, the first science-fiction writer on record and a man of extraordinary nasal qualities - and even he repented on his death bet, in the proper atheist fashion, Just In Case. (Funny how it's the atheists that never have a problem entertaining the idea that the other side might be right.) The natural philosophers progressed quickly to build a more-or-less coherent world picture of an unimaginably large universe, of which the Sun is an unimaginably minor part, and the Earth is an even more minor pebble. 'Essay on Man' actually includes the concept of other planets being inhabited by sentient beings significantly different from humans. OK, so Alexander Pope was a poet, not a scientist - but he was a prominent figure of the time, and the fact that he was not drawn and quartered for suggesting this speaks volumes.

How come is it that a lot of people today - predominantly in America, and I can see causes there, of which later - honestly believe, and what's worse, are trying to get others to believe that the Bible is literal, and the world was created out of nothingness some five thousand years ago? Oh, and that God actually listens to your prayers and cures cancer, as opposed to those heathen MDs. Look, Newton and his ilk are the sworn enemies of creationists everywhere, but they had no trouble resolving God and astrophysics. Darwin was deeply troubled by his conclusions, and did his best to conceal them for years, but he was a scientist and simply could not ignore that which was painfully obvious. These people were exceedingly smart, under the "shoulders of giants" concept they were universal geniuses that would make Stephen Hawking look like an undergraduate, and their general message to the likes of today's Christian fundamentalists was - "The Universe is a very complicated thing, so stop pretending like you know stuff about it, because you don't."

Join me tomorrow for Part II, which you're going to want to bookmark and maybe put in your forum signatures, because it explains a very important thing in a way that you can understand.

No comments:


| More