America the Entertained

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We Americans are undergoing a cultural transformation. I know in many respects that is hardly news. What I’ve been observing though is a confluence of streams of those changes in ways that suggest they are picking up speed, not unlike several rain-swollen rivers coming together to create a massive flood as it works its way down-stream.

It’s difficult to characterize all the subtleties of this growing torrent, but for purposes of this post I’m going to focus on three of these streams in the context of our national demand for endless entertainment. I’ll leave the non-entertaining analysis to the sociologists.

Let’s start with politics, specifically the debates by the Republican presidential candidates.  It seems to me the behavior we have observed not only by the candidates, but the very format and “rules” for these televised events is no longer a forum in any classical sense for a debate, that is, a discussion of genuine public policy positions the candidates hold on the important issues facing the nation. Instead, they have been converted into political theater, orchestrated bash and trash sessions analogous to two teams scrambling for a fumbled football, the referee-pundits at the opposite end of the field, commenting on what they think they observe eighty yards away.

The result takes little effort to parse. Read more…

My List: Five Books +Plus One

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Origins of the Book: Nag Hammadi Codex Collection. Among the Earliest Known Codices Extant (Book Binding rather than Scroll). Dated to ca. 200 C.E. Discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, December 1945. Photo: PD.

Well, here you have it.  My list of “Five Books +Plus One.

Sometimes having to live by your own rules is harder than one would think.  This was one of those cases.  I realized that a few of the choices I easily could have included were not books but articles from periodicals or chapters from books.  As tempting as it was to cheat, I didn’t.  I’m not even mentioning them here as kind of a back door way of saying, Oh, by the way, these were the “also-rans” and here’s why. The other issue, as I’m sure not a few of you have also encountered is the sheer volume of books we have read during our life-times. Thousands is not a stretch of the reality.  How do I winnow all those down to just six?  It was not an easy process. I even resorted to staring at my bookcases and mentally inventorying what was there.  It turned out not to be all that helpful.

Here’s my list, roughly in chronological order as I read them.  It may surprise you; to some degree, it did me:

  1. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  2. Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson
  3. The Church by Hans Kung
  4. Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman
  5. The New American Standard Bible

My “Plus One”

  • The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Published in 1951.

This is the cover of my first copy of "Foundation."

I have often said that Isaac Asimov taught me how to Think (capital “T”). Other than the Bible, I have read it through more than any other book.  I bought my first copy from a grocery store book rack when I was 15 or 16 and it changed my life.  Foundation is an unusual story in the Science Fiction genre because it is about a group of people, facing the collapse of a galactic empire, who Think.  Calling themselves “psychohistorians” they developed a complex logic and math-based system of predicting events in the future.  No magic, no Force.  Smart people thinking about almost hopelessly complicated assumptions and outcomes.  Did they get it right?  You’ll have to read the book.

I wanted to be a psychohistorian, not so much for the ability to reason out the future, but to be able to explore human behavior in its most deep and subtle implications.  To that end, I pursued psychology.

I can describe two huge influences Foundation (a series Asimov stretched into fourteen novels) had upon me.  First was the inspiration of learning how to Think, to stretch my mental capacity through creative and logical thinking and education.  Once you learn how to do that, all of life in its almost infinite variabilities becomes fascinating.

The second impact was to ask the question: What does it mean to be human?  Isaac Asimov in his nonfiction works said that was the central theme of Foundation.  He was a humanist, but an optimist who saw that through our common humanity we have the ability to overcome the many inhumanities we inflict upon one another and make ourselves into a better species—even if he did use robots to help us along that journey.  That optimism struck me as a teenager, and I carry it as a core of who I am to this very day.

Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson. Published in 1968.

Thinking about all of the books I read as an undergraduate as a psychology  major (even though I graduated with a major in Biblical Studies, with minors in Psychology and General Science, due to the Northwest Christian College curriculum structure in 1976), I had the hardest time narrowing this chapter in my life to just one book.  I decided, finally, on Erikson’s Identity, Youth and Crisis, for three reasons.

First, Erikson’s idea of human development and epigenetic life stages has been a key part of my professional life, even today. Though the stages have been modified, the essential concepts have stood the test of time.  Other authors, including those writing about spirituality and religious development have built on Erikson.

Second, out of a handful of books that shaped my self-identity as a “psychologist,” Identity, Youth and Crisis rightly belongs at the top of that list.  That was not an easy decision to make because the also-rans were very influential as well.  But as I thought about which of them I had returned to over the years, Erikson came in first.  The only way I can think of to describe its impact is that after I read this book, I “became” a psychologist, and through it, as I entered first seminary and then my masters in counseling program, Erikson continued to be of special importance.

So, third, I returned to Identity, Youth and Crisis in my masters in counseling program at the University of Oregon (1981).  My second year, I elected to do a reading and conference course, and chose to read Erikson as my topic.  Even though I read six of his most influential books, I started again with Identity, Youth and Crisis.  It was the anchor for the term.  I still keep my copy handy on my book shelf.

The Church by Hans Kung.  Published in 1968.

This is the choice that surprised me.  As I pondered which books have had the most profound theological effect on me, it came down to three.  One was out of my heritage as a Disciples of Christ, two were written by Catholics.  Hans Kung, one of the Catholics, won.  Why? Similar to what I noted above, it is the book I have returned to most often over the years because it is the book that was most transformational in my personal and professional development as a theologian.

Hans Kung, a German theologian has been in trouble with the Catholic Church for nearly half a century.  He’s an iconoclast of sorts, and writes things that are transparently Protestant, and therefore the Holy See takes a dim view of his views. I have read that Kung and the current pope are not on good terms.  Nevertheless, when I read The Church, I could hardly put it down.  Kung’s grasp of the history of the church, the context from which doctrines and practices arose were so eloquently explained that by the time I got to the end of it, for the first time, I finally had a clear concept of “Church” in my head, and one from which I could see how Disciples’ theology clearly fit into. The “Church” and “the church” finally made sense, and that is saying something.

Little did I realize at the time that the chapters on Catholic sacraments and things like the priesthood and Apostolic Succession, would be a necessary reference in my work, but even now, The Church is my first reference when I encounter another confusing Roman Catholic belief or practice, which after 15 years still occasionally happens.  We don’t have to tell the pope I’m using Kung to check his facts.

Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman.  Published in 1989.

  I spent eight years working on my doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Oregon, studying Higher Education Policy and Management and graduating in 2002.  One would think that at least one book in higher education would make this list.  Two almost did.  When I got to my dissertation research, however, the foundation of that work took an unexpected twist.  Blame that on my advisor, Dr. Paul Goldman.  He took a kernel of an idea I had and put it into a context that ended up with my not only getting to do cutting-edge research, but also got my dissertation published in the internationally renowned Journal of Educational Administration.  That twist was Organizational Ecology.

In a nutshell, Organizational Ecology is a branch of Organizational Theory that examines how institutions survive in the ecology of their organizational environment.  It assumes that organizations either thrive or wither depending on how well they can access the resources that “feed” their mission and productivity.  It is a very organic model, parallel to biological ecology.  It also assumes that institutions have a life span, and theorizes how they can replicate themselves across generations.   This very developmental perspective for me was a perfect fit.

Organizational Ecology changed the way I think about the institutional world.  It was a touchstone in the process of researching and writing my dissertation that changed how I think.  Literally.  The greatest moment of amazement I experienced as I finished the dissertation manuscript was the realization that the way I think had been organized into something completely different than when I began.  In one respect I had this sense that I had taken a step toward being a psychohistorian.  It was the last thing I expected to gain from earning a PhD.

The New American Standard Bible.  Published Originally by the Lockman Foundation in 1960. Authorized Updated Version Published in 1995.

It is a well-known aphorism in biblical studies that every translation of the Bible is a collection of compromises.  This is true and generally accepted, even by those scholars who believe the Bible is literally the Divinely dictated words of God. For the rest of us, the issue takes a different path.

I find value in reading a variety of translations because I understand the nature of the compromises that went into each version.  Knowing that different translations and paraphrases reflect the theological perspectives of their editors makes each a much more interesting read.

For me, I find The New American Standard Bible my version of choice.  I got my first copy of the NASB when I was 16 years old.  I still have it and use it frequently (which is a testament to the quality of its manufacture and binding, as much as to my affinity for its text).  The NASB was designed to be a Bible that was as close as possible to being a literal translation of the original Hebrew and Greek, to also be as theologically neutral as possible, while at the same time being written in excellent English.  To be honest, they got the literal and neutral parts better than the English.  The readability, however, was significantly improved when the bible was updated in 1995.  To this day I have yet to find another translation of the English Bible that does a better job of presenting the first two, even as they work on getting the English part more polished.

I suppose some of my readers are wondering why I didn’t talk about how the Bible has been the spiritual bedrock of my faith. The answer is simple. This is a list of books that have influenced my life, not a spiritual autobiography.  And why didn’t I make it my +Plus One choice?  Doesn’t it deserve that special distinction?  The answer again is simple. It was a compromise.  I wanted to highlight The New American Standard Bible as the translation that has profoundly influenced my faith and life for over forty years.  Therefore, I decided it belonged in the list of Five, those books that have been my most important standards for shaping me as a person and as a professional.

As for my +Plus One.  I’ve decided to put that in a separate post, as Part 2.  I listed it above.  Now you can ponder why I might have chosen it for that distinction.

We’re All Still Here: The Fallacy of Predicting the End of Time

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Like a thief in the night…

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There are four reasons–four very distinct reasons–why people like Mr. Camping are always wrong about predicting the end of time by scouring the Book of Revelation for secret clues.  By the way, the proper biblical term for “The End of Time” is the Eschaton, not the culturally popular “apocalypse,” which means “to pull back the veil.”  This error is based on confusing the Greek word “apocalypsis” used for the Book of Revelation, with the word that means the “end”: eschatos.  In some editions of the Christian Bible, Revelation (please note the word is singular not the plural “revelations” as many call it) is titled “Apocalypse of John.”  Unfortunately, the genre of literature in which the Book of Revelation is classified is called “apocalyptic literature” and not “eschatological literature,” a fact that adds to the confusion.  Here is the list:

  1. The knowledge of the End of Time is exclusively reserved for the Mind of God.   In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 24, which contains Jesus’ teachings on the “end of the age,” Jesus explicitly states that “No one knows the about that day or hour,  not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36, NIV*).  Point One: Christ did not know the time of the End.
  2. Since the First Century, Christians have yearned for the return of Christ.  Even St. Paul, early in his ministry. believed that Jesus would return in his generation.  This belief figures prominently in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and his instructions to them strongly suggests they were actively debating the return of Jesus in their time.  Some had even quit their jobs.  And though Paul, himself, believed Jesus would return in his lifetime ( later in his life he realized that this likely would not be the case), nevertheless, he cautioned the Thessalonians not to let it cause division among themselves and also not to behave as if there were no tomorrow.  Literally.  To emphasize his point, he writes, “About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (I Thess 5:1, NIV)  Point Two: Paul the Apostle, nor any of the other apostles, knew the time of the End.
  3. Nowhere in the Book of Revelation is there a definable, historical, sequence of events tied to the narrative that points to a specific knowable day in the future.  It just isn’t there.  The reason is so simple it’s almost ridiculous: That day was not revealed to John.  Revelation is written in the first person as a series of visions given to John.  Not once does Christ nor the angel that guided him through those visions reveal the date of the End. In chapter 16:15, Christ is once again quoted: “Behold I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him…” (NIV) In fact, knowing the date is irrelevant to the whole message of Revelation.  The true message of Revelation to Christians of all generations is: Endure, Overcome, and Endure Patiently. That however, has not stopped Christians in every single generation since Jesus walked on this earth from trying to “unlock” the mysteries of Revelation and predict the exact day the End of Time will begin.  Mr. Camping joins a very large, and very frustrated legacy of people who have discovered that what Jesus said in Matthew, chapter 24, indeed was the truth.  In 2008 I wrote an outline of Revelation for a program curriculum at my church.  You can access it by clicking here: The Revelation to St. John. Point Three: The Book of Revelation is not about predicting the End of Time, it is about how Christians are to live until The Day of the Lord.
  4. In light of the first three points, the final reason is: You can’t outwit God.  What Mr. Camping failed to understand, and in a deeper sense, discern, as one of the most important theological truths in Christianity, is that we cannot know when the Day of the Lord will be.  Notice I am not using the term “Day of Judgment.”  The Day of the Lord will take place in God’s timing.  The date of that day is not secreted away in the text of the Bible.  Jesus, himself, said he did not know the day, as did St. Paul and St John.  The reason for teaching us about the Day of the Lord is to help us live according to the gospel of Christ, not to stop living trying to anticipate that which cannot be known.  Point Four: You can’t outwit God. The Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
*NIV: New International Version.

Quantum Hope

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Oh, no, not THAT word!

Put the word “quantum” in a title or sentence and people get nervous.  Perhaps their eyes glaze over and they hope that it will go away.  Some stop reading and skip to another article.  Others are so disconcerted by the mere appearance of the term they can’t read another word and turn on their TVs, frantically looking for reruns of The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or better yet, Oprah.  Comfort food delivered by cable. Having placed “quantum” in both the title and the first sentence, however, those folks won’t have gotten this far.

So if you are still reading, you are among a small minority who are surprisingly brave and tenacious.  For most of you, however, I still need to allay one other fear: math.  Take a deep breath.  No math.  Please, though, don’t turn off your brain.  I’m going to suggest something that is indeed within the realm of quantum theory, but from a perspective few quantum physicists would entertain.

Consider this a treat.

If you aren’t sure what the quantum in quantum physics entails, I can provide a basic definition by offering a simple word picture.  It’s a matter of scale to describe the universe.  On the very big end is cosmology.  That’s what the giant earth-based observatories,  optical, radio telescopes, and space telescopes (like the Hubble, and the Kepler and the soon to be launched James Webb), look deep into space to better understand.  Cosmologists are interested in our  Milky Way galaxy, the galaxies in our neighborhood (we have a really BIG neighborhood) and further out from there to the whole universe.  Astronomers and astrophysicists study the cosmos, the biggest stuff out there.

Quantum physics studies the small end of the universe, smaller than atoms: subatomic particles with great names like quarks, Fermions, leptons and bosons, down to the smallest of the small, called a “bit” (The bit is still theoretical and is also considered a function of entropy. Click here for an explanation [Warning: Contains math formulas]).  They also study how those subatomic particles fit together and work to make the matter we can see.  And that is what a particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN straddling the border of France and Switzerland is designed to do.  Remember in The DaVinci Code, where the story starts in this giant underground building?  That’s CERN.  Particle physicists and quantum physicists study the small stuff and the forces that make them work.

What does this have to do with hope?  Everything, actually, but you’ll have to read just a bit more.

Quantum physics and cosmology have one goal in common.  They both want to figure out how the very large relates to the very small.  They want to discover how the smallest quantum bit is the building block for the universe (and maybe a whole bunch of other universes, too, but we’re not going there in this post).  This great quest is called the search for the Theory of Everything, or for short, The Big TOE.  Seriously.  Yeah, you can laugh.

Everything, however, is not scientifically measurable.  Life is one of those things.  I know we can create machines that can detect life and perhaps how much life exists a one place, but life as a phenomenon in the Universe is not measurable.

The whole notion is confounding, and has been the topic of debate among we humans well before the beginning of the Scientific Revolution with the publication in 1543 of Copernicus‘ manuscript, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.”   For example, Aristarchus of Samos, who lived CA 310-230 BCE, published the first treatise on the heliocentric model of the solar system, On the Sizes and Distances of Sun and Moon, which was then suppressed by the Greek religious authorities of his time because it did not match their beliefs about their gods and life in the universe.  That has a familiar ring to it.

For Half a Millennium…

The past half a millennium, from Copernicus to the present, we have struggled to decide not just what the universe is made of, but what it is at all.  It is the driving force in cosmology and quantum physics.

For those of us who are people of faith, we have also struggled to decide not just what life is made of, but have equally struggled to assign meaning to a concept that seems pervasive to all humans that we label spirituality.  And the greater challenge has been to assign meaning to our religious beliefs and their long-held sacred foundations.   As our understanding of both the Universe and Life have changed (yes, I am deliberately capitalizing both words to communicate that in this context I am seeking to convey a sense of cosmic wholeness) our search for meaning has not gotten any easier.  Why after thousands of years of consciousness in this earthly setting, do we still not understand either?

Diarmuid O’Murcho, who has written extensively about defining a “quantum theology“, states,

The universe knows what it’s about.  That it does not make sense to us humans, that it often baffles us to extremes and undermines all our theories and expectations, is not a problem for the universe; it is a problem for us.  We, therefore, impetuously conclude that the universe does not care about us or about anything else…Instead of viewing it all as mindless, why not work with the idea that it is mindful? (Evolutionary Faith, p. 199).

Even as I write the words of O’Murcho’s quote, I admit they sound strange, foreign, even counter-intuitive to me.  My intellectual world has never regarded the universe as mindful.  Neither has my theological world.  Perhaps, though, that has been the problem, my problem: I have viewed these two worlds as separate, distinct, and although I may have been able to conceptualize them as meeting, like two pieces of plate glass. When pressed against each other they have a cohesiveness, but they are still to pieces of glass stuck together.  In the world of the quantum reality, there is no reason for that to always be so.  In fact, it may be that it is only rarely so, because in quantum theory, boundaries and internal existence are not bounded or exist in the way I perceive them.

Spirituality, Cosmology & the Quantum Conundrum…

I come, then, to my most difficult and confounding question.  If I can believe in a mindful God who created a quantum universe, why do I assume that this mindful Creator did not create a mindful Universe in the same way that humans (therefore, me) were created: In the image of God?

If I allow myself to just for a moment to adjust my reality to that perspective, I realize that I see, though in a glass darkly as St. Paul says when he talks about hope (not just love, 1 Co. 13:15), a reason for hope in a universe otherwise devoid and incapable of such mindfulness:

Life is the universe’s sole expression of hope, for without life the universe cannot contemplate its existence, and without hope the universe does not exist.

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The First Image of the Universe as We Never Can See It, Because Our Eyes Cannot See in Microwave Wavelengths. Image: COBE, Goddard Space Flight Center, http://mather.gsfc.nasa.gov/cobe/science.html

We Have Seen His Star in the East–Part 2

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Star of Wonder-- Myth or Astronomical Event?

A Stellar Event…Strangely, Not So Unexpected.

In Part 1, I suggested that the story of the Star of Bethlehem is one that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time. I see that as an asset, for perhaps that contradiction contributed to both its lasting power and to its veracity. In the previous post, we looked at the creation myths from the Aztecs of Mesoamerica and from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. These narratives were created by peoples on opposite sides of the Earth who never had contact with each other. Despite that, their creation stories have unmistakable and remarkable similarities that suggest that there is an archetypal human story, following the models about which Joseph Campbell wrote extensively.

The Star of Bethlehem, which appears only in the Gospel of Matthew, is an anomaly. One of the unsolved mysteries of the Nativity narratives is that the star is not mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Other than the opening passages of Genesis the writers of the Bible simply seem to have no interest in the sky, except metaphorically. Stars are lights in the night sky that are compared to something earthly or are evidence of God’s creative power. The Hebrews, however, did have an organized cosmology:

Hebrew Cosmology Illustrated. Photo source: unknown

 

The remarkable contrast of the above Hebrew model of the universe is clearly evident when compared to those of the Aztec’s and the Sumerian’s: In Genesis, there is a complete lack of violence in the act of creation. Few other religions have a similar cosmology in which an Earth Mother-goddess does not have to be destroyed and her various body parts used to make the earth, sky and humans. The ancient Hebrews had knowledge of these various stories from Mesopotamia and from Egypt, but in the Genesis account, those elements do not appear. For example, this Egyptian version (one of many Egyptian origin myths) demonstrates the more common world view of the Beginning:

 

Egyptian Creation Myth Illustrated--This Picture is based on the "Heliopolis Cosmogony," one of several dominant myths in the Egyptian Pantheon.

The Problem of “The Sky.”

I also suggested that humans began to differentiate the sky being distinct from the land and the oceans perhaps around circa 4300 years ago. Gavin White (2008), in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, maintains that “Babylonian astrologers started to export to their neighbors as early as the 13th century BCE” (p. 7). He goes on to contend that the development of natal horoscopes required a level of mathematics that was compiled in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, with the first modern equivalents finally appearing in the 5th century, or 2500 years ago. It is this assertion that raises the prospect of historically credible ties to planetary observations by Matthew’s Magi, and the possibility that the Star of Bethlehem’s discovery, or rather interpretation of a sky-based observation, was based on their millennial old texts and maps of the constellations.

These particular Magi were likely among the most highly educated individuals from any civilization, and familiar with astronomy from the known regions of the world. That would include Greece, where we must take a brief trip to meet the man who changed the sky and the universe four hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

To set the stage, I return to the question, “What is the sky?” White shares my view that these ancient cosmologies are neither crude nor primitive:

Today this “flat-earth” cosmology is generally belittled as being rather “primitive” and as far as it is given any attention it is relegated to the kindergarten of metaphysical speculation. This is unfortunate, as the model is actually a rather elegant presentation of archaic man’s view of himself and the universe in which he acted and had his being. It is a complex view of the world, one full of awe that utilizes the mysterious language of symbolism, where every element is a part of an interrelated network of forces. This model also underpins the rationale of celestial divination and magic, mankind’s first attempts to foretell and forestall the shape of things to come. (p. 21)

The tools of those attempts included defining the constellations, plotting the motion of the planets, phases of the moon, vital because they were tied to the seasons, but of course eclipses: lunar, more common than solar, the unexpected darkening of the day often believed to be a portent of evil or disasters.  To many in the ancient world only comets might inspire a greater fear.

From China to India, Persia to the Mediterranean, Egypt across the great Sahara of North Africa, Asia Minor, Greece, the expanse of the Roman Empire all the way to Britannia, the great celestial scroll of the night sky unrolled from horizon to horizon, open to be examined, its mysteries to be plumbed, and the fate of humans read in its aetherial language.

Sometime around the 7th century BCE, in Greece, the question of the sky rose once more, and a startlingly new answer was ventured. What if, these renegade philosophers dared to suggest, using their emerging expertise in mathematics and geometry, the sky was not the abode of the gods? What if the sky was a place, just like the earth, that the Sun, Moon and stars, even the ones which wander, were places? And if that were even possible, how far away were these places? What caused them to move around the earth? And if they moved, what if the Earth moved, too?  The intellectual battle raged for over 400 years, but no one could seem to find that one all-important key to prove whether it was right or wrong.

 

The Greek Geocentric Cosmos. Photo: Source Courtesy, A.H., 1996.

These were dangerous questions, on the level of heresy, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

The Sky Problem Solved–But 1700 Years Too Soon!

Aristarchus of Samos

Those willing to think about daring questions at times come up with extraordinary answers.  One such radical was Aristarchus of Samos, a mathematician and astronomer who lived circa 310-230 BCE.  Samos, a volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, lies in the archipelago that separates modern Greece from Turkey.  An older contemporary of Archimedes, he was known among his generation as “the Mathematician.”

According to Sir Thomas Heath, who published Aristarchus’ full text of “On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon” into English (1913, 2004), “There is not the slightest doubt that Aristarchus was the first to put forward the heliocentric hypothesis. Ancient testimony is unanimous on the point and the first witness is Archimedes, who was a younger contemporary of Aristarchus, so that there is no possibility of a mistake. Copernicus, himself admitted that the theory was attributed to Aristarchus, though this does not seem to be generally known” (p. 301).

Archimedes, to his discredit, did not accept Aristarchus’ heliocentric theory and campaigned against it. Aristarchus’ idea was not theologically popular either in some circles. One Cleanthes attempted to indict the Mathematician “on the charge of impiety for putting into motion the Hearth of the Universe… ” (Heath, p. 304). What enraged Cleanthes was Aristarchus used geometry to prove his hypotheses: “by supposing the heaven to remain at rest and the earth to revolve around an oblique circle, while it rotates, at the same time, about its own axis” (Ibid.). No one knew how prescient this hypothesis really was, until seventeen hundred years later another mathematician named Copernicus reached the same conclusion after studying Aristarchus’ text , and a second, 150 years after him, one named Galileo.

The Magi: The Hubble, Sagan, and Hammel of Their Age

What is the connection to our Christmas Star? Aristarchus used star charts and calculations developed by the Babylonians centuries earlier. Sir Thomas presents a number of examples where Aristarchus used, what he called “Chaldean lunations,” basically books of tables that all mathematicians of the era would have as a standard in their libraries (p. 314).

The Magi, it is reasonable to infer, would have read Aristarchus. Mathematically he was an “Einstein” of his age, his texts were in circulation, and even though they likely would not have accepted his heliocentric hypothesis, just like modern astronomers who still read Copernicus’ and Galileo’s works, they would have studied his math proofs and geometry to predict lunar and solar eclipses, and to calculate “The Great Year,” “which is completed by the sun, the moon, and the five planets when they return together to the same sign in which they were once before simultaneously found” (quote from Censorinus AD 238; Ibid, p. 316).

That very high level of geometric expertise would have been invaluable in calculating planetary conjunctions with a high degree of accuracy.  Furthermore, the ability to correctly forecast the birth of a king was the Gold Medal of astrology/astronomy. Whoever they were, the Magi were convinced they had gotten this one right, and with a level of confidence so strong they were willing to travel from their homes somewhere east of Jerusalem, command an audience with King Herod and tell him right to his face!

Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. (Mt 2:2, NIV)

Saying that to a reigning monarch is the kind of thing that could get you beheaded in short order. What stayed Herod’s hand? Perhaps the sight of this from an east-facing palace balcony:

Bethlehem Star 12Aug -03 Jerusalem 0210hrs. Star Chart by TheSky6 Serious Astronomer Edition. The proof, as they say is in the pudding. This is a natural sky view of the proposed Star of Bethlehem. See if you can spot it without scrolling down to the annotated version.

A Historical Event Reconstructed out of a Myth: The Power of Good Science and an Astronomy Software Program

Michael Bakich, a Senior Editor of Astronomy Magazine writes in the January 2010 issue:

The biblical account says that the wise men spoke to Herod about the star. Neither Herod nor his scholars knew what they were talking about. No other Bible verse or secular writing mentions the star. What was it? Could it be Matthew, the only gospel writer who mentions the star, wanted to prove to his readers what he knew from reading the Old Testament? I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh; there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel… (Num. 24:17). Did the writer of Matthew invent a story to fulfill this prophecy from Moses? Most historians don’t think so (p. 37).

The solution is most likely a planetary conjunction. It is not, in the end, the definitive answer, nor does it subtract the mystery and miracle of that night.

It was the Star of Wonder. And if this particular conjunction or cycle of conjunctions that occured in 3 BCE signaled the birth of the Savior, how we can rejoice what a clever God we worship!

Bethlehem Star 12Aug -03 Jerusalem 0210hrs with Annotations. Star Chart by TheSky6 Serious Astronomer Edition

One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the Magi as they pointed this astronomical event out to Herod and his astrologers, going over their data and calculations. We know what was going through Herod’s mind.

The conjunction would have been very bright. Jupiter was shining at a magnitude of -1.8 and was at 99.98% phase full (think full Moon), and Venus was at a shadow-producing magnitude by itself of -3.9 and 93.38% full phase! Regulus by contrast would have almost seemed dim at its very bright -1.38 magnitude, and Sirius, the brightest star in the northern sky at -1.44 magnitude was glowing high in the SW sky.

Star of Bethlehem with Magi Card

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. Matt 2:9.

Merry Christmas and may the Blessings of the Christ Child Come to You and Your Loved Ones.

 

We Have Seen His Star in the East–Myth or Astronomical Event?

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Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?

 

The Star of Bethlehem? No, it's Canopus, 2nd Brightest Star in the Sky and a Specular Stand-in. 310 Light Years Distant. Image by D. Pettit taken from the ISS. Photo: NASA

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Prologue

This is a story that starts in the wrong place.  They’re my favorite kind.  And the wrong time.  That’s even better.  A story that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time has to be interesting.  There’s something to be said for predictability, but it rarely makes for a good plot or an intriguing ending.

This story does not have those disadvantages.  Some people have believed it was true.  Others believed it was false.  Others, still, believed it was myth, of uncertain veracity, but a beautiful, even elegant narrative.  For two millennia, Christians have believed it was part of a miracle.  Others, of different faiths, may have acknowledged it as a lovely story, but of no spiritual significance.  For the past four hundred years, as men and women have studied nature in new and innovative ways, and expanded our understanding of the Earth and the sky into a cosmos unimaginably large and old, the story’s credibility declined, seemingly moving toward the status of a fairy tale.

All of this, while true, is not the start to which I was alluding.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf.  Photo: NASA.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. It is Procyon, 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf. 11 Light Years Distant. Photo: NASA.

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First, Some Historical Background

The Babylonian Cosmos. Image Courtesy: Gavin White. From: Babylonian Star-Lore, 2008. Click on the image for a larger version.

Around nine to ten thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem.  It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that is very hard to read.  White (2008) in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, suggests that Babylonian astrology began as early as 15,000 years ago, although he states that the practice of astrology was quite different than the modern version.  It relied on mathematical calculations written on clay tablets and the earliest tablets have been dated to the 7th or 8th Century, BCE.  So, I’ll suggest ten thousand years, with the caveat that date might need to be adjusted with the next archaeological blockbuster discovery.  The problem was the Earth.  More specifically, the ground.

At this point I need to dispel one very important misconception: the fallacy of modernity.  The individuals I to whom I am referring are modern humans.  Same body, same brain, same capacity for intelligence, problem solving, or IQ.   Just like Albert Einstein, your neighbor Justin, who wears only faded NASCAR t-shirts, your eccentric Aunt Lizzy, or that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out.

This is the paradigm I want you to remember: ancient ≠ primitive.  Got that?

Back to our discovery.  At some point in the ancient past, one of our ancestors had the revolutionary thought that the ground was substantively different from the sky.  This was not a “well, duh,” moment.  It was a paradigm shift, perhaps capable only due to the superior huge frontal cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens.  The shift was beyond the observation of a day/night cycle, although that would have been part of it.  This shift, like the differentiation between the sense of the boundary between my body and not-my-body, changed the human perception between earth and sky.

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The Sky is a Problem, a Big Problem

If This was the Bethlehem Star, it Would Have Really Gotten Everyone's Attention. It isn't. This is Wolf-Rayet 104, a Totally Strange Double Star, But This Time, Both Stars are Massive. 8000 Light Years. Photo: NASA/Keck Telescope, Hawaii

Stuff comes out of the sky.  Rain, snow, hail, clouds, wind, fog, as well as birds and bugs.  Some of those things are good, even edible.  Bad things like volcanic or range fire smoke and ash, dangerous wind blowing debris and biting things can come out of the sky, too.

Some things, most things actually, in the sky are beyond reach.  The Sun, the Moon, the stars, and the wandering stars.  Some stars appeared to streak across the sky; others appeared mysteriously out of nowhere glowing with a dim head and a long tail.  And rarely, a flash of a new star in the night that soon disappeared.  Or every once in a while there was an unexplainable event in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing.  The same thing happened to  the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.

The regular cycles of those things in sky that are out of reach is what we are interested in.  We live on the ground.  We can’t fly like the bugs or the birds.  We can’t live under water, either, but that is not the focus of this discovery.  Living on the ground, as we do, we know a lot about the ground.  Most of what lives on the ground keeps us alive.  Some of the other things that live on the ground can also kill us, but that, too, is secondary to our discussion.

On that day that one very bright modern human looked at the ground, maybe sifting a handful of dirt through his or her fingers, and then looking up at the sky, squinting at the sun or  gazing at the bright swath of starlight of the Milky Way, and said the equivalent of  “Huh, now that’s interesting,” and human understanding shifted forever.

From that moment, the science of astronomy was born, as well as those of geology and biology.  The problem was, earth and life were tangible.  The sky, however, was a complete mystery.

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What was the sky?

Supernova AD 1054. Chaco Canyon Petroglyph. Photo: Richard Goode, Porterville College, Calif.

Yes, that was the question: What was the sky?  What were the lights in the sky?   The daytime sky and the nighttime sky were so different.  Why was that?  Why did all the lights in the sky appear in the East, move in an arc reaching a highest point that changed with the season and then always set in the West?  But what about the stars in the Northern sky that never rose nor set?  For some of our observers, however, not knowing they lived below that line we now call the equator, the lights in the sky looked quite different, still rising and setting East to West, but those stars that never rose nor set were to the south.  Of course, there were to main players in the diurnal cycle.

The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance of more than a fleeting moment brought pain, even blindness.  At the same time, it brought the warmth of the day, its risings and settings regular, though half of the time, the days would grow longer and half of the time shorter, and with it the corresponding warmth and seasons.  The earth tuned itself to this great annular cycle, of living and dying, growing and seeding, warming and cooling.  Our ancestors had figured out that part even before the start of our story.

The Moon, the lesser light to rule the night, possessed a soft glow that one could study without risk; its phases regular following the seasons decreed by its daytime master, its face never changing. Yet at intervals beyond comprehension, it, like the Sun, would be covered with a shadow, at times in part, at others completely.  Still the phases of the moon was so reliable that as humans began to cultivate their food, not just gather it, the Moon’s monthly journey and phases became an essential resource for the planting, growing and harvesting the crops.

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The Dilemma of the Wandering Stars

Of the night, though, what of the Wandering Stars?  The first a fleeting spark always near the Sun’s rise or setting. Next, brighter than the others, one of the mornings and one of the evenings, at times so bright it cast a light that caused shadows. Another with a glow of angry red, appearing out of nowhere and growing into a dominant light every two annual cycles.  A fourth, a great golden giant stately moving through the heavens night after night.  Also a fifth, whose trek seemed like that of an old one slowly working its way through the constellations.  And some, it is said, saw a sixth, dim grey-blue phantom only on the rarest of nights.  Against the apparent immutable backdrop of the other lights at night, why did these few shine but not twinkle like the others, and how, against all reason, did they change their direction in the sky and track back toward the East, then inexplicably again reverse and march toward the West?

Milky Way Band. Photo Courtesy of John Gleason/NASA

What was the sky?  Why did some of the lights form patterns against the black velvet backdrop of night?  What was the swath of light that cut across the sky from horizon to horizon?  What was the force or cause of their motion?  What were the faintest clouds of light, while others seemed to cluster into groups distinct from the random spread of most of the stars?

One might say the ancients had plenty of time to work this all out.  Day after day and night after night, if they chose to pay attention, they could discover patterns and recurring risings and settngs as the year progressed from the shortest days to the longest.   On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and motions.  What they decided those observations meant and what caused them, was another thing altogether.

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The First Astronomers

Sunburst Petroglyph, Chemehuevi People, near Lanfair, CA. Photo Courtesy: Donald Austin & NASA

To explain the sky, both day and night, these earliest of astonomers drew upon the source of information they understood the best: the ground and the sea, and the abundant life that inhabited both.  Those were the things they would touch.  They made the very logical assumption that the sky was made from the same things the earth and oceans were.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  At the same time they couldn’t have been more right.

I must again remind you of our one rule: ancient ≠ primitive.  The observers devised theories about how the earth, sea, and sky came into being, using the “materials” to which they had access.  We call these descriptions of the creation of the world, myths.  That is, if we are honest, modernocentric, even arrogant.  It can result in our overlooking key facts and observations, assigning to them to the status of fable rather than seeing myths for what they were: descriptions of the origin and  forces of nature and life.

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The Aztec Creation Story: Mother Sun Dismembered

The Aztecs provide a perfect example of a creation account that follows their observations of the natural world:

Quetzalcoatl: Aztec Lord of Morning Star & Wind

The dualistic gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, lightness and darkness, looked down from their dwelling in the sky at the water below. Floating on top of the water was an enormous Earth Monster goddess who devoured all things with her many mouths, for the goddess had gaping mouths at the knees, elbows and other joints.

Everything the twins created, the enormous, floating, terrible, insatiable goddess ate. The twin gods, normally implacable enemies, agreed she had to be stopped. They transformed themselves into two enormous, slithering snakes, and slid silently into the dark, cool water, their cold eyes and flicking tongues seeking her body.

One of the snakes wrapped itself around the goddess’s arms and the other snake coiled itself around her legs and together they tore the immense Earth Monster goddess in two. Her head and shoulders became the earth and her belly and legs became the sky. Some say Tezcatlipoca fought the Earth Monster goddess in his human form and the goddess ate one of his feet, therefore his one-legged appearance. Angered by what the dual gods had done, and to compensate for her dismemberment, the other gods decided to allow her to provide the people with the provisions they needed to survive.

Tezcatlipoca: Aztec Lord of Death, Creator of Fire, Night Sky, & Warriors

From her hair were created the trees, the grass and flowers; from her eyes, caves, springs and wells; rivers flowed from her mouth; and hills and mountains grew from her nose and shoulders.

The goddess, however, was unhappy, and after the sun sank into the earth the people would often hear her crying. Her thirst for human blood made her weep, and the people knew the earth would not bear fruit until she drank. This is the reason she is given the gift of human hearts. In exchange for providing food for human lives, the goddess demanded human lives.  Source: James W. Salterio Torres.

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The Sumerian Creation Myth: The Mother Goddess Gets Dismembered

Though the price of human sacrifice causes us to shudder, the battle with the Earth Monster goddess, with her defeat and dismemberment is hauntingly similar to the Sumerian story of the defeat of Tiamat:

Tiamat possessed the Tablets of Destiny and in the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the god she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear.

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,

And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.

He cut through the channels of her blood,

And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

Markuk slaying Tiamat. Bas relief on stone.

Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablets of Destiny, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.

Source: Wikipedia–Tiamat

Two creation stories, having so many parallels even though those who devised them lived on opposite sides of a planet they did not know as such, and who never had had contact with one another.

The ground, the sea, the sky were all the world.  Thousands of years would pass before the problem of the sky would again be addressed.  The untouchableness of the sky would create a new question, without which, this story could not continue in Part 2.

 

MEanderthal: Fun With the Past–Ice Ages Past–From the Smithsonian

Homo Neanderthalensis, Reconstructed by John Gurche, Smithsonian, Hall of Human Origins

It Has Always Been About More Information: Survival vs Extinction.

A few months ago I got a smart phone.  The name I soon learned was very appropriate for at least two reasons.  First, it can do things that even ten years ago only the most expensive PDAs (personal digital assistants) could do, and second, it really is smarter than I am.  The learning curve is pretty steep on this device, and not being of the Digital Generation; actually that’s not quite true.  The first computer I remember being introduced to was in my senior year of high school, which used computer punch cards to run formulas.  It was about the size of a large suit case, had no monitor and had to be rolled around on a heavy cart.  It was like being given the chance to examine a treasure chest full of jewels, a coup that my math teacher had pulled off to get it on loan for a few days.  It looked something like this, except without the cassette disk drive:

Early WANG 600 Computer. Credit: Computer Museum, Grongingen, NL.

I remember clearly the assignment was to decide on a formula to punch into the cards and then feed them through the machine to get an answer.  The formula I chose was E=mc².  It’s a good thing the Homeland Security hadn’t been thought of yet, or I might have gotten a late night visit from a bunch of guys driving a big black Suburban with darkened windows.  However, once they got a look at my math grades (always my nemesis), they would have undoubtedly left laughing hysterically at the very idea of my being any threat to national security whatsoever, which remains true to this very day.

Back to the Smart Phone.  I spent several months deciding which phone I would purchase.  My daughter, the brilliant young up and coming media  guru has opted for the Apple/Mac world of computing and of course, loves everything about her iPhone.  I, however, have never been responsive to Steve Job’s siren call, because throughout my career, the organizations I worked for always used PCs.  But in a moment of uncharacteristic daring, I decided to take the leap on my phone and bought a Motorala Droid™.  All right, I like it.  A lot.  Even if it is smarter than I am.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Now, on to the fun stuff.  The question, “What does it mean to be human?” has been asked in every generation since humans reached the point of being self-reflective sentient beings.  The question is no less important today, as the digital revolution continues to transform our lives in ways unimagined even a decade ago.

One of the most important contributions to this search for meaning has been in the area of genomics.  Unlike the racist roots of the Eugenics Movement a century ago, the development of genomics has been been a set of initiatives based on several different areas of research.  One has been researching the molecular structure of the genes that populate virtually every living cell either as DNA or RNA.  Another has been medical research to discover the causes of certain diseases and conditions (everything from diabetes to cystic fibrosis to birth defects) and attempt to develop new treatments for these debilitating and often life-shortening diseases  (Eugenics is a concern in this area, of manipulating zygote fertilization to create “desired” human offspring, or artificially designing species, among others).  What I am most interested in in this post is how the mapping of  the genome of a single species gives us an enormous storehouse of information of what happened prior to the modern form in its evolutionary development.  That leads to the tantalizing question:  What were our distant ancestors like, which hominid (or hominin, if you prefer) line did we descend from, and how far back can we read those genetic sign posts to better understand who and what humans are now?

The Human Nucleotide Molecules. Image: Public Doman

I am aware that this is an unsettling question to many people who are conservative Christians (and other faith groups, too), but I have stated in numerous posts as well as my blog on science and faith, DÎSCÎ, the Disciples Institute of Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry, that I accept the scientific evidence for cosmic, geological and biological evolution.

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, under the leadershop of Dr. Francis Collins, MD, who is currently serving as the head of the National Institutes of Health.  Earlier, just this year, however, the long-awaited Neanderthal Genome Project was completed.  Here from Wikipedia:

At roughly 3.2 billion base pairs,[3] the Neanderthal genome is about the size of the modern human genome. According to preliminary sequences, 99.7% of the base pairs of the modern human and Neanderthal genomes are identical, compared to humans sharing around 98.8% of base pairs with the chimpanzee.[4] The researchers recovered ancient DNA of Neanderthals by extracting the DNA from the femur bone of a 38,000-year-old male Neanderthal specimen from Vindija Cave, Croatia, and also other bones found in Spain, Russia, and Germany.[5] Only about half a gram of the bone samples was required for the sequencing, but the project faced many difficulties, including the contamination of the samples by the bacteria that had colonized the Neanderthal’s body and humans who handled the bones at the excavation site and at the laboratory.[3]

Additionally, in 2010, the announcement of the discovery and analysis of Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the Denisova hominin in Siberia revealed that this specimen differs from that of modern humans by 385 bases (nucleotides) in the mtDNA strand out of approximately 16,500, whereas the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals is around 202 bases. In contrast, the difference between chimpanzees and modern humans is approximately 1,462 mtDNA base pairs. Analysis of the specimen’s nuclear DNA is under way and is expected to clarify whether the find is a distinct species.[6][7] Even though the Denisova hominin’s mtDNA lineage predates the divergence of modern humans and Neanderthals, coalescent theory does not preclude a more recent divergence date for her nuclear DNA.

Although more work will be done to clarify the findings, the implications of this research will only lead to a better understanding of the lineage of the human race.

Anatomical Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal Skulls. Credit: Creative Commons License

With the publication of the Neanderthal Genome Project results, the Smithsonian Institution opened a new exhibit called “The Hall of Human Origins.”

Hall of Human Origins. Image: Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Reconstructions are: Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, & Homo neanderthalensis.

An exhibit with such revolutionary displays of explaining the history of the human race had to be more than set pieces with little placards explaining what this bone or other is what.  And the Smithsonian came through!  They developed an application for both Android and iPhones that would allow you to take a picture and using digital morphing, transform any face into one of several of our extinct ancestors.  Fun?  You bet!

Before you click on the links below to see me, enjoy this short YouTube video on how the app works:

Now, on with the show: David Devolving!