Monday, April 22, 2013

The Tree of Being

There is theology that says if God were to stop loving you or thinking of you for one instant, you would cease to exist. This is difficult to comprehend since we may think of God as puppet maker, and we His puppets.

A puppet maker will make a puppet (or a clay man) and do what he wishes with it. If he leaves it alone and forgets it, the puppet surly continues to exist, although it may be rather unanimated. This kind of thinking is based on human imagination, and the limits of our imagination impose limits to reality which are not really there, for God is being itself and continually holds everything in existence; makes sense considering He calls Himself “I AM” (see Exodus 3:14).

Analogies are most helpful…
When you stand in front of a mirror, what do you see? You see your image & likeness. If you leave the mirror even for an instant, what happens to your image & likeness? It ceases to exist! You “being” in front of the mirror continually holds your image & likeness in existence.

Fr. Spitzer gives a more complete analogy in his book “New Proofs for the Existence of God” with something called the Tree of Being. The Tree of Being relates to the more formal concept of Simplicity. What is simpler (or less restricted) is more capable of being in unity with what is more complex (more restricted) and God is infinitely simple. How can God be “simple” and how can something simpler help hold something more complex in existence? Just think of a cat.

Ø  What makes a cat act like a cat?
Its cells; if the cat’s cells stopped acting like cells, the cat can’t really be a cat and would cease to exist.

Ø  What makes the cells act like cells?
The molecules; if the molecules stopped acting like molecules, the cells can’t really be cells and they would cease exists.

Ø  What makes the molecules act like molecules?
The atoms; if the atoms stopped acting like atoms, the molecules can’t really be molecules and they would cease to exist.

And so it goes…
Ø  What makes the atoms act like atoms? The protons.

Ø  What makes protons act like protons? Quarks.

Ø  What makes quarks act like quarks? The most fundamental conditions (time? space? energy?)

Ø  What makes the most fundamental conditions act like the most fundamental conditions? A unifying field (UFT)?

Ø  What would make a unifying field act like a unifying field, and where does this end?!

It ends at the top of the Tree of Being. Logic demands that it end with one thing that needs nothing else to “act” for its own existence; one unconditioned reality that would be infinitely simple, and therefore completely unrestricted, and therefore unifying in all things.

It is said that God has “no parts” when referring to His simplicity. If there are no parts, then nothing can be added or taken away, not even knowledge, power or love.

God is at the top of the Tree of Being and if He were to stop “acting” with regard to us, we could not be. God acts through His will and intellect and the action of the will is “to love” and the action of the intellect “to know”. So as we said on the onset, if God were to stop loving you or thinking of you for one instant, you would cease to exist. If God stops acting (loving/knowing), we stop being.

Given all this, it should come to no surprise that humans seek things that are simple, unifying and ordered to their proper end like love, truth, goodness and beauty; all these things flow down from the top of the tree. We seek well-being and so we journey on in hope, focused on the tree top, moving towards the oneness and simplicity of God. As we journey we can take confidence that His being is with us, continually holding us and constantly sustaining us. For it is written…“And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).


Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Flowering of Evangelization

In speaking to my wife about evangelization, we were comparing how other people either drew us closer or pushed us away in the way they embodied the gospel to us. Whether it was in the way they spoke to us or in the way they acted toward others; both their deliberate and unintentional actions spoke volumes of how they perceived and lived their faith. There were those who claimed the title "Christian" and wanted us to be saved, but disparaged our Catholic faith because they didn't think it was "Christian" enough. There were others who appeared to live uprightly, but spoke badly of others under their breath.

These people didn't live the faith they professed, yet somehow thought since, it was "right," we ought to give them a hearing. We were actually pushed away from their faith by such poor ambassadors. How ought we ourselves witness to our faith?

The Catholic tradition teaches three "theological" virtues: Faith, Hope and Love (or Charity). They are often metaphorically depicted as a flowering plant. Faith in God is the root of this plant. It is where the bedrock of mundane knowledge and the upward stretch of faith meet. It is a departure point and a return point, a place from which strength is drawn and growth begins as well as a sure center on which to "ground" oneself. Faith in God looks upward while non-faith is content to stay on the ground where all seems secure. It is often said that the stirrings of faith is that yearning for ultimate meaning or purpose which, of necessity, cannot be found on the ground.

Hope is the virtue that allows us to leave the ground and push upward. It is a strong belief that we are on the right track and we can trust the path we are on. Trust is another word that describes Hope. We trust that the faith we have will not fail us. It is Faith being put to the test. We cannot clearly see the end to which our faith leads, but when we rely on it, slowly at first, then with stumbling steps, leaving the safe and secure behind, we trust that there is another stepping stone out there in the dark on which to place our feet. As we become more confident in that hope, as we trust more and more to the promises of faith, we grow. It's a positive feedback loop. Hope, then, is the stem of the plant. It is the strong branches and spreading leaves that both uphold us and allow us to take in more and more of the sunshine.

Love is the flower. It is both the culmination of faith and hope and the means of reproduction. It is the beauty of the soul and the passion of sexual love. It is the fulfillment of the promise, the telos (goal) of our existence, the way we become all that we were meant to be. It is beauty, firstly, because others can see that beauty. It makes visible the invisible potential within us. It does not simply dress up an otherwise ugly plant, it actually shows the reality of that plant. The plant is a beautiful thing in itself, but the flower allows the merely physical senses to know it as well. It is the means of reproduction because a flower that has germinated, is ready to spread its seeds of faith.

This is where the discussion on evangelization comes in. If I want to share my faith with someone, I don't tell them about my faith first. I don't tell them how much theology I know or how wrong their ideas are for not believing in God. Nor do I tell them how much trust I have in God, how I left my job hoping God would make it all work or how wonderful I think heaven will be someday. I show them the flower. I show them my love. I give them the flower of my love and let them know I trust them with it and that they may have it unconditionally.

I simply love them.

From that point, it may be that they want to know from where this love comes. What is the reason for this abundant love?  What is it inside me that makes it grow?

From within this loving friendship, I can then talk about the reason for my hope. I can explain how it springs from my faith. I can explain how my faith is rooted in the world and how I got here. However, it is all made possible through the flower. We all meet and make true contact with each other at the point at which we love.

Flowers in a field blow in the wind all together, the flower tops swaying and touching, reveling in the release from the ground. Dancing in the breath of air that animates them, which carries the seeds where it will.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Reasonable & Responsible

Continuing some reflections from the book “New Proofs for the Existence of God” by Fr. Robert Spitzer, let’s consider the significance of infinite vs. finite past time and why the discussion might matter.

Most scientists accept and that our universe is 13.7 billion years old and that the big bang actually happened as the beginning point. When Fr. Spitzer refers to “the universe”, he does not mean only our universe as in one of many, he means ALL physical reality (time, space, matter, energy, etc.); anything that is not nothing.

There are several speculative scenarios about the universe where “something” was supposed to have happened or physically existed before the big bang, so the big bang is not really the beginning of the universe or the beginning of time. These scenarios are called Past-Extended Big Bang models or PBBM’s. In the book, Fr. Spitzer runs through many arguments for the Standard Big Bang model as the most reasonable & responsible model; where the big bang IS the beginning of time and of all physical reality (you’ll need to read the book for all the excruciating details).

The discussion reminded me of the problem analysis method we use where I work. Specific inputs about a specific problem (data, experience, judgment, knowledge) are used in a specific troubleshooting process. Before using (or wasting) company resources testing random possible causes, we first determine the most probable cause via reason alone; this becomes the cause we test first without any absolute proof that it is actually correct. The most probable cause is the proposed cause that has the most reasonable assumptions, the fewest assumptions and the overall simplest assumptions given ALL the inputs available; reasonable & responsible as Fr. likes to put it.
He says:
“In view of the extensive applicability and preponderance of evidence for a beginning of the universe (and the narrow and tenuous path which must be taken to get around it), it can be concluded that the evidence currently supports a reasonable likelihood of a beginning – a point at which the universe came into existence.”

Other interesting discussions revolve around the odds of an anthropic universe (one that will allow the emergence of ANY life form) materializing by itself as a random occurrence. What are the odds of all the necessary physical constants being set precisely as they are? An analogy was given in the book to demonstrate something that is physically possible, but might be called statistically impossible; it involved a monkey and a keyboard. What are the odds of a monkey randomly typing at a keyboard and outputting a perfect transcript of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? There are no laws of physics that will prevent the monkey from hitting all the right keys, but to think this will happen by itself is unreasonable & irresponsible. If we did see it happen would we say, “That’s one lucky monkey” or would we suspect an intelligent agent was influencing the monkey somehow

What else is physically possible, but might be called statistically impossible? How about a game of pool? What are the odds of you breaking a pool rack only to find that the balls settled back down (randomly) to reform the same exact triangle? Again, there is nothing in the laws of physics to stop it from happening, but it won’t. If it did happen would you say, “What an interesting coincidence” or would you be spooked out of your mind?
Think of winning the lottery, but not just once. What would be the odds of winning one thousand times is a row? There is nothing preventing you from picking all the right numbers every time, but to think this will happen is unreasonable & irresponsible. If somebody won that often would you say, “Lucky-bum” with a shrug of the shoulders, or would you say the game was rigged. The same is true with the remarkable fine-tuning observed in the universe. To think it can all happen randomly is something unreasonable and irresponsible. Creation must be rigged in our favor so to speak.

So back to why contemplating infinite vs. finite past time might matter. Things happening BEFORE the big bang obviously bring back discussions of infinite past time, space, matter and energy. This is a very helpful assumption to hold on to if we are to say there is no God because an infinite universe brings infinite possibilities, which makes improbability disappear. This explains away the analogies of the monkey with the keyboard, the spooky pool rack and the mega lottery winner.

Even with the big bang as the beginning of time, an infinite number of dimensions to our universe (a multiverse) will still bring back a discussion of infinite possibilities, but Fr. Spitzer explains in the book that a multiverse cannot currently be verified through evidence. Of course, one might find it easier to believe in an infinite array of universes than an infinite deity, but this would rest on FAITH and not observation.

Seems to me, Fr. Spitzers' book is all about intellectual honesty coupled with reason's responsibility. Using reason alone, we can construe that an intelligent unconditioned reality must have been the cause of every conditioned reality, or in other words, there must be something beyond "the physical" which caused "the physical" and that something must be intelligent. Even with no absolute empirical proof and no faith, this becomes the most reasonable & responsible conclusion given all the inputs we have, including the new inputs from contemporary physics and philosophy.

Today's Gospel was appropriate:
"I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?"
John 3:12


Monday, April 1, 2013

Salt and Light

I have frequently heard the phrase in Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot." This phrase has always struck me as odd. For me, salt is an optional seasoning. It is added to food to enhance its flavor, but isn't always required.

Yes, I understand that salt is necessary to help your body maintain fluid balance, help your muscles relax and your nerves transmit signals and even helps maintain normal blood pressure. But in everyday life, salt is an extra.  What does this metaphor mean when applied to Christians?

I recently listened to a conference excerpt by Kimberly Hahn and she was able to make this metaphor come alive for me. I'll paraphrase...

 When you go to a movie theater, the first thing you smell is the popcorn. Even before you go inside. There's that smell. By the time you get up to the counter, you are ready to grab the extra-large-super-size bucket. You carry it back to your seat and begin to enjoy handful after handful of popped goodness. After a short time, you wish you had bought that super-sized drink as well! You become so thirsty! Why? It's the salt. The salt in the popcorn makes you thirsty for something else.

And there it is. Like salt, Christians ought to be making people thirsty for God. Your presence in the world should cause people to become aware of their own lack of God and begin to actively look for it.

Like the adjoining metaphor in the following passage (verse 14), "You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden," a Christian who is light does not shine so people can see him, a Christian shines so that others might see God. They are the means by which God is made visible.   A Christian is a sign that points to something else, something beyond what is plainly there. Neither the salt nor the light are there for themselves; they are not the final destination.  Their effectiveness is their ability to show the way to something else.

 For Christians, the signs point to God.

The Unintelligibility of Infinite Past Time

“New Proofs for the Existence of God”, by Fr. Robert Spitzer, goes into several discussions about time. Time is more than just a simple measure of change, but a component of BOTH change AND existence; an actual part of physical reality, but can past time be something infinite?

Isaac Newton and centuries of Aristotelian logic held to the assertion that our universe and past time were infinite. This created an apparent conflict with religion centuries ago. The Church taught, and scripture supported, that God created everything, therefore there must be a beginning since the act of creating implies a starting point (see condemnations of 1277, #87). But a true conflict between religion & science is always false because the truth is the truth. If we have a perceived conflict, it is because the physical reality is not completely understood or the spiritual reality is not completely understood (or some combination both).
We may see no problem at all with the idea of infinite past time. Just imagine the number line you studied in elementary school. Positive numbers are on the right with an arrow at the end and negative numbers are on the left with another arrow. Make the numbers some unit of time and, VUALA; we have infinite time. Of course, a timeline is only a symbol of time, not time itself. If we try to trace things, or the causes of things, back in time to infinity we get into some logic problems.

The best practical analogy I’ve ever heard for this is from another book entitled, “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” by Thomas E. Woods Jr. Suppose you are at a deli counter to buy some meat and you are told to first take a number. You are then told that you must take a number in order to take a number, and this process of taking numbers to take the next will continue to infinity. You will realize that you will NEVER reach the counter and you will NEVER get the meat. You then notice that others have meat in their cart from the same deli counter. You conclude that the process of taking numbers must have ended at some point. It could not have logically continued to infinity as is clearly evident by the meat existing in the cart.

Fr. Spitzer shows how the statement “infinite past time” actually violates of a rule of logic called the Principle of Non-Contradiction; it’s the same as saying I have a “square circle”. Past time can only be viewed as having occurred, having been achieved or having been actualized, otherwise it cannot be distinguished from present time (occurring/being achieved/being actualized) or future time (not having occurred/not achieved/not actualized). Infinity as applied to an aggregating succession, must always be more than can ever occur, be achieved or actualized. If we put these two ideas together we have an obvious and serious problem:

Infinite future time does not present this logic problem because future time has not occurred, has not been achieved, has not been actualized. As we pray in the Glory Be, “…as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Once we accept that time had a beginning point, we stand at the threshold of physics and metaphysics. From nothing only comes nothing, therefore the “something” that can cause time to exist must be an unconditioned reality that transcends time…and what a curious “something” that would be!!

Stay tuned for more insights from “New Proofs for the Existence of God” in the weeks to come.