I am very happy to announce that the new website InsanePenguin.com is up and running.
Many of you know that my daughter, Lauren, has been contributing artwork and graphics to CRTaylorBooks for some time. At 13, she is already an artist and graphic designer in her own right. You may even be wearing a t-shirt that she designed. Those designs, and many new ones, will now be available on InsanePenguin.com (we’ll be closing the storefront on CRTaylorBooks.)
InsanePenguin.com celebrates art, science, and literature with designs for people who think, at least a little. Well-loved art and works of literature are available as shirts, all-over printed wearable art, and mugs, with more designs being added all along. We’re both very pleased to be a part of it, and we hope that you will visit and enjoy what you find.
For a Roman centurion to take an interest in local religious observances was not strange. Rome worshiped many gods, a pantheon, and Roman soldiers came from all over the empire. We don’t know this man’s place of origin. It is possible that he was already familiar with the Jews before he ever became a soldier.
Whatever gods Roman had given him, he also recognized the God of the Jews, either instead of the gods of Rome or in addition to them. Luke’s Gospel does not make the claim that the centurion was Jewish. More likely he fit the category of ‘God-fearer’, a gentile who acknowledged the Jewish God and followed some manner of observance of Jewish custom. He was an outsider looking into the faith community.
The story has echoes of another one, an older one from 2 Kings 5:1-19, of Naaman, the Syrian, who came to Elisha, the Jewish prophet, to be healed. In a reversal of roles from Luke’s story, Naaman, who is also a military commander, is the one who is sick and a slave urges him to trust the power of the prophet Elisha in Israel. In another reversal, Naaman, himself a man with authority, does not recognize the power in the prophet’s instruction but expects a more magical approach.
There is also an echo of the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33. As Jacob’s powerful brother drew near, Jacob sent servants and gifts ahead of him to smooth the way. As Jesus is approaching this centurion’s home, the man sends groups of friends to do the same. Jacob meets his brother and receives a blessing, but the centurion (like his servant) receives a blessing before even meeting Jesus.
Any fool can come to obey authority. It takes wisdom to recognize true power.
Of course, authority has often been the trouble with religion. Jesus welcomed everyone at his table. He healed outsiders, touched people who were despised, preached forgiveness and inclusion. We who claim to follow Jesus often condemn and exclude, despise those who leave blemishes on our clean pews, and send the outsiders away. Of the few we invite to our table, many feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and judged. Not that Christians are alone. Followers of every religion in the world have given outsiders plenty of reason not to come in, and given plenty of insiders reasons to leave.
We should beg forgiveness. All of that is only the imposition of authority, and it has nothing at all to do with true power. Most authority is exercised by those who fear losing it, while real power comes from love.
When he sees that his slave is sick, the centurion sends a message to Jesus, who happens to be in town. (The plainest reading of the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one written, tells us that Jesus had a home in Capernaum.) Perhaps this Roman had heard stories about Jesus, or perhaps he had witnessed a miracle himself. We do not know. It is possible that they had met, though Luke does not tell us so. We are told that this centurion had servants and means. He is credited with having built the local synagogue and with having grateful friends among the Jewish elders.
Like any good soldier, he has a plan. He does three things that taken separately are straightforward but that taken together are remarkable. He recognizes his opportunity — Jesus entering the town at his moment of need — and he seizes it. Second, he bases his action on his faith, whereas most of us use faith like toppings on ice cream — something sprinkled on top at the end. Third, he shows that he understands the difference between magic and true power — that the authority Jesus possesses comes from who he is, not from any ritual that needs to be performed, and that true power has a long reach.
A Roman soldier would have appreciated the long reach of power. In other gospel stories, people beg Jesus to come to them, to touch them, to perform some manner of ritual to cure them. Nearness and touch are part of their religious understanding — it is a faith of small distances, a near field understanding of power. The centurion suggests that true power is more like gravity — pervasive, continuous, unseen, but always touching everything.
We are often touched by things that come from far away: light from the sun, the words of a poet who died centuries before we were born, the gravity of memory. Open a drawer to find an object belonging to a loved one long gone — his glasses, her locket — and we are touched once again by the ones we have loved. Modern science posits the possibility that quantum particles may be connected over vast distances. Poets and theologians have known something of the same sort for thousands of years.
Aretha Franklin sang of a chain of fools. John writes of a chain of voices.
This chain begins or ends—since chains run both ways—with unnamed strangers, and ends or begins with God. Strangers from some Greek speaking place approach Philip, maybe because he has a Greek name. They ask for an introduction to Jesus. Philip first goes to his brother Andrew, and together they take the request to Jesus. It seems a long path to ask a simple question.
The answer is strange. Jesus begins talking about his own impending death, a disconcerting shift in the storyline. Then another voice breaks over them. Some say it was thunder, others say that an angel spoke, but the Gospel claims God spoke directly to Jesus within the hearing of the crowd.
It’s interesting that John includes the alternative explanations. Thunder, some say. An angel, others say, and they are nearer the orthodox answer. Something happened, some sound heard by believer and skeptic alike, but the understanding is so very different.
Today, suppose there is a phone call, or perhaps a letter or email, with good news. Some would call it an answer to prayer. Others, receiving the same timely communication, would see it as luck, or chance, or the result of benevolent human planning. What’s the difference between an ordinary chain of events and a miracle except the matter of perception?
What is faith, if not a choice of how to view our world?
Faith can’t be proven. It isn’t science, but neither is it the opposite of science. Faith does not set aside reason. Science is the method by which we learn how our universe works. Faith is how we listen for the meaning.
So many voices reach us in a day. Some words are from the people who surround us, others are from the crowd inside us. Some voices can only be heard with the ears of faith.
We hear thunder, and the power and range of it restores our sense of perspective. Is that human insight? Recognition of natural cause and effect? Certainly. Is it the voice of God speaking to someone choosing to hear it? Maybe.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the people to consider the flowers of the fields. There is something of God to be seen in them, he says, something of God to be heard in the wind that blows across them.
Faith hears the voice of the Other resonate in everything. Physics demonstrates vibration within an atom, and people of faith hear that and something more, something that ties the universe together. Unscientific? Certainly. An act of self-delusion? Perhaps.
B.B.King sang, “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’ too.” We choose to love, and we choose to believe that certain people love us. Sometimes it is even true, though we cannot control the other side of the equation.
We may choose to believe the Gospel message that God is love. One day it may even prove to be true. Meanwhile, what is lost by choosing to love, choosing to hear the voice of God whisper or thunder through the people and life around us? What is lost by choosing to believe that there is such love in the universe?
Biology explains why insects find flowers irresistible. It takes something else to explain why we humans find them beautiful. As winter gives way to spring, consider the flowers of the field, the stars, the laughter of a child. Perhaps such things are only natural. Perhaps, if we choose to listen, we might hear the voice of God.
Maybe you don’t believe in all of this Christian mumbo jumbo. I can’t really blame you. You may think Jesus to have been a real person, a good teacher, but not God incarnate. So why should you pay any attention to anything from the Gospel of Mark, a document that does make such an outrageous claim?
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. You don’t have to believe anything special about Socrates in order to appreciate the meaning. Maybe it is not so different for this Gospel.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Mark tells us that Jesus spoke these words, but you don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the meaning.
Dying was not the issue at hand. Dying without ever living was the problem. Dead men hold nothing in their hands. What material wealth they leave flows away from them like water, and money does not remember who held it. One measure of the value of a life is in the lasting effect it has on others, and that cannot truly be counted in dollars, or real estate. It lies in the vibrations of memory, influencing the choices and thoughts of the living.
Most of us make choices based on safety and comfort, and it seems prudent to do so. In the interest of making responsible choices, minimizing our risks, we pick reliable jobs, comfortable homes, retirement benefits.
Sometimes we miss our target. We trade our freedom for security. We trade meaning and worth for stability and predictability.
Jesus, like Socrates, reminds us to examine our priorities. The most valuable legacies we give our children have little to do with money.
We are small. Our lives are temporary things, fragile and passing. To keep them, we must hold them lightly.
It’s a holy paradox.
To keep the self, one must focus on others. To build something that lasts, one must accept that all things pass.
Fine, we might say. These are wonderful ideas, if a bit impractical. After all, one must eat, and these ideas can be found in any worthwhile philosophy. So what does any of it have to do with faith?
Another good question.
At the center of any meaningful life for oneself is the recognition of the other — another paradox. It’s more than just thinking of something other than oneself — it’s thinking about something greater than oneself. For some of us, it’s sufficient to think of the betterment of humanity, of political freedom, of social improvement. What need do we have of faith? After all, the idea of God is contrary to reason, isn’t it?
I suggest that we do a great many things that are contrary to reason, and few people complain. We help the weak and the sick, for one thing, a behavior not often seen in other animals. How often do we see an antelope herd stand and fight to protect the weaker animals among them when the lions charge? Yet we almost universally regard helping the weak to survive to be one of the noblest human endeavors. I believe it is, and like most decent folk I try in various ways to help the weak and the sick and the poor, but I also recognize it is not the most purely logical behavior we might pursue — a thought that leads to some dark ends. Nevertheless, helping the weak, the sick, and the poor is the most purely human behavior we can pursue. It leads us to accept an idea that is greater than any one of us. It is one of the finest things we believe. You may name the pursuit of it as compassion, or empathy, or simply love, but it is also an act of faith.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.
The pursuit of science need not preclude faith. When Galileo looked through his telescope at the stars, he acted in faith as much as curiosity. When a scientist pursues investigation and experimentation, it is with faith in the methodology, faith that following it will result in discovery, faith that gains in the cumulative knowledge of humanity are good.
God need not be excluded from the laboratory. Science need not be shunned in the cathedral. There is no dichotomy, no contradiction between the two, despite what some people may say. Whether peering through a telescope or at an ancient text, we are acting in faith and in reason to find something more, to follow something greater, to leave a greater legacy than we were given. We are laying down our lives in the pursuit of something more.
Theology is not science, but neither are the two studies exclusionary. When groups of people use half baked theological constructs to deny science, it serves no purpose but to push the scientific community (and everyone else with half a mind) away from religion. When scientists look at such groups and point to them as the reason to deny the possibility of God, in some form, and to reject matters of faith, in any form, they have forgotten their own scientific methodology. It is as if a not very kind child insists that a game be played his way or not at all, and the other children accept these two choices as the only alternatives.
It takes faith to seek understanding.
Images in this post are from the wonderful library provided by NASA.gov
God doesn’t talk to me. At least, not in ways that are distinguishable from the voices of conscience, or reason, or empathy, or indignation, or anger, or love.
So do I believe in God?
I think sometimes that I have lost my faith and that I would be happier, that my inner dialogue would be simpler, if I eschewed the supernatural in favor of the natural, if I dropped faith in God and embraced a life approach centered in reason and the scientific method.
And then I find myself talking to God. Praying. Having one sided conversations. Short whispered statements. Expletives. The sorts of things that one is presumably not supposed to say to God. If there is a God. Still, so long as I keep talking, praying, whispering, muttering to God, I must suppose that I have faith, that I am conversing with someone other than me. Suddenly, faith appears much more like mental illness than I am comfortable contemplating, but there it is.
Faith. Science. Mental illness.
When I hear about evolution and biology and the meditations of astrophysicists (and listening to Stephen Hawking describe black holes is pretty close to a spiritual exercise,) I embrace all of it. It is wonderful. It is inspiring. It makes perfect sense. And it still falls short somehow.
Let me explain. Take the story of Noah and the ark, or the two creation stories that open the book of Genesis. Do I believe these stories literally? Of course not. These stories are myths, in the very best sense of the word: stories that are imbued with truth about our lives. A story need not be true to convey truth. The creation cycle of Genesis? Everything came to be, all at once and then over time, evolving more or less in the same order that scientific theories have conjectured, an interesting thing in itself. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden? That story captures the moment when humanity became human: self aware, understanding the consequence of choice, realizing the mantle of moral responsibility for the world around us, a responsibility we carry simply by weight of being in the world. We learned that we would work and we would have children, and sometimes both would be hard and painful, but we would do these things anyway because our work and our children are what we leave behind us when we are gone. Our work and our children mark our passage, our having been here. They make our lives worthwhile.
So do I believe the Bible? Yes. Clearly not in the same way that many people choose to understand it, but yes.
When I look at the world and listen to the science that explains it, I still feel that there is something overlooked, something unexplained, something missing. Science can explain to me how my dog came to exist, with his size and features and inclination to co-exist with me. Science does not explain why I love him, or why he loves me. Yes, I say that I love him, and it remains a matter of observation and of faith or self-delusion that he loves me. Still, at the end of our science, there is something else that makes us what we are. Each of us. All of us. Everything that is.
There is a gap between our knowledge and our universe. Right now, I fill that gap with faith. It is the God-gap, the missing spark that changes biology into living, chemistry into love. One day, our science may grow to the point that there is no gap, no way to distinguish what once were matters of faith and matters of empirical truth. On that day, I suspect that we will find that faith and science will have come full circle so that there is no difference between the purview of the one and the findings of the other.
Meanwhile, I am still talking to God. And no, God still does not talk back. That may make me a fool, or delusional, or it may make me a person of faith. It may simply make me human. Whatever it makes me, I will take it, and I will still look for that spark that separates being alive from merely living.