Saturday, January 24, 2009

Science, The New and Improved Miracle

Recently I've been thinking a lot about miracles. We throw the term around quite a bit. When asking my husband to define miracle, he appropriately replied, "happy, happy things that happen, especially at Christmas!" Precisely, I thought. This exactly summarizes what we would like miracles to be. Two summers ago, Colorado was bursting at the seams with the miraculous: "It's a miracle that the Colorado Rockies made it to the World Series!" Also miraculous, our ability to come up with such a catchy term marking the month of their success on such a short amount of time, "Rocktober." Although the Rockies' success was yes, far-fetched and incredibly unlikely, miracle is still a bit too hyperbolic to use in this instance. Wikipedia (well reputed source on miracles) tells us that a miracle "is a sensibly perceptible interruption of the laws of nature, such that can only be explained by divine intervention, and is sometimes associated with a miracle-worker" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle). While some continue to attribute the Rockies' success to divine intervention, it in no way contradicted the laws of nature. The idea I'd like to focus on here, what really distinguishes a miracle from other merely amazing moments, revolves around our ever changing understanding of the "laws of nature."


Put everything that has ever happened into a line of observation. Of this line, the spectrum which we perceive is extremely limited, due to our presence in time and space, as well as our historical and cultural biases. One might categorize these events with the distinguishing mark of explain-ability. Events either fall under the laws of nature as we know them or do not (yet.) Whether or not we attribute these supernatural moments to divine intervention or merely chaos, random or "unknown," we recognize a distinction between them. We also observe that over time, and with the increase of our technology and understanding, the spectrum of scientifically explicable events has begun to overtake some events formerly chaotic or inexplicable. We are gaining ground on the inexplicable. Some of the projects my brother-in-law works on at the University of Washington physics' department lead me to wonder if eventually all things inexplicable, random, and/or chaotic will become natural and explainable. He theorizes about what we, the general populace, deem impossibilities. These things cannot be! But they are... and are becoming more and more common all the time. Perhaps, in time and with more knowledge, the supernatural will be explainable natural phenomenon. At any rate, the laws of nature seem to increasingly encompass more of our surrounding world. Even in a brief fifty years, science has swept further down the spectrum of chaos; and miracles, by definition, have either become more difficult to find or obsolete.


Historically, miracles have served to reinforce the existence of the divine, the supernatural. The God of the Israelites lead his people out of Egypt with ten plagues very much at odds with the natural order. Jesus the Christ went from town to town, healing people, performing miracles, in essence, proving his divinity by his ability to interrupt and control the known laws of nature. Miracles, as we observe them in the Holy Scriptures, provide an essential element by which we have understood and characterized faith. Miracle and God have been easily spoken in the same breath.


Dostoevsky gives us keen insight into men and miracles in his Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. The Inquisitor (narrating,) attempts to admonish Jesus for his exaltation of a free faith, a faith not bound by expectations, security, or serenity. He desires to show the mass' need of miracle when contemplating the divine:


"But Thou didst not know that when man rejects miracle he rejects God too; for man seeks not so much God as the miraculous. And as man cannot bear to be without the miraculous, he will create new miracles of his own for himself, and will worship deeds of sorcery and witchcraft, though he might be a hundred times over a rebel, heretic and infidel. Thou didst not come down from the Cross when they shouted to Thee, mocking and reviling Thee, 'Come down from the cross and we will believe that Thou art He.' Thou didst not come down, for again Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle" (The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky, Garnett, The Grand Inquisitor).


Historically, as we see in Dostovesky's time as well as other periods in history, people have searched for miracle, have demanded miracle to showcase the divine.


I remember a debate I attended in college about God's existence. Although it began well, it ended very personally, rather than conclusively. The debater arguing against the existence of a god surmised that he would never believe in God's existence until God spelled his name in the stars. As this is a common argument, it goes to show what seems to be a characteristic of a certain paradigm of thinking. As in Dostoevsky's day, as well as my university campus, people want miracles to prove God's existence, not just general miracles, but specific and personal. Recently, however, I feel that this paradigm has begun to shift.


In the last few years, people have replaced their desire for or need of miracles, with desire for and need of explanation. Rather than desiring more of the inexplicable, more miracle, an increasing majority are starting to demand explanation for those things random and chaotic. Science is the new and improved miracle. And science fills a void of faith. People can now assume a physical, natural explanation for every phenomena, rather than searching for a supernatural answer to fill the void of unknown. Our demand for personalized miracles, (God, show yourself!) seems to have shifted to a thirst for natural explanation (Tell me how it happens.) I dare not take on God's case for existence in the midst of this shift, but merely to show that, yes, this seems to be the proverbial word on the street these days. People want scientific explanation, not the mysticism of years past. To what can we attribute this increasingly popular paradigm transition?


Intellectualism has taken a more prominent role in our thinking, due primarily to the educational system constantly fluxing to keep up with the philosophies of the time. It almost feels like a revival of the type of thinking prevalent during the Enlightenment of (loosely) 1650-1800. Reason rules the roost! Science and the many advances made in practical explanations, as well as the increasing accessibility to this type of thinking, have made science our first response in moments of uncertainty. "There must be an explanation!" This is the mantra of the generation nurtured on the internet, fed by schools separated from theological thinking, Myth Buster fanatics, and entrepreneurs of modern marvels. A far cry from the mystics of old, even the mystics of just a few years ago, miracle has taken on a softer, more emotional tone in the classroom: "It's a miracle I passed that exam!"


Also, we begin to see the ramifications of our postmodern culture in our thinking and categorization of the miraculous. As early as the 1930's, subjective reasoning began to usurp objective thought.


"Largely influenced by the Western European 'disillusionment' induced by World War II, postmodernism tends to refer to a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state lacking a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, interconnectedness or interreferentiality, in a way that is often indistinguishable from a parody of itself" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmoderism.)


The scientific model emergent throughout the Enlightenment provided a framework for thinking and organizing philosophical and artistic ideas, as well as those scientific and mathematic. Postmodernism brought with it a distrust of this strategy. Although the scientific characterization of miracles has not changed through this postmodern deconstructionism, our appreciation of, even our language describing the miraculous, as perceived in literature and art, has. What may be miraculous to one, fails to amaze another. The subjective experience of "miracle" displaced the objective categorization. Miracles are left under the scrutiny of the individual, thus relative to the observer.


Science has remained, but how we philosophize about science has changed. Our language of the scientific, in vernacular circles, still struggles through its own deconstruction.  Ironically, though, we cling more heartily than ever to this source of tangible explanations, however varied communicating these explanations may be.  Miracle cannot satisfy us.  Unknown for the sake of unknown, no longer pacifies, amazes, even allures us.  Give us clarity!  Give us reason!  This new mantra shows us that inadvertently gazing up to see our names spelled in the stars above us would not push us toward faith, but toward demand of a scientific explanation.  Miracle, at least for the time being, is nothing more than a potential space for rationale, leaving mystics like me very much in the cold.  Yet, let today's generation relish in their new and improved miracle.  My fellow mystics and I have other generations to which to cling.  Our paradigm will come again.

"My goodness, what are they teaching children in schools these days? It's all in Plato, I tell you." - Professor Kirke.

-rkc

Crazy Uncle Dan

We've recently enjoyed the company of some dear friends of ours out in the bustling metropolis of Junction City, Oregon.  Our friends were delighted to introduce us to their darling girl, Elizabeth, whom we hadn't had the opportunity to meet these last six months of her existence.  While we savored watching her small hands, busy feet, and endlessly changing (often humorous) expressions, we enjoyed so much more watching these new parents glow in the joy of their daughter.

As visits with these dear friends are rich, but seldom, we jokingly began a yarn of folklore to assuage the sadness of living far apart, missing more moments with Elizabeth, the new source of daily life and chaos for our friends:  Crazy Uncle Dan.  Crazy Uncle Dan lives in Russia and does Crazy Uncle Dan things, like hanging his wet clothes on the clothesline outside in negative 40 degree weather, then shattering his jeans when he tries to put them on immediately after taking them off the line.  Or like learning to slide rather than walk because the streets where Crazy Uncle Dan lives are so covered with ice that nobody walks, everybody just slips along, all around the town.  Crazy Uncle Dan communicates by beat-boxing instead of talking.  It's a hard language to learn, but he will teach you when you see him.  Crazy Uncle Dan was born, somehow to be connected to Elizabeth, to be in her life as she grows, so that Dan won't be so foreign and unfamiliar when we do happen to see her.

Crazy Auntie Rachel, on the other hand, has been busy creating quite a different reputation with the mothers of the children in her life...  I'm not quite sure the same type of lore will be attributed to her when she leaves.  More likely, children will be better behaved, mothers will use fewer time outs, and peace will again return to these households.

Today was not a good day for these kids in the life of Crazy Auntie Rachel.

At church Crazy Auntie Rachel was playing a game with lil' Culbertson cousins, Sally, Tilly and Otis.  Sally and Tilly would join hands with Crazy Auntie Rachel, close their eyes, then be lead around the church bumping into various things/people along the way.  Finally, we decided that the circle made by our joined hands would be better filled with a person.  Who better than lil' brother Otis?  We started to sneak up on him from behind, preparing for capture, when Otis suddenly took off running down the hallway.  Some say he has a sixth sense for this kind of thing, others believe he may have been tipped off by our giggling and shushing and, "Sally don't hold my hand so hard!" as we approached.  We continued our pursuit when suddenly, the voice of Mama Kamiyo stopped us as quickly as we started, "Otis, we do not run in church."  The eye of the all-knowing mother had found us.  We immediately dropped hands and returned to the lobby, sulking and sorry for what we'd done.  Of course there's no running in church!  Any adult could tell you that!  Any adult even half Crazy Auntie Rachel's age!

Later that day, my friends Amanda, Kristy and I ventured to Target together for some overdue errands and time together.  Joining us for the adventure were Kristy's children:  Lukas (7) and Eli (3 and a half.)  Little did these two unsuspecting boys know the amount of trouble which could be created in a few hours' time.  They started well, Lukas holding the side of the cart and Eli either Amanda's or my hand.  But after a few aisles of women's clothing, women's intimates, shoes, home decorations, etc...  restlessness began to creep in.  It started with bursts of laughter when I'd hide, then sneak up behind them.  Then we looked at the toy aisle so Mom could have some time to try things on.  There were a lot of fun things to see!  I think we can all attest to the rise in one's energy level when surrounded by interesting, fun things to see!  So, when Mom found us again, they fought the transition back to errands as usual.  So, to pass the time looking at tables, chairs, kitchen ideas, we started a little game called let's all hide from Amanda and Mom!   Apparently turning around and having no idea where your kids are is a mom's worst nightmare.  When we were found, boy did we get it.  There were threats of riding in the cart for the rest of the day, no treats, and definitely no more leaving Mom's sight for the rest of the day.  Wow.  Sorry kids.  I know I learned my lesson:  Ask Mom first; always ask Mom first!  And if you can avoid it, no running around Target with your friend's kids, and hiding from Mom when she comes looking. 

I guess sometimes it's easier for legends like Crazy Uncle Dan and Crazy Auntie Rachel to live far away from those who love them.  Everybody gets into a lot less trouble that way.

-car (I mean rkc)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Herd of Pigs

An attempt to modernize this moment in the gospel of Luke.

Herd of Pigs
Luke 8:26-39


     It was that same smell that always smacks into you on that same corner: that revolting blend of stale alcohol and dried urine. We always quickened our pace around that corner, a sort of unspoken pact, anxious to get to the light and cross to the cleaner side of the street. But he was there today, marinating in his own filthy odor and trash. As he sensed our approach, he began spewing his senseless fragments:
     “Adime t’day? Shum change?”
     “How abow shum help for a body down on he sluck.”
     “You kids got shum money?”
     I looked over at my brother, who stood staring unabashedly at the desolate man. This corner, this man, seemed, for my brother, as much a part of our Friday routine as swimming at the Y, candy at Michelle’s, and reading magazines at the library. I could see the subtle fascination creep over his face. He just lives like that. Lives. Why doesn’t he do something for himself? Like stop lying in his own filth for one thing. Clean himself up. Fix it. The complete helplessness, total surrender to inebriation, depravity of drunkenness, do not yet exist in my brother’s reality. The sparkle of manifest destiny still saturates completely his every perspective. His childlike blindness, his dreams, his “you can be whatever you want to be,” his blissful inexperience with the realities of darkness prevent him from seeing the stark disappointment this corner showcases so blatantly. The look of mystification vanishes as we both take in the man waiting to cross on the opposite corner of the street.
     “Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!” The voice bellowed simultaneously to both everybody in range and nobody in particular. His cardboard sign swung violently to his side as he jabbed the walk signal button. I pulled my brother behind me as the drunk pushed himself to his feet, sloshing like the past night’s nectar, and stumbled to the streetlight where we stood waiting for our chance to walk.  
     “Whadda you wan wif me, preacher?” He shouted, gulping in mouthfuls of air to recover from his feat of standing and waddling to the streetlight. “I beg of you, don you come and torment me like all dothers.”
     The street evangelist removed his bulky sunglasses, and stared at the drunken mass quivering pitifully and clinging to the light post. His gaze seemed to push the inebriate methodically to the hot cement. His tortured breathing continued as he attempted to block the sun’s constant glare from his view of the preacher.  
     “He’s coming this way!” My brother’s terrified whisper drew my attention from the rank mass of man shaking below us to the aggressive stride of the street preacher quickly approaching. I jerked my petrified brother to the cool brick wall of the building beside us, making room for the preacher to pass.  
     “What is your name?” His voice, somehow calm and soft now close by, pierced the abhorrent lump of a man, sent him flailing, without control of his arms, legs, bodily functions.
     “Rife.” The man shouted suddenly sober and controlled. “Don’t hurt me! Please don’t hurt me!”
     “Be clean.” Whispered the preacher. He dropped his sign to the ground beside the drunk, and kneeled down next to him, still whispering. Traffic resumed in the opposite direction, we had missed our light unconsciously transfixed by what happened before us. A city bus ambled to a stop a block away, now picking up speed to make the green light. The drunk’s thrashing worsened. Limbs shot back and forth, finally propelling the man uncontrollably into the road. The preacher raised his voice, his incomprehensible incantations sounded mystic and seemingly potent and effective on the violent drunk. My brother gasped, stifling his scream with sighs of hyperventilation. The bus careened into the light post, just missing the bum, now sprawled over the crosswalk, but lying still.  
     “What the hell is wrong with you?” Demanded the driver, jumping from the dented bus door. The drunk sat up and looked over the scene, like he’d just woken up. “You,” continued the driver, shaking an aggravated fist at the preacher, “you saw all this. What’d you do? You push this bum into the road? Look at my bus!” Passengers filed out behind the driver, a siren sounding in the distance, and bystanders shoved excitedly past my brother and myself.
     The bum pulled himself to his feet with an ease that surprised and perplexed him. He took two eager steps forward, then skipped once, jumped three times, and danced his way to the preacher’s side. The preacher smiled, but murmurs from the crowd clouded the conversation between them.
     “I seen you before. I see you every day on my route. Both of yous! You’re that worthless drunk. Always begging, just a disgusting piece of trash! And you’re that trouble maker! You walk around here with your sign, yelling at people. Street preacher. Nuisance! Look at my bus! Look what you did. I can’t believe I’m losin’ my job for your sake. Save the life of a worthless bum and I’m outta work.” The bus driver’s rant flowed on, rallying the crowd to his cause. All the while, I began to wonder if my brother and I were the only ones privy to the change that had come over the drunk. His speech was now clear, concise. He was joking, laughing with the preacher, free. “This is my livelihood! I’m gonna lose my job. You don’t crash a bus and go back to drivin’ the next day. No. I’m outta work. Because of this worthless drunk. This was a good payin’ job. Back to the unemployment office for me. My wife’s gonna kill me. Who’s gonna pay for this? Look at that bus!”
     The police arrived and began taking reports, preparing pictures, exchanging information. They briefly placated the driver, and accosted Rife like a familiar patron. Snippets of their conversation emerged in the lull of the crowd. The police surrounded Rife, who remained standing, tall, sincere, confident.
     “Rife, this is your third strike. You remember what we agreed on?” Rife’s mumbled reply was inaudible.  
     “What’re you on, Rife? You doin’ something bigger than whiskey?”
     “Sir, he isn’t normal. You think that preacher gave him something?”
     “Preacher! Get over here.” The cops’ circle opened to include the preacher. Their discussion continued, the preacher remaining, for the most part, silent.
    “He saved me, gentlemen. Freed me. He didn’t give me anything but life.” The bum’s composure seemed to push the cops, anger them.
      “Preacher, I’m going to ask you one last time, what’d you give him?”
      Silence.
     “You did something to this man. And I’m going to find out what. In the meantime, I want you to look around you. You totaled a bus, destroyed this street light, cost a man his job, all for some worthless drunk who’ll be back on the bottle tomorrow. Now we can’t prove anything now, but we will. And I recommend you laying low and keeping away from trash like this guy until you’re cleared.”
     “But gentlemen, he saved me!” Rife’s argument fell to deaf ears as the police’s attention turned back to damage assessment. The preacher turned and began to walk back across the street from which he’d come.
      “Let me come with you!” Rife called out, noticing the preacher had ventured away.
      “No,” said the preacher. “You tell everybody how much God has done for you.” The preacher smiled again briefly, and turned and walked on. Rife stared after him, disappointed, confused. He stumbled forward after the preacher, tripping over the cardboard sign the preacher had dropped during his visitation. Rife gently picked it up, dusted it tenderly. His eyes flickered. He hoisted the sign proudly above his head and proclaimed,
     “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand! And it’s a good place to be... let me tell you!” He trailed off, breaking up the crowd and walking backwards up the route the bus had taken.
     “Crazy fool!” The bud driver called after him.
     I gently lead my brother back to the street light. We pressed the button and waited, two more blocks until we reached the library.

-rkc