Monday, March 29, 2010

Untitled cultural critique no. 1

What follows is scattered, unorganized and rambling. It's rather free-form and somewhat influenced by the meds I'm taking to kill a crippling headache. But here it is anyway:

Until I had something like an epiphany yesterday, I viewed the United States -- or at least certain elements here -- as preserving western culture. I've been very defensive on this point, despite hating certain aspects of our culture, mostly the trashier elements. The truth, though, is that several decades ago this country started down the road of culture toward an elevation of pop culture above high culture, history, tradition and faith. Pop culture is no longer culture as such but is nothing more than a hodge-podge of entertainment opportunities.

Reality TV
Celebrity worship and stalking
Obsession with sports
The complete blur between news and entertainment
Abandonment of objective journalism
Music made by and for pretty people
Grossly disturbing views of beauty
Sex sex sex

There is little that is high or elevated. Nothing is sacred in Post-Modern America. If it dulls your senses -- mindless crap on TV -- or gets your adrenaline pumping (MMA), it's good.

The closest we get to spirituality these days, without being blatantly "religious," is to do yoga.

Traditionally western spirituality, primarily European brands of Christianity, seems to be in serious decline. Churches have to come up with various ridiculous gimmicks to get butts in the pews. The only western music left is pop-rock. Easter is about the bunny. Christmas is about shopping and eating until you can't move. Thanksgiving is about getting wasted on the "biggest bar night of the year." I won't even talk about what the mouthbreathing frat boy party types have done to St. Patrick's Day.

If the people didn't have Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken and Keith Olberman telling them the "truth," they wouldn't have a clue where to find it for themselves. Reading and self study are out; the History Channel (a great resource, no doubt) and wikipedia are in.

Americans seem hell-bent on being European. At least the elitists on the left do. Europeans seem to be coming more American, though they're not honest enough to cop to it.

It seems to me that much of what made the western world free, prosperous and progressive has been thrown out and replaced with cheap, plastic imitations.

America is not preserving western culture. It is destroying it, at least the more classical variety. In some ways are critics in the east are right and have been right for awhile.

The more I see this the more I find myself wanting to withdraw.

Admittedly I'm a product of Post-Modern American culture. I like popular music, I love the internet. I like sports and enjoy being entertained. Yet, I feel myself slowly peeling away. TV here has been replaced with books, some limited movies and even contemplative time (music, prayer, study, writing.) I care not for the goings on of celebrities. I'm more interested in St. Augustine, John Calvin, the Founding Fathers and C. S. Lewis had to say than what Limbaugh and Olberman think.

There is no longer a place for people that see things in this way. We're eccentrics. "Boring." "What, you don't have cable? What's wrong with you? Too cheap?" "You don't know what's going on with Tiger Woods?"

Friday, March 19, 2010

The politics of "outrage"

I can’t remember the last time I went to yahoo, msn or some news site and did not see some story in which a person or group was expressing “outrage” over the thoughts, comments, actions or deeds of another person or group. “______ outraged by _____ who _____.” “Group expresses outrage over _____ comments.” Just troll the online news sites and you’ll see this is true.

It’s not really my place to challenge someone else’s emotions or feelings on an issue. Sometimes how you feel about something can’t be helped. I do notice, though, that this “outrage” is very often over general comments made by one person or group, usually something perceived as offensive. Maybe I’m not very sensitive but I’m amazed at how often the “outrageous” comment or thought seems rather benign or trivial. Think of the “outrage” by “immigrants’ rights groups” over the “illegal alien” Halloween costume last fall. Consider the “outrage” expressed by strangers over Tiger Woods’ numerous infidelities.

Whether right or wrong, it seems that people in this day and age – and this seems global – enjoy being angry. It’s as if they relish declaring “outrage” in public. I’m not sure what people would do if they couldn’t be angry. I’d like to think their lives would be better if they let things roll off their backs more easily.

Am I outraged by their outrage? No. But I’m definitely a little amused and slightly confused by it most of the time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Those that have gone before me

On this St. Patrick's Day, as in holidays past, I reflect on the lives of my Irish ancestors. Sadly, I know little about the lives of those that came to America from Ireland other than names, and dates of birth and death. I can imagine, though, that they lived hard lives. The Ireland of the mid to late 1800's was not a particularly hospitable place except for those of the Protestant ascendancy. The famine nearly gutted the country. Those that survived the famine but could not escape to the "new world" were not left with little opportunity.

Coming to America couldn't have been much easier. Civil war era Irish immigrants often ended up on the Union Army. Anti-Irish bigotry in the U. S. was high into the early 20th century. Nothing was handed to those that came here; they had to make their way.

I believe that my great-great grandfather was killed in a railroad yard in Detroit when he was crushed by train car. There was no worker's compensation scheme at the time and his wife was left to raise my great-grandmother and other children on what money she could scrape together by doing laundry for the Catholic church.

I really wish I knew more stories like this. I know that they bore burdens I could not even imagine in soft, cushy, post-modern America. The blessings I have are at least indirectly the result of the great sacrifices they made. If I could say one thing to those that have gone before it would be, "Thank you!"

(The photograph is of the church yard of Bangor Abbey, County Down, Northern Ireland, the resting place of some of my Irish (Protestant) Ancestors.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What place, then, for a creator?

Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is a fascinating book. I can't imagine there's a better primer out there explaining space-time to ordinary folks like you and me. I'm glad I've read (almost finished) it.

I must admit, though, to my bias. I believe in a creator. I'm not a literal Biblical creationist in the sense of believing that in the span of 6 earth days as we know them God created everything we see. But I do believe He is the creator in some form or fashion.

I was concerned that reading something like this book might shake my faith. I feared that rational, scientific data and argument would punch holes in my worldview, my cosmological view and, ultimately, my personal faith. Much to my surprise, Dr. Hawking, quite inadvertently, has bolstered my belief in God.

How could that be? Hasn't our modern understanding -- knowledge -- of the universe eliminated the need for a creator? Surprisingly, the view Dr. Hawking refers to as the "classical" modle of the universe, i.e. that, it is finite, has boundaries and presently expanding at the same rate in all directions, is the adopted position of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican embraced wholeheartedly the "Big Bang Theory" because it holds that the universe had a beginning, precisely what is suggested in Genesis. Dr. Hawking would agree that a boundary-less space-time, begun at a point of singularity, would suggest the necessity of an "appeal to God" as the spark (since there is no better explanation, seemingly.)

Not surprisingly, Dr. Hawking and others in the scientific community are not content to leave it at that. Perhaps they are right to continue to probe these questions. However, Dr. Hawking and some colleagues seem hell-bent to get around what the observable universe shows.

This is not the place to address Dr. Hawking's "proposal" in detail. Frankly, I am not sure I could explain it to anyone, certainly not in a more intelligent, easy-to-understand way then he does in the book. I suggest you read Chapter 8 to get a grasp of what the "proposal" is.

To grossly oversimply his position, Dr. Hawking argues that any understanding of the universe should incorporate relativity and quantum mechanics. Because the laws to which the universe now holds did not apply in the trillionths of seconds after the start of the "Big Bang," a new model should be constructed such that the laws always held. To do that, Dr. Hawking proposed an infinite universe with a boundary, a universe which has always been:

The idea that space and time may form a closed surface without boundary also has profound implications for the role of God in the affairs of the universe. With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started - it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwood and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundaries or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator? (Hawking, The Illustrated A Brief History of Time, 1996, p. 181.)

As of the time of writing the book, Dr. Hawking was careful to say, "I'd like to emphasize that this idea that time and space should be finite 'without boundary' is just a proposal. It cannot be deduced from some other principal." (Hawking, p. 175).

So what's the harm in this proposal? I suppose there is no harm in us humans asking these questions and coming up with the best answers that can be deduced. My gripe (among many), if you will, is that scientists, often in their arrogance, fail to explain that how thin some of the evidence is for their conclusions. Dr. Hawking admits that observable universe lines up with the "classical" model. Why abadon a model that fits the evidence for one that is purely theoretical and, worse yet, not supported by the evidence?

Maybe I am naive or just ignorant. I'd not be shocked if I turned out to be both. But I was surprised to see that Dr. Hawking's proposal is based on "imaginary numbers" and simple "mathematical devices" he admits are "tricks":

That is to say, for the purposes of the calculation one must measure time using imaginary numbers, rather than real ones. This has an interesting effect on space-time: the distinction between time and space disappears completely. A space-time in which events have imaginary values of the time coordinate is said to be Euclidean, after the ancient Greek Euclid, who founded the study of the geometry of two-dimensional surfaces. What we now call Euclidean space-time is very similar except that it has four dimensions instead of two. In Euclidean space-time there is no difference between the time direction and directions
in space. On the other hand, in real space-time, in which events are
labeled by ordinary, real values of the time coordinate, it is easy to tell
the difference – the time direction at all points lies within the light
cone, and space directions lie outside. In any case, as far as everyday
quantum mechanics is concerned, we may regard our use of imaginary time and Euclidean space-time as merely a mathematical device (or trick) to calculate answers about real space-time.
The book details the reliance on "imaginary numbers." Again, I suggest you look more closely at it if you want your own understanding. Still, it seems to me that an appeal to numbers that do not exist and which are not part of "real space-time," i.e. the space-time in which we actually exist, seems like foolishness at best and bad science at worst.

Paranoia might be driving my feelings on this. But I can't help but feel this type of scientific approach is all some kind of shell game, designed to direct attention away from the evidence of divine intervention in our universe. It appears that science simply isn't content to coexist with belief in the Almighty (or an almighty), even when the evidence dictates it should.