Friday, December 24, 2010

He Has Come!

This evening we celebrate the Vigil of Christmas, when we consider the Incarnation. On this night, more than twenty centuries ago, the world was changed.

On this night stones began to rouse one another, for in the humble Child they saw a glory not seen since the misty depths of the past, when God had brought them forth out of nothing. From one stone to another the message was whispered, "He has come!" The murmur swelled to a roar, as the stones shook off their slumber: "He has returned!"

On this night the colors of Bethlehem, indeed of the whole world, shone more brightly. Molecules danced and waves of light stretched as the fabric of existence celebrated its Maker's arrival. One star, perched over the City of David, was now joined by thousands - millions! - in announcing with trembling and wonder that their Creator had stooped to join the ranks His creatures.

On this night the forces of darkness worried and fretted. "Perhaps He has not... Perhaps He will not..." But they knew better: the long night that had covered mankind was receding at last.

Legions of angels guarded the lowly stable, but there was no need. The faint cry of a newborn baby pierced the night and demons fled, overcome by the light of His presence.

The physical world, near and far, rejoiced: the dying flames in Bethlehem hearths burst into new life, while on distant planets, wonders yet undiscovered blossomed to herald the coming of the King.

The spiritual world too rejoiced:
Behold an angel of the Lord stood by [the shepherds], and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear. And the angel said to them: "Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David...." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: "Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will." (Luke 2:9-11, 13-14, Douay Rheims translation)

Tonight's images are of the star HD 44179 and Messier 104 (M104), the Sombrero Galaxy. They come from NASA's Hubble Advent calendar (Day 5, 2010 and Day 9, 2009, respectively).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Advent Music

We don't hear much about Advent at this time of year. Once Thanksgiving passes, we pass over Advent in the rush to get to Christmas. We have forgotten that we must first patiently wait and ask for God's grace to prepare for the birth of Jesus.

One result of forgetting to live Advent is that we start listening to Christmas songs well before Christmas. But, if you want to hear some actual Advent music that expresses the Church's longing for the coming of the Savior, there is some out there. This week I discovered this setting by Bach (BWV 62/1) of Martin Luther's chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, which is a German translation of Veni, Redemptor Gentium, a much older hymn traditionally attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan.

The videos for the remaining movements can be seen here.

Finally, today begins the singing at vespers of the so-called O antiphons.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Curious Case of Christmas Censorship?

I recently finished reading science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Star". I read it in The Other Side of the Sky, though it may appear in other collections as well. The tale is well-written, thought-provoking and short (always a virtue!). The main character is a Jesuit astrophysicist living in the 27th century, returning from an expedition to outer space, where he recently studied the remains of a supernova. The story has a vaguely holiday theme, though not warm or fuzzy or in the way you'd expect. For anyone with a modicum of interest in sci-fi literature, I'd recommend it.

Curiously, the copy of The Other Side of the Sky which I checked out from the Texas A&M library had sustained unusual damage: the entirety of "The Star" had been cut out of the book. Where the original pages would have been, were photocopy replacements which the library staff had carefully grafted onto the book. No other pages were missing or damaged. Why would someone remove "The Star" from a university library?


If you have read the short story, or you're electing to forgo the joy of an untainted first reading, continue on.

While studying the remnants of this supernova, our protagonist encounters a Vault left by a now-extinct civilization. Realizing their star was going to explode into a supernova, these humanoids built a massive repository of information about themselves, for later explorers to find, before they were obliterated. This alone is tragic, but not new to the Jesuit, who has seen other extinct civilizations in distant space. Rather, the stunning conclusion is his realization of the precise timing and nature of the this star's destruction:
I know how brilliantly the supernova whose corpse now dwindles behind our speeding ship once shown in terrestrial skies. I know how it must have blazed low in the east before sunrise, like a beacon in the oriental dawn. There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?

Did our mysterious book trimmer steal a copy of the story because it was so fascinating? Perhaps, though this seems unlikely, given that the other two dozen stories were left intact; were none of them worth stealing? No, my theory is that someone removed the story because they thought it blasphemous.

This strikes me as a curious misunderstanding, both of the story and of the science fiction genre. Clarke is not actually arguing that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova which destroyed an innocent alien civilization. Rather, he is asking what if evidence were discovered that this was the case? Would this constitute proof that God is not love? Or could such a thing be reconciled with the Christian faith? (If not, we would have to declare it heresy, though "astroclarkeianism" is a rather awkward term.)

So far as I can tell, this speculative quality is at the heart of the sci-fi genre. Sci-fi proposes situations which - under present conditions - are impossible, and then uses these situations to gain unique perspective on enduring questions about man, his nature and his place in the cosmos. Clarke's question in "The Star" is a subset of the "can scientific discovery radically shake theology?" question, which C. S. Lewis also considered in his essay, "Will We Lose God in Outer Space?" While Clarke is suggesting that such a discovery is a possibility, this short story neither argues that such as discovery has been made, nor that it necessarily will be. Is posing the question such a crime?

Oddly, in the mind of our book vandal, I suspect it was. Indeed, I wonder if he did not pull the book off the shelf precisely because someone told him it contained this blasphemous story (which he may not have even read). Why do I suspect this? Because, while I have not yet read any other works by Arthur C. Clarke, I would be surprised if he manifests a dramatically different world-view in other writings. Would a Clarke fan really get through a few hundred pages, only to suddenly be offended by this work? Perhaps. Perhaps Clarke alluded to similar questions in earlier stories, but in a way that an unalert reader missed. Perhaps Clarke is most explicit in this story about his religious doubts. Still, I worry there's an overzealous pastor out there who needs to read a little more sci-fi and encourage a little less censorship.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Announcement: Al Gore and Russell Kirk Agree on Something!

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal ran a review by Nick Schulz, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, of Vaclav Smil's new book Prime Movers of Globalization. Smil's book is, as the subtitle puts it, a study of the "history and impact of diesel engines and gas turbines." The book would appear to be of interest to a history and economics buff who has a mechanical bent and a desire to learn more about the technical innovations that have driven globalization forward in the past two centuries. Besides explaining the role these devices have played in making it easier to travel long distances and transport great loads quickly, though, Smil also acknowledges that there are environmental drawbacks to these devices. Smil himself, according to the review, does his best to maintain a balanced perspective.

The review, on the other hand, is anything but balanced and can only be termed disingenuous. Schulz's rhetorical strategy is to frame his summary of Smil's book in a denunciation of environmentalism. He begins with Al Gore's utopian call (in Earth in the Balance) for the elimination of internal combustion engines by 2017. Then, at the end of the review, Schulz mentions that Smil addresses some of the environmental damage caused by diesel engines and gas turbines as well as "social disruption that their inventors could not have imagined." But if the "creative destruction caused by global trade" is so extensive, why then has Schulz just penned an ode to the internal combustion engine? How can he simply shrug off these problems? A hint comes in his final line, a variation on Irving Kristol's well-known quip about neoconservatives, saying that Smil, as opposed to environmentalists, "has been mugged by the reality of physics and engineering."

This phrase "mugged by reality" is obviously meant to show that Schulz is a realist, not a deluded "hard-line environmentalist." But what the last paragraph of the review really shows is that Schulz is dismissing out of hand concerns about social upheaval on a previously unimagined scale because they are not part of his reality, the "reality of physics and engineering." Since when, though, did any environmentalist deny the reality of the internal combustion engine, or of global trade? Do environmentalists believe that physics is an illusion?

Obviously not. Why, then, does Schulz resort to such dishonest rhetoric when discussing environmentalism? Schulz names Al Gore as the archetypal environmentalist because he can show that Gore's proposed cure would be just as bad as the disease. By holding up one prominent environmentalist for ridicule, Schulz can then sidestep the serious questions posed by Gore and others concerning the environment, such as: Is it possible that humans cannot be trusted to use internal combustion engines responsibly? Would it have been better if they had never been invented if the risk of serious damage to the environment is so great?

Schulz also resorts to dishonest rhetoric so that he can studiously avoid, while pretending to acknowledge, the social disruption caused by the internal combustion engine. But it is precisely this allegation of social disruption that forms the heart of the complaint against the internal combustion engine that Schulz refuses to answer. This allegation was leveled by at least one conservative thinker strongly opposed to all utopian fantasies: Russell Kirk, who famously called automobiles "mechanical Jacobins" on account of their revolutionary effect on society. If Schulz honestly faced Kirk's critique, he would have to ask himself more uncomfortable questions, such as: Is commercial prosperity perhaps bad for society because it chips away at solidarity among people? Is the decrease in social cohesion caused by modern modes of transport actually more harmful than the benefit of unrestricted mobility?

As strange as it may sound, Al Gore and Russell Kirk actually share common concerns about technical progress, though Kirk very likely would have rejected Gore's solution to the problem. This strange agreement should at least give Schulz pause to consider the morality of technology in addition to its creative power. But by ignoring Gore's and Kirk's questions Schulz shows that his ultimate fault is that he willfully equates what is technologically possible with what is morally good.

That anyone should make this mistake after the 20th century is sad indeed. The reality of the 20th century should have mugged Schulz and jolted him out of his complacent faith in technical progress. What, then, could prevent him from seeing that technical progress often poses difficult moral questions? Schulz, apparently a neoconservative, would likely answer that the "creative destruction caused by global trade" maximizes freedom through the increased production of wealth. But freedom and wealth are not ends in themselves, and neither is technology.