Belief Barcodes and Faith Formulas

What could it possibly mean to “believe” in God and why should it make any difference at all? How could a mere mental state take precedence over acts? Even Peter Pan required not merely belief to save Tinkerbell but an actual action: namely clapping hands. Moreover, how can one possibly compel oneself to believe?
Theophrastus, the pseudonymous blogger

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to

Alcoholics Anonymous

Helen had no school-inspired sense of what she was supposed to enjoy more, and what less. She simply needed what any good reader needs: absorption, emotion, momentum and the sense of being transported from the world in which she lived and transplanted into another one. I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing.
Michael Cunningham, the translational novelist

This difference between these two kinds of writing can be stated in terms of the body. In [scientific] expository writing, you want to get to your reader’s brain. In [novelistic] creative writing, you want to bypass the brain and go for the stomach or heart.
Alan Lightman, the “spiritual atheist” scientist

I’m interested in how anybody can “come to believe.” Is there a formula for “faith”?

It seems that there is something about the body, and terms of the body, that go hand in hand with belief and faith. Yes, with the hand metaphors, I’m punning some. So let’s continue. In terms of the body, on the one hand, belief and faith may be a head thing. On the other hand, faith and belief may be a heart and stomach thing.

But I’m not so sure I like the decapitation of the body, in anybody’s description. Once, I suggested this to novelist Alan Lightman; and he graciously went along with it. He admitted that he believed that the translators of his novels should be both scientists who use their heads and artists who use their hearts. Another way of saying this is that the human being named Alan Lightman wants anybody else who’s going to translate his writings to be complete persons. In terms of the body, it’s all the parts that come into play, that make adjustments, that come to believe, to belief. It’s not just a certain body part, differentiated from the others and abstracted and labeled and named as if in Grey’s Anatomy scientific textbook.

Right, some of you are objecting already. Talked about reality is not reality, you protest. Lightman was using head or stomach and heart metaphorically. Well, I’ll give you that. I’ll also remind how embodied our metaphors are. How Hélène Cixous urges l’ecriture feminine as writing the body. Likewise, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson also have suggested we start, with our metaphors, from our bodies.

So let’s return to abstract science, to the heady stuff. Let’s go back to mathematics, to physics.

Here’s what Anatol Rapoport objectively observes with respect to belief and to bodies:

Once when teaching elementary physics, I was impressed with the resistance of mature intelligent students to some fundamental facts and concepts. For example, when a man falling in a parachute has reached constant velocity, the forces action on him add up to zero. Beginners almost invariably resist this conclusion. “If there is not resultant force action on a falling body,” they ask, “why does it fall?” Proof by appeal to the fundamental equation of motion is of little avail. They “believe” the equation, but they believe their preconceptions. (as quoted in Rhetoric: Discovery and Change, by Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike, p. 239)

What I’m suggesting is that naive “preconceptions” are grounded in the body, in what it’s experienced, in where it’s been and how it’s been there. Fundamental equations and formulas and abstractions? Well, they can be “of little avail.” Belief is already in the body, but what belief? And can it be turned off or turned on just by a formula, by a proposition of some truth?

Philosopher (and protestant Christian) Dallas Willard critiques this sort of notion of dis-em-bodied and abstract belief for some Christians. In his book Divine Conspiracy (pages 36 and 37), Willard remembers hearing “a prominent minister” insisting the following:

… that “justification,” the forgiveness of sins, involves no change at all in the heart or personality … [but is] something entirely external to you, located wholly in God himself…. [T]here is something about the Christian that works like the bar code [on merchandise sold in a store]. Some ritual, some belief, or some association with a group affects God the way the bar code affects the scanner. Perhaps there has occurred a moment of mental assent to a creed, or an association entered into with a church. God “scans” it, and forgiveness floods forth. An appropriate amount of righteousness is shifted from Christ’s account to our account in the bank of heaven, and all our debts are paid…. And the payoff for having faith and being “scanned” comes at death and after. Life now being lived has no necessary connection with being a Christian as long as the bar code does its job.

[update: Here’s what a barcode looks like; scan it but it has no necessary connection with what’s inside you:


Notice how Willard suggests, instead, that belief is not external to the body but is in the body, in “the heart.” Willard elsewhere illustrates (in his essay “Truth: Can We Do Without It?” p. 12).:

Sometimes I will half jokingly say to [my Philosophy 101 students] as they hand me their tests after an exam, “Did you believe what you wrote?” And they all smile. Because they know that the important thing is not to believe what you write but to write the right answers.

Here the face of the students betrays a different belief: that they are not graded on belief. And they could not be. How is there an academic formula for faith, for belief?

Belief and faith and change intrigue me. Willard compares deep change to language learning, which I really like. He also sees profound conversion in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (which he contrasts with the church generally, saying “how utterly superficial the consumer Christianity of our day is” in comparison to AA). Likewise, Philip Yancey, an editor of Christianity Today, says:

In earlier times, some theologians wrote “natural theologies” by first explicating the wonders of nature and then gradually moving toward theism, revelation, and Christian doctrine. If I were writing a natural theology today, I think I would start with recovering alcoholics.

Yancey gets at what’s going on in the body, in the heart and head here. So now I’m just going to end with another conversion story. No not mine. Not C.S. Lewis’s or Joy Davidman’s or anyone else who I may have already mentioned at this blog, at this particular blog of mine, Mind Your Language.

Rather, I’m going to end with the autobiography of Anne Lamott. Let me warn you of the language already. Hers is a rough background, with language to match it. So stop reading now if you don’t like people who don’t mind their language. For the rest of you, please notice the body, the lack of belief barcodes and faith formulas. There’s another version of her story with Anne Lamott’s same words all over it; it’s fleshed out better there, if you ask me, in her book called Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. But the following will do for now, from her diary essay for Salon. Again, the only formula, perhaps, is the storytelling. The rest is a coming to belief:

I did not mean to be a Christian. I have been very clear about that. My first words upon encountering the presence of Jesus for the first time 12 years ago, were, I swear to God, “I would rather die.” I really would have rather died at that point than to have my wonderful brilliant left-wing non-believer friends know that I had begun to love Jesus. I think they would have been less appalled if I had developed a close personal friendship with Strom Thurmond. At least there is some reason to believe that Strom Thurmond is a real person. You know, more or less.

But I never felt like I had much choice with Jesus; he was relentless. I didn’t experience him so much as the hound of heaven, as the old description has it, as the alley cat of heaven, who seemed to believe that if it just keeps showing up , mewling outside your door, you’d eventually open up and give him a bowl of milk. Of course, as soon as you do, you are fucked, and the next thing you know, he’s sleeping on your bed every night, and stepping on your chest at dawn to play a little push-push.

I resisted as long as I could, like Sam-I-Am in “Green Eggs and Ham” — I would not, could not in a boat! I could not would not with a goat! I do not want to follow Jesus, I just want expensive cheeses. Or something. Anyway, he wore me out. He won.

I was tired and vulnerable and he won. I let him in. This is what I said at the moment of my conversion: I said, “Fuck it. Come in. I quit.” He started sleeping on my bed that night. It was not so bad. It was even pretty nice. He loved me, he didn’t shed or need to have his claws trimmed, and he never needed a flea dip. I mean, what a savior, right? Then, when I was dozing, tiny kitten that I was, he picked me up like a mother cat, by the scruff of my neck, and deposited me in a little church across from the flea market in Marin’s black ghetto. That’s where I was when I came to. And then I came to believe.


35 responses to “Belief Barcodes and Faith Formulas

  1. Zip on over Houston and you can have a Jarvick7 (or its technological successor) implanted. Now clearly, no one writes literature to appeal the Jarvick7. In fact, no one even writes literature to appeal to the metaphor of the Jarvick7.

    What’s my point? You clearly say that “heart” is a metaphor above. Well, what is a it a metaphor for? (Remember that term: Meta-44). “It is a metaphor for emotion,” you may say. But we know how to induce emotion. I can create anxiety by giving you Ro15-4513 and I can take it take away with benzodiazepine. So, what does this say about faith? Is it simply a result of a chemical imbalance?

    It seems that cheapens the point of faith. Faith seems to mean something more than just the heart (emotion). It seems to mean something about cognitive reason: that one “intends” (or “means”) what one says (which seems to be related to what Jews call kavannah and Buddhists call Mindfulness.)

    An example: Let’s say you and I are reading Tehillim. You are reading a bad translation — let’s say the NLT — and you are wondering what all the fuss is about. Those NLT psalms are OK, but what’s the point — you can make up prayer just as good. On the other hand, I’m reading the actual Hebrew and those poems are just perfect — impossible to improve. And they completely ring true on every single level. And I’m not just mouthing syllables but “feeling” them and “feeling” “connected to God”. I’m having an honest-to-goodness spiritual experience — driven by the literary perfection of the words — while you are just reading text that is a notch below advertising copy.

    Now what’s going on here? I say that it is not “belief” but rather recognition in the sense of Plato’s Meno (or as is sometimes mistranslated, “remembrance”). If the words of Tehillim connect with me (or connect me to God), it is because I “recognize” them as literature [in the same way that I “recognized” Beethoven’s 9th was beautiful or Hamlet was sublime], as speaking truth [in the same way that I “recognize” that the words of Ode an die Freude and the monologues of the Prince of Denmark speak truth about the human condition].

    But it wasn’t all about me. Tehillim was all about the words of psalms, the 9th was all about notes in the score, Hamlet was all about the lines in the play. It wasn’t the act of hearing the 9th (after all, its composer was deaf!) — it was the 9th itself. God exists or does not exist; I do not will him into existence through some sort of ontological-side effect of worship.

    So what’s the point? The point is that expression matters. Translation steals the “recognition”, steals the “feeling”: The psalms in NLT are wretched, and completely miss the point. We don’t sing Schiller’s words in English. Hamlet by Mary and Charles Lamb is not worth reading.

    Do you want a spiritual experience? Then find a master like Socrates to help you “remember” the geometric theorem; learn Hebrew and German and Elizabethan English to experience the beauty of truth-speaking art. A dose of Ro15-4513 or LSD-25 or Meta-44 gives only faux spirituality; eventually the trip ends.

    • Nonetheless, I can give you the following advice: if you want to make sure you are never hit by a car when you are crossing the street, hum the bars from Ode to Joy. If you “believe” in God, you will know that it would simply be to ironic to be struck by a car while humming Schiller.

      • Who would advise God to create a rock so big that no one can pick up? At some point, the most desperate of the anonymous alcoholics will admit that they never really do anything they don’t believe. Some, I hear, still get hit by cars crossing the street; some learn to hum a different tune. But how do they come to believe, differently?

    • You clearly say that “heart” is a metaphor above. Well, what is a it a metaphor for? (Remember that term: Meta-44). “It is a metaphor for emotion,” you may say.

      I wouldn’t disagree that “heart” is a metaphor or that it’s a metaphor for emotion. But that’s not what I “clearly” said. I believe “heart” also signifies inner thoughts, desires, volitions. The difficulty and the delight of “heart” or “stomach” or “splagchna” (in Greek) or “hati” or “jantung” (for liver and for heart in Indonesian) or lòng (in Vietnamese) is that there’s something inside the body, organs whose functions are unseen and nearly infinite in their functions when functioning. I think I said something like, I don’t like relegating one specific type of writing — i.e., the creative type — just to the heart or the stomach. I like to use my head when creating too. But even my stomach or my heart can be part of me that is beyond emotion and more toward Socrates’ “memory.” To be exact, and scientific, now, some of my colleagues and I have, for a year, been experimenting with different parts of the body that aid in reading as a second language. It’s not just head, not just brain, not just eyes, not only ears. Something lower, and someplace deeper, not just metaphorically, is aiding comprehension and apprehension and memory.

      You bring up what “Jews call kavannah and Buddhists call Mindfulness.” Well, exactly. Not just emotions; of course not. And, more, you say

      expression matters. Translation steals the “recognition”, steals the “feeling”: The psalms in NLT are wretched, and completely miss the point. We don’t sing Schiller’s words in English. Hamlet by Mary and Charles Lamb is not worth reading.

      What I hope I’m not hearing you insist on is some sort of mechanical connection to God or the spiritual that absolutely depends on the proper expression. As if chanting some incantation, expressed in a way that matters, will invariably cause the ghost to appear, to obey.

      And would you allow Muslims in here? Some caution with the Qur’an and its translations:

      ** – Read with caution – These Translations, specially those which are marked here with **, are considered either incorrect, far-fetched, non-conforming or misleading. For all translations, care must be exercised for certain verses or an alternate translation should be considered.

  2. Where will you tend your flocks today? asked the beloved. Come and see. And they went with him and stayed with him for the whole day. It was the only day that is, the day in which Hashem Elohim created the Heavens and the Earth.

    There is no after if there is no now. As the Apostle says – some things are unspeakable. Lamott comes pretty close with her metaphors. I am glad to hear such from her, from whom I have learned much.

    • Thanks. I catch from you some of where you’ve come from, and where you’ve been, where you’re going.

      Lamott has to be precise with her metaphors, I believe. Or she can’t really help what she’s come to believe, in a sense:

      As we sat there on the runway the [blatantly fundamentalist Christian] man reading the book about the apocalypse commented on the small gold cross I wear on a necklace. I would describe him physically as being rather prim and tense, maybe a little like David Eisenhower with a spastic colon. “Are you born again?” he asked as we taxied down the runway. I did not know how to answer for a moment. “Yes I am – I am.” My friends like to tell each other that I am not really a born-again Christian; they think of me more along the lines of that old Jonathan Miller routine where he says, ‘I’m not really a Jew; I’m Jewish.’ They think I’m Christianish but I’m not, I’m just a bad Christian maybe. And certainly like the Apostle Peter I am capable of denying it, of presenting myself as a sort of leftist liberation theology enthusiast and general Jesusy bon vivant, but it’s not true. And I believe when you get on a plane if you start lying you are doomed. So I told the truth that I am in fact a believer and a convert. I’m probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus fish on the back of my car.

  3. where you’ve come from, and where you’ve been, where you’re going
    I’ve come from Oxford, been in Cambridge, and am on my way to Jerusalem 🙂

    And yes – when the whole day is noted in John 1:29, I see it as a reference to the 24 mentions of hours in John and so that they stayed with him while he completed the work that the Father gave him to do – words words words ! Yes the work of that day – I love Herbert’s Poem Easter on this. I got me flowers etc.

    I should go out and be in the sun this afternoon but I just may post some notes from the book I am scanning on Israel…

    • Thanks, and I caught your John 1:29 reference, like the Easter poem. Enjoy the scanning, the notes, but hope you can get out some for the flowers and the sun.

  4. What I hope I’m not hearing you insist on is some sort of mechanical connection to God or the spiritual that absolutely depends on the proper expression. As if chanting some incantation, expressed in a way that matters, will invariably cause the ghost to appear, to obey.

    Well, a rather exact incantation worked for Goethe’s Faust and Marlowe’s Faustus, and the recipe seemed very precise for those witches in that Scottish play (in which, by the way, Patrick Stewart will be starring in tonight at 9 on PBS — I don’t know if it is good or not, but he won a Tony for the performance.)

    And then, of course, there is very, very precise recitation twice every day of the pitum haketores from Kereisos:

    פִּטּוּם הַקְּטֹרֶת. הַצֳּרִי. וְהַצִּפֹּרֶן. הַחֶלְבְּנָה. וְהַלְּבוֹנָה. מִשְׁקַל שִׁבְעִים שִׁבְעִים מָנֶה. מוֹר. וּקְצִיעָה. שִׁבֹּלֶת נֵרְדְּ. וְכַרְכּוֹם. מִשְׁקַל שִׁשָּׁה עָשָׂר שִׁשָּׁה עָשָׂר מָנֶה. הַקֹּשְׁטְ שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר. וְקִלּוּפָה שְׁלשָׁה. וְקִנָּמוֹן תִּשְׁעָה. בֹּרִית כַּרְשִׁינָה תִּשְׁעָה קַבִּין. יֵין קַפְרִיסִין סְאִין תְּלָתָא וְקַבִּין תְּלָתָא. וְאִם אֵין לוֹ יֵין קַפְרִיסִין מֵבִיא חֲמַר חִוַּרְיָן עַתִּיק. מֶלַח סְדוֹמִית רוֹבַע. מַעֲלֶה עָשָׁן כָּל שֶׁהוּא. רַבִּי נָתָן הַבַּבְלִי אוֹמֵר: אַף כִּפַּת הַיַּרְדֵּן כָּל שֶׁהוּא. וְאִם נָתַן בָּהּ דְּבַשׁ פְּסָלָהּ. וְאִם חִסַּר אַחַת מִכָּל סַמָּנֶיהָ חַיָּב מִיתָה: רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר: הַצֳּרִי אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא שְׂרָף הַנּוֹטֵף מֵעֲצֵי הַקְּטָף. בֹּרִית כַּרְשִׁינָה שֶׁשָּׁפִין בָּהּ אֶת הַצִּפֹּרֶן. כְּדֵי שֶׁתְּהֵא נָאָה. יֵין קַפְרִיסִין שֶׁשּׁוֹרִין בּוֹ אֶת הַצִּפֹּרֶן. כְּדֵי שֶׁתְּהֵא עַזָּה. וַהֲלֹא מֵי רַגְלַיִם יָפִין לָהּ. אֶלָּא שֶׁאֵין מַכְנִיסִין מֵי רַגְלַיִם בַּמִּקְדָּשׁ מִפְּנֵי הַכָּבוֹד:

    I want to draw your attention to the following line — recited after the lengthy formula with 11 ingredients plus the four extras: “And if he left out any of the spices, he is liable to the death penalty.”

    And, since you mention physics, let’s remember that there is no room for flexibility there. Does E=mc^3? Or mc? No, I don’t think so. That exponent 2 is rather inflexible.

    So, precision is important — and we can’t ignore it. Not everything is just “trying” — succeeding is also important — and caring enough to get it right is counts. If I have a choice between going to a doctor who “tries” and gives me one of his pills (does it really matter which one? he really “tries”) and one who actually “succeeds” in healing, I will not hesitate in my choice.

    That was the source of our dialogue with Wayne and his SIL buddies not so long ago: did a Bible translations count if it was “well-intentioned” — if the translator made many sacrifices to produce his translation — but in the end, it just wasn’t very good?

    Everyone writes his Great American Novel with “heart”, everyone has “good intentions”. I think I’ll hold out for something that is actually good.

    • Oops, I accidentally linked to a Jews for Jesus page. I’m feeling a bit ill right now. Just go ahead and remove that link please.

      Here is the translation

      Pitum haketores (Kereisos 6a): The incense mixture was formulated of [eleven spices]: (1) stacte, (2) onycha, (3) galbanum, (4) frankincense — each weight seventy maneh; (5) myrrh, (6) cassia, (7) spikenard, (8) saffron — each weighing sixteen maneh; (9) costus — twelve [maneh]; (10) aromatic bark — three; and (11) cinnamon — nine. [Additionally] Carshina lye — nine kab; Cyprus wine, three se’ah and nine kab — if has no Cyprus wine, he brings old white wine; Sodom salt, a quarter kab; and a minute amount of smoke-raising herb. Rabbi Nassan the Babylonian says: Also a minute amount of Jordan amber: if he placed fruit-honey into it, he invalidated it. And if he left out any of its psices, he is liable to the death penalty. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: The stacte is simply the sap that drips from balsam trees. Carshina lye is used to bleach the onycha to make it pleasing. Cyprus wine is used to soak the onycha to make it pungent. Even though urin is more suitable for that, nevertheless they do not bring urine into the Temple out of respect.

    • Well, since you bring up physics and science and such, I think it’s very interesting that King Macbeth’s first witch finds that the magic, the precise incantation, cannot its effect always sustain. I’m talking about “SCENE I. A cavern. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.” where she has to throw in the poisonous Toad first, for its poison. Did I say physics? We’ll to be precise, I meant Biology. And I must say that the third witch’s anti-Semiticism, her hepatic need, makes her rather accurately a real Nazi scientist. (The other thing to note is that the incantations hardly always, accurately, occur where Shakespeare’s audience would expect them; which makes them more witchy.)

      Otherwise, I think I agree with you. “There is no room for flexibility,” you say with physics and formulas and such.

      And yet the man who first said, and wrote, E=mc^2 also talked of Licht, invariably, as a particle, and also then as a wave, and without any trouble whatsoever as yet an electromagnetic field. Relativity, we call it now.

      And another physicist admitted, “Auch für den Physiker ist die Möglichkeit einer Beschreibung in der gewöhnlichen Sprache ein Kriterium für den Grad des Verständnisses, das in dem betreffenden Gebiet erreicht worden ist.” And this immediately prompts him to ask a couple of questions precisely: “In welchem Umfange ist eine solche Beschreibung überhapt möglich? Kann man z. B. über das Atom selbst sprechen?” (in Physik und Philosophie, 1959, page 161; which is translated into English as Physics and Philosophy, 1959, with the statement and questions as follows: “Even for the physicist the description in plain language will be a criterion of the degree of understanding that has been reached. To what extent is such a description at all possible? Can one speak about the atom itself?“). To the extent that we are willing, in German or in English, to speak about physics, we might precisely understand that Werner Heisenberg observed precision to be changing, to be relative to the observer, to accommodate the real and bodily changes in the observer changing the observed data observed. I’m not just playing with language. Nor is he.

      My true story (not a novel) is that one of my own children had a deadly cancer, hepatoblastoma to be precise. Doctors in Virginia, in Pennsylvania, in Texas, and then in California were not able to give any prognosis of life for her, given the horrible presentation of the disease, and its progression in her liver, when they observed it. They observed it in surgery, in microscopes, in sonograms, in CT scans, in a tumor marker they called alpha fetoprotein. Many children with much worse instances of this disease died with their usual chemotherapies, and with combinations of that and surgeries. Long story short: she was 18 months old at diagnosis and she’s 18 years old today. Her doctors and nurses and health care professionals believe that the medical care she received was as much science as it was art. And most would mostly concede today that there was something beyond their natural world that also made the difference in her being healthy and free of cancer today. This, despite intentions at various points, despite their many collective and individual moments of saying, “I don’t know; at this point we’ve done all we can.” This, despite various incantations of various sorts by well meaning and just, well, sometime rather mean people too. Rather inflexible, indeed. (And some of these professionals, artists as well as scientists, still have weekly meetings, called M&Ms, to discuss where they went wrong, how the textbooks and the research and the years of medical school formulas failed, how there is still morbidity and mortality, how they need more flexibility, more discovery, more novelty in their science. They can’t always at any given moment just hold out for something yet that is only actually good. Incantations and other formulas, so mechanistic, just don’t always help.)

      • I would not have expected you to credit Einstein with wave-light duality — I expected a discussion between Aristotle and Democritus. Or at least to credit Heisenberg (who considered anti-Semitism a mere political issue and thus not worthy of protesting) for arguing for a necessary imprecision.

        Your story about your daughter is inspiring — but just because the doctors didn’t know the right incantations (treatment) does not imply that the correct incantations do not exist. And if it was Providence — well Providence acted through nature, rather than against nature.

        My point though is that if you pick up the NLT you can argue that the Psalms are true tefillah just because they were translated by people with good intentions. There is a saying about the paving of the road to Hades. Getting things right matters too — especially in translation.

      • It seems the imprecision was not in the words of Heisenberg but rather mine, for failing to notice the HUGE discussion you included in your comment about him.

        Still Heisenberg, like Macbeth’s third witch, like Ezra Pound, was a character of ambiguous morality. Not very nice at all. And, even worse, they “meant” what they said.

        Just like Peter Greenaway’s Zed and Two Noughts — or blue cheese — sometimes rot produces beauty.

      • My point is that the barcode on the NLT might let you pick it up because of the fiscal intentions of its translators; and isn’t that good for something? It’s not necessary for any true tefillah belief, however.

        Yes, unfortunately, the HUGE discussion was as big as your capital letters in that word mainly because I was wanting to show translation. Always imprecise. But, since you also want Aristotle, I should speculate that he’d like not Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty but just the opposite: his certain racism, which you point out. Aristotle, to be precise (and I think you pointed this out to us all in a comment at one of my blogs), counted the teeth of females and found them lacking with respect to males. He was also incorrect, as Alan Lightman takes time and a bit of ink to point out; Aristotle was imprecise, and flat wrong, with respect to his physics, his astronomy. Lightman (who is Jewish and whose ancestors were not treated kindly by the likes of EITHER Heisenberg or Aristotle OR that incanter Pound or that third witch) does say many things HUGELY noteworthy about Heisenberg and his physics (in The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science, Including the Original Papers; in Origins: the Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists; in Dance for Two: Selected Essays; in Ancient Light: Our Changing View of the Universe; in Great Ideas in Physics; in A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (where he keeps the non-Jewish and Jewish physicists in the same paragraph: “If Heisenberg and Schrödinger hadn’t formulated quantum mechanics, then someone else would have. If Einstein hadn’t formulated relativity, then someone else would.”); and even in Song of Two Worlds, where he says in song-like lyric, “Heisenberg… / You burn the incense of asking and knowing.”) Seems Lightman is either forgiving or neglectful in a HUGE way, no?

        I would not have expected you to show Greenaway’s rotting beauty in ZOO — I expected a link to his TV Dante, since there’s Hades there. But to Dante, weren’t all translations of his Inferno like your NLT? Didn’t he write in his Convivio (his Commentary, his Banquet!!) that “no discourse harmonized with the Muses’ bonds can be translated from its own dialect into another without the destruction of all its sweetness and harmony.” Of course, that’s just Giuseppe Mazzotta’s translation from Latin to Italian to English. Here’s Koos Daley’s rendering (and how could Dante like it any better?!): “Nothing which is harmonized by the bonds of the muses can be changed from its own to another language without destroying all its sweetness and harmony.” Reuben Arthur Brower reduces the bonds from Mazzotta’s and Daley’s plurality to a single “bond.” Then Greenaway has John Gielgud (i.e., performing as Dante’s Muse Virgil) bonding (either in singularity or in some precise plurality) with Bob Peck (i.e., Dante himself). Is that beautiful, or what? Dante translates Virgil from Latin into Italian. Oh, the ironies, as Dante reduces all the Italian dialects, the plurality of them, to his one now singularly known to us as “Italian.” Mazzotta explains that Dante “in the De Vulgari Eloquentia theorizes what eventually the Divine Comedy will deliver: a national idiom made of scraps drawn from the various dialects that divide the Italian language.” Scrappy indeed. Less beautiful somehow to Dante? Like the Nazis Germany to the Nazis, to Heisenberg? I’m not arguing for the NLT. I am wondering who can judge others impure, not their motives, but their work perhaps, their language?

        Thanks for calling my daughter’s story inspiring. Yes, Providence acting through Nature, with created Nature, with the hands of humans, their heads, their hearts and stomachs too. Their coincidental timing of surgeries and humble willingness to listen to the intuitions of a mother (and not just textbooks or research or researched traditions). Miraculous beyond nature still.

      • Yes, it is true that Aristotle was one of those “theoretical” physicists. A bit like string theorists today. Let’s pull on the string. Or, as Joseph Epstein likes to recall, we remember the caption to the newspaper photo of Aristotle Onasis looking at Buster Keaton’s house: “Aristotle contemplating the home of Buster.”

        Now if you are going to talk about the Inferno, today, at least, you are obliged to specify whether you are speaking of the poem or the video game (available for your XBOX360 and PS3): “In Dante’s Inferno, battle through the 9 circles of Hell facing fierce and hideous monsters, your own sins, and a dark past of unforgivable war crimes.” What is clear is that whatever “Dante” is, he is certainly bigger than the neurotic, Beatrice-stalking scribbler with oral hygiene problems and mommy issues (although, certainly, what could be finer than being middle-aged during the Middle Ages?). Dante is, well, an institution. Because there’s more to the poems than the historical person. Dante has accumulated midrash — in the form of lecturas Dantis, commentaries, Gustave Dore illustrations, videogames, and bad TV “video-art” productions. It may be that “Dante” is a mere hypocorism of “Durante”, but certainly we can agree that the middle aged version rose above his vaudeville cousin Jimmy (even if they shared a common schnozzola.)

        And sure, Canto VII of Station Island may be inspired by the old lecher himself, and it may have won its author a Nobel Prize, but we are much more likely to quote il Sommo Poeta than his Ulster Catholic disciple. (And, of course, no one I know has ever seen Seamus actually sober.)

        To put it yet another way, wanting to meet the author because you admire his books is like wanting to meet the goose because you like the foie gras.

      • By the way, did you know that Petrach bragged to Boccaccio that he never read Divina Commedia? (Good news perhaps for those who cannot track all your literary references.)

        And, after all, when it comes to action: ironic, metaphysical, romantic, or just plain ol’ cartoonish, certainly both Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso have the preachy Commedia beat hands-down — even if they both involve gratuitous murders of Muslims on a scale that puts purveyors of R-rated battle epics to shame.

        And, if we find that Tasso and Ariosto do not rise to Dante’s genius — well, is that genius perhaps thanks to Charles de Valois’ and Cante de Gabrielli’s arranging Dante’s exile and chance to punish his enemies with eternal [literary] damnation? (And what does it mean that Florence city council said all was forgiven in 2008 — does their “rehabilitation” mean allotment to the ranks of literary mediocrity?) (Or as, one somewhat dimwitted student once immodestly put it to me: “I’m ready to suffer for my genius.”)

      • All my literary references?! All of us struggle to keep up with all yours. 🙂 Petrach the taunter. But I think Dante claimed he never read anything of Aristotle (except the Nichomachean Ethics and De Coelo et Mundo, which Dante, of course, read rightly: “Dante knew that Aristotelian-Averroistic philosophers were presenting a vision of the universe in conflict with Genesis.”) Yes, Tasso and Ariosto do more, less preachy, because at least they finish their thoughts and complete their writings. Is it genius to let others fill in the blanks? What’s a reader of Divina Commedia to do with Aristotle in Limbo? Let him out? Do such Christians let Muslim-Arabic translators have him?

        I think instead “I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled” with Epstein and Eliot or Eliot’s Prufrock. You made me laugh out loud thinking of the snapshot of Aristotle, or of the other Aristotle. Just for the record, I don’t play video games. Bought my kids an “old” Nintendo to play on one of the “old” non-HD tvs and was called, by them, “Amish.” They, to get revenge, have downloaded a few fun apps on my iPhone. Is there a Dante’s Inferno app? If so, I think I’ll go, will go play there sometime. But I hear it’s like Hotel California, where they let you check in but never, the devils, let you check out.

        You mention Seamus Heaney. No you don’t. You mention Station Island (and then go on to talk about his public insobriety). So are you comparing the work to foie gras and suggesting anyone would still want to talk with a drunken goose? I’d rather meet Northern Irishman Ciaran Carson, who made “Quite simply the best version of Dante there is.” I know; I really know: Paul Muldoon, said that, and he himself is Northern Irish, writing what he said in The Irish Times. But I like the fact that Carson pays attention to who he is, and rather likes it:

        And many translations seemed to forget that Dante wrote vernacular. ‘Dante, small gutter-snipe, or small boy hearing the talk in his father’s kitchen,’ says Ezra Pound. Translating ostensibly from the Italian, Tuscan or Florentine, I found myself translating as much from English, or various Englishes. Translation became a form of reading, a way of making the poetry of Dante intelligible to myself. An exercise in comprehension: ‘Now tell the story in your own words.’ What are my own words? I found myself wondering how one knows what one means. I found myself pondering the curious and delightful grammar of English, and was reminded that I spoke Irish (with its different curious and delightful grammar) before I spoke English. (pages xviii-xix of Carson’s work)


        When I began looking into the Inferno, it occurred to me that the measures and associations of the Hiberno-English ballad might provide a model for translation. It would allow for sometimes extravagant alliteration, for periphrasis and inversion to accommodate the rhyme, and for occasional assonance instead of rhyme; it could accommodate rapid shifts of register. So I tried to write a terza rima crossed with ballad. (xxi)

        Now that’s a brave translator, a personal one! Yes, I want to meet him, just as, liking Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, I want to meet translator Willis Barnstone. He lets her speak, because she speaks to him. (By the way, women in Dafur are not allowed by the men to eat any animal’s liver, because, the ravenous men claim, the women have no soul. Women may want the goose, may have met the goose already because they’re the cooks for the men, but no foie gras for the soulless.)

      • Oh, literary references are so easy. Especially since I have the benefit of having heard Lord Byron’s Prophecy of Dante (Canto 3) where Dante prophesies the advent after Petrach of Ariosto and Tasso:

        And language, eloquently false, evince
        The harlotry of Genius, which, like Beauty,
        Too oft forgets its own self-reverence,

        And looks on prostitution as a duty.
        He who once enters in a Tyrant’s hall
        As guest is slave—his thoughts become a booty,

        And the first day which sees the chain enthral
        A captive, sees his half of Manhood gone
        The Soul’s emasculation saddens all

        His spirit; thus the Bard too near the throne
        Quails from his inspiration, bound to please,—
        How servile is the task to please alone!

        To smooth the verse to suit his Sovereign’s ease
        And royal leisure, nor too much prolong
        Aught save his eulogy, and find, and seize,

        Or force, or forge fit argument of Song!
        Thus trammelled, thus condemned to Flattery’s trebles,
        He toils through all, still trembling to be wrong:

        For fear some noble thoughts, like heavenly rebels,
        Should rise up in high treason to his brain,
        He sings, as the Athenian spoke, with pebbles

        In’s mouth, lest Truth should stammer through his strain.
        But out of the long file of sonneteers
        There shall be some who will not sing in vain,

        And he, their Prince, shall rank among my peers,
        And Love shall be his torment; but his grief
        Shall make an immortality of tears,

        And Italy shall hail him as the Chief
        Of Poet-lovers, and his higher song
        Of Freedom wreathe him with as green a leaf.

        But in a farther age shall rise along
        The banks of Po two greater still than he;
        The World which smiled on him shall do them wrong

        Till they are ashes, and repose with me.
        The first will make an epoch with his lyre,
        And fill the earth with feats of Chivalry:

        His Fancy like a rainbow, and his Fire,
        Like that of Heaven, immortal, and his Thought
        Borne onward with a wing that cannot tire;

        Pleasure shall, like a butterfly new caught,
        Flutter her lovely pinions o’er his theme,
        And Art itself seem into Nature wrought

        By the transparency of his bright dream.—
        The second, of a tenderer, sadder mood,
        Shall pour his soul out o’er Jerusalem;

        He, too, shall sing of Arms, and Christian blood
        Shed where Christ bled for man; and his high harp
        Shall, by the willow over Jordan’s flood,

        Revive a song of Sion, and the sharp
        Conflict, and final triumph of the brave
        And pious, and the strife of Hell to warp

        Their hearts from their great purpose, until wave
        The red-cross banners where the first red Cross
        Was crimsoned from His veins who died to save,

        Shall be his sacred argument; the loss
        Of years, of favour, freedom, even of fame
        Contested for a time, while the smooth gloss

        Of Courts would slide o’er his forgotten name
        And call Captivity a kindness—meant
        To shield him from insanity or shame—

        Such shall be his meek guerdon! who was sent
        To be Christ’s Laureate—they reward him well!
        Florence dooms me but death or banishment,

        Ferrara him a pittance and a cell,
        Harder to bear and less deserved, for I
        Had stung the factions which I strove to quell;

        But this meek man who with a lover’s eye
        Will look on Earth and Heaven, and who will deign
        To embalm with his celestial flattery,

        As poor a thing as e’er was spawned to reign,
        What will he do to merit such a doom?
        Perhaps he’ll love,—and is not Love in vain

        Torture enough without a living tomb?
        Yet it will be so—he and his compeer,
        The Bard of Chivalry, will both consume

        In penury and pain too many a year,
        And, dying in despondency, bequeath
        To the kind World, which scarce will yield a tear,

        A heritage enriching all who breathe
        With the wealth of a genuine Poet’s soul,
        And to their country a redoubled wreath,

        Unmatched by time; not Hellas can unroll
        Through her Olympiads two such names, though one
        Of hers be mighty;—and is this the whole

        Of such men’s destiny beneath the Sun?
        Must all the finer thoughts, the thrilling sense,
        The electric blood with which their arteries run,

        Their body’s self turned soul with the intense
        Feeling of that which is, and fancy of
        That which should be, to such a recompense

        Conduct? shall their bright plumage on the rough
        Storm be still scattered? Yes, and it must be;
        For, formed of far too penetrable stuff,
        These birds of Paradise but long to flee

        Back to their native mansion, soon they find
        Earth’s mist with their pure pinions not agree,
        And die or are degraded; for the mind

        Succumbs to long infection, and despair,
        And vulture Passions flying close behind,
        Await the moment to assail and tear;

        And when, at length, the wingéd wanderers stoop,
        Then is the Prey-birds’ triumph, then they share
        The spoil, o’erpowered at length by one fell swoop.

        Yet some have been untouched who learned to bear,
        Some whom no Power could ever force to droop,
        Who could resist themselves even, hardest care!

        And task most hopeless; but some such have been,
        And if my name amongst the number were,
        That Destiny austere, and yet serene,

        Were prouder than more dazzling fame unblessed;
        The Alp’s snow summit nearer heaven is seen
        Than the Volcano’s fierce eruptive crest,

        Whose splendour from the black abyss is flung,
        While the scorched mountain, from whose burning breast
        A temporary torturing flame is wrung,

        Shines for a night of terror, then repels
        Its fire back to the Hell from whence it sprung,
        The Hell which in its entrails ever dwells.

      • Lord Byron? Now who is he again? Why so “mad, bad and dangerous to know”?

      • mad, bad and dangerous to know

        Famous words from Lady Caroline Lamb — an older woman who (according to Byron’s defenders) threw herself at Byron after the success of Childe Harold. The ultimately had a sordid affair in which she proved to have a sexual appetite that terrified the Byron. He fled, and she said those words in vengeance. But after Byron’s death, she declared to his friend John Hobhouse “I am very sorry I ever said one unkind word against him.”

        But I would think that you would be interested in Byron if for no other reason than Manfred — a Faustian play in verse with a twist — the damned Manfred is offered salvation, but declines it preferring to reject all authority — Providential or otherwise — and face death and eternal torment rather than compromise his principles. (Surely you remember seeing references to it in Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, Dostoevsky’ s Notes from the Underground, and Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49.) Arguably Manfred was the very pinnacle of the Romantic movement.

        (Another good Byron play is Cain which retells the familiar story from Genesis from an unusual view: Cain’s.)

      • We may find the Bloom fellows conflated all we like, but who should ignore Lynn Z. Bloom? She doesn’t: “I am … neither Harold (‘Read my list!’) nor Allen (‘Read Great Works!’).” Her work on the “essay canon” is important as is her work on the writing process, especially the writing of (auto)biographies, including The Seven Deadly Virtues.

        If Bloom’s thesis about biography is correct (i.e., that “biographers read all of their subjects’ works–plays, poetry, novels, and satires– as straight autobiography”), then it’s fascinating that Byron writes Cain so. Of course, it’s more interesting that he calls Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon a “F— and publish” work and admits “I read Glenarvon too by Caro Lamb….God damn!” but is silent reading, is rendered silent by, “A New Canto.” What a man of letters!, and she – the woman – has to be the scandalous one. She. She knew his voice, and he heard it in her long before Dumas and Dostoevsky quoted it, didn’t he?

        On Aristophanes’ Socrates v. Plato’s Aristophanes, isn’t the last laugh always best? But I can’t stop thinking about Bloom’s thesis. Yes, I mean Lynn Z. Bloom’s. And Plato’s ideal Gorgias (not the real Gorgias of course) made him (i.e., Plato) as much as “rhetorician” as he (i.e., Plato’s Gorgias) ever was. Funny.

      • Ah, now you’ve gone and done it — you’ve commented on one thread in another thread! How will future blogologists ever unwind all these comments, especially with 30 second attention spans?

      • Wonder if they’ll be able to sort the complex differences between wordpress and blogspot? Two different cultures no? (Why did I ever convert? It wasn’t for Nathan Stitt who has no attention span for the latter. Or was it?) And did you see those new Google Cars? Maybe those future blogologists will do their quick research in them:

  5. Just a couple of stray thoughts:

    Yesterday I watched a program about (religious) belief versus science. What I found more interesting was the interplay between the scientists: the arrogant ones, who think that with our knowledge there’s no more “room” or “need” for God; and the humble ones, who admit that, as our knowledge grows, so does our realisation of how much we still don’t know.

    Then the thought popped into my head: what if God is just playing with them? It seems that each time we think we’ve got it all tied up, someone finds another “layer” of reality underneath. So how many more layers are there below the current one, with its umpteen “sub-elementary” particles (even the physicist listing them couldn’t remember them all straight off).

    Then I sent myself into the naughty corner to transcribe 100 times: “I must not suggest that the nature of reality is just a joke that God is playing on scientists.” We all know that God doesn’t have a sense of humour. But he did create human beings …

    Have you ever wondered just how much you know / have remembered?

    On holiday this year I revisited a number of places that I have been too many times, and so am reasonably familiar with. I also drove some roads and visited places that I have only ever seen once before, and that more than ten years ago. If you had asked me to describe those places in advance, I couldn’t have told you much. But time and again, I would see something and think, “Ah, I remember that.” Or seeing one thing would remind me of something else that was just around the corner. While I needed something to trigger the memory, the data was “there” all the time. I don’t know where “there” is; but I doubt it can all be stored in my brain.

    So (not for the first time) I wonder whether in fact we “remember” everything that has ever happened to us, and we just need that trigger to recall it.

    Perhaps we are multi-dimensional beings, with only the tip of the iceberg “visible” to us at the moment. Or networked (I don’t mean interconnected, but rather connected to “something” beyond ourselves): with a lot going on server-side that we’re not consciously aware of. I also suspect that, although I think our bodies are much more than mere terminals, when this unit finally undergoes the fatal system crash that we call “death”, everything I call “me” won’t die with it. I’ll just need to log in somewhere else.

    Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t have read those Robert Sheckley books when I was young and impressionable.

    • Thanks, as always, for your thoughts!

      In reply, I must say I have a fair aversion to the notion that scientists are beliefless or are disbelievers. For over a decade now, I’ve had a running conversation with one of my very best friends, who calls himself “agnostic,” over the question about what the default human condition is: belief in God or disbelief? The scientists I know are passionate believers. They have to be. The medical scientists I know and believe in are people whom I really want as believers, in science. Must believers in God disbelieve science, or doubt it? Why must scientists automatically disbelieve the existence of God? Even the late Anthony Flew (Christian-youth, famous minister’s-son-turned-atheist-turned-theist/deist) said to a reporter of The Sunday Times that “the God in whose existence I have belatedly come to believe” is “most emphatically not the eternally rewarding and eternally torturing God of either Christianity or Islam but the God of Aristotle that he would have defined — had Aristotle actually produced a definition of his (and my) God — as the first initiating and sustaining cause of the universe.” The Aristotle of science believed if not defined God. If the father of binary logic could so believe, and still be a scientist, then why the necessary bifurcation of science belief and God belief for so many? (Incidentally, I had breakfast with my father-in-law, a retired Southern Baptist minister; and he has an ailment, for which he sought medicinal help, with much skepticism. What he said helped his belief in medicine most, in this case, was remembering the King Hezekiah not only appealing to God and obeying the word that came through the Prophet Isaiah but also procuring, making, and applying the fig-based medicine to his ailment. Science belief meets belief in God. Aren’t they one and the same?)

      As far as belief in the humor of God, in ironic humor, in creative humor against disbelievers, I wonder. Flew doesn’t mention the God of Judaism when running past Christianity and Islam, but don’t the Hebrew scriptures have God laughing in Sefer Tehillim (notably in what we call, in Greek transliteration, Psalm 2:2)? And who is that Patriarch Isaac? (To be fair, Christian Elton Trueblood carefully reviews The Humor of Christ; and “The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) showed humor, but he would only speak the truth,” says Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz.)

      Memory is fascinating. Yes, its only the tip of the iceberg that we see it seems. We’re doing some research now with our students, trying to get them to access their short term memory, their “phonological loop” or their “verbal working memory.” In the long run, it seems that the short term provides many language learning gains for us adults.

      Robert Sheckley when you were young and impressionable? Well, I’d say you’re well-practiced in your willingness to suspend your disbelief. 🙂

  6. In Eastern Orthodoxy, when we are speaking of someone who has died, we say “Memory Eternal!” This is not about calling up a person’s image to the screen of our, or God’s, mind’s eye. It’s a prayer that God would eternally “recognize” the departed person as belonging to Him.


  7. BTW, “Divine Conspiracy” had a profound effect on me. After +40 years of being a “believer”, it was that book that convinced me that God is good, that there is no “catch” to the depth of his intentions of kindness. Willard enabled me to start letting go of all sorts of bar codes.


    • Dana, Thank you for sharing the change in you! Willard’s book is not easy for a number of reasons, and it’s plenty fresh and deep. One of the most profound things he offers is his acid test for any theology. Now you’re inspiring me to blog another post, on love.

  8. Just wanted to say that Theophrastus’ opening comment has been haunting me. I hope to blog about it. This is a terrific comment thread.

  9. Pingback: “and may the change abound”: RIP Dallas Willard | BLT

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