Tag Archives: Touchstone

Life pouring in, every moment.

 “…the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.”

I’m sure I don’t know all the reasons, but my mind has often been overfull, or numb, or empty — or all three?? — of late, while as a whole embodied person I have been awfully busy, so much so that I also haven’t had time to be about the typical documentarist, analytical or musing business. I do feel that I am changing, which is to be expected, and is normal…  As I get older I often think, Who knows when I will wake up one morning without the strength to do ___ ? I better take my opportunity now!

So many of those opportunities keep coming my way, one after the other, cascading through the weeks. I am very thankful. In between, when I stagger into the house and drink my tea, read a few blogs and fall into bed, I feel incapable of putting thoughts together in writing here. Which is okay, because, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says,

“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Even the things that are new to us as individuals are not new to humanity, and whatever I might think and write about has been said before. Maybe I myself even said it before! That is the case with the quote at top, which was part of a post I “wrote,” or assembled, to put it more accurately, several years ago. I was surprised and pleased to come across it today,  when WordPress was giving me fits and caused me to stay longer at my computer, when I ought to have been out shopping for Thanksgiving menu items. The old blog post helps me think about things I’ve been reading recently.

One of the opportunities I had this month was to participate in a newly formed local book group that was reading Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. I had been wanting to read something by Percy for at least twenty years; two or three books by him had come and gone from my shelves without being read. So I tackled the Cosmos book and joined the group, in large part to meet the other readers who were interested in such a book.

Walker Percy

I didn’t love the book, I think mostly because I have watched so little TV in my adult life, and was not familiar with the many references to shows and personalities; I missed the allusions by which I would have accessed the humor. In preparation for our group discussion I read a review of Lost in the Cosmos by Alan Jacobs, who claims that Carl Sagan is the main (unmentioned) character in the book, and that Percy is writing partly in response to the 1981 PBS series “Cosmos” (by Carl Sagan), which opens with Sagan’s narration, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Jacobs gives us his take: “‘Cosmos’ was not about science, but about allowing us to observe a scientist with an attractive personality as a substitute for thinking scientifically.”

The middle section of Lost in the Cosmos is a lesson in semiotics, and it was my favorite part, once I put my mind to it. I have wanted to learn about this field of study which someone has described as “an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated.” So that was another opportunity not to pass up.

If you remember watching “Cosmos,” or are interested in how modern man has lost himself, and what it all has to do with semiotics and television, you might want to read that review by Jacobs, or even read Lost in the Cosmos. A few people in our discussion group said that they like Walker Percy’s novels better than this ironic “self-help book”: The Moviegoer, for example. I hope I will get around to reading one of them.

The article that prompted my post of eight years ago, “Space is the womb of life,” was by Michael Baruzzini, in Touchstone magazine, titled “Lost in Space.” I had forgotten that Carl Sagan had ever been referenced on my blog, but in that article Baruzzini compares Carl Sagan’s view of “space” to that of C.S. Lewis’s character Ransom in the Space Trilogy (the “he” in the quote at top).

Baruzzini traces the development of modern man’s concept of the heavens to the point where Sagan could authoritatively tell us, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” He then shares some of what fills the heavens, revealed by modern scientific instruments — such as the “glowing background of radiation left over from the early moments of the universe,” and the invisible particles that show up in the aurora borealis.

One thing Sagan evidently gets right is how we are made of stardust! My readers are likely more aware of these discoveries than I am; as I said, I have watched little TV, and read few scientific articles or books. Still, I find it easy to get lost in browsing Hubble photos. More from the Touchstone article:

“[A]ll of the particles that make up our bodies and the familiar world around us are the products of reactions deep within stars. The same reactions that turn simple protons into the rocks and waters of planets also form the complex elements in living things, starting with the indispensable element carbon, which makes up the backbone of all organic molecules.”

A caption on the above photo reads: “This image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows the area around the Lagoon Nebula, otherwise known as Messier 8. This nebula is filled with intense winds from hot stars, churning funnels of gas, and energetic star formation, all embedded within an intricate haze of gas and pitch-dark dust.” The empyrean ocean! How did Lewis know?

Surely his understanding grew out of the richness of his Christian world view, which informed his knowledge of philosophy, theology and literature — something like Baruzzini describes:

“From the readiness with which medieval Christianity accepted the nested order of the Aristotelian universe, to the progressive cosmic orders of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and even to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth creation myth, which speaks of the habitation of man as nestled far within the ‘Deeps of Time,’ the idea of a universe of meaningful immensity and density has been amenable to the Christian mind. Man finds himself not lost in the cold, but placed precisely in a life-giving realm, not too unlike a developing infant folded deep in the tissues of his mother, or a vibrant reef enveloped in the nourishing flows and currents of the ocean.”

Flaming Star Nebula

The “meaningful immensity and density” is not only a quality of the material world: the earthly and heavenly things we can see, whether with the naked eye or modern instruments, are reflections of spiritual realities. The heavens declare the glory of God to a degree, but they speak of a personal God who wants to reveal His glory in the realm of the human spirit. Let us fall down and worship.

A word on prayer.

President Abraham Lincoln’s heartfelt message below came to my attention last week, by way of J. Douglas Johnson, an editor of Touchstone Magazine. Here is a piece of history of the best sort, which it comforts and encourages me to read. I’m always thankful for our founding fathers and more recent statesmen who have gone before us and been taken from us, but no matter how wise and good the best of them were, their perspective will no doubt have been adjusted at least somewhat since they have departed.

But if Abraham Lincoln is praying for us today, I suspect that his supplication might include the essence of what he thought important back then. Johnson remarks: “What I find so remarkable about the speech is that Lincoln at no point attempts to persuade the Southern states (or to inspire the Northern ones) about the rightness of the Union cause or the evils of slavery. Instead, he goes right to the core, echoing the words of our Lord spoken through the prophet Hosea:

“‘When I fed them, they were satisfied;
when they were satisfied, they became proud;
then they forgot me. (Hosea 13:6)'”

PROCLAMATION APPOINTING
A NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER AND FASTING
March 30, 1863

Whereas, the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the supreme authority and just government of the Almighty God in all the affairs of men and of nations has by a resolution requested the president to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliation:

And whereas, it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God: to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon: and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord:

And inasmuch as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown; but we have forgotten God.

We have forgotten the gracious land, which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God who made us:

It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

All this being done in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings, that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace.

—Abraham Lincoln

Sun temples don’t celebrate in winter.

Why is Christmas on December 25? Did Christians make use of a pagan festival date when they decided to celebrate Christ’s birth? Very unlikely, as you will understand if you read William J. Tighe’s  “Calculating Christmas.”

“In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious [to some] that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

“There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.”

Tighe explains that “…the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.”

If they didn’t choose December 25 for that reason, why did they? For reasons we never would have thought of in modern times. Read the whole brief article to find out.

The poetry of a wise man might crack your shell.

Many people seem to think that politics will save us, that if we could just get the right people, or “our people” in office, they would begin to set things right, however we envision that. Anthony Esolen in the article Listening Up, in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of Touchstone magazine, discusses some reasons for this idea, and its often corresponding impulse to judge our human forefathers for their sins, judgment not “by eternal verities, but by the cheap modern substitute, the ‘political.'”

He believes we lack historical imagination, and he sets out to consider the different ways one might make better use of stories and history in general, giving examples first from antiquity:

So to attempt to transpose Xenophon or Cyrus to the current day, and to grill him with “political” questions, is not to think politically at all, but to replace reality with a caricature. You will learn nothing from Xenophon that way. You may instead be out to teach him a lesson, him, that is, being the cartoon Xenophon you have made. At no time do you allow yourself to be still and to learn, so that the poetry of a wise man might penetrate your shell, crack it open, and show you the stars.

Once you enter the world of history, you encounter the maddening complexity of human affairs, not to mention that labyrinth called the human heart. With hindsight we can say, with some confidence, that the young Octavius was far better suited for governing the Roman world than was the elder and more experienced Antony. We cannot be so sure of ourselves, though, when it comes to the noble-minded Brutus, and the ambitious and capable Julius Caesar, whom he assassinated.

Esolen goes on to mention American leaders of note, and of complex history and character, such as William Tecumseh Sherman, and Stonewall Jackson, “a genuinely kindly owner of slaves.” And then he comes to his “three broad categories of modern man, each of them characterized by the stories they listen to and tell”: The Man of Faith, The Man of Wistful Unbelief, and the Man of Superstition.

I found his categories to be very helpful in understanding differences between people in the first two groups especially, and their stories that nourish our hearts. Oh, if only the third group would quiet down and listen to some true stories! But they don’t like the stories of the other two groups, and have their own ever-changing and doubtful heroes.

“History is too dark and tangled a forest for them, sacred Scripture too high a mountain to climb. Therefore they fall into worship of the biggest or most prominent things near them: sex, themselves, the State.”

“They are not brave enough to enter the dark caverns of the human heart…. they cannot forgive what men and women really are. They have no sense of sin, which afflicts everyone, including themselves, but they grasp at being among the elect, by having the most up-to-date pseudo-political opinions.”

You can read the whole article here: “Listening Up.”

People who make history know nothing about history.
You can see that in the sort of history they make.
-G.K. Chesterton