The 99% Percent Problem

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How often we hear that over 90% of this, or 95% of that, or even 99% of something else surprisingly dwarfs the remaining few percent in the calculation, and that our world and our lives seem to get almost squeezed out of existence in their appointed share of reality.  Are we really living in that little blue slice of the pie in the picture above? Take a look at some of the stats:

99% of the space of the entire cosmos is empty.

99% of every atom is also empty.

More than 95% of the world’s ocean floor is still unmapped and the life forms that inhabit it largely unknown.

Over 90% of all the living cells in our body are not human (…not to leave this one hanging in the air:  they are microorganisms).

Over 95% of the extant matter in the cosmos has hitherto escaped our analysis (so-called ‘dark energy and matter’). All our vaunted knowledge of material reality is about that remaining 5%.

99.9% of the history of the universe had already spent itself by the time we humans came onto the scene.

99,5% of all the species that have ever existed on earth are extinct.

Well over 90% of our genetic material we share with other primates, and most of it even with lower life forms.

(There are some others, but I think that will do.)

There doesn’t seem to be much entity left over after these overwhelming statistical genocides.  However, only too often such statistics have been used by the purveyors of scientism in order to divest our human experience of meaning, value and purpose.  We are, they will repeat mantra-like, just a teeny-weeny speck in the immeasurable vastness of space; just one more animal, one more mammal, among all the other products of random evolutionary throws of the dice, differing by only a slender sliver of genetic information; and our so treasured ‘world’ is actually just so much empty space, patterned upon empty atoms and empty galaxies, sporadically sprinkled with transient molecules and lonely stars; and the fact that our ‘life form’ is still around is at most just good luck, since almost every other species has long since vanished, and the ones that are still with us may not be around for long. Modern mavens of the supremacy of science love to wow us with these quantitative boasts. But they are, as usual, misguided.

Consider the following: If I have a hundred pebbles and only one of them happens to be a diamond, its 1% status in the pile of rock hardly compromises its value. And one sound philosophical conclusion from the declaration that atoms and cosmic space are predominantly empty is to note that neither of those perspectives are actually relevant to living a human life. Leaving the empty macro- and microcosmoses to the astronauts and nuclear physicists, we who dwell in the mesocosmos (that is, the surrounding spectacle greeted by our five senses) have a world very full indeed – of things, people, mountains, rivers, oceans, continents, and marvels in abundance. Read the world’s best poets and you’ll learn more about this saner view of reality, and also know instinctively that our world is truly a full and overflowing cornucopia of very solid wonders.

We dwellers of the humble earth eagerly wait to see pictures of the deep sea creatures yet to be found, as we also greet every new butterfly or lizard discovered in the Amazon. We rejoice in the ocean of microbes that our human tissues swim in, grateful for their contribution to our well-being and happy to be in the cellular minority.  That the scientists still call 95% of the cosmos dark stuff (that is, unknown) seems to us a salubrious humiliation in the face of their often over-preening claims of the past. And that most of the species of earth have already passed into history we find astonishing indeed, so rich and various are the countless few that still parade before us.

It hardly matters that most of astronomical and geological time is behind us (where else could it go?), for the story of our remarkable race continues to be extraordinary, whether its time on earth has lasted half an everlasting aeon or just half an hour. And – thinking again of the diamond – if we have only a small portion of exclusively human genetic material, that handful of DNA is about as potent and momentous as that diamond among the pebbles, or of a uranium atom in an A-bomb, or of any lonely Adam looking out at an endless zoo, awash with wonder at a vision only Infinity could have fashioned.

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Images and Symbols

The crucifix is an image; the cross is a symbol. The distinction is not academic. When we compare the imaginative universe of Islam and Hinduism, for example, we find in the first instance a tradition that is wary of images, and for the most part prohibits figurative depictions of sensory creatures in any shape or form; indeed, the higher they are in the hierarchy of life, the less are their images tolerated – humans far less than brute beasts, and holy humans (say, Moses, Jesus or Mohammed) least of all. In contrast, the complex religious tradition of India seems to breed a jungle of images, and the high and holy get more than most. Still, if we are to be exact (and perhaps a tad academic after all), the Hindu world’s statues and pictures are not really images at all; they are symbols. At the risk of oversimplification, Islam would ideally ban all images, and only allow vegetative and calligraphic ornamentation; Hinduism, on the other hand, could conceivably accept any and all images, but only under the whispered condition (shared among the wise) that they are nothing more than symbols. The image (the ‘icon’) re-presents something absent by way of similarity (a portrait, photo, etc.); a symbol only suggests or vehicles something, but something so large, complex or mysterious that similarity cannot be obtained (liturgical colors, a church spire, a country’s flag, etc.). There are important intersections and overlappings of the two, but we shall remain here within the problematic of the basic distinction.

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Now there are rather transparent metaphysical reasons why Islam is in principle “aniconic” (unfavorable to images), and Hinduism profusely iconic. The devout Muslim, resolutely intent on affirming the uniqueness and unicity of God, fears that distance between image and idol could shrink to near coincidence when higher creatures are made object of a figurative imitation. He espies here two lurking temptations of committing shirk (the attribution of divine qualities to a creature): 1) by the very act of producing a simulacrum of animals and men, you could fall into the error of fancying yourself a divine Creator of worlds; and 2) the work of art thus produced will most likely mislead at least some into adoration, and you will have fashioned an idol. Contemporaneous in time and almost coterminous in problematic were Christianity’s own struggles with the matter of icons, but its theology would impose a unique solution, as we shall see.

Students of Indian thought are well aware of the looming notion of maya, a conceptual lens through which one sees the material world as being: 1) in a dark sense, a dance of forms that pretends to be what it is not and thus provokes ‘illusory’ states of consciousness, or 2) in a deeper and more luminous sense, the very ma-gical and ma-terial play of true reality – those two ma‘s are both Indo-European cognates of the one in ma-ya – and thus capable of being its vehicle to the properly purified eye. But however one interprets the word, the Hindu sees the world not only as contingent in the Western sense (something that is but could also not be), but also, and more innately, as a permanently morphing, gossamery appearance in forever changing continuities and discontinuities with absolute reality. The gods themselves (as various forms of Ishvara, the ‘personal god’) emerge and submerge as fugitive faces of this or that aspect of Brahman. Some of them even ‘descend’ as missionary avatars (Rama or Krishna, for example), penetrating into the lower, denser regions of maya to be of service to those struggling to be freed of its ceaseless, pointless flow (samsara). But for the Hindu, that flow, symbolized by the Dance of Shiva, has gone on forever and will never, can never end. It is, after all, what the universe is.

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Christians share with Jews and Muslims the belief that the world is the result of an irreducibly and metaphysically personal and free act on the part of God, and that the whole creation is therefore particular. The Almighty could have created any number of other, very different worlds than the one we live in, and accordingly, we are related to God in a very particular way.  For the Abrahamic faiths, the world is not an endless play of forms, but rather a book one is invited to read, a message one receives, a very specific cosmos (with an exact speed of light, for example). For the Semitic faiths, it is not a perpetual and unending manifestation of all the possibilities inherent in the divine infinitude, but rather one possibility, and one very heavy with meaning.

Historians of science have often puzzled over why modern science (with all its blessings and all its curses) only arose in a Christian, European milieu. But it is probably that very Biblical conviction about creation that made the scientific approach to the cosmos possible to being with. If the world is not in any way contiguous with God, a part of God, God ‘inside-out’, or a co-equal emanation of his being, but is instead quite distinct and particular in relation to its Maker, modern science becomes possible. Investigating the world of mass and energy and disclosing its physical laws will no longer be proscribed as the violation of a sanctuary, but seen as the logical response to the very logos-laden universe spread out before us. Such a universe is understood indeed as expressive of God, but in the very ‘local’ language of a specific world.

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All of this specificity gives to a cosmos that is most definitely contingent also a high measure of reality, however dependent on the God who made it. The meditative Hindu will ultimately be driven to see everything – even himself – as a fleeting symbol of the Absolute. He will often view his only destiny as a dissolution into that solvent matrix. The Christian, in contrast, finds his own personhood and that of the God who created him to be quite solid and abiding poles between which life and knowledge and love can flow, the poles growing but never changing in substance. Nonetheless, since the particular world also necessarily manifests mysteries of God in its every detail, symbols will play an important (though not central) role in Christian faith, as they do similarly in Judaism and Islam.

In Christian tradition in particular, there is no shortage of crosses as symbols of the Redemption, of Sacred and Immaculate Hearts as symbols of love and purity, lifted arms as gestures of prayer, and liturgical colors and vestments suggestive of an ever-splendid background to the sacramental mysteries. All these are like a divinely designed symbolic foil to the very real gems of the divine presence, or – switching the metaphor – an orchestral accompaniment to a soaring tenor. That tenor, however, is singing a story. Sovereignly above and beyond all this sea of symbols are the pictures: from the Manger Scene and portrayals of Christ in miracle and word, to the ultimate images and icons of the Crucified Savior and the Empty Tomb. These are not symbols suggesting transcendent verities or values, but depictions of  historical facts that tell a story in which God touches the world in a way unknown to the Vedas and the Gita, the Sutras of the Buddha, or even the Torah and the Qu’ran. It’s what puts the ‘new’ in the New Testament, and plants a ‘sign of contradiction’ (Lk. 2,34) in the course of human history.

Christian belief in the Incarnation – and in its train: the Resurrection, the sacraments and a transformed but still very physical New Jerusalem – means that out of the ambiguous and shifting world of indirect symbols, the faces and deeds of the Paschal Mystery step forth dramatically and generate very direct images, and that these images will become Christianity’s most characteristic imaginative language. In 787, the last of the Church’s first seven ecumenical councils will poise the world of Christian art squarely, though delicately, between the iconoclasm of the Muslims and the symbolic exuberance of the Hindus. But it does this by affirming the free act of the personal God who took hold of his own creation and became one with it in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. That act and the resulting facts will produce a world of architecture, painting and statuary that does indeed dip freely and creatively into a palette of traditional emblems and symbols, but only in order to better frame the mysteries of the Word Incarnate and its unbreakable bond with the God-created universe destined to be his dwelling place.

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A Catholic Mind Awake

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My anthology of Bernard Kelly’s writings has finally been launched by Angelico Press. It would be difficult to exaggerate the richness of Kelly’s mind. His works consist of articles and book reviews written over a quarter of a century, and one short book on Gerard Manley Hopkins, none of this ever before published together. Only now can they be read as a single and surprisingly cohesive opus; the effect is rather overwhelming. He died at the age of 51 in 1958, when I was but a wee lad, but I had the good fortune of happening upon his works and his family nearly 25 years ago in the U.K. It has been long in coming, but through the good services of Angelico Press and a young student of mine who is a whizz at typing and all things digital, we have finally given birth to the book. It was quite a labor to collate, edit and organize, and making the sometimes idiosyncratic text legible and accessible was not easy. I did, however, provide translations of his frequent quotes in Latin and French – including some Greek and Sanskrit terms – so that the monoglot reader need not shy away.  (For Contents, Introduction, photos of Kelly and sample chapter, see “Bernard Kelly” in the top menu.)

 

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