Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Nature Abhors the Vaccuum

[No one need bother me about the spelling of "vacuum/vaccum/vaccuum," as the word has three legitimate spellings. I go for the one with the most letters, of course.]

Aristotle was the one who said that nature abhors a vaccuum. The personification in the statement is interesting, because, as we now understand vaccuums, it is enough to say the noun to imply the activity. Vaccuums are absences, and thus all presences rush toward them. There is no need for any one or any thing to be horrified or angry.

When Christians imputed a directly intentional and affective value to forces in nature, Aristotle's statement had more profound rational and cosmological ramifications than a simple induction. First, his statement affirmed the plenum. (Contra the prior link, it was not "Descartes" who had the plenum. It was everyone. It was Newton, too. I hate scientists with heroes and villains stories to tell.) This cosmological outlook did not hold that the universe is varied and rich, but that it is so rich that there are no discernible gaps between orders and classes of living and non-living things. Creation is so full that there are infinite steps of quality and complexity between ranks and infinite ranks overall along Jacob's ladder. (Jacob's ladder, meanwhile, is not merely a metaphor for a vision Jacob had (Jacob sees angels of the Lord going up and coming down from heaven, and then that graduated ranking is described by means of a figure of speech, "ladder"), but a vision of the order of the universe (the universe is composed of moving ranks and graduations reaching from Heaven to earth) that is eternal and may be understood by multiple figures of speech.)

The plenum itself reflected God. This was not code, but rather nature. While the enlightened soul and those in a state of grace might contemplate God's love in the plenitude of creation or by imagining and constructing with art a microcosm/macrocosm, whereby the whole perceptible and spiritually experienced universe was, like a vast fractal, infinitely reproducing and consistent, the intent behind all things was love, being, and essence rather than a message. God is God, and the infinitely full universe might give intellectual delight or emotional solace, but the fullness was not there for a statement, but simply because of God's nature and creation.

The second effect of Aristotle's statement for Christians in the renaissance was that some popes (Leo X on, basically) grew so famously pleased with the coherence of the cosmology of the plenum that they made a Scribblerian mistake. Martin Scribblerus, hero of The Memoirs of Martinus Scribblerus, is a well read fool, and he consistently insists that whatever is logical according to deduction is true, no matter what evidence or reality says. So, too, these popes took a bold and brave stand against the vaccuum. Arguing against the real in favor of the logical is a losing proposition, but only in the end. Nobody likes to give up on logic just because some smart-Alec claims that Archimedes made a vaccuum pump.

It's grimly amusing that fractals these days make Fibonacci numbers look more and more like justification for the old faith in the plenum, but there's no irony in it. In the event, zero had enough of a reality to demonstrate, and soon scientists and mine owners began evacuating all over Europe. Volta guns and light bulbs would appear apace.

There was another kind of vaccuum that inventors played with. Boil your cabbage in a tin pot, and then seal it shut with solder. The molecules in the air will be very far apart, and, as the cabbage slurry cools, the air will compress. The can of cabbage can be sold to Napoleon, and he can take it to Russia, where it will be somewhat fresh three months after the cooking.

Canning started with Napoleon's army -- although they really began with bottles -- and that meant a need to find ways of holding seals and temperature. The Thermos bottle was the German patenting of a Scottish invention, and our Apollo rockets, like some of our missiles, are just grand Thermos bottles at heart (and you thought "Thermos" was an English word? Did you also think Robert Goddard invented rocketry?). Now we even offer to have super-cooled electrical transmission lines, and people propose liquid nitrogen in the field.

We never have found nothing, by the way, nor might we. A simple vaccuum of air is easy, and the pope could have kept his seat cushions untussled. A zero, though, is imperceptible by definition, and I agree with Kant that it's really a foul ball in intellect.

Loss, cooling, and vacuum seals are another matter. Them I believe in.

Before Christmas, during one of the freestyle bits of the liturgy, when the priest fills in the blanks ("May we, along with _____ and all your saints, be in your eternal kingdom"), he mentioned Saint Joseph, as he rightly would and should. Back in 2001, I heard a deaconess at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan talk about Joseph. She talked about his role as the patron of adoptive fathers, about the acceptance and humility he had. He did not reject Mary, and he went as a refugee to Egypt to protect her and the child that was not his. I have never since been able to approach Christmas without thinking about Joseph, or without why he stands out so.

In 1999, the children left for Rhode Island. I can't criticize. There are many gripes to gripe, but there is no point. When they left, I lost a deeper part of myself, a deeper connection, than a limb. I have a missing place where two children were, and it is permanent. That cavern is hollow, and there is no way to fill it. There isn't a way to reconnect, either, because I didn't lose friends. By 2003, I didn't mourn every day, but the stone was formed. I was a drum.

My mother's death is surprising. There are practical manifestations of such a loss. When the branch from which the leaves hang is gone, the leaves have no connection to one another anymore. Without children and wife to be interconnected, I am untied from the large mass that was family. Each holiday, therefore, sounds out against the hollows where once there was a messy complication of family.

Aside from that, when I am not working every day, I dream of her death's fact four nights a week, more or less. It might be dreaming of a tree in the backyard that is no longer the back yard. It might be neighbors casting paving stones at birds and killing the pileated woodpeckers. It may be having to drive my mother to see the family. It may show up in a dozen different disguises, but it's the same event, the same fact, the same concavity.

I wish to finish this essay soon, so that it will be nominally in 2013, because 2013 is its subject.

I'm lying. The subject of this essay is, of course, the surprising vaccuum. I have not changed, as I am as baffled by career as ever. I am as honest and friendly as before. At the same time, it is shocking that some things, some events, are not plastic, that some clippings and removals are permanent; they leave their profiles in consistent places that will never more be regained. When I am alone, when I hear my own thoughts, I don't regret anymore being alone. Instead, I regret the fact that there is no use in arguing with fact, that there is no use in complaining that things do not work out justly, and I have these resonating losses, this vaccuum seal, that moors me in zero.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


I can't stand talking about grace, because it gives me a headache. The problem is, we shouldn't be speaking of "grace" as a noun at all, because the moment we do, the word suffers a syntactic infection from other nouns, and then there are flavors of grace, stripes of grace, and amounts of grace. That said, I can no more avoid the nominal form of the word than anyone else.
But a greater inconvenience it bred, that every later endeavoured to be certain degrees more removed from conformity with the Church of Rome, than the rest before had been; whereupon grew marvelous great dissimilitudes, and by reason thereof, jealousies, heartburnings, jars and discords among them” (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity I, 2.2).
"Grace" as a word just denotes "gift." It is, in fact, what Advent is about -- a gift being given to humanity. The word "grace" shows up in "gratias" (for free) in Latin (which becomes gratis in UK/US parlance -- "no charge"), "gracias" in Spanish, and "grazie" in Italian. (The Romans used "gratis" for "thanks" in the same way that Spanish uses "de nada" -- "no problem/charge/burden" -- or English says "no big deal." Spanish and Italian derived their words from Latin.)

Celebrating Christmas is strange. In a churchly setting, there is the mass of Christ -- the church service with eucharist/communion -- held to honor the feast of the birth of Jesus, but that is a single day of obligation. It doesn't necessitate, or bear, a great deal of wittering and frittering. On the other hand, Advent is the liturgical season leading up to the feast of Christ, and that does have pageantry and a series of themes. The traditional theme, and the one you will hear in your lectionary readings, is the fulfillment of prophecy, the kairos, or rightness and fullness of time.

The more Protestant side of the celebration is the theme of grace. Advent shows God giving a gift. Jesus's birth as man is neither obligatory nor deserved. It is something given by God for God's will. Man was dead set against the birth and the message.

You cannot ask for a freely given gift, and you cannot earn a gift. If you ask for it, or earn it, it is not a gift. Therefore, while Paul ends some of his epistles with, "May the ... grace of our Lord" be with the congregation, it's a strange idea. We have to assume that Paul is hoping only and not actually petitioning. In the Book of Common Prayer used by all in the Anglican communion, parishioners ask God for grace for repentance after confession.

Salvation had been possible before the incarnation, but only for the Chosen people, and only by the law. God gave a superabundant gift in being born and breaking the first major falling of man in the process. (When man fell, the first great consequence was being divorced from the presence of God. Being unable to speak directly to God and to know that there is a certain moral universe is the profound fall of the soul and undergirds all else.) God gave a second gift on top of that by giving salvation to any and all who would but follow the Christ. Men still had and have a choice, and they could -- as most did -- continue to insist that the messiah had to be a Davidic king who would conquer Rome and set up material wealth for Judea/Israel. Third, of course, in the death and resurrection, Jesus gave a gift of eternal life and the Kingdom of the spirit rather than the law. He sent thereafter the paraclete, or Holy Spirit. Since then, nothing has fundamentally changed or needed to change: through the comforter, we have access to God; we still must choose the Christ; gentiles and Jews alike are called.

This is grace. Man did not earn it. Man did not even know how to ask for it. What was given was given by God for God's will.

This is not how I hear people use the word "grace." I hear it, instead, used as "state of grace" and mumblejumble grace for salvation. I hear the word "grace" used to talk about a sort of rocket pack or Flubber for the soul. What's worse is that all of this comes out of the most perverse need to justify assumptions rather than observation.

One line goes like this: If men are born with a sin upon them, then men are born fit for Hell. If they are fit for Hell, then they are depraved. If they are depraved, then they are depraved through and through. If they are depraved through and through, then they can't choose to accept the Gospel and believe on their own. Instead, "grace" has to do it. Because grace, and grace alone, is responsible for the conversion of the depraved sinner to the saved elect, it is irresistible and total. What's more, it is "abounding" and "abiding," and that means that, having been the rocket pack that makes the person seek God, hear God, and accept God, it sticks around to steer.

The other line says, If men are born with sin upon them, then they are born erring. If they err by nature, they cannot see the good from the evil reliably. Their conscience now, their intellect then, and their bodies another time will alternately fail. Therefore, the seeker needs help -- a bit of extra bounce to get above human capacities -- but the seeker must then be peak human to decide on salvation. This grace is flubber, and it sticks around, too, but it is a special force that God brings to bear only when the human is in most danger of being lost.

The first of these theologies leads to abuses whereby people argue that their salvation is permanent, no matter what they do. As Fielding's Parson Adams says, they'll meet their Savior and say that, though they never acted on any of his commandments, they believed 'em all. The second one leads to further qualification and quantification of the types of human and supernatural flickering and sparking. Both lead to folks being the judge of their own grace and, if possible, other people's.

I lean far more toward the grace that resolves to the human soul's free will, but I mainly lean away from any discussion of "grace" as a thing. The arrogance involved in saying, from this example in the Bible or that one, that God affects a turning heart by doing exactly this for each and every heart is staggering. What Job went through is not what Mary went through, and what Peter went through is not what Thomas went through. For people to argue what "must" be the case with God's operation in the Holy Spirit is shocking.

We should, instead, be ashamed that we don't know how to respond to a gift. It is with gratitude and celebration.