Reading

The Russian Winter

 

Minard grafficDear Russell & Friends,

A short post on a long book?  The graphic by Minard above is hanging in my study.  I first saw it in consultation with our hospital’s statistician.  He described it as the best information graphic ever.  I purchased the inexpensive print in an Edward Tufte conference on the graphical display of information that my oldest and I attended together 5 years ago.  Hobby Lobby did the rest.

The graphic depicts Napoleon’s march to and retreat from Moscow in the War of 1812.  And that was the extent of my knowledge until reading Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace.  Like a visit to Israel, reading and reflecting on this book takes time.  Tolstoy has fascinated me since I read that his apologetic influenced but did not convince Gandhi.  I took Oprah’s advice to read Anna Karenina and found my favorite opening line ever, an explanation for my upbringing, and a hope for my children and grandchildren:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Like so many of you, my history and future is an amalgam of the clauses of this brilliant sentence.  I found that Anna Karenina was a profound portrait of humanity and I found in Levin a man I could admire and even emulate in his pursuit of authentic faith.  So, when the the itch to read War & Peace arose, I was ready to scratch.  I listened to the story from Audible, just less than 1 hour a day with occasional splurges on the way to the airport.  It took a quarter of a year.

And here I am – – done.  I wrote the topics that Tolstoy approached in my journal and I’d like to share them here soon.  It is astonishing.  Calculus, astronomy, medicine, literature, theology, history, philosophy and so much more.  The characters, at least 20 major, became friends or even worthy opponents.  And here I am – – done.  As the Texas Winter begins I can’t help but feel let down.  Finishing an amazing book leaves me wistful.  Will my life ever be apportioned with the time and knowledge to write like that, even read like that in more than borrowed minutes?

Consider this an introduction if you will.  I missed you in the blog and hoped that writing about reading would help get me off dead center.  May I ask?

  • Do you enjoy long books?
  • Do you feel a let down when they are done?
  • Have you read Tolstoy?
  • What were you surprised to learn in War & Peace?

Pascal – – 1:16

photo credit:  Charles Joseph Minard’s work, hanging in my study

Unwell

 

moon

I’m not crazy.  I’m just a little unwell.  I know, right now you can’t tell.   Matchbox 20

Dear Russell & Friends,

My oldest son and I joke that the best thing for writer’s block is to write about it.  Perhaps that’s why the musician strums and plunks, the sculptor abstracts, and the poet zooms into the mundane.  One week ago I took the first two pills of a z-pack, the five day course of needless antibiotic that I sometimes retreat to after several days of sore throat, low grade fevers, and general crumminess.  Whether it was placebo effect, anti-inflammatory property or response to a true bacterial bronchitis I do not know.  I do know that the rest of the week felt progressively better.  And that I was able to take two hour naps with vivid, forgotten dreams. Unwell.  Why can’t I be thankful in the interregnum?  Why must illness remind me of health?  I can’t be alone.

This season has been more of intake and thought than output.  I’ve read more, written more in my journal, and prayed more on long runs that I hadn’t been capable of in some time.  I lost two colleagues in sudden death.  In career, in family, in calling I’ve been asking that classic middle-age question:  what do I want to be, who do I want to be, when I grow up?

One concept that came back to me was you.  This is only my second foray into digital life.  The first was a blog called The Breakfast Table that neither Russell nor I can find even with the internet wayback machine. I abandoned that blog as the cognitive load of corresponding with strangers was more than I could handle. What is different ten years later?  I have not Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.  There is just a friend who no longer believes, his family who may, and many people like him.  There is just my family and me who do believe, and a deep desire to find the intersection.  I need something that will last past fifty even though I am more aware than most that I may not.  You see, I’m an oncologist.  I have more experience than many with those who live with an awareness of the end.  And more recently with those who live life fully with no idea that today’s dawn is their last.

First rule of writer’s block rambling?  Keep it less than 500 513 words.  So, what?  I’m reading Francis Schaeffer, Thomas Paine, Isaiah and Leo Tolstoy.  I’m thinking of the 2,000 people who follow this blog and the 6 people who joined Charity Miles.  I’m thinking of why this effort matters to me and why it is okay to pause and grow and even to decay.  I’m thinking of fifty and how not to fail.  I’m thinking of a book called failure at fifty that I’ve been writing in my head.  All chapters start with an “f” word of more than four letters.  I need help with one for career.  More soon, I hope.  Just a little unwell.

Pascal – – 1:16

photo credit: Russell, his telescope & the 2015 blood moon

Agreeing On Nothing

Dear Russell & Friends,

Good morning.  I’ve missed you and thought often of you as I fire up the Charity Miles app.  Our RussellandPascal team has 6 members now with a total of 169 miles.  If my math is correct, that is over $41 donated to various charities that move us.  If my musing is correct, that is new money that we had perhaps intended to give but had not acted on.  Please join our team if you are able.  We would like to see half the blog followers join in the next one year and our goal for mileage is >10,000 (time to goal uncertain).

Russell and I had breakfast a week ago and after two hours we agreed upon nothing.  Don’t despair.  The reason I led with the Charity Miles collaboration is to remind you of how much we do agree on.  And, one cup of coffee in, it is quite possible that my insistence we agree upon nothing is a double entendre.  We talked about this book that I lent to Russell over Christmas break – –

the information

I loved the book and further thought that it might help me to understand my friend.  It did.  Here is another book that I’m reading with an extended quote below.

schaeffer

Love is not an easy thing; it is not just an emotional urge, but an attempt to move over and sit in the other person’s place and see how his problems look to him.  Love is a genuine concern for the individual.  As Jesus Christ reminds us, we are to love that individual “as ourselves.”  This is the place to begin.  Therefore, to be engaged in personal “witness” as a duty or because our Christian circle exerts a social pressure on us, is to miss the whole point.  The reason to do it is that the person before us is an image-bearer of God, and he is an individual who is unique in the world.  This kind of communication is not cheap.  To understand and speak to sincere but utterly confused twentieth-century people is costly.  It is tiring; it will open you to temptations and pressures.  Genuine love, in the last analysis, means a willingness to be entirely exposed to the person to whom we are talking.   —  Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There

How did these two books relate?  Gleick, in The Information, helped me to love my friend Russell.  I read the book with fascination and took notes in the cover.  I think I took notes – – Russell still has the book.  I read it around the same time that Russell introduced me to Sean Carroll and Howie and began to think – – why don’t I think this way?  It is quite a beautiful way to think.

Information theory then has become an area of interest for me and obsession for Russell (I’ll ask him to correct me if I overstate; I frequently do for effect).  Information theory found its way into our taco breakfast last week and helped us to agree on nothing.  Please accept a brief paraphrase.

R:  Even in the outer boundary of the known universe there is information.

P:  I don’t see it.  Quantum fluctuation maybe . . .

R:  But, that is information.

P:  I’m tracking – – I just didn’t consider that useful information.  So you’ll accept the noise and not just the signal?

R:  Yes.

P:  Remember how we’ve had a hard time agreeing about the definition of nothing?  How I insist that the Universe can’t naturally be made from nothing?

R:  Yes, but that has never bothered me.

P:  You know it bothers me?

R:  I do.

P:  So would you accept the complete lack of information as nothing?

R:  I would.

There are not many readers of this blog who will recognize the milestone that this represents in Russell’s and my communication.  We have gone to great lengths to understand each other, deconstruct straw men and yes – – to love each other.  As Schaeffer says, it has not been easy.  But this agreement, on nothing, meant the world to me.

Where will it lead?  Do I jump directly to an apologetic based on ex nihilo nilo fit?  Absolutely not.  I finish the post and prepare to run a 10K trail with two of my sons, thankful that I’ll log 6.2 more miles for water.  On that run I’ll thank my God for my friend and thank him for the love that lets us to talk to not past each other.

Pascal – – 1:16

Arguing with Ayn

Ayn_Rand1

Dear Russell and Friends,

There she is.  Demure smile, confident pose, piercing eyes & cigarette in hand.  She created the best book title ever – – Atlas Shrugged – – a title that compelled me to read.  Her first name rhymes with wine.  She is worth arguing with.  We could not disagree more on so many fundamental things.  And yet.

Ayn Rand is one of the best, smartest, most incisive writers that I have read.  She has strong opinions well reasoned that are diametrically opposed to my worldview and philosophy.  Is reading her an exercise in frustration?  No.  Not at all.

Atlas

Reading her is pure pleasure and reminds me that my life is too short to pick lesser books.  I’ve just begun The Fountainhead in its 25th anniversary edition.  Rand wrote the introduction in 1968 – – five years before I was born and a full 25 years before I could digest her ideas.

Now I’ll wrestle with Howard Roark just like I wrestled with Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden.  From the grave their ideas and speeches echo.  And so it is with Ms. Rand.  I want to invite her to our table and listen. Then I’d share what enthralls yet disappoints me.  Her protagonists are my antagonists – – they are Übermensch, gleaming strong and clear.  I need these antagonists – – worthy opponents in the circus of ideas. Her antagonists are straw.  Caricatures of bias, bigotry and weakness.  If only she could revise.  Would she?  If only she had the courage to face the strong and not the weak.  Would she?  Oh well.  Her gift to me remains – – enemies that I can respect and answer with a clear conscience.  Enemies that best me in more areas than I usually admit.  Enemies of concrete, steel, arcs and planes of soaring thought.  Enemies that could become friends.

What of my antagonist to her protagonist?  I hope to return her gift and not to duplicate her greatest mistake.

Pascal – – 1:16

 

photo credits:

Ayn Rand portrait by Phyllis Cerf (1916–2006) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ayn_Rand1.jpg#/media/File:Ayn_Rand1.jpg

“Objectivist1” by Michael Greene – originally posted to Flickr as Atlas 2. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Objectivist1.jpg#/media/File:Objectivist1.jpg

Another Year?

256px-Calendar_Vienna_1780

Dear Russell & Friends,

Another year.  Another year?  I remember us sitting at this table the Friday night before our first post setting up the parameters of the blog.  It leaked into Saturday morning.  We had picked our pseudonyms a week before.  No one has mentioned the connection to Ender’s Game.  Perhaps we have forgotten too – – am I Demosthenes or Locke?  I can’t remember.  I do remember the hesitation I had in titling my first post Why I am Not a Christian.  Would anyone get the irony?  It felt like an opening move in chess.  Then two weeks later, your post Why I am Not a Christian.  43 reasons.  Damn.  At least drop one and claim to have the answer to life, the universe, and everything.  Have I understood at least one of those reasons better?  The question has significance.  I used to argue. In honest truth, I enjoyed it – – probably still do.  What changed? Maybe years have added maturity.  I’m 42 now.  I do have the answer to life, the universe, and everything, so why flaunt it?  But I don’t think maturity is the answer – – maybe part of it, but not the answer.

You are the answer.  After two years of meeting we are becoming friends.  It takes time and we’re spending it. The more I know you, the harder it is for me to be irritated when I disagree.  You have no idea how much I disagree.  That’s not true – – I think you know very well.  But I see your motives, see your family, see you (African sense) and I’m not offended anymore.

What of our others – – those who join to read and write?  Where did they come from?  Our first other is your first other – – CC.  I hate that name, but love her.  She is an authentic doubter, not a Counterfeit Christian.  CC writes and thinks like me but with a woman’s perspective and with more talent.  She wanted me to befriend you, hoping I would change your mind.  That may never have been the goal – – we’ll have to ask her.  She loves you and wanted you to have another friend besides her.  I hope you know now that she’ll never leave you even if you never come back to faith – – and neither will I.

Why have others joined?  She brought some.  In the longest tail called the internet we have found an eclectic micro-niche of people who may wish to understand each other and build bridges.  We have called for and tried to model humility from both skeptical and believing perspectives.  Others just came.  You thought it was my posts on Romans.  Good gracious.  You could paper the walls of Grand Central Station with commentaries on Romans – – it was written almost two thousand years ago.  You may be right – – I’m just not sure.

Regardless of the reason, I have to balance my unattractive tendency to rejoice in growing statistics with a deeper and more noble desire to share what we’re building here.  I look forward to your post today.  It may be (insert sardonic smile) longer than mine.  It will be you – – someone I have grown to love.

Your brother,

Pascal

–1:16

 

photo credit:  old calendar, wikimedia commons, public domain

Two Way Street – – my heart for believers

The_two_bridges

 

Dear Russell & Friends,

We’re less than a week away from the first anniversary of our writing adventure.  We shall reclaim Friday the 13th for something useful.  As confessed before, I find myself reflective – – almost in a New Year’s Eve-y kind of mood.  Why are we here?  Does it matter?  Recent comments have reminded me.  We are here to form friendships that can ask hard questions in the dining room.  I used to think the family room, but Mrs. Pascal won’t routinely let me eat in there.  Something else has struck me as I better read and understand my friend CC (Russell’s wife).  My call is forming to the skeptical – – I honestly find so many to be so likeable and interesting.  My call is also forming to revise the hearts of people like me who ignored, reviled, or discounted them for so long.  I actually do love the church – – not a building, but a community of Christ followers.  And because I love the church, I am willing to humbly criticize it – – realizing that the first to be criticized is me.

What did I need to hear?  Avoiding the skeptic and painting her with a thin haired brush is too pious by half. She does care about justice and mercy because she was made in the image of God – – whether she has acknowledged that God or not.  She does things that are:  true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.  Think on those things.

What did I need to hear?  Is there anything in my life or theology that is attractive or worthy of imitation?  Has it become about social acceptability and one-off platitudes for me?  Should I defend a broken American church or work to reform her?  I’m landing more on the side of the latter.  Love reforms.  Love criticizes his own heart, his own family, his own motives.

What did I need to hear?  Will I tolerate the continued scandal of the evangelical mind, or join the heritage of the Jesuits and engage my mind, culture, and tribe of humanity?

What did I need to hear?  The health and wealth gospel that I was raised with was a false gospel.  Joel Osteen is a false prophet.  The authentic gospel (discovered in my twenties) changed my whole life.  The authentic gospel saved the greatest wrath for the pharisee, not the sinner.  I have been both.  Remember the mercy you were given Pascal – – how dare you not offer it freely to another?

I am grateful for our friends and readers who follow Christ.  You may be the silent majority.  I hope that reading here will change the inclination of your heart just as writing here has done for me.  If we take Jesus seriously, how can we not weep for the pain caused in his name?  How can we not stand for something different in our generation?  St. Augustine saw the Visigoths sack Rome in 410 AD and died with the Vandals at the gate in North Africa.  He stood in a time of transition and was called to speak truth to his generation – – remember that he wrote to the church.  Now we stand in the post-modern, pre-future chasm.  Can’t we just call it the present?  What will we do?  We will care about our generation and reclaim the authentic gospel that deeply cares about people and profoundly transforms lives.  If we present an authentic gospel, it can rise or fall on its own merits.  I will no longer defend or tolerate the false.

 

Blessings,

Pascal

–1:16

photo credit:  © Frank Schulenburg / CC-BY-SA-3.0, via wikimedia commons

Learning in Conversation

Der_kleine_Kinderfreund_T11_img05

Dear Howie, Russell & Friends,

As Russell and I approach our first anniversary of blogging and second anniversary of friendship, I’ve been reflective.  I tend to be that way before milestones of all types.  As a runner and hiker, the milestone analogy has always resonated with me.  It also fits well with my realistic expectation that I’ll be dead in less than 50 years.  Where am I?  Where have I been?  Where to next?

The reading, writing, and breakfasts of the last two years have been invigorating.  I’m learning again.  I felt that way when I read both of your responses to my comments on Romans 3: 1-4.  I wrote this doozy of a sentence:

I think that my faith in my own love of people, justice and mercy would be shaken as my intellect finds non-theistic normative reasons less convincing.

This was in response to Howie’s question:

I’m curious: if tomorrow all scientist, theologians, and philosophers got together and came to a 100% consensus that there are no gods would you then stop loving people, justice, and mercy?

Russell wisely replied this (to me):

Can you clarify this sentence a bit? I think I’m misreading it.

I’ll work backwards.  Russell, you are not misreading, I am miswriting.  I know better (only because I keep failing) than to use big words obscurely rather than smaller words well-joined.  Here’s a replay of my sentence with better communication (more words, but less dense):

If I did not have God as a reason for my morality, I acknowledge that I would still be moral.  My reasons include strong and positive personal experiences with very moral very skeptical people (you first among them).  But, if God as the basis of my morality went away I would be less sure of myself.  I would not understand why I wanted to be good when there is a stronger impulse in me to do the wrong thing.  It may be (as I have often suspected) that my nature is more corrupt than yours.  Genes and experience have made me less kind, gentle, and forgiving.  So I may be that person who needs religion more to civilize me.

Back to Howie.  He replied:

When I was a Christian I chose to follow the Jesus I thought still existed because I believed that he represented what is truly good. I was drawn in by some of the beautiful sayings in the sermon on the mount. I wasn’t following because I thought he was the most powerful one with the keys to afterlife so I better listen to whatever he says no matter what he asks, even if it goes against my moral sense. This seems to be the theme of the Abraham/Isaac story, as well as the genocidal conquests in the old testament and those things go against my own moral sense.

Then Howie referred me to thoughts he had about morality.  I read for an hour and the time was well spent. I especially appreciate the referral to a clean article on the concept of infinite regress.  Russell has mentioned coherentism before and I didn’t take the time to learn that it was a possible solution to the problem of infinite regress (constant asking of “why?”, like a child).

Like Howie, I find this topic important.  Do I claim that the moral law is imprinted on our spirits by Creator God?  Do I allow that he did so with the behavioral aspects of human evolution?  Do I consider “these truths to be self evident”?  Did Plato get it right?  I do claim the first assertion, yet my reasons are not yet sufficient to reply to honest questions.  One thing I’m appreciating about this process is that I need more humility and patience.  I need to listen well.  I honestly find this more interesting than my current car listening adventure of why entropy validates the arrow of time and makes macroscopic closed timelike curves unlikely [insert wry grin].

This place is safe for respectful argument.  This place is safe for conversation.  I’m one of the most ignorant people here and I’m excited about learning!

Do you have skeptical or believing friends who exemplify morality to you?  I would answer:  Russell.  Why do you think they are that way?

Pascal

–1:16

photo credit:  Der kleine Kinderfreund by Anonymous Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Der_kleine_Kinderfreund_T11_img05.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Der_kleine_Kinderfreund_T11_img05.jpg

Boiling it Down

Boiling it Down

Greetings friends,

In Russell’s post introducing the Ask an Atheist (or Christian) series Howie posed the following:

What group (denomination, organization, etc.), person, book, podcast, and/or video would you pick that comes closest to describing your own way of seeing reality?

I replied that the most influential non-biblical text in my life is The Call, by Os Guinness.  It is.  I gave my last annotated copy to a dear friend who was struggling with faith.  I have another copy.  I’ll read it again and write more, probably different notes in the margins.  That book is probably why I’m here.  I’m 42 years old and I still ask, “what should I be when I grow up?”  The thesis of that book:  be and do what you are.  I think that my life calling may be to reach out to the skeptical in my generation and to reach in to my precious brothers and sisters in faith so that we don’t lose compassion or leave others behind.

But, despite sharing a part of my bliss with Howie, did I answer the question well?  I tend to be less thorough in my answers than Russell.  Did that book come closest to my own way of seeing reality, or did this?

Durants Lessons of History

 

Meet the Durants.  Then, if you can spare 5 hours in aggregate (I listened for the third time in 6 months in the car), listen to  this summary of their life work.  Although I prefer hardback books with a pen in my hand, this is one experience where listening is superior.  In the edition linked above, you’ll hear the delightful voices of Will and Ariel interviewed at the end of every chapter.

I bought the Story of Civilization in a yard sale for a dollar a book.  It was on the top shelf, waiting for retirement.  I’m not waiting any more.  I just finished volume 2 and will begin volume 3 after an interlude with Sean Carroll.

Why does this work represent my way of seeing reality most closely?  Probably because I am remediating a liberal arts education.  My education in STEM and subsequent teaching career required reams of technical reading with little time for arts and history.  That’s not true.  I had the same amount of time that I have now – – 24 hours a day with an average of 6 off for sleep.  My priorities on how to spend that time were different.  That’s true.

I’ll discuss science to the best of my capability and honestly, my capability is higher than the average blog reader or writer in that space.  Russell’s capacity in that domain surpasses mine.  But there is more.  That’s my argument.  There are different kinds of evidence that should be considered in the search for truth.  The integrated experience of billions over thousands of years seems a good place to start.  I’m making the 11 volume journey with the Durants.  If you’d like to meet them and understand how I think (it is plastic) then the digest above in Lessons is a great place to start.

Would other readers care to answer Howie’s question?  It was a good one.

Pascal

–1:16

photo credit:  SuSanA Secretariat [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons