Science says—-

23 Sep

Let us be clear at the outset: scientific research is a fundamental necessity for life today, and the conclusions of science can be ignored only at our peril. The world we live in requires scientific understanding, particularly since it is so permeated by technology; every person in our nation lives in the context of scientific medicine; we instinctively ask for the scientific view on every important issue we face today. 

Much of our current discussion of the Coronavirus pandemic revolves on “what science says” about public health, about the virus, about vaccines and antiviral drugs, and the like. The discussion frequently becomes simplistic and ideological. Political motives permeate most of what we get in the media.The role of science in our lives is not so simple. Three basic questions are central.

 Who is a “scientist”? My working definition is: a person with a scientific education, who earns their living for doing scientific work in a scientific setting (government or industrial lab, academic department of a college, university, or museum). Everyone else has scientific knowledge at second-hand. Since a great deal of scientific knowledge is expressed originally in mathematical equations, math knowledge is essential. Scientific presentations in the popular press, magazines, and TV are often fine, but they are translations from scientific language into English. Most of us, myself included, are dependent for our understanding of science on talented journalists who are scientifically educated. And this is not necessarily “real science.”

Where do we get our scientific knowledge of Coronavirus? My first response was: from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, but my investigation of the Task Force changed my mind. Because fewer than half of the members are scientists.

By my count, there are 27 members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Only nine, one-third—have a science education, mostly medical. Five are lawyers, the rest come from backgrounds in politics, finance, and government administration.

Why is this important? It means that the pronouncements of the Task Force are not necessarily scientific. The scientific materials considered by the Task Force are filtered through the understanding and the interests of the non-scientific members. Hearing Dr. Redfield, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Francis Collins, or some other epidemiologist on TV is a better source of scientific knowledge than a Task Force pronouncement. Advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) should be top priority, except for the fact they are edited by non-scientists, some of whom have their own agenda.

The best source of scientific knowledge about the virus may well be your local medical center and personal doctor. I will decide about getting the upcoming vaccine for myself when it is recommended by the University of Chicago Medical Center and my doctor.

How do we move from science to everyday life? “Relying

on science” is not simple, because the line from science to everyday life is not simple. For example, we are told by our doctors that we will benefit from a certain drug; there are risk factors involved, but the benefits outweigh the risks. The benefits and risks are science-based factors. That one outweighs the other is a judgment call, not science. Another example: that close crowds are risky for being infected is science-based. To decide whether or not to attend an event (protest, church service, family gathering, or eating in a restaurant), thus taking a risk, is a personal judgment. 

It is the aim of scientists and society to distinguish between the scientist (and other persons involved in science) and the scientific knowledge of the “world out there.” That is, in the final analysis, impossible.  Scientific knowledge can be used for good or ill. The human factor makes all the difference. Science has flourished under authoritarian regimes, including Communism and Nazism, and also free market democracies. It all depends on what shapes our judgment. Specifically in the case of the Coronavirus, our judgments may serve the larger common good, but they may also be selfish and destructive of the common good. We have already seen both altruism and selfishness at work. Formation of judgment is another huge topic of its own—to be discussed at another time.

The major judgment call we face is whether to remain closed-up or to open up the economy (or schools) or some hybrid mix of the two. The decision, unavoidably, becomes political. Human judgment is always ambiguous. Accepting and living with the ambiguity is a challenge. If schools open up, teachers and families will be infected; if schools remain closed, children will suffer. Neither part of the equation can be ignored or labeled “unscientific” or “insensitive.” 

We need to know the real science involved in our judgments—and then acknowledge that decisions will be fallible and ambiguous. This is the fundamental challenge of our current situation.

(c) Phil Hefner. 9/22/2020

Born to Reach

18 Sep

We see trees reaching 

as they stretch themselves 

to touch the sky.

Stumbling toddlers 

hoist themselves to reach what’s 

beyond them—it’s essential to

their childhood.

Runners at the finish

stretching to break the tape,

reach for the gold redemption.

Lying flat on the scaffold 

Michelangelo stretched his hand 

toward the plaster that loomed above 

and limned for all time afterward

what reaching is about—

God reaching earthward

stretching Adam into life,

reaching in his Maker’s image—

the image we see copied

in all the world.

(C) Phil Hefner. 9/18/2020

John Lewis’s Body

27 Jul

Your body crossed the Alabama

yesterday one last time. 

Led by two black horses

pulling your caisson over the bridge

with its despicable name—

the Edmund Pettus bridge—your life

a battle ‘gainst all his peak’d hat proclaimed.

The horses carried you this time;

on Bloody Sunday sixty years ago, 

spurred by troopers, 

they charged you,

maimed your body.

This day troopers ushered you in silence

over the bridge, hushed mourners praying

a benediction.

Your mind never faltered, stayed 

its course—all about love, you said.

Your spirit sustained you 

from sharecropper boy in Alabama

to lunch counters in Nashville 

and Lincoln’s monument on the mall.

You led with your  body, absorbed its pain. 

In the end,   

horses carried that body to glory.

(c) Phil Hefner.    7/26/2020

We need artists today

23 Jun

In a recent essay on “Creativity,” Eric Kaplan writes that creativity makes something new and that it is a form of love. This helps us understand why art is important in our days of COVID, social protest, and economic hardship.

Newness is something we need at this moment. Brought to our knees by a virus and pummeled by an economic downturn, many people, see nevertheless an opening for transformation. 

But even though we hear talk about a “new normal,” we also see many people demanding a return to the “old” normal. Enormous numbers of marchers have filled the streets of our cities, demanding transformation of our attitudes and behaviors towards African Americans and other people of color. 

Smaller crowds, equally passionate, some bearing arms and making death threats, are demanding that the “old” normal be reinstated. Clearly, we are not united as a people in wanting transformation, and even among the transformers there is not a consensus. 

The creativity of the artist is urgently needed, to assist in birthing the new ways of thinking and living that our times demand.

Sometimes the artist points to newness by emphasizing the negative. Picasso’s “Guernica” has been called the greatest religious painting of the 20th century, because it depicts war’s destructive consequences as the very depth of evil—and thereby speaks of peace

Kerry James Marshall’s paintings often portray African Americans in  settings that are familiar to white Americans and also in homage to the classic tradition of western art. He puts African Americans into the social scene, as in his painting of blacks vacationing on a lake. At the same time, he comments ironically on how African Americans are excluded, as in his “4th of July.” Frederick Douglass made the same point in his historic 1852 oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Novelists frequently contribute to our journey toward newness—in utopias (H. G. Wells), dystopias (Orwell’s 1994), and in their portrayals of the human condition. Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright are among the architects and city planners who envision new things in individual human living, as well as revisioning cities.

Imagining new things and changing our lives is unique to humans. 

Kaplan insists that this creativity expresses love. The artists are in love with their subjects. The street art in Minneapolis has recovered the basic humanity of George Floyd, including panels with “Love Minneapolis” writ large.

This may seem strange, given the sometimes ugly and horrific shape the world takes, but if we are to take the world around us with genuine seriousness, we must grow to love it. Not love at an emotional level, but in the sense that we care for it—whether it’s the natural environment or some aspect of social relationships. We must care enough to want to change things, to protect something, and that means creating something new that will serve the interests of our love.

It is an illusion to think that by changing a system, an ideology, or our external circumstances, things will change. The profound problems of life and society will be solved by love, and love alone.

Artists are immersed in the world and they are caught up in the living love that transforms and renews everything they do. We need them today.

(c) Phil Hefner.   22 June 2020

Where Is Hope?

8 Jun

Where Is Hope?

I.

Hope lies limp

in the arms 

of mercy’s angel.

She wipes the brow

and cleans the wounds

and listens for a breath.

II.

Hope gathers force ,

lives strong

among those who

have lost the most.

III.

Our hope 

rests on thoseq

we have despised.

They are our hope.


(c) Phil Hefner 6/7/2020

Sophie’s Choice and the Presence of God

30 May

 

The landscape has changed since I last wrote. I shuddered when, in March, the Centers for Disease Control predicted that 100,000 people would die of COVID-19 by June. I estimated that is at least 3,000 deaths per week. As I write this, we have reached 100,000 and beyond. The New York Times, on May 24,  devoted its entire front page to listing the  names of just 1 per cent of the dead—1,000 names. On Memorial Day, when we commemorate the thousands who died and were injured in wars, we face the irony that the number of deaths in all the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries are less than the casualties of the novel Corona virus in the last five months.

What is now clear is that we’re in a total, multi-dimensional crisis. A  plague-caused  public health catastrophe is linked to a devastating economic downturn, with impact across our society—education, arts, sports, and mental health. The result is a Sophie’s Choice situation—we have to make decisions, and whatever we decide will unavoidably result in deaths. Some decisions are better than others, but none of them can escape Sophie’s dilemma.

We are called upon to shape our future in the face of events that are beyond our control.

I have devoted most of my life to theology, trying to understand life in its relationship to God—in this blog, I will begin to share my theological struggling.

Where is God in our present situation? 

The world is God’s. God made it and sustains it—this is basic Christian belief. Freedom is built into creation. We know freedom  must be precious to God, because God initiates freedom, responds to it, bends it, but does not destroy it. It may seem an oxymoron, but God determines the creation to be free.

Our lives take place in this mysterious and frustrating mix of God’s determining will and our freedom. The current pandemic is a case in point. We did not seek out a devastating corona virus and ask for a plague. God did not send the plague upon us as a testing of our stamina or a punishment for our sins. 

Our free action is woven into the plague, however, and its virus. Whether the virus originated in a wet market (which is a human commercial enterprise) or in a sophisticated high-tech lab, or both, human action was an engine for its propagation. Not only our action, but our free action of which we are so proud—entrepreneurial business activity and awesome biological science.

On one hand, God does not stifle our freedom; but on the other hand, God does not save us from the consequences of our freely chosen actions. When those consequences promote human flourishing, we consider them to be gracious.  But when they bring suffering and misery, we call them the wrath of God.

God is equally present in grace and wrath. Harmony with God’s will is grace. Wrath is the signal that we are out of synch with God.  

So, where is God in our situation?

God is graciously present as suffering and consoling God. Think of the Pieta sculptures—the dying Jesus taken down from the cross and resting in Mary’s arms. Both figures are present in our situation today—dying Jesus with all those who died and their suffering loved ones, compassionate God represented by Mary sustaining us all in this crisis.

God is present in grace inspiring actions of love among doctors, nurses, caregivers, workers of all sorts who are pouring themselves out for others, making life better than it would be without their efforts. Grace is also available to those who govern, plan, and bring expert knowledge to bear. God’s spirit enlightens and enables compassion, courage, and competence.

God is also present to us today in wrath. When grace is ignored or twisted for personal interest, egotism, or the desire to dominate, the consequences of human action turn wrathful. Wrath does not mean God is absent; on the contrary, God is very close in wrath—but it is the closeness of hostility.

Wrath is God’s response not only to evil, but also to ignorance, stupidity and incompetence. Our unwillingness to acknowledge the pandemic and our ignorance of the virus’s effects—these do not get a pass, their consequences assail us, to the point of suffering and death itself. I observe that there is much denial in America of the Sophie’s Choice dimension of our present experience. Denial will not make it go away, it rather makes the death more pitiable.

Our social turf has been seeded with grace and wrath for a long time. Our science and technology has been building for a hundred years or more, and God works through it. The racism and economic inequality has also been at work—since the origins of slavery in North America in 1619. The devastation wrought by the virus is interwoven with slavery, displacement of native Americans, and poverty. Brilliant, dedicated doctors and nurses cannot erase the long-term effects of American racism and savage capitalism.

In some ways, the pandemic seems far removed from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis this week, but they are interrelated in the Pieta image that describes our life today.

There is much more to be said, theologically, and I will continue these reflections in future installments. In the meantime, please let me hear your responses.

(c) Phil Hefner 5/29/2020

Eyes: Hubble & Corona—2

6 May

Eyes: Hubble & Corona

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched April 24, 1990

Thirty years later, the COVID-19 plague is raging

  1.  

Orbiting above the earth 

where time and space 

are one

Hubble sees backwards

almost to the beginning 

of everything

How did it reach

that perch

how did it acquire 

sight did some

god with power 

hurl it into space

No, it is what it is

through the lurch

of human genius

mortals set it in its place

gave it eyes

programmed its gaze

And who is this mortal

genius but a cosmic speck 

upon a cosmic crumb 

that swings in course

round a star that is itself

a marginal body in the sky

What does it mean 

that a corpuscle 

floating in a sea of galaxies

explores that world

and formulates its

history 

and takes the measure of

its underlying laws

II.

Yet this mortal speck

harbors in itself

a cosmos rivaling the

world that Hubble sees

Our skin holds fast

the world of nano*

billions of creatures 

who go about

their destined round

as surely as the galaxies

obey their orbits through 

light years of emptiness

no intruders they’ve been 

companions from days 

of primal soup their eyes

as fixed as Hubble’s

on the cells 

they’ll penetrate

The crown they wear

is not a friendly sign

they would depose us

their hosts 

a microscopic

invader bids fair

to leave our world

a ruin

III.

Can the genius that 

set Hubble in its orbit

grasp the more

challenging world within

The journey through that world  

is the harder

more tangled 

more uncertain

the stakes  much higher

the very life of all

The mind is beggared

that nano* barely to be seen

outpuzzles 

giga**

and lightyears***

And we who

are underway

cannot turn back

we hang in the balance

    *nano=one billionth

                                        **giga=one billion

 

Phil Hefner 5/6;2020

Eyes: Hubble & Corona

2 May

Eyes: Hubble & Corona

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched April 24, 1990

  1.  

Orbiting above the earth 

where time and space 

are one

Hubble sees backwards

almost to the beginning 

of everything

How did it reach

that perch

how did it acquire 

sight did some

god with power 

hurl it into space

No, it is what it is

through the lurch

of human genius

mortals set it in its place

gave it eyes

programmed its gaze

And who is this mortal

genius but a cosmic speck 

upon a cosmic crumb 

that swings in course

round a star that is itself

a marginal body in the sky

What does it mean 

that a corpuscle 

floating in a sea of galaxies

explores that world

and formulates its

history 

and takes the measure of

its underlying laws

II.

Yet this mortal speck

harbors in itself

a cosmos rivaling the

world that Hubble sees

Our skin holds fast

the world of nano

billions of creatures 

who go about

their destined round

as surely as the galaxies

obey their orbits through 

light years of emptiness

no intruders they’ve been 

companions from days 

of primal soup their eyes

as fixed as Hubble’s

on the cells 

they’ll penetrate

The crown they wear

is not a friendly sign

they would depose us

their hosts 

a microscopic

invader bids fair

to leave our world

a ruin

(c) Phil Hefner 5/2/20

The Void and God

18 Apr

Blog #83–the Void and the Present God

Locked down in my apartment, the image of the Void has come mind more than once. Especially on Holy Saturday, which is a space and time of emptiness, between Friday’s crucifixion and Sunday’s resurrection—a Void of its own.

The Void, or call it the Abyss, is a space of emptiness and terror, a space that threatens to destroy us, but also the place where we encounter the deepest reality of life. Job’s  experience of the whirlwind, Jesus’s time in the tomb, Martin Luther’s

tower experience, in which, full of despair, he confronted his own unworthiness—these are all instances of the Abyss. 

In the same vein, Rudolf Otto spoke of the Mysterium tremendum—our experience of the Holy, which shakes us to our very foundations. That same experiences is revelatory: God spoke in the whirlwind, resurrection came from the tomb, the word of overwhelming grace came to Luther when he was at his lowest point of despair.

My Lutheran tradition makes much of God as hidden, absent, and God as revealed. Deus absconditus and deus revelatus. But these are the two ways in which God is present to us. God is present in absence, God is in the Void.

We do pretty well in describing the Void—emptiness, despair, meaninglessness, terror. The challenge is to discover God’s presence in the Void, without dispersing the despair, meaninglessness, and terror through sentimentality, false optimism, or habits of piety. When we go to the cross on Friday, we know that it is not just a man, but God who is crucified, and we know we will wake up on Sunday singing “alleluia.” It is difficult, emotionally and intellectually, to take seriously the Void of Saturday. We know that Saturday will soon become Easter Sunday.

Actually, Luther did not know grace would come to him; Job did not know The God of the whirlwind would be his redeemer; the women and the disciples who were bereft on that Sunday did not know a resurrection was in the works. In deep seriousness, they experienced the Void, the tremendum that shook them to their roots.

I believe we are today experiencing the Void, the Abyss, and we are pressed to discover how God is present to us in our present circumstances.

What is revealed to us Americans in this avoid? The Coronavirus has brought into view just how fragile our society is; it has thrown light on evils that we tried to hide from view; and it discloses a genuine community that we may have given up on in our politicized public life.

It has been said that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. The United States does not fare well by this criterion. Both the health crisis of COVID-19 and the economic crisis reveal how badly we treat the most vulnerable. People of color are dying in numbers that vastly surpass their percentage in the general population. This is due in large part to the inferior medical care they have received prior to the pandemic.

Economically, it is the lower wage earners who bear the brunt: the first to lose their jobs (think of restaurant workers) or who cannot shelter in place,  because they are essential workers (grocery workers, gas station attendants, home health workers). Many of these workers must work in two or three jobs in order to live. It is clear how many individuals, families, and small businesses live paycheck to paycheck. 

These are characteristics of an age in which the wrath of God has descended on us. The Bible provides massive testimony to God’s concern for the poor and vulnerable. Our treatment of these groups surely calls for divine wrath. I think of Psalm 107:

“But if the people fail to prosper and suffer oppression and pain, God will scorn their leaders and let them wander in chaos. But God will lift up the poor. . . .”

The Void will not last forever, and God turns wrath to mercy and promise. The experience of the Void May be an unexpected gift to make our lives and our world different.

Pope Francis said it very simply, “Let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were.”

What is your vision of life after this Void? I’ll include them in my next installment.

(c) Phil Hefner 27 April 2020

Windows

2 Apr

Windows. I finally got around to the Sunday New York Times’ special section of photographs of empty streets in cities around the world. Amazing, aesthetically rich, and disturbing —all at the same time. 

The double-fold photo from São Paulo captured special attention: a nighttime scene of the windows of a high-rise apartment building, some dark, some lit up. In each lighted window was the silhouette of a person who was banging a kettle to protest the Brazilian president’s refusal to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

Coincidentally, a friend who lives in a retirement community in Virginia sent me these thoughts about looking out windows:

“You see the empty streets, the empty stadiums, the empty train platforms, but don’t say to yourself, ‘My goodness, it looks like the end of the world.’ What you’re seeing is love in action. What you’re seeing, in that negative space, is how much we do care for each other, for our grandparents, for our immuno-compromised brothers and sisters, for people we will never meet. When you’re looking out the window, look into the emptiness and marvel at all of that love.”

When I looked out my window today, what I saw was extraordinary—in the foreground, the sun was shining brilliantly off the neighboring buildings, but three blocks north and beyond fog obscured everything. Two hours later, we were in the fog, too.

In each of these vignettes windows take on symbolic meaning. in São Paulo, each window is a stage in which action takes place—in this case, protest action. Taken all together, the windows reveal a community of protestors.

In the second story, the view is emptiness, interpreted as a sign of the love to others shown in “social distancing,” 

My own window experience involved both sunlight and obscuring fog. In our current situation, there are bright spots—health care and other workers giving every last ounce of energy to serving the community, as well as the thousands of people who recover from the disease. 

But the fog was there. When I was a student in Germany in 1954, I lived in the village of Kilchberg, a few miles outside Tūbingen, where the university was located. I bicycled back and forth on the road that ran alongside the Neckar river. Sometimes, of an evening, fog would envelope me; I still recall riding in the fog—an excitement, a sense being alone in a world I cannot see. 

A German poem describes a man riding horseback in dense fog, who comes upon a village. He can see nothing in the fog, but when he hears a fountain, he knows he is in the town center; the splashing sounds enable him to find his way.

We are also journeying in fog—the tenuousness of our predictions, the uncertainty of what will happen in our own lives on any given day, and  a residual fear (the predicted 100,000 deaths to occur between April 1 and June 1 means that on the average 1,600 people will die every day). What lies in the distance, in the future, is shrouded in the fog.

Each of us, too, may hear a fountain splashing—flowing water symbolizes life. For some, religious faith is that fountain. For others, a deep sense of values, or family ties, or confidence in science and the practice of medicine. 

We may feel alone on this journey, but we are a community. The technology of phones, Face-time, and Zoom makes that community real, as well as the essential workers who put food on grocery store shelves or shop for us or care for us if we must go to the hospital. 

Two more vignettes that reveal this community: My doctor wanted a draw of my blood, but since we are under lockdown, I cannot go to the hospital for that lab work. At 6 o’clock this morning. I was awakened by a lab technician who had come to me to draw the blood. Another sign of our times: Neva ordered groceries online. The shopper who was filling the order texted her, “We’re out of green onions; do you want a substitute?” She texted back, “No, that’s okay, but I forgot to order hummus.” A text came back, “No problem, it’s in your cart now!”

I hear the welcome sound of a fountain—I’ll find my way. I hope you hear it, too.

 


(c) Phil Hefner    2 April 2020