Thursday, February 6, 2014

Change or die - part 2

The closing of St. Paul's College (cf. part 1 of this post) prompted some musings about the relatively short life span of almost all human organizations.

I cannot think of an organization that has survived longer than the Roman Catholic Church. Other long-surviving institutions (more than a few hundred years) include a handful of monarchies and aristocracies, a few universities, and perhaps a small number of others. No U.S. organization makes the cut for a shortlist of the longest-lived institutions and organizations. As a nation of immigrants who mostly pushed aside (or did worse) to Native Americans, our institutions and organizations are understandably newer than those found in many parts of Europe and Asia.

The second tier of long-lived institutions and organizations, say those that have survived more than a hundred years, is more diverse, including some nation states, religious groups, aristocratic/wealthy families, fraternal organizations, schools, and even businesses.

My involvement with long-lived institutions is probably unusual for an American. The college and seminary I attended are now both over two hundred years old. My grammar school and two of the parishes I served are one hundred and fifty years old or older. The two institutions in which I spend most of my working life – the Episcopal Church and the U.S. Navy – are both over two hundred years old.

Humans are frequently reluctant to embrace change. We Episcopalians like to tout our dependence upon tradition as an advantageous selling point.

Life has an inherent continuity. The new invariably emerges from the old. This is true physiologically as well as in terms of institutions and organizations. Human bodies consist of reused atoms. The atoms may have belonged to humans who lived before the current user of the atom, to another life form (animal, plant, or microbe), to an inanimate object (e.g., a rock), or, most likely, to several of the above multiple times. This reusing of atoms, both in larger assemblies (i.e., molecules) and in their smaller parts (e.g., an electron), is just one reason why any concept of resurrection in which God supposedly restores a human to his or her physical body is nonsensical (cf. Ethical Musings Resurrection).

The new that emerges from the old is many times unexpected. I'm confident, without knowing for certain, that the founder of St. Paul's College anticipated that the school would survive two or more centuries. Yet the school has shut its doors and the property, the last I knew, was for sale. Whether a purchaser occupies the campus or eventually razes it to make room for new construction or to prepare the land for agricultural use, new life will appear.

Some of St. Paul's faculty and staff will find employment in another field. Some will continue their commitment to education in a paid or volunteer capacity at another institution. Again, new life will emerge from the old.

St. Paul's graduates also represent a form of new life from the old, transformed by their education and experience, into someone different from the student who initially matriculated. Like stones thrown into a pond, the effects of that change ripple outwards from St. Paul's, the new emerging from the old.

The trend of people away from religious toward spiritual but not religious, or even to atheism, which North American and European opinion surveys consistently report, is not disturbing. Old forms of religion – like all other human institutions – will wither and die. If a greater power exists – and I believe one does, whom we conveniently call God – then the perishing of religion with its doctrines, rituals, and other elements will give rise to new formulations and expressions. Self-descriptions of being spiritual but not religious signal that the dying is underway and the birth pangs just beginning, but it is too soon to discern what will emerge.

Alternatively, the Roman Catholic Church has the truth (what it calls the deposit of faith). This explains why the Roman Catholic Church has outlasted all other human institutions and organizations. This does not explain why the number of Roman Catholics is declining in Europe and holding its own in the United States only because of immigrants.

Clinging insistently to old forms, ideas, and organizations is a losing game. The more organized matter and energy becomes, the greater potential for entropy. The same logically seems to hold true for relationships and ideas. The two essential building blocks, it seems to me, are the possibility of cultivating a relationship with God and learning to love others (this broadly construed to include the entire cosmos) as one's self.


Anonymous said...

Re: "This reusing of atoms, both in larger assemblies (i.e., molecules) and in their smaller parts (e.g., an electron), is just one reason why any concept of resurrection in which God supposedly restores a human to his or her physical body is nonsensical (cf. Ethical Musings Resurrection)."

Divine power which violates the laws of biology with Jesus' bodily resurrection would hardly be constrained by the laws of physics.

George Clifford said...

So, you're suggesting that God created natural law only to discover subsequently the need to violate that law? Furthermore, even if God makes an exception in the case of Jesus, that does not resolve the difficulty with the purported bodily resurrection of the Christian faithful. If restored to my physical body, post-death, I need my atoms and molecules; without my original atoms and molecules, my resurrection body would not be my physical body. Atoms, for example, are not interchangeable because of sub-atomic bonds that persist even when atoms are at great physical distance from one another. In addition to the problems of physics, there is also a question of integrity: a bodily resurrection that promises one the same body is a lie if one does not receive the same body.

Anonymous said...

Re: "So, you're suggesting that God created natural law only to discover subsequently the need to violate that law?" I'm not suggesting God discovered the need to do anything. I'm saying more simply that the Creator is not bound by natural law.

Re: "...a bodily resurrection that promises one the same body..." I know of no implication that a resurrected body is "the same" body. The only implication I see from the resurrection stories was that Jesus' resurrected body was recognizable. Paul describes (in latter part of 1 Cor. 15) differences between "earthly" and "heavenly" bodies. I certainly wouldn't draw biological or physics implications from that discussion, other than to say that it reinforces the idea of an "otherness" about resurrected bodies.

Why do you need your atoms and molecules to truly be your physical body? In terms of specific atoms and molecules, the physical "you" this week might not have been the physical you from twelve months ago. It is the design and arrangement of you that makes you you, not the building blocks.

George Clifford said...

In my previous response, I suggested why particular atoms/molecules are important: at a quantum level, connections exist that replacement parts would not provide. If our resurrection body is not the same as our physical body, why would this need to be the case for Jesus? What makes his resurrection body different than the one that you will one day receive (other than you are not him)? If you think that 1 Corinthians opens the possibility of a resurrection body that is different than our current earthly body, why not a completely new body for all? Your point that the human body is constantly in flux is well taken and another problem with thinking about a physical resurrection body: which body will one have? None of our physical bodies is perfect, yet presumably the resurrection body is perfect. Perhaps resurrection points to a completely new form of existence, incomprehensible in human terms and the convoluted, contradictory New Testament references to resurrection, whether of Jesus or others, reflect a struggle to phrase this mystery in human language.

Anonymous said...

Re: "None of our physical bodies is perfect..." I'll drink to that :)

What I'm saying is that belief (my belief, anyway) in a physical, bodily resurrection is not hung up on the question of what form (atomic or otherwise) that body would/will take. I think that is the essence of Paul's comment in latter 1 Cor. 15.

You might rightly ask "Why are you hung up about the reality of a physical, bodily resurrection?" And I would answer that it is the most believable explanation to me of the change in 1st century belief and practice. That is, I am buying into Bishop Wright's thesis in "The Resurrection of the Son of God." I have never found any alternative explanation of how the "Jesus Movement" got going to be plausible. But that's just me.

George Clifford said...

I think we'll just have to agree to disagree. Time will reveal much.