Sunday, December 23, 2012

Some Christmas Thoughts: “Communicating With Ants”

Aha! So you thought you’d be free of me until the New Year, eh? Faked you out again!

Actually, in sober truth, I hadn’t planned on posting anything here at Liberty’s Torch until after the Christmas Octave. I’m going hot and heavy on Freedom’s Scion, and I’d intended to give it 100% of my time. However, that nasty habit of mine of reading everything within reach and visiting several dozen other sites every day has tripped me up again.

Take heart. At least this piece won’t be about politics.

First, please view the following short video.

Mato Jelic, the creator of that short and highly praiseworthy piece, is a chess master who lives in Adelaide, Australia. For some time now, he’s posted instructional chess videos on YouTube, from which I’ve taken considerable edification and pleasure. His thoughts in the above video are both cogent and penetrating.

However, they’re not quite complete.

As it happens, there is a way for a man to communicate, albeit crudely, with ants. To do so, you must exploit their nature.

Ants are naturally attracted by certain substances and repelled by others. So if a train of ants is heading in some direction from which you’d like to deflect them without otherwise harming them, you could use an attractive substance – sugar is good; sugar dampened with melted beef or chicken fat is even better – to lure them in a direction you’d prefer. Alternately, you could lay down a thin barrier of a repellent – vinegar works, as would any other weak acid – in their path. If wide enough, such a barrier would turn them aside, though in that case you would only communicate the direction in which you want them not to go.

In a similar fashion, God uses Man’s nature, and the inexorable effects of Natural Law, to communicate with men. Man is a pleasure-seeking / pain-avoiding creature. Those things which God wants us to do, He’s made pleasurable to our natures. Those things He wants us not to do, He’s made into occasions of pain, sorrow, or death, through the laws of nature. The mechanisms involved are subtler than in the case of Man communicating with ants, but they’re there all the same. More, He has equipped us with an ability to learn from our mistakes, and even more important, from the mistakes of others. The rest is up to us, through the exercise of our intellects, our memories, and our free wills.

My favorite quote from Robert Bolt’s immortal play A Man For All Seasons is relevant here:

THOMAS MORE: Listen, Meg. God made the angels to show him splendour, as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.

We are equipped with the ability to grasp sequences of events, to see some as causes and others as their effects, to infer the laws of Nature from them, and to generalize our deductions to other contexts. But our wills being free, whether we use that ability at all, much less to best effect, is up to us.

The history of Mankind before the coming of Christ suggests that up to then, we hadn’t used it very much or very well.

Among the more risible things I hear whenever the subject of faith arises around me is “How can a smart guy like you believe in that crap? Were you beaten into it or some such?”

In the usual case, the speaker has no idea just how smart I am. He thinks he’s at least as smart -- probably smarter, because he doesn’t “believe in that crap” – and he’s usually wrong by two or three standard deviations at the very least. It’s an interesting illustration of human arrogance, inasmuch as the acceptance that there are propositions beyond Man’s ability to prove or disprove is among the foundation stones of wisdom. Most of Man’s genuinely useful knowledge rests on a thin cushion of experience laid over a bedrock of faith.

Recorded history indicates that before Christ, Man learned only grudgingly from his temporal experiences. The workings of Natural Law were often put down to supernatural intervention – exactly the opposite of what God intended – which in its turn gave rise to the propitiation of fictional deities, rather than more attention to the patterns of Nature. Man’s own nature was accorded little respect until two great pre-Christian cultures – classical Greece and classical Judea – began Mankind’s ascent from savagery to rationality.

As I wrote long ago:

About five centuries before Christ, bursts of abstraction struck simultaneously in Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East, and in coastal Asia. The first proto-science, philosophy, took its first halting steps toward refining Man's cognitive tools. A handful of philosophers laid down the basis for organized rational thought. Despite considerable opposition, often violent, they pulled the classical world into their wake. The adventure of rationality had begun.

What made those advances possible? What developments had tilled Man's mental garden and made it fertile for new growth?

One cannot be certain, but conspicuous among the conditions of those times and places was that written records of all kinds had been kept for centuries previous. Those societies had begun to accumulate data from which to generalize. Perhaps the flowering of philosophy -- and philosophy's supernatural adjunct, religion -- depended mainly on an adequate supply of such data. In all three locales, further advances came rapidly.

Particularly notable among those developments was that of Judaic society. For some centuries, the Jews had lived according to the Mosaic Law, as recorded in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus in the Old Testament. With the classical proto-Enlightenment came questions about whether those laws, which Moses had presented as the commands of God to His Chosen People, might imply still other laws of equal force. Large sectors of Judaic society set to work on the extended meaning and implications of the Mosaic tradition. The Jews' penchant for recording their history guaranteed that those debaters would have a lot to work on.

But the Essenes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the other intellectual communities of classical Judea tended to move in a single direction: a restrictive direction. As Moses had been the Jews' spiritual leader and political ruler, his laws rationalized the pervasive exercise of State power over both the bodies and souls of men. Though in many respects the elaboration of the Mosaic tradition was wholesome as well as intellectually fulfilling, among its consequences, it largely disarmed the Jews in the face of the Roman conquest and the subsequent centuries of foreign domination of Judea.

Another path was available to them, of course, but it took the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and the continuation of that ministry by His Apostles, to set Man upon it.

In summary, God’s communications with Man through the laws of Nature went largely unheeded. As Mato put it, He is just too much bigger than we are. An intervention was required that would erase our differences in size, leaving the Divine message clear and unambiguous: the Nativity, Ministry, Passion and Resurrection of the Son of God.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether faith is available to all men. Perhaps it isn’t; perhaps some of us are made so that we’ll always reject faith, no matter the inducements. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter; God is just and will deny eternal bliss in His nearness to no man who lives according to the Noachite Commandments, whether or not he acknowledges their Source.

For those to whom faith is accessible, Christmas is one ingress to the experience. We of the West celebrate it both in secular and religious terms. Though it was located where it is on the calendar to replace the celebration of Saturnalia, its joys are far distant from that pagan revel. The peoples of Christendom embraced it for its spiritual import long before the secular custom of gift-giving was layered onto it.

Don’t be shy about celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, no matter by whom you’re surrounded. This holy day is one of the brightest jewels of the Western calendar precisely because of its religious nature. Let its glories shine from you, upon all and sundry without discrimination. Perhaps you’ll help some of the unbelievers along the road to a deeper life: life in company with the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind, whose words, though He disdained to write them down after the fashion of His people, will never pass away.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May God bless and keep you all.


SiGraybeard said...

Merry Christmas to you, too, Francis, and may God keep you close.

I've heard another interesting opinion on why Christmas was placed where it was, in addition to the Saturnalia celebration and other pagan festivals around then. Simply for the symbolism of bringing Light into the world near the solstice, the longest nights, darkest days of the year.

I laugh to myself when skeptics tell me, expecting it to be some shocking revelation "you know Christ wasn't even born on December 25th!". I try not to laugh openly at them. It Doesn't Matter.

KG said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Francis.
And thank you for the inspiration, spiritual comfort and reading pleasure you've given this year.

pdwalker said...

Merry Christmas Fran and to all the other contributors to this site.

And I do mean Christmas.