Friday, December 25, 2020

The coming of the Light

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us. (Lk 1:78)

Friday, December 18, 2020

Your time is known

Over the course of many years, I've been pondering the classic Doctor Who episode "Full Circle" (first aired in late 1980). You may recall it as the episode that inroduces the Doctor's companion Adric. I'll summarize the essential plot points, but will have to reveal a spoiler or two in the following paragraphs. So the fourth Doctor and his companion Romana end up in a parallel universe and land on a planet called Alzarius inhabited by a group of humanoids who have been working for generations on a grounded spaceship. It seems that their ship, the Starliner, crashed long ago and they have been repairing it for return travel to their home planet Terradon. A phenomenon called mistfall begins to occur and two groups of creatures begin to emerge. First, venemous spiders hatch from the river fruit, and then marsh creatures, which walk upright and rather look like the creature from the black lagoon, rise out of the river. The humans retreat to the ship, and the marsh creatures begin to attack the ship.

There are a couple interesting reveals/plots twists (spoilers begin). First, the Doctor announces to the human's leaders that the ship isn't being repaired, but simply maintained and that it could actually depart the planet at any time. They respond that their problem is that none of the "system files" left by their ancestors has instructions for how to pilot the ship. The second and last reveal is that it turns out that the spiders, marsh creatures, and humanoids have "the same DNA", so they're actually three subspecies of the same species. And the colonists have never been to Terradon, but are native to Alzarius; the story about the grounded ship was a convenient myth perpetuated by the leadership.

The titular "full circle" is complete when marsh creatures start to overrun the ship. It turns out that what's been happening for 40,000 generations is that the marsh creatures have been attacking the ship at mistfall (every 50 years or so?), killing the humans, and evolving to replace them.1 But this time, the Doctor manages to repel the creatures and the ship ascends to the stars.

The basic situation contains inconsistencies that beg for resolution. For example, how was the ship first built? But let's ignore such questions for now. I found the story off-putting at first because I thought it was impugning the Garden in Genesis as one of those convenient myths. I haven't been able to watch the full episde in decades, so I forget why I thought that. Maybe it was the invocation of "evolution" to undermine a story about the past. But the deeper part that's begun to resonate with me after all these decades is the way the mythical past (not mythical in the sense of false, but mythic in the sense of bigger than ordinary life) was really a vision for and of the future.

There is a sense in which our destiny is written from the beginning of our lives, a sense one has of what the arc of one's life is going to be like. In a lot of ways my life has turned out unexpectedly. But in other ways, I probably should have expected all this weirdness. What I really need is courage—courage bolstered by the knowledge that the future is not completely unknown, but is part of the created whole that is my life, my being, which, though divided by time, persists through time. As Guardini writes,

[In this unknown region of the future] everyone must make the venture in the confidence that the future is not a chaos or a totally strange thing. Rather, his own character, the ordering power within him, will make a way so that it is really his own future into which he moves.

This also forms the natural basis for the message of Christ about the Providence which guards every man—the messge that the future, although unknown, is not strange, not hostile, but is arranged for him by God; that existence, although it extends far beyond our ken, is not a chaos, but ordered by God for him.

To believe this and live accordingly may be difficult for a person who is of a hesitant or timid disposition. But here the courage to live coincides with trust in the divine guidance.


1. Technological progress and apocalyptic recurrence is vaguely reminiscent of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Romano Guardini, Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1992), 102.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

A talent for fooling ourselves

Not too long ago I came across a demo video (about 2 mins.) created in real-time by a physics/ray-tracing engine for a gaming system. It's pretty amazing how realistic everything in this virtual world looks, and how convincing the movement is—aside from the superhuman abilities required of the avatar (pretty usual in gaming). In the name of entertaining each other, we've developed a singular talent for fooling ourselves with our amazing technology.

On that theme of fooling ourselves, a contrast sprang to mind. Warning: there are spoilers below for the two works mentioned.

On the one hand, we have The Twilight Zone episode "The Lonely" (first aired November 13, 1959) in which a convict imprisoned on an asteroid is given a convincingly female robot as his companion in loneliness. After many years in her company, he nearly gives up his chance to return to Earth because of his attachment to her. But he realizes his mistake after the policemen who is his friend takes drastic action to demonstrate that she is not real. In the end, he returns to Earth and relationships with real people.

On the other hand, we have the recent Star Wars installment by Disney, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), in which the young Lando Calrissian has a thing for his "female" robot co-pilot. Actually the robot is only vaguely even humanoid, let alone like a woman, and "her" femininity consists of (1) a female voice, and (2) wide "hips." Spoiler: the robot "dies" near the end of the movie and the event is accented as the loss of twu wuv for poor Lando.1 In reality, fascination with a female-themed machine amounts to a fetish. And it's not as if Solo is unique here. It's just one example that springs to mind among countless others in which a dash of femininity in an artifact is sufficient to motivate a love story, or at least sub-plot.

Notice the historical movement. In sixty years we've gone from recognizing that a mere machine, no matter how convincing, cannot truly replace a woman, to saying that an animate anything, man or machine, donning the figurative wig and dress is really and truly a woman.

But in a larger context, it's not as if we shouldn't have expected this growth in confusion with the rise of technical prowess. The technology that gives us control over nature, also gives us control over each other2. You may recognize this quotation: as C.S. Lewis wrote, “What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”3

The godfather of the modern world, Francis Bacon (1561–1626), predicted as much in his utopian novel "New Atlantis." Bacon uses the device of European sailors who chance upon the island of Bensalem in the Pacific to describe the utopian society that has developed there, with reason and science as priorities. The research institute of Salomon's House exercises control over much of the island's affairs, and it's pretty clear, if one reads between the lines, that this control is not entirely open and honest. For example, the entire New Testament is said to have been introduced miraculously to Bensalem under a pilar of light in 50 A.D. (decades before the New Testament was completed), and later Salomon's House is revealed to be skilled at creating illusions of light. You can read more in the Wikipedia article on New Atlantis.


1. I'm still wondering what it means for any mechanical device to die. Since every artifact is assembled by outside agents, presumably it can be reassembled. But Hollywood.

2. As well as extrinsic control over ourselves, that is to say, control outside our intrinsic, co-natural control through our wills (that is, self-control). For example, technology allows people to take diet pills or to use contraceptives instead of controlling their appetites.

3. The Abolition of Man, chapter 3.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

The Ultimate Power of Truth

I ran across a powerful quotation from Romano Guardini that's appropriate to this time of year when we're thinking about the Last Things, and the coming of Jesus:

In this world, the truth is weak. A trifle suffices to hide it. The stupidest persons can attack it. But someday the time will come when things will change. God will bring it about that truth will be as powerful as it is true; and this will be the judgement.

Judgement means that the possibility of lying ceases because omnipotent truth penetrates every mind, illumines every word, and rules in every place. Then falsehood will be revealed as what it is. However expedient, clever, or elegant it may have been, it will be exposed as an illusion, as a nonentity.

We should let these thoughts occupy our minds, our understanding, and our hearts. Then we shall perhaps sense what truth is, its steadfastness, its calm radiance, and its nobility. Then we will enter into union with it, through all that is most intimate and loyal within us. We will accept responsibility for the truth and expend our efforts in its behalf.

All this will suffer opposition and trials, because we are human. But our lives must testify to the fact that truth is the basis of everything: of the relation of man to man, of man to himself, of the individual to the community, and above all, of man to God—no, of God to us.

Romano Guardini, Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1992), 22-23.