Category Archives: theology

Noah, the Tower of Babel…and Science

A lot of efforts have been made to appraise the Bible in terms of science and vice versa. For example, I’ve had fun showing (to a conference of transhumanists, no less!) that the book of Genesis clearly states we were meant to be scientists and co-creators and that “nothing is beyond us.”

Noah-Film-2014PosterIndeed, it can be illuminating to plumb the Bible — one of the keystone books of western civilization. Moreover, it gives you the ability to stun, surprise and gain a back-brain door into the minds of some of your deep-steeped neighbors. And so, in light of the recent Russell Crowe film, let’s pause and sample the story of Noah.

Now of course, it is somewhat like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. Past scholars, uncharitable toward literalist believers in “biblical inerrancy,” have calculated the needed size of the Ark, for example. Were even just all known mammal species shoved aboard, shoulder to shoulder — you’d need a hundred modern aircraft carriers.

In fact, this argument has had results! Creationist “scientist” Ken Ham conceded — in his recent debate with Bill Nye — that evolution (yes “evolution”!) must have radiated all the species we now see, from a seed population that rode upon the Ark! I cannot believe this major concession got so little play in the media or among devotees of either religion or science. It is a real shift in ground.

Noahs_ArkSo, all right, following Ham’s clever dip-n-dodge… Noah only carried two of every GENUS and not species. I’m not sure even that will suffice… but however you may groan over this bit of back-pedaling, you also have to be impressed with the agile footwork! Okay, so evolution is real. But it only happened after the flood. Jumping Jehosephat.

Take a look at this article: Creationists Need Faster Evolution than Evolution on Skeptic Ink, who claims that creationists are “using evolutionary theory to support Noah’s Ark. Sad.”

(For you science-y types, here’s the capsule from Skeptic Ink: “There are 2,798 HLA-B alleles in the human population. If these originated from the 8 individuals on the ark (assuming all were heterozygous), the mutation rate for the gene must have been one every 2 years (from the day Noah stepped off the Ark until the present). But this mutation rate for the HLA gene wasn’t matched by mutation rates for other genes. We don’t have 2000 alleles for eye color or blood type or other genes in the human body.” In other words, no possible set pif genetic mutation rates can match this story against what we now see going on, in the cells and chromosomes of living creatures today.)

Kaspar_Memberger_(I)_-_Noah's_Ark_Cycle_-_3._The_Flood_-_WGA14802Okay.  Then something else occurred to me. Let’s say the entire human population, including guiltless babies, were drowned in a fit of angry pique by a questionably-balanced deity who was not setting a very good parental example, that’s for sure. And let’s further posit that the wives of Noah’s three sons must replenish the Earth with humans. Less than ten generations later, you have cities and Babel-towers being built. What’s the math on that?

Well, if each woman is very very fertile — and extremely lucky — let’s generously figure ten surviving offspring. (Extremely generous, for that era, but let’s go with it.) Five of those ten are daughters who can make human beings. (For our purposes, only females matter.) If each generation can multiply the number of fecund females by five, then ten generations of continuously lucky folks, who breed like rabbits and lose almost no babies at all, will give you close to ten million people! Wow.

Tower-of-babel-bible-languageOf course, that calculation is at the extreme high end. See this analysis, where other scholars suggest there were 900,000 people around to start building the Tower of Babel and perhaps as few as 36,000. In which case you get a completely different set of math quandaries…

…like how much physical volume of stone or rammed earth could be stacked upon a tower, in just the century alloted, by such a small population that also had to grow food and live “by the sweat of their brow”? By the time you get to 20,000 feet, the sheer amount of stuff… neglecting compressional and other engineering forces… could not have been hauled by 100x that population — equipped with trucks! No wonder Talmudic scholars decided (in the 7th century) that the word “tower” must have stood for some kind of machine or high technology that had been lost to time, one that enabled human wizards to fly tp heaven’s gateway. Okay, that’s kinda sci-fi cool, I admit, especially for the 7th Century! But a topic for another time. Let’s get back to Noah.

the-dove-sent-forth-from-the-ark-1866One suggestion by the talmudists that’s very interesting is that the human species that was wiped out by the Flood was different than ours. That the flood-reset wasn’t just moral but genetic, with Noah’s family being fundamentally different than his water-doomed neighbors, not just morally but as a matter of speciation. (One sage suggested that people before that point “had no thumbs” until Noah’s new sub-species introduced that novelty. Can anyone find a reference?)

Hmmm. well, the mind roams at this point, picturing a humanity 1.0 that might have been really unpleasant by nature… (what? worse than us?)… in which case, is the questionable morality of the Flood eased, at all?

Alas, that raises a counter question about the fallibility of a deity who had to revise His design. (Not a problem, by modern reckoning! All ambitious projects undergo revision. It is only a quandary – ironically – to the obsequiously devout, who insist on zero-fallibility, a completely unnecessary trait of a creator and, well, a hard piece of flattery to live up to!)

imagesOf course, all this calculating misses the point… that the literalist inerrancy folks are wrong, on a truly manic scale. Standing upon a tower of evidence, we know the ages of the Rocks of Ages. We know the universe is vastly greater, older and more beautiful than their cramped, cover-the-eyes-and-ears frenzy permits them to see. But even if you take the stories at face value, problems abound.

For example, if the Babel dispersal happened around 1800 BCE (about the time of the Thera explosion of Santorini, a thought provoking coincidence!) then a seed population of maybe 100,000 would have had to bear successful babies at a prodigious rate… while walking very quickly… in order to spread to the corners of the globe and diversify into the countless tribes who we know to have dwelled in countless far-flung locales. Most of which we know to have been occupied already, long before 1800 BCE. Indeed, by that date, Egypt had already been operating for quite some time… and their language did not change as a result of any tower.

But it’s that successful birth rate that has me confused. At what point did the accelerated replenishment cut off, with the world’s women losing that reproductive lucky streak, tumbling into the long era of filth and pain and childbed-fever and still-births and miscarriages and infertility and death, death, death that we know to have been their lot, both from written records and from mummies and bones?

It must have been an abrupt transition — a terrifying and dismaying one… from a blithe expectation of long lives and ten healthy children, into a maelstrom of horror and bleeding and mourning. Yet no records or even stories tell of such a devastating shift. Nor do I know of any any theological musings to explain why the rebuild of population since the flood was so rapid, then abruptly limited by pain and death after death. Was this another punishment? If so, it seems nastier than any flood.

GalileoQuoteOne group inconvenienced by these points of math is the Mormon community. If (as calculated) there were about 340 years between the flood and Babel… and if the Babel crisis precipitated the barrel-migration of a Hebrew tribe (Jaredites) to America… then the building of populations in the Americas becomes almost impossible to contemplate, especially with no Ice Age Bering land bridge to make things seem plausible. But of course, the same quandaries afflict any other faith that insists on interpreting the legends of illiterate shepherds as physically precise accounts…

…instead of allegories that still convey powerful lessons, to this day.

And so, that is where I will leave things. First, because there can be no resolution, because biblical literalism is simply wrong and also because it insults any chance of a God worth our time and attention, portraying Him (her?) as too vicious for words to describe…

Maxwell-equations-light… instead of as the vastly subtle Creator worshipped by Einstein, who concocts a vast cosmos of stunning complexity, diversity and extant — a universe truly worthy of respect. A God who — Albert would tell us, if he were here today — must have gotten things started fourteen billion years ago by uttering the stunning beauty of Maxwell’s Equations, in order to command…

“let there be light.”



Filed under science, theology

Herb Brin: Remembering a Remarkable Man

My father, Herb Brin was a poet, journalist, and publisher – and one of the most colorful figures to practice the craft of journalism, both in Chicago and Southern California. He passed away 10 years ago today. (2/17/1915 – 2/6/2003)

HB 1955Herb was born in 1915 in Chicago to a poor family of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia – in an era when signs posted on some windows read “No Jews and Dogs Allowed.”

In the years before America’s entry in World War II, Herb infiltrated the German-American Bund for the Anti-Defamation League, then became a gangland reporter for the legendary City News Bureau in Chicago. He quickly gained a reputation for tough and fearless reporting, but with a unique tone of heart and compassion.

Herb+plane&WACHerb served as an army reporter during World War II, then he joined the Los Angeles Times as a respected feature writer, covering everything from local pothole scandals to the Khruschev-Eisenhower summit and the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem. In 1954, he launched the Heritage Jewish newspapers across Southern and Central California. Its motto, inscribed above the masthead, was a commandment from Deuteronomy: “Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue…”

As the paper’s star investigative reporter, Herb broke many stories, including early revelations about the heroism of Oskar Schindler, the crimes of Klaus Barbie, and the plight of Soviet Jewry and other oppressed peoples. He stood not far from Robert Kennedy the night the Senator was shot and killed. Herb’s social activism – generally liberal – took quirky, individualistic and sometimes downright contrary turns that sometimes irked friends on the left. But his willful independence and cheerfully cantankerous eagerness for a good story endeared him to thousands and helped to weld Southern California Jewry into a strong and eclectic community.

Herb traveled extensively, to Israel and Spain, Poland and Germany, writing poignant soul-searching reflections on history.  “Where there is conflict, pray for conscience,” wrote Herb.

WildflowersSmallerBrin was also a world-renowned poet, whose collections were prefaced by great names like Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who wrote,  “How a journalist, how an editor could also be a brilliant poet is a source of astonishment – and of gratitude.”

But none of these accomplishments even hint at the vividness of this “character” who made a strong impression upon everyone who met him: eager, argumentative, unfailingly generous, and always interested in the underdog.

HerbBioCoverNewRecited to tape just a few years before his passing, in 2003, Herb’s autobiography, Shouting for Justice: The Journey of a Jewish Journalist Across the Century of Hitler and Israel, touches upon the highlights of a most unusual and illuminating American life. A fighter for his people and for a more just world. See the extensive tribute page that contains selections from his autobiography, travelogues and poetry. 

JusticeJusticeNewCover“Not to the weak of heart does artistry belong,” Brin declares in the opening line of his book of poems, Justice, Justice, Poems Reflecting the Measures of Man. Herb brings to his poetry the same burning indignation against tyranny, the same compassion for the persecuted as he did to the readers of his widely-quoted Heritage column, “Across the City Desk.”

With every word and stanza, Herb holds a lantern to the humaniy and all too frequent inhumanity of mankind, as he weeps for a child’s tear, reminisces over lost love…or chronicles the pangs of aging.

A remarkable man — he is missed.

Here is a sampling of Herb’s poignant poetry, from his book, Poems of the Rubio: 

A Song of Magic

 PoemsRubioA child with a tear

Sheds a torment for me

His grief tears the heavens apart


Oh I’d bring him a song

To soften his wrong

And a trick

And a trick for a start


For the trace of a smile

I’d tumble a mile

I’d tangle the trees

For a child


And weave for him tales

Of high-flying whales

Of princes

Of kingdoms beguiled


Oh I’d sing him of places

Where monkeys made faces

At rhinos that frolic on air

And I’d pop a balloon

For my friend the baboon

And I’d dance with a laughing bear


A sob and a fear

Would soon disappear

And he’d laugh

At a tipsy giraffe


Or a turtle that sings

Of wondrous things

Or a lion on butterfly wings


Oh child of my heart

Oh child of my heart

Grief tears the heavens apart.

 ====    =====    ====

ConflictsCoverNew I Invented Time

 Hold back your clocks

Damn it, no requiem for me!

I’ll rust those gears

With the fine spray of seas

That sweep my autumn years.


Crusts of age clog my knees

But I’ll get along

At a lesser pace.


And softer my sighs

Gentler, more gentle

And as suns descend

I’ll get along

It’s moonlight saving time

For me.


CantoCropI’ve many a mountain yet to climb

And the hot breath of lips on mine

And the touch of tender hips.


Are there promises to keep?

Don’t count my ways

Don’t count my ways.


The brook, the stream, the massive sea

Hold many mysteries for me

And books unread

And paths untrod

Primeval forests beckon me.


Don’t speed my way to dreams undreamed

I’ve cantatas to create

I’ve heady lilacs yet to sense

And little foxes to divine.


Take back your clocks

Hold back your clocks

With searing breath of lips

On mine

I invented time. 

 ====    =====    ====

And this one from Wildflowers: A Garden of Jewish Verse



Filed under history, society, theology, writing

Is Theology compatible with Progress and Science?

What Does God Want From Us?
In the spirit of the season, I’ll offer something theological – even pastoral – for the end of the year.  (Indeed, to denote completion of a dismal decade that I first labeled the “naughty oughts.”) Perhaps theology seems a bit of a reach for an astrophysicist and science fiction author.  Or, perhaps, those professions uniquely qualify me? In any event, I’ll oblige by posting two excerpts from my novels.

The first one is from EARTH (1989), a book that is getting a lot of attention today, for having predicted massive dumps of military and diplomatic secrets in the early 21st century, rattling governments powerless to keep up with amateur cunning and changing values.  (Sound familiar?)  But the excerpt that I chose for today is about a completely different matter. It portrays an argument between two theologians in the year 2038.

(Oh, note that EARTH (now in 20+ languages and a Hugo nominee) pre-dated the World Wide Web, yet was credited with predicting its blogs, tweets and hyperlinks… though my address may seem clunky compared to today’s “dot” URLs. Well, you can’t get everything right!)

I’ll follow with this “theological” excerpt with another one, from my new novel in progress, entitled EXISTENCE.

========= begin excerpt from EARTH: p207-208 =========

Query by T.M. — “Monseigneur, according to the bible, what was the very first injunction laid by the Lord upon our first ancestor?”

Reply by Msgr. Bruhuni — “By first ancestor I assume you mean Adam.  Do you refer to the charge to be fruitful and multiply?

T.M. — “That’s the first command mentioned, in Genesis 1.  But Genesis 1 is just a summary of the more detailed story in Genesis 2.  Anyway, to “multiply” can’t have been first chronologically. That could only happen after Eve appeared, after sex was discovered through sin, and after mankind lost immortality of the flesh!

Msgr.B. — “I see your point.  In that case, I’d say the command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. It was by breaking that injunction that Adam fell.”

T.M. — “But that’s still only a negative commandment… “don’t do that.”   Wasn’t there something else? Something Adam was asked actively to do?
“Consider. Every heavenly intervention mentioned in the Bible, from Genesis onward, can be seen as a palliative measure, to help mend a fallen race of obdurate sinners.  But what of the original mission for which we were made?  Have we no clue what our purpose was to have been if we hadn’t sinned at all? Why we were created in the first place?”

Msgr. B. — “Our purpose was to glorify the Lord.”

T.M. — “As a good Catholic, I agree.  But how was Adam to glorify?  By singing praises?  The Heavenly hosts were already doing that, and even a parrot can make unctuous noises.  No, the evidence is right there in Genesis. Adam was told to do something very specific, something before the fall, before Eve, before even being told not to eat the fruit!”

Msgr. B. — “Let me scan and refresh my … ah.  I think I see what you refer to. The paragraph in which the Lord has Adam name all the beasts. Is that it? But that’s a minor thing. Nobody considers it important.”

T.M. — “Not important?  The very first request by the Creator of His creation?  The only request that has nothing to do with the repair work of mortality, or rescue from sin? Would such a thing have been mentioned so prominently if the Lord were merely idly curious?”

Msgr. B. — “Please, I see others queued for questions. Your point is?”

T.M. — “Only this — our original purpose clearly was to glorify God by going forth, comprehending, and naming the Creator’s works.  Therefore, aren’t zoologists crawling through the jungle, struggling to name endangered species before they go extinct, doing holy labor?

“Or take even those camera-bearing probes we have sent to other planets…. What is the first thing we do when awe-inspiring vistas of some faraway moon are transmitted back by our little robot envoys?  Why, we reverently  name the craters, valleys, and other strange beasts discovered out there.

“So you see it’s impossible for the End of Days to come, as your group predicts, til we succeed in our mission or utterly fail.  Either we’ll complete the preservation and description of this Earth, and go forth to name everything else in God’s Universe, or we’ll prove ourselves unworthy by spoiling what we started with — this, our first garden. Either way, the verdict’s not in yet!”

Msgr. B. — “I … really don’t know how to answer this.  Not in real time.  At minimum you’ve drawn an intriguing sophistry to delight your fellow Franciscans. And those neo-Gaian Jesuits, if they haven’t thought of it already.

“ Perhaps you’ll allow me time to send out my own ferrets and contemplate?  I’ll get back to you next week, same time, same access code.”

So that’s where we left it. Meanwhile, any of you on this SIG are welcome to comment.  I’ll answer any useful remarks or suggestions.  After all, if there’s anything I seem to have on my hands these days, it’s free time.
—  Brother Takuei Minamoto {π net –  UsD 623.56.2343 -alf,e}

========= end of excerpt from EARTH: p207-208 =========

NAME-THE-BEASTS-GENESISYes, that was David Brin’s famous “Name The Beasts” riff, which I have given in numerous talks and speeches, but which was never posted online, till now.

Next – and finally – let me post here an excerpt from EXISTENCE (in progress). In this scene, an astronaut contemplates the tsunami of mail and requests he has received, since becoming famous for discovering a verified alien artifact in Earth orbit, bringing it home, and awakening the virtual emissaries or simulated beings residing inside.  While he and the object are in quarantine, he deals with fan mail and entreaties, including one of a theological nature.

======begin excerpt from EXISTENCE =======

Even putting aside unsolicited requests — if Gerald pondered only those from groups he had joined — the list was too long to cope with… that is, unless the aliens offered some fantastic new way he might copy himself. Now that would be useful interstellar tech!

For example, what should he do about the Church of Gaia: Jesus-Lover Branch?They wanted Gerald to offer an online sermon, for next Sunday’s prayoff against the CoG: Pure-Mother Branch. Some fresh new insights could help tip the current standings.

They especially wanted to know — as the human being who had closest contact with the artifact entities — did he feel that any of those alien species still knew a state of grace? Like Adam and Eve, before they bit the apple?

ExistenceHCOr, if not — if they had fallen, just like Man — then did each of their homeworlds also receive an emissary of deliverance — their own race-savior — the way one had been sent to Earth? If some of them said yes, then how similar were their stories to the New Testaments?

Lastly, if the answer to all of these questions turned out to be no… then what did Gerald think about the notion — spreading rapidly among some Christians — that humanity must awaken to a new obligation? A burden and proud duty to go forth and spread the Word?

In other words, now that we know they are out there — so many trillions of souls who wallow in unenlightened darkness — is it now our solemn mission to head out, delivering Good News to the stars.

Well, at least it was a more forward-looking dogma than his parents’ greedy fantasy — fixating on some gruesome apocalypse from the Book of Revelations. Even as a boy, he could see that those unctuous, “loving” prayers for an impending end-time were kind of sick, incorporating a nasty shaedenfreude –. hand-rubbing relish — as they savored what fiery armageddon would do to all those benighted folks out there who happened to recite the wrong incantations.

And yet, he found equally unappealing the righteous atheism of some classmates at Carnegie-Mellon, so contemptuous of anyone seeking “purpose” behind it all. In restive silence, Gerald had wondered, was there an interpretation of God and Jesus that might be compatible with the spectacular universe revealed by science? Not one a measly six thousand years old, of course, but congruent with a cosmos that had endured almost fourteen billion years, so far, and containing quadrillions of stars?

At least this new zealotry — the notion of sending missionaries forth across the light-years — had a positive spin. Even if those proposing it had little concept of the sheer scale involved, the fantastic impossibility of sampling more than a corner of one galaxy. At minimum, it was ambitious, imaginative, forward-looking, and pondered the potential of using technology for good.
Still, a public sermon? Gerald’s stomach churned.

He turned down the CoG-JeLoB folk politely, promising to ask the artifact entities about such matters, when the moment seemed opportune.

For all I know, this kind of thing is what they meant by “Join us.”

Perhaps it’s “enlist in our religion — or roast in hell.”

It could even be, “adhere to our dogmas — or face an interstellar crusade.”

I can’t wait to find out.

===  end excerpt from EXISTENCE=====

Here’s hoping these passages inspire a smile or two, some new thoughts? And above all, one of the most sacred things that human beings can do — polite, curiosity-driven argument!

Joy unto all.

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Filed under science fiction, theology