Sunday, February 19, 2017

The bones may be dry, but not the writer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, nature, essay collections

Once or twice over the years I stumbled upon an essay by Loren Eiseley. He always had a fresh take on a subject, and his writing has a lyrical quality unlike anyone else from the mid-Twentieth Century on. So when I came across his collected essays in two volumes, I couldn't resist!

I've just finished reading Loren Eiseley, Collected Essays, Vol. 1, edited by William Cronon. This volume and its companion are the 2016 offering of The Library of America Series. Volume 1 contains in three sections the three books The Immense Journey, The Firmament of Time, and The Unexpected Universe, and a fourth section, Uncollected Prose.

In modern terms, Eiseley was primarily a hominin palaeontologist; he studied the bones and grave-related artifacts of ancient humans and their ancestors and related species such as the Australopithecines. He studied human and prehuman evolution. This is in contrast to an anthropologist who studies human artifacts as evidence of culture and technology. Gathering specimens of archaic humans has always been difficult and very few were known in the 1950's to 1970's when Eiseley was most active. As late as the 1990's you could fit all known specimens of non-sapiens hominids and hominins into a footlocker. A small one. In his day a largeish suitcase was probably sufficient.

When writing for scientific publication, he could write prose as concise and acerbic as any. When writing for the public—and it is clear that this is what he most enjoyed—he wrote with heart and imagination and great lyricism. I know no other like him. He could immerse himself in a different viewpoint and somehow the writing drags us in with him. For example, writing of a spider, that was spinning a web in the heat of a street light late into winter:
  "Good Lord," I thought, "she has found herself a kind of minor sun and is going to upset the course of nature."
  I procured a ladder… There she was, the universe running down around her, warmly arranged among her guy ropes attached to the lamp supports—a great black and yellow embodiment of the life force, not giving up to either frost or stepladders. She ignored me and went on tightening and improving her web. … a kind of heroism, a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if a rope can still be spun on to a star. (p 111)
He notes that the web was her entire universe, and that she paid attention to nothing that wasn't in direct contact with her web. Then he wonders what we are missing, thinking that all the universe we see is all the universe there is.

He had a kind of sideways take on natural selection. Clearly understanding evolution and evolutionary theory, he points out that the popular image of "survival of the fittest" is quite wrong-headed and actually back-to-front. More than once he described how little lungfish struggle from drying pond to, hopefully, wetter ones, and calls them "fish failures". The genetic pathway their ancestors took made them less fit as a fish, but more fit overall, allowing them to endure where "fishier fish" could not. A species of lungfish or something like it evolved into the earliest amphibian. Those lungfish that still exist aren't much in the way of being fishes, nor of being salamanders, but are a compromise of both.

In the same way, proto-human primates were small, became hairless and rather weak, adopting an upright posture before they had brain enough to be much of a toolmaker. Somehow this "failed ape" survived long enough to develop toolmaking, fire, and broader social groupings, all with a brain not much larger than a chimp's.

But at a later stage, language erupted. To this day we know less about the development of language skills than about the depths of the sea. In several of the essays Eiseley waxes lyrical about what this could have meant. Language effectively brought most physical evolution to a halt, substituting cultural evolution. Human culture effectively shields us from most strictures of natural selection. But as compared to the lungfish, are we closer to the salamander, or still only a little ways beyond the ape? Are we like the lungfish in truth, no more than halfway developed in a direction we cannot discern? Are we still "failed apes" and "not-quite amphibians"…let alone a true "land" animal along the track of that analogy? In one of the last essays in the book Eiseley wonders if, having grasped the fires of the universe, will we survive our own half-formedness and grow to be worthy of the powers to which we aspire?

Indeed. I can hardly wait to dig into the second volume!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Presenting CWWN v10 - The Present Testimony (3)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

With the "Overcomer Conferences" of 1929-32, which formed the subject of many earlier issues of The Present Testimony, Watchman Nee laid a solid foundation for Christian life and practice in our understanding of God's covenant and the reality of the indwelling Christ, who alone can carry out God's will in our lives and in the church.

Fifteen verses in the New Testament speak of "him who overcomes" or similar language; seven of these are in the conclusions of the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3. It is primarily due to Watchman Nee's written ministry that many Christians have come to know a phrase that arose about the time of his death in 1972, "An overcomer is a normal Christian."

The current volume, Volume 10 of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, contains Issues 24 to 31 of The Present Testimony. Several subjects based on the earlier foundation are presented, and three issues (26 to 28) are devoted to the messages that became the book The Latent Power of the Soul. I'll hold comment on that book until I read its updated version in a later volume of CWWN.

Two messages were particularly helpful to me, to remind me of the balance in God's ways: "The Two Sides of the Truth—Objective and Subjective" from Issue 29 and "Faith and Obedience" from Issue 30. These two are really two treatments of the same subject. For example, the redemption of Christ, accomplished on the cross, is an objective fact, a historical fact with a tremendous spiritual meaning because it forms the foundation of our relationship with God. To such a fact, we can respond in one of two ways, to believe or to disbelieve. There is no "obedience" involved in gaining the benefits of redemption, because they are like a bank deposit and faith is the only key to open it.

The promise of the Holy Spirit, both internal for our life and external for our work—this is the difference between the Spirit received as "breath" by the disciples on the day Jesus was resurrected, and the Spirit poured out on the disciples praying in the upper room at Pentecost—, this promise is another fact, which we obtain by faith. But the working out of our living in spirit day by day is through obedience, and our carrying out the work to which God has called us is also through obedience.

Jesus spoke of some who would stand before the Lord to say, "Lord, Lord, we did many great things in Your name," but that He would refuse to recognize their work, calling it "lawless". Why? No obedience. Such workers do things they want to do "for God" without being at all clear what God actually wants them to do. But this has a more day-to-day aspect. When we pray, do we treat God like a "sugar daddy" or "magician" who exists to fulfill our desires? Or do we love and enjoy Him and seek His desire, trusting that we will be the most fully fulfilled in the daily tasks and life work that He has chosen?

Nee was concerned that many Christians get things backward. They ask God to do something for them that He has already done. In the extreme, some might ask Jesus to die again on their behalf! This cannot be, and forms a large subject in Hebrews. Seeing that we have been redeemed, we simply believe it, and this is the foundation of our obedience. But others try to obey "what the Bible says" without first having faith on the One who redeemed them. In effect, they want to walk about God's kingdom without first entering its gate. Had Israel never crossed the Jordan River, they could walk about all they wished, and never gain a single inch of Canaan. This is the sad condition of many "good" people, many "well behaved" people, who have sidestepped the cross of Christ but try to live a "Christian" life anyway.

It takes a certain exercise to partake of powerful ministry such as this book contains. If I read in a lazy way or let myself get in a querulous mood, I gain nothing. Watchman Nee had the gift to repeat a truth in several ways and from several angles, to get around our fleshly defenses, to induce us to wake up and actively take in spiritual truths with a spiritual mind. And to this end, a pair of messages on "The Renewing of the Mind", also from issues 29 and 30, are particularly helpful.

Russian spiders back on the web

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

It looks like two days ago the Russian spiders became active again, but in a more sporadic way than what I noticed in mid-December. This screen shot shows activity over the past week, and while the U.S. dominates, there is a darker tint than usual over Russia. Looking only at the past day, I find that while the U.S. is the source of the largest number of views to this blog, Russian activity is about 80% as great.

I can only say, Я надеюсь, что вы наслаждаетесь себя!