Plumbing Depths

This past week we had a plumber here for a day.  Our house has been owned by a succession of DIY weekend warriors who had more confidence than ability when it came to things like electric and water (which, I’ve learned, you want to keep apart).  Somehow our home inspector failed to spot these costly fixes, and I try to think of them all as investments—a concept foreign to a guy with my background of living paycheck to paycheck.  In any case, all this plumbing has me thinking deep thoughts about water.  And depth.  Things are seldom what they seem—there’s more below the surface, and those who struggle with the depths often come up with sayings we call profound.  And they often express them in poetic form because, when you get deep enough, words themselves break down.

I often consider this in the context of science.  Physicists break things down into formulas.  There’s a certain uniformity, they tell us, until you reach the quantum level, then the rules change.  I sometimes see this as an analogy with the staid nature of scientific prose versus the depth of good poetry.  Or even, dare I suggest it, profound fiction.  These sometimes explain our world better than the accepted facts of mundane existence, such as water always seeking the lowest point.  There comes a profundity, however, at which down becomes up.  The behavior of water, which we want in our houses but only in controlled locations, is somehow indicative of this.  “Deep calls unto deep” as one ancient source says.  And the plumber walks away with a good chunk of your cash.

Learning about science in school, I was always taught that good science is elegant—there should be beauty in a theory that explains the world.  I’ve often wondered how this fits in with a reality that is often messy—chaotic even.  Ancient peoples from the area that produced our Bible believed water to be chaotic.  It had to be controlled by the gods.  It is vital for life, we need it and yet it wreaks havoc on dry land as those who experience hurricanes know all too well.  The world into which I was born was one of indoor plumbing.  Once water gets in, as our leaky roof attests, it introduces chaos in a place we want to stay dry.  When water won’t behave like we want it to, however, we no longer call on the gods.  We call a plumber and pay our offering with profound reverence.

Young Dr. Wiggins contemplates chaos

Water Monsters

Chaos is a monster.  More than personal opinion, that’s a biblical view.  If, like many modern people with theological training, you’ve been taught that Genesis narrates a creation out of nothing, you’ve become a victim of this monster.  You see, although ancient Israel had no “systematic theology”—the Bible can be quite inconsistent if you’re willing to read what it says—the view that chaos was constantly lurking outside the ordered realm of creation was a common one.  One of the more intriguing episodes in Ugaritic mythology involves a broken text where the god Hadad, aka Baal, refuses to allow a window in his palace.  The reason?  Apparently he feared chaos (in the form of Yam, the sea) might slip in and kidnap his daughters.

More than a theological statement, the story of creation was actually a singular episode in Yahweh’s ongoing struggle against chaos.  Step outside and look at the sky.  If it’s blue it’s because there’s unruly water being held back by a great dome over our heads.  If it’s gray, it may be raining, or it probably will be soon.  Stroll to where the land ends.  What do you see?  Water.  That water is lapping at land, trying to take it over.  Although the ancients didn’t have geologic ages (the Mesopotamians came close, with ancient kings living thousands of years) rivers eroded land and they had tendencies to flood.  The thing about chaos is that it makes you start again, from the beginning.

One of the many unfortunate things about biblical literalism is that it loses sight of this biblical truth.  It exchanges something everyone can understand for a theological abstraction that makes no sense in the world that we experience.  Ancient belief held that the human role in the world was to fight chaos, not to get to Heaven.  In fact, in the Hebrew Bible there’s no concept of Heaven at all.  Instead, the commandments were all about order.  You can’t build on the water.  What you do build water tries to wash away—Israel has a rainy season, and one of the characteristics of such seasons is the occasional violent storm and heavy rains.  Although we need the water from the heavens, heavy rains cause, well, chaos.  In ancient thought, this was the monster hiding in plain sight.  That blue sky is a reminder that a dragon awaits.  Rather than starry-eyed Heaven-gazers, the ancient biblical person was a monster-fighter.  And that’s the biblical truth.

Childhood’s End?

Writers are agents against chaos.  Those of you who read this blog frequently know that chaos has been one of my themes lately.  Moving, which is a process that takes months and months of time, is pure chaos.  Whenever I settle down to write, yet another moving-related task comes to me—this box needs to be unpacked, that gap in the fence must be mended, where did I put the toolbox?  Mundane things.  Writers like to think the world conforms, somehow, to their inner lives.  In reality, things are far more complex than that and don’t seem to be getting any easier.  Starting to learn about house ownership is something best left for the young, I suspect.  Every question (where should we put the television?) leads to a daisy-chain of other issues (but first we need to move that hutch, but it’s too heavy for either of us to lift, etc.).

In ancient times water symbolized chaos.  Before we left on vacation, the main issue was to get all boxes off the floor in the garage.  We haven’t had time to move them safely inside yet, what with planning for vacation and all, so plastic became the order of the day.  We do need, however, to get things inside eventually.  A slow process for two middle-aged people with full-time jobs, even without jet lag.  Writing feels like a luxury item, for what is most required is time—time to move things to their proper places.  Time to figure out what those proper places are.  Time to go to work again.

Had we thought this through, we might’ve used vacation this year to unpack.  We bought our plane tickets, however, before we bought the house.  This latter transaction is one of chaos embodied.  Who knew, for example, that the grass had to be cut so often?  That all roofs leak?  That chaos is constant, and not intermittent?  In biblical times, one of the signs of God’s greatness was the ability of the Almighty to hold chaos in constant check.  The waters were always lurking, looking for any opening—except when you need rain and it just won’t come.  Sitting here writing feels like the giddy irresponsibility of childhood where there’s so much to get done and so little time in which to do it.  And neighbors don’t appreciate the lawn being mowed before the sun is properly out of bed.  The renter pays a price for living with, for at least some stretches of time, chaos-free maintenance.  The home-owner quickly learns that any time left over for writing feels like being irresponsible, and a little bit divine.

Prelude to Chaos

Liquids are the enemy.  Don’t let the cuteness of this little guy fool you—there’s collusion here.  For as well as creating life, and being necessary to sustain it, water destroys.  Creator, annihilator.  We moved during a time when neither of us had vacation and we told the over-tired movers that it was okay to put our boxes in the garage.  We planned to move them soon, but, you know, work.  Then the rains came.  Not just sprinkles, but downpours.  The garage isn’t water-tight.  Boxes were soaked.  Many books were damaged.  This wasn’t a flood that can be claimed on insurance, it was simply rain pooling where people usually park their (normally waterproof) cars.  In their place sat our books.

We both worked the day after the rains.  When we discovered the damage the next evening, it looked manageable.  I had to work the next day, of course, and a few breaks sufficed to get the many, many boxes of damaged books out into the sun.  It was carnage.  We don’t have much in the way of material goods; we spend a bit of money on books, however.  Now they’ve become the victims laid out on this altar of home ownership which, at the time, seemed like a good idea.  We needed a house for our books.  We needed time to move them from the garage to the house.  Yes, old friend Morpheus, “Time is always against us.”  

Job sat upon his ash-heap and pondered why he’d paid the movers so much only to have his moved goods destroyed.  And in a manner in which insurance assessors are trained to point to the fine print.  Those who store their goods in the garage reap the wrath of liquid.  You see, when water reaches cardboard, or paper, the wood pulp sucks it up.  Carefully dried, the paper remembers the compelling nature of water.  Too little, and you die.  Too much, and you die.  No wonder the ancients thought that water was a deity.  It claims all—tries to get in through your roof.  Lays insouciantly on your basement floor.  And the garage—yes, who thought of the garage when the immediate concern was to shut the windows to keep Leviathan out of the house?  I spent weeks carefully packing those books against shipping damage.  Used up my vacation days doing so.  Chaos has claimed them.  I would weep, but that would be collusion with the enemy, even if nobody sees.

The Cost of Chaos

BathingTheLionJonathan Carroll’s novels are always thought-provoking. My reading patterns tend to be driven by book sales and secondhand stores since my reading vice is particularly aggressive. The Ghost in Love is now already years in my past, but I found a copy of Bathing the Lion that I could afford and I was soon dropped into a world of chaos and order. I won’t try to summarize the complex plot here, but I would note the story’s participation in one of the oldest themes of literature—the struggle of order against chaos. The characters called “mechanics” in this book are those who attempt to maintain order throughout the cosmos. Many retire to earth. There, or here, they continue to work against the ever-encroaching chaos.

According to Genesis 1—not the earliest literature, but still fairly ancient—creation is God making order out of chaos. The universe, prior to creation, consists of uncreated, chaotic raw material. Order is what makes our world recognizable. Elsewhere in the Bible creation takes the form of a struggle against a conscious monster that represents chaos. This motif is reflected elsewhere in the ancient world in texts such as the Enuma Elish. Actually, the theme is so common as to be classified as a standard trope of ancient religions with its own name—Chaoskampf. Chaos is always waiting in the wings, ready to break back in and make a mess of our nicely settled existence. The flood story, placed as it is just after creation, is an example of what happens when chaos regains the upper hand.

The battle to maintain order represents a kind of ancient awareness of entropy. If energy isn’t expended, that which is accomplished becomes a wet, stinking mess and anyone who survives has to start all over again. This story is deeply embedded in human consciousness. To our way of thinking, we’re integral to the running of this universe. Spending time in nature gives the lie to this thought. There aren’t that many predators left, but those that are here—cougars and grizzly bears especially—remind us that in the eyes of nature we can be just another meal. Our outlook cannot accept such a low position. As Carroll has the mechanics say, they are not gods. Like human beings, however, they take on a role next to that of divinity. Chaos is the enemy, even garbed in the colors of making us great again. There are still those who will bathe the lion.

Random Science

Our world is defined by science. Empirical method demonstrates again and again and again that physical properties follow the same tired pattern without any divine intervention. Saturday was Rutgers Day. Instead of our usual visit to College Avenue to sample French cheeses, we went to the Busch Campus of science and engineering. There we were treated to a 90-minute physics lesson that consisted mostly of demonstrations for the kids with things blowing up, glowing, and being broken after being dipped in liquid nitrogen. Outside the building we watched a chaos pendulum which a grad student explained never followed a predictable pattern. Back in the day when I was subjected to religious rules stricter than any laws of physics at Nashotah House, I used to read about chaos theory. It is the most biblical of scientific ideas. As anyone who’s watched Jurassic Park knows, it means that ultimate predictability is futile. Well, there’s more to it than that, but I’m merely an amateur.

Returning home, I read an interview with Matthew Hutson, about his new book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane. It is now on my wish-list, but I haven’t read it yet. Despite the fact that Hutson is an atheist, he recognizes that magical thinking is both healthy and unavoidable. A door creeps open for the scholar of religion here. We are able to see that non-rational thought is human, so very human. We don’t often think about how driven we are by our emotions. When we see a friend we ask, “what do you feel like doing today?”, not, “what do you think like doing?”. Visiting someone recovering from hard times we ask how s/he is feeling, not thinking. Emotion is, after all, built on the root of “motion”—it is our motivating factor. Seldom is it scientific.

Not to demean science. I have read science books and magazines on my own since I was a teenager. The truths that have been revealed through science are endlessly fascinating and pragmatic. They work in a way religions seldom do. Nevertheless, I became a scholar of ancient religions, studying them scientifically. In the Middle Ages it was said that philosophy was the handmaid to theology. Truth was revealed, not discovered. Reason, thankfully, began to show the way forward. The epithet Dark Ages gained currency for a reason. Science is our means of comprehending our universe, and yet, superstition is hardwired into our brains. I am glad for the scientific worldview even when the chaos pendulum still swings crazily, unpredictably before me. Seldom do those in my field get to consider themselves Renaissance women and men. The pendulum swings where it will.

George Ioannidis' chaos pendulum

Jurassic Playground

Over the weekend I watched Jurassic Park for the first time in many months, perhaps even years. Despite the caricatures that substitute for believable characters, the dinosaurs are mostly believable and the warning tone appropriate. Throughout Dr. Malcolm cautions against “playing God” – an interesting perspective for a character who ascribes so fully to chaos theory. So when the television was off and the dinosaurs once again safely extinct, I continued to ponder this notion of “playing God.”

Quite often the phrase occurs in two main contexts: those of science and ethics. When humans have discovered the naturalistic explanation for a phenomenon and devise a human means of altering it, we are then in the realm of “playing God.” It seems to me that this is only a difference of degree from what people, and other creatures, have always done. Does not every action we take have endless ramifications? In our own little chaotic system, our decisions and activities impact others just as surely as a T-rex stomping through the park. It is only a matter of degree.

As human beings we may be the only animals that consciously “play God,” but the truth of the matter is that we are all pieces in an intricately interconnected system. Animals, even plants (behold the kudzu!), influence the activities of others, changing courses of rivers, degrading the environment, blocking the paths of ants, ant-eaters, or ant-eater eaters. What could be more natural than “playing God?” This, of course, doesn’t change the ethical angle, but throws it open much wider. Should we clone dinosaurs? Should we clone people? Don’t ask me – I’m too busy playing God in my own little corner of the world.

T-rex plays God