Droning on about Einstein

In my early twenties, when a high school friend and I would e-mail each other, I did not yet realize that being a grad student in the sciences these days almost necessarily involves being an unpaid military contractor.  It is where all the funding for these departments comes from.  (To his credit, he tried to tell me this.  I tried to tell him to bail in that case.)  When pressuring him about what the possible applications for a project he was working on might be, he admitted that there were only military applications – but that he hoped they might use the technology for dodging torpedoes, rather than for better aiming them.  I replied that after dodging the torpedo, it would be foolish to hope that they would not then lob one back.  Poor guy – he just wanted to learn about acoustics, and this is what his studies had come to.  I am amazed he still talks to me after all of my moralizing speeches.  Anyway, he works in the acoustics field now, but his money doesn’t come from the “defense” industry killing business –  it comes from musicians and concert halls – he can finally do what he had intended to do all along.

Likewise another friend found himself pitching a project from his graduate school computer lab to a government killing agency.  He suggested it might be used to redirect their missile to swerve away from their target if they changed their mind at the last minute.  I do not imagine the colonels were much amused.  He is still working with computers, but ditched a job he liked a few years back because he was fed up with the company only pitching the product to the military.

My husband and I were talking earlier today about the drone controversy that has been in the news of late.  He said that it was hard to get worked into a lather over it, because if it weren’t that, it would be something else – some other technology invading our privacy.  And I have to agree that by the time this sort of thing becomes public, there is already something new in the pipeline that we are similarly unprepared for.  And isn’t it grand that illegal government actions (such as violations of the 4th amendment, say for instance) usually go on for years before a case makes its way to the Supreme Court, where they can tell us what the rest of us already know.

Einstein had a number of things to say about the intersection (or lack thereof) of morality and science – perhaps the most personally cynical (or repentant, perhaps) of which was, “If I had known, I would have been a locksmith.”  But what struck me more when I was in high school, and continues to concern me now is this quote:  “Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.”

I went to a magnet school in Northern Virginia called Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.  We imagined ourselves to be nationally famous, as we were the only high school in the country at the time to have our own super-computer. (Remember super-computers? Oh, never mind.)  It may be that many of my friends were there for the same reason I was – not because they intended to become scientists, but because they were seeking a place where they would not be bullied for their unrepentant brainy-ness.  But it does seem interesting that, of the friends I am still in touch with who went there, only one of them is still in science – the concert hall guy.  One of them left the field of Venusian volcanology to become a jewelry designer.  Another is a lawyer, another is a writer, another is an English professor…

It also seems interesting how many TJ alums are in the Christian ministry: 3 from my graduating class alone, and 2 more that I personally know of – there must be more.  Makes me wonder if I was not the only one who received an admonition from a science teacher (in my case on my first day of school, and in front of the whole biology class) that I would find that I would “have to choose between science and religion.”*  It was humiliating and confusing at the time, but I came to see it as a call to arms.  When paired with the earlier two Einstein quotes (bemoaning that he did not become a locksmith, and warning about the inevitable evil uses to which our technological advances will be put), the following one sounds like decisive advice against going into a technological field at all if one wishes to remain a moral person:

Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.

While recovering, The Eyre Affair was recommended to me as some light reading.  While the front cover likens it to Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Monty Python, in my opinion it did not nearly live up to any of these.  But kudos for the not original, but then again not totally overused theme of a scientist thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if I could…?,” then making that thing, having someone unscrupulous get their hands on it, and having to destroy the invention in order to save countless lives.  But as the inventor in the story goes on with his work, I can’t imagine he will stay out of mischief.  It might have been more effective to have killed the inventor within.

“Power always attracts men of low morality,” Einstein wrote.  Perhaps he meant those persons of the sort who would possess an atom bomb, but there is a “will to power”, too, in many of those who do research – a desire to be master over a field, to know more, to see further.  Desiring to be the one who discovers the origins of the universe is a desire for a sort of power.

And, indeed, this desire for power infects more than a few in the parish ministry – there is dangerously alluring power in the pulpit, in the clerical collar, in being the resident interpreter of The Book, in the administration of the sacraments.  That power has attracted many men and women of low morality, and tempted others whose moral fiber was less strong than they had reckoned on.  One of my constant questions, both before going into the parish and when leaving it was “how much do I want this because of the power / insider status it gives me?”  I felt at the time that it required vigilance of the kind that I am discovering coming off prescription pain meds requires.

The danger, I think, of unmanned paparazzi drones, of atomic bombs, of toxic pastors… is that the power-hungry will always be with us.  The snake invites Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, telling her it will make her like God.  A baby cries because unless he is the center of his parents’ universe, he will not survive, and so he comes to learn that he is the center of the universe – the parents make an idol of the child, and the child learns then to make an idol of himself.  Whether you embrace the doctrine of original sin, or take a Niebuhrian view that sin is learned**,  it seems impossible to deny that a desire to be the god of one’s own universe is a universally human sin – and a pernicious weed to uproot.

Thankfully, I cannot follow Einstein in thinking that “we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”  If so, I would have no choice but to despair – humanity has demonstrated no tendency to universally adopt substantially new manners of thinking.  Or, as an older saying goes, “One rotten apple will ruin the whole barrel.”  And it seems increasingly clear to me that we are all at least a little rotten.  If the Constitution is to be our salvation, or if world peace is to be our salvation – if the end to all homicide is to be our salvation, or regard for human life is to be our salvation – then we are damned before we have begun.

It is true that it is up to each of us – it is up to me! – to not silently go about my business in the face of evil.  It is up to you and to me to stand up and say no to the forces of death and hate, and yes to life and love.  When my daughter was baptized, I promised to “accept the freedom and the power God gives [me] to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves[.]” – and I must repent daily of my less than thorough-going approach to this call to be a Resurrection sign.

The win does not go to Team Humanity.  We will not be the ones to save ourselves.  Thanks be to God – for I have seen no evidence that we ourselves are capable of it.

* I would like to note that this teacher’s actions were in flagrant violation of the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution, though I only came to realize this later.

** Nature v. nurture – the field of psychology is beginning to consider this a fool’s debate – will theology follow?

“Give up something for Lent”

That was the comment left by a friend on Facebook, after she had read my last blog entry.  Her words made me realize that I had not been as transparent in that entry as I had hoped to be:  I am giving something up for Lent – as a consequence of the lesser (and perhaps shorter than Lent) losses of giving up my ability to think clearly, my ability to stay awake during daylight hours, my ability to drive, and my ability to lift a child or a bag of groceries, I am giving up any idea of myself as necessary.

I have mixed feelings about the modern embodiments of “Lenten discipline” – especially when “giving something up for Lent” seems to have become almost a cultural norm rather than a religious one.  For instance, a friend of mine told me about a colleague who hasn’t identified himself as Christian since childhood, yet he gives up alcohol for Lent every year – “to prove to himself that he is not an alcoholic.”  Setting aside what is problematic in that method for establishing one’s dependence (or not) on alcohol, it illustrates nicely how divorced from spiritual ends giving something up “for Lent” has become.  At the same time, I don’t think that the case against it is as cut and dried as blogger Landon Whitsitt recently suggested (awesome article, though – check it out.)  Understanding one’s own motives goes a long way when it comes to this now widely accepted practice.

In any case, I did not choose my fast this year.  Honestly, having missed Ash Wednesday worship this year, I initially felt alienated from any concrete expression of the season.  Instead, as another  friend suggested to me in the last days before the season began (but did not sink in until later) – the Spirit drove me into this wilderness.  I am being given a window into a world without me in it, or at least without me being able to do many of the things which feel essential to my understanding of myself.  I am discovering how inessential I am.  Dust I am, and to dust I will return.

I could never have chosen to give up being necessary for Lent – or (more truly) given up my idea that I am necessary.  And tonight, it took me some time to settle into being even a little bit grateful for the gift of this insight.  But as with any spiritual discipline – any lesson God would teach us – learning that the world goes on without me is indeed a precious gift, and I hope over this wilderness season to find the strength to stop worrying about so many things, and instead to embrace fully the lesson that only God is necessary.