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November 2005

Sunday Night Journal — November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving Morning

The street in front of my house is unpaved. It used to be an ordinary gravel road, but a few years ago the city came in and covered it with some sort of dark gritty stuff that looks and feels like it could be old pavement ground to bits. It’s coarser than sand but finer than gravel and gives the street a dingy appearance.

The wooded areas which surround the house still show, and will continue to show for some time, the effects of the hurricanes and tropical storms we’ve had in the past two years. There are fallen trees decaying in place among the living, and the living ones have a threadbare look, having lost many of their smaller branches. Many of them lean southward because the main force of hurricane Ivan, which had worse winds than Katrina, came from the north. Along the street and among the trees there is still a certain amount of storm debris, piles of leaves, pine needles, and branches swept along by the water that came all the way up the street from the bay during Katrina until they were blocked, where they accumulated and were left in heaps when the water receded. All of which is to say that our street does not provide a very beautiful walk these days, although to my taste greenery (which we have almost year-round) is almost always pleasant, even if it’s not in the best condition.

On Thanksgiving morning I went out fairly early to walk our two dogs. When I stepped out of our driveway and turned to the east, the same old street was transfigured. The street turns a bit just past our house in that direction, so that it almost seems to end. From this apparent end, and over my neighbor’s house and the woods behind it, the morning sun was shining straight along the street. There was a bit of mist around, just enough to hold and magnify the golden light. The surface of the street itself was shining. It might have been the path to an enchanted castle.

I often speculate about the creation, Eden, and the Fall. I don’t know how to reconcile the Genesis account of a paradise with the story the scientists tell us, of a very old world and a very old human race that developed out of the same sort of nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw that we see around us now. Maybe the sight of my street on Thanksgiving morning was a hint. Maybe the first conscious male and female homo sapiens did indeed inhabit a world that looked more or less like our own, but was transfigured for them by the sensible grace and presence of God.

Sunday Night Journal — November 20, 2005

Is Evolutionism Science?

The indignant charge I keep hearing against the theory of intelligent design is that it isn’t science. As best I can tell this complaint can mean one of two things: either that ID allows for the possible existence of non-material reality, or that it is not an experimental science. The first of these is just materialist philosophy trying to pass itself off as science. But the second, I suppose, is true. I’ve always thought that the function of ID is necessarily only negative. It seems to me that the term itself might involve a bit of over-reach, because it can only hope to show that the theory of development by accident is inadequate to explain the facts, not to prove positively that any other mechanism is operative.

The Darwinist antagonists of ID say that it is non-testable and non-falsifiable, and has no predictive power. How could one test it, they say?—wait around for God to create something? And they seem to find this a very witty and telling question.

But it strikes me, as a layman, that this charge can just as easily be made against materialistic evolutionism—let’s call it evolutionism, for convenience. The simplest claims of evolutionism are not, as far as I know, contested by any one, even the young-earth creationists: everyone agrees that organisms undergo modifications which are passed on to their progeny, and that if conditions favor the survival of individuals with a certain modification it will eventually become a characteristic feature. This sort of evolutionary theory has been understood and put to practical use for millennia, although, obviously, no one had any idea of the mechanisms involved. What is only predicted by the theory, and in principle can never be verified experimentally, is that chemical and genetic events are sufficient to account for the entire development of the cosmos, including the presumed evolution of our planet from lifeless rock to the home of millions (billions?) of species, including one which has the ability to ask how it came to be here. How could one test this?—wait around for evolution to create life on a bare rock?

There are three great transitions which, I think, are likely always to remain mysterious: that from nothing to something, from non-life to life, and from life to consciousness. The first of these is inherently unknowable, and evolutionists seem content to ignore it—understandably enough, because it shakes their whole edifice. As for the second, I’m aware that some scientists claim to have produced in the laboratory minute changes in both non-living and living materials of a sort that they believe might be involved in the evolution of life on the grand scale. Although I’m not remotely qualified to pass judgment on their real significance, I think I’m entitled to say, as a reasonable person exercising reasonable judgment, that they do not constitute anything approaching a proof of the dogma that no causes other than material and accidental ones are required to produce everything we know, up to and including human consciousness. And as for that third transition, well, I can’t think of any bigger leap of credulity than that taken by those who assume that consciousness is a by-product of the activity of the brain. There is no evidence whatsoever for this; it is a logical deduction from materialist premises, but no more.

How can evolutionism ever conceivably be anything more than an hypothesis? Its adherents insist that science in general would be retarded significantly if it could not proceed on the assumption that evolution works more or less as they describe it. I don’t see why this should be true: why it is necessary to make so many hypothetical postulates about the origins of things in order to study them as they presently are? As a matter of pure logic, the fact that all living things share fundamental building blocks, and that they can be grouped into smaller categories on the basis of more specialized components (e.g. bones), doesn’t imply common descent from the more simple to the more complex any more strongly than it implies the sort of design that we practice every day—i.e., variations on certain basic ideas and features. (I understand that there are other reasons for believing in common descent, but the existence of common features has never struck me as very persuasive one way or the other.)

Would it really damage science so badly to admit that we simply don’t know, and probably never will know, exactly how things came to be? What drives someone like Richard Dawkins to venture so far beyond any knowable facts in insisting that evolutionism is proven? And whose is the real offense against the method and spirit of scientific investigation?

Sunday Night Journal — November 13, 2005

Ending Up

Twenty to thirty years ago the first wave of young orthodox Catholics formed not only by Vatican II but in reaction to the errors that followed upon it, formed perhaps above all by the exciting early days of the papacy of John Paul II, began marrying and raising families. Many of them were converts or reverts. They were filled with good intentions and high expectations, determined to live out their vocations as Catholic parents in a way that could hardly avoid being in opposition at least some of the time to the prevailing secular culture. My wife and I were among them, and we’ve met many others along the way.

Most of these have been reasonably successful, but I know of some fairly spectacular crashes: divorces, children going seriously astray, and in general all the ills that beset society at large, to which no family is completely immune and from which no family is completely isolated. Daniel Nichols relates, on the Caelum et Terra blog, a particularly sad story of a woman abandoning her husband and children. Daniel’s point is not so much the particulars of that situation as the scandal of easy annulments in the Church today, but I found myself brooding over the situation itself. How does a couple come to such a pass when, unless one of the spouses was deliberately deceitful, both had begun with the best of intentions to live a Catholic marriage?

And beyond such highly visible tragedies, I know—I expect everyone knows—of Catholic families which appear from the outside to be fine and faithful, but which have serious internal fractures. Or parents who have become perhaps too well-adjusted to the culture, and whose children are fallen-away or nominal Catholics.

I think one reason these things trouble me is that somewhere in some sub-rational part of my mind there is a stubborn belief that if parents try to do the right thing God will see to it that their marriages work out and that their children remain in the Church. I emphasize that this is not rational, and I don’t need to be reminded that the effects of original sin persist in spite of the sacraments, and that personal sin is a stubborn thing, never entirely or perhaps even mostly eradicated. I know, I know. And yet the question keeps presenting itself to my mind: how can things go so wrong? There is no definite answer to that, but, doctrine aside, every sensible person knows that things will go wrong in this world, no matter how hard we try. That’s why they call it a vale of tears.

It helps to alleviate the melancholy of contemplating these situations to remember that in none of them do we know the end of the story. Many years ago, in the mid-1970s, I made the decision, for purely pragmatic reasons, to give up my plans for an academic career in literature and to take up a practical trade, studying computer science. Some time after that I ran into an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen for five or six years. We were standing in line for something or other and briefly catching up on what each of us had been doing. I told him I was learning to be a computer programmer and added, perhaps a bit defensively, that this was an odd place for me to end up. He replied, “Well, maybe you ain’t finished ending up yet.”

That remark comes back to me often. Those disasters that I mentioned are stories still in progress. I sometimes hear people who read The Chronicles of Narnia complain of or lament what seems to be the loss of Susan, one of the four siblings who enter Narnia. In one of the late books in the series she is no longer present, and the other three are given to understand that her interest in worldly things has taken her away. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but I’ve never taken it to be the final word on Susan’s eternal destiny. She is on the wrong road, clearly, but as far as I remember it is not stated that she will never regain the right one and that she will not, by some other and harder route, eventually enter Aslan’s country. No one still on this earth has finished ending up yet. And it’s worth remembering that this is no less true of those who seem to be doing fine as of those who are in desperate straits.

Sunday Night Journal — November 6, 2005

Robert Johnson and Me

Over at The Corner, National Review’s blog, several people recently were playing a variant of the degrees-of-separation game, in which you count the number of persons linking you to some famous and important one. They were counting handshakes—John Derbyshire, for instance, had shaken hands with someone who had shaken hands with Trotsky. All very entertaining, but I didn’t give it much thought until a day or two ago when I was listening to Robert Johnson, feeling the strange deep movements of emotion that listening to the blues generally produces in me, and I remembered: I once shook hands with someone who had shaken hands with—or at any rate knew very well—the King of the Delta Blues, as an old LP compilation of Johnson’s music described him.

It was in 1969 or 1970, at a club in Tuscaloosa. I had gone with a friend, known as Kim because his last name was Kimberly, to hear the bluesman Johnny Shines. Although he wasn’t as well known as Johnson or Muddy Waters, he was of their generation and played their kind of music, and he played it very well. When I heard him he had a bass player and a drummer and was playing electric guitar, but he was close enough to the country blues of Robert Johnson that he could hold your attention just as well (as I found out a few years later) with only his own acoustic guitar.

It was a great night. Kim was a capable musician, good enough to have earned a living at it for a while, but I hadn’t known he could play blues harmonica, or harp as it’s generally called. He had brought a couple of harps with him and after a beer or two, during a break, he went up to Shines and asked if he could sit in. Although I couldn’t hear what they were saying, it looked to me as if Shines didn’t really think this was such a great idea, but maybe he figured that since he was playing to an audience of mostly white college kids he might as well humor this one. At any rate, he agreed.

Kim pulled a stool up onto the little stage, on the other end from Shines, and the band started up again. Kim sat out a few verses and then Shines gave him a brief nod, giving him a chorus, as if to say go ahead and get it over with. But Kim played with authority, and everybody heard it, including Shines, who looked around at him with an expression of mingled surprise and respect. For at least the next thirty minutes or so, Kim was part of the band.

Well, this music is intoxicating enough under any conditions, and in combination with actual intoxicants I did something I wouldn’t ordinarily do. At the end of the set I went up to Johnny Shines and shook his hand, thanked him for his music, and told him what a thrill it was to shake hands with somebody who had known Robert Johnson.

I suppose this was less than flattering to him, and he didn’t seem particularly pleased. I hadn’t thought it about the incident for many years, but when it came back to me the other day my pleasure was as great as it was irrational. I couldn’t have been more delighted if I’d discovered or remembered a connection to T.S. Eliot or another of my literary heroes.

That handshake means more to me now than at the time it occurred because I have over the years become more and more deeply aware of how much the blues means to me. I am hard put to account for the intensity of my feeling for this music. Someday I intend to write at more length how I first encountered the genuine article in my teens, at the home of an aunt and uncle who had a pile of old 78s and introduced me to Big Bill Broonzy, Furry Lewis, Leadbelly, and others when I was a teenager in the early ‘60s. (Yes, I know, Leadbelly wasn’t mainly a blues artist, but his work is part of the same musical world.)

At the time, and for a long time afterward, I liked it only as music, the way I also liked, at the time, pop groups like the Byrds. Now, though, if I had to choose between taking some of my blues recordings and the those of the Byrds or the Beatles to that postulated desert island, I’d pick the blues. I would in fact be hard put to choose between T.S. Eliot and the blues.

Of course a lot of people like the blues, and a lot of people like it a lot, but I don’t know how many people regard it as indispensable. Part of it, obviously, is just a simple liking for the sound, particularly the sound of blues guitar. I know exactly what B.B. King meant when he described hearing Bukka White’s slide guitar for the first time: “the sound...would go all through me.” And part of it is the pure human truth of many of the lyrics, so often so pithy and wry and plaintive:

I mistreated my baby
And I can’t see no reason why

But my feeling for the blues goes deeper than that, into a sense of connection with a tradition. It may seem false, and would certainly be unwelcome in some quarters, for a white man to make any sort of claim to personal membership in that tradition, which comes from a culture which existed alongside and was oppressed by the one of which I was directly a part and a product. But the two cannot be separated so neatly. As a white boy in the rural south I was surrounded by the culture which produced Robert Johnson. When I hear him and others like him, I hear not something exotic but the voice of people I know and love. The only other sort of music that has this effect on me is certain English and Scottish folk music, particularly the devastatingly understated tragic ballads such as “Sir Patrick Spens,” and old-time country and bluegrass music like the Carter Family.

I wonder whatever became of Kim. The last time I saw him, a few years after the night he played with Johnny Shines, he was on his way to Naval Aviation flight school at Pensacola.