We have so much ground to cover today! The Old Testament reading comes at the climax of the famous story in Genesis of Adam and Eve, when Adam and Eve realize they are naked, stand up God for their evening walk, and then point fingers at everyone except themselves for eating the forbidden fruit.
The New Testament reading comes right after Jesus performs many acts of healing, including the exorcism of demons. The scribes, the religious and political elite of ancient Israel, accuse Jesus of losing his mind, of using the power of demons to cast our demons. In a world where few of us talk much about demons and possession and exorcism, this story would be hard enough to understand. But Jesus goes further, essentially disowns his family, and claims that some sins are unforgiveable, the so-called “blasphemies against the Holy Spirit.” Famed Biblical scholar George Butrick said he would put this statement on his official “things I wish Jesus never said list.”
To find a way into these challenging passages, I want to start somewhere completely different: quantum computers. I recently listened to a fascinating interview with Steve Jurvetson, an engineer and venture capitalist, who described this fascinating technology worked, in all seriousness, as accessing the computing power of parallel universes. While it sounds like science fiction, quantum computers apply theories of physics that have been around for over a century.
For example, scientists send two photons in different directions down fiber optic rings. These photons are in a state of “entanglement,” meaning that, somehow, when they are miles apart, when one moves its position, the other mirrors that movement instantaneously. They act as a single unit, though it’s impossible for information to pass between them; they react faster than the speed of light.
Another example. You might recall creates what physicists call a “refraction” pattern on as it passes through a wall with two slits in it. The light from both slits spreads out, overlaps, and dissipates, creating brighter or darker patterns, acting like a wave. But when a single photon through goes through just one slit, it acts the same way. Even though it has no other photons with which to interact, it still moves as if it does, creating a refraction pattern on the other side. To physicist David Deutsch, the answer is obvious: each photon in this universe is interacting with its sister photons in parallel universes.
Whatever the explanation for these phenomena, quantum computers take advantage of these curious properties of our world. Their silicon chips are cooled to almost absolute zero, five hundred times colder than the remotest part of outer space, in order to take advantage of these quirks in our universe. Just this week, D Wave, one of the pioneering quantum computing companies, announced more examples of quantum computers with power that has caught up to conventional computing. In a few years, a quantum computers should be able to outperform all traditional computers on earth combined. A few years after that, they could outperform the computational power of traditional computers, even if all matter available on the earth was used for computation. A few years beyond then, quantum computers should solve problems that exceed what traditional computers could accomplish even if they used all the matter and time in the history of the universe.
Our world should fill us with awe and wonder. When we rest our backs on the pews, they feel hard. But when we look at the sub-atomic level, we don’t find atoms that look like billiard balls. Instead, atoms are surrounded by the “probability clouds” of where electrons are more or less likely to be. “Hardness” is simply the aggregation of many, many un-seeable probability clouds that our brains simply interpret as “pew.” That simplification is useful, not because it accurately explains why a pew is hard; but because it allows us to do things, like sit.
Daily life, to some extent, means we must oversimplify our world, but the Enlightenment traditions of our culture turn simplification into arrogance. We want to believe the physical world is apparent, wound up like a clock, with everything behaving in a routine, easily understandable fashion. Spirituality, religion, that which we cannot see or feel or touch: this is mysterious. The physical world plain, perhaps intricate, but in an everyday sense, predictabl.
Yet, even if we never think about probability clouds or quantum computers, we are regularly presented with evidence of how little we understand about the world. Before Anjali was born, Nicola and I went to our regular appointment and asked a simple question: how does the human body decide to go into labor? How do all these complicated processes of hormones and muscles actually get triggered? Is there some kind of countdown clock hidden somewhere in the brain, set at nine months, that simply goes off? Does the baby somehow signal that it’s ready? In so many ways, nothing is more real or regular than a baby being born; yet we still have no idea how it actually happens.
Push that further to consciousness itself. I got a concussion a few months ago. It prevented me from reading without a headache. I had a hard time following the thread of a conversation. It had something to do with getting knocked in the head, obviously, but there’s no exact explanation as to how all it all works. When you go to the doctor, they can’t scan your brain and diagnose it. They just tell you those symptoms correspond to a concussion and you should get “cognitive rest.” The act of thinking hard somehow slows down the process of healing. We have no idea how.
Any insomniac understands this about sleep. There are tricks and home remedies to get to sleep. Even pills that force us to sleep. Yet we cannot simply will ourselves to sleep. We cannot consciously become unconscious. The anesthesiologist knows that certain drugs in an IV will knock us out, but doesn’t really know why it works.
So when we look at the Biblical stories, we must understand that they view the world in the opposite fashion: the physical world is changeable and full of miracles and mystery; but spiritual matters are far more solid. Just as the language of science tries to sort out the physical world, myth, poetry, history, narrative, and archetype seek to explain the spiritual.
As quantum physics tries to sort our the paradoxes of particles, the story of Adam and Eve tries to make sense of the realm in between the conscious and the unconscious, between the will and compulsion, where we know we are not supposed to do something, yet we do it anyway. Anyone who has struggled with addiction knows this feeling well. In a country wracked by “deaths of despair,” by shocking mortality rates driven by drug overdoses, suicides, and diseases related to alcohol consumption, the human propensity to knowing self-destruction is a curious, tragic, omnipresent fact.
We see it in the cookie we reach for, even when we know better. It’s the Netflix episode we cannot help but sacrifice another hour of sleep to watch. We always have a genuine pretext, a rationalization for the behavior, in the same way that the serpent gave a mixture of bad information and half-truths. Our decisions can always be made to seem either our own fault or the fault of others, depending on what is more convenient. It was the serpent’s fault, and Eve’s fault, and Adam’s fault, all at once. Maybe even a little bit of God’s fault; God certainly comes off as lacking foresight, slow to anticipate or even understand what happened. When this complexity sinks in, it is overwhelming. There is good and evil everywhere confused; good coming out of evil; evil coming out of good; even when we intend one, the other seems to always come along.
This terrifying truth makes us feel exposed, naked. Adam and Eve don’t don fig leaves; they try to hide their entire bodies; it more resembles agoraphobia more than modesty. It’s sheer terror, not only because they are naked, vulnerable to this dangerous world; but also the hot shame and guilt one has of betraying a friend, of leaving God alone in the evening breeze, wondering what happened.
This is the fall from paradise, not the fall to hell, but somewhere in between. We are not hopelessly damned; but neither can we un-see what we have seen. God is angry, but he can work with this. Adam and Eve cannot cower in an agoraphobic cave. They receive clothing, the barest shelter necessary to brave this world. The rest of the Old Testament describes characters perpetually sorting out their own mixed motives, the inseparable virtues and vices of our Edenic forebears: Noah was a drunk who saved the world; Abraham lied about his wife to survive; Jacob stole his brother’s birthright to found the nation Israel; Moses was a murderer who brought the ten commandments; David was an adulterer and a murderer at the peak of his kingly greatness. First and second Kings and Chronicles and all the major and minor prophets project depict these dynamics at the national level, with Israel struggling to do what it knows is right, but never quite pulling it off.
Our New Testament reading captures the next phase of this co-working where God assumes the form of Jesus, even less omnipotent, and spends his time traveling the countryside, exorcising demons, one by one. It’s worth noting that the Old Testament, even with its reputation for portraying a supernatural, violent world, has almost no depictions of demons or exorcisms. The gospels, however, are filled with them. They are a crucial part of the worldview of a people in grinding poverty, ruled by a brutal Roman empire, where every living Jew would have seen or lived during the brutal massacre of their countrymen, crucified by the hundreds, their starving, suffocating bodies nailed to posts lining the roads into major cities, forever warning people that they must never exercise their agency in resisting the evil that has befallen their society. That kind of violence, so directly aimed at the denial of human freedom, necessarily fosters madness.
A demon is that which is a part of us, but still not really who we are. It is the source of our bad actions, for which we are both authentically responsible, yet not really a conscious choice. They possess us. They push us to the drink we do not really want, to stay with the lover we desire and despise all at once.
More than his moral teachings, Jesus spoke and physically touched people, freeing them from these compulsions. We don’t know exactly how it worked. But in a world of photons, parallel universes, where we don’t even understand our own consciousness, a posture of humility seems prudent.
Importantly, the breaking of these vicious cycles always threatens the elite. The scribes, who made their living turning Judaism into a oppressive tool of the Roman empire, therefore called Jesus insane. For doing good, they called him evil. For purging demons, they called him a demon.
This is the line that cannot be crossed. It is the unforgivable sin. It is one thing to have mixed motives, to try to do good, and yet fall short. It is quite another to deliberately mislead oneself and others, trying to confuse good and evil, right and wrong. Once we call night time bright and daytime dark, claim that two plus two equals five, that greed is good, that poverty is acceptable, God simply cannot work with us. Our freedom blocks him. He can deal with imperfect pursuits of good. But to freely choose evil and call it good, God cannot, by definition, force a free choice to the contrary.
Far more solid than these pews or any physical phenomenon is that metaphysical fact. God can create whole universes and make fire descend from the sky, but cannot force free creatures to do anything. Contrary to Greek philosophers, Biblical theology is radically unconcerned about the abstract implications of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. God is much more a person working beside us, willing to risk his life, person by person, to enable our true freedom—unwilling to abide, therefore, those who seek the opposite. It is a “blaspheme against the spirit” because it violates the whole spirit of the project of human history; instead of untangling good and evil, it willfully rejects the knowledge of good and evil. Forgiveness has no power here. The abstract waiving away of wrong-doing cannot undo the damage. It is more solid than anything in the physical world.
At the same time, the reverse is true: the realization of true freedom, the final separation between the demons that possess our will and the true goodness that we seek, creates the virtuous cycles of which the Kingdom of Heaven is made. It reorders all of society, starting with its most basic unit. Free people will be closer to each other than even our biological mothers and brothers. Paul refers to this dynamic as “the eternal weight of glory,” the “wasting away of our outer nature,” and the renewal, day by day, of our “inner nature.” We are still stuck in the in-between world, where we can see good and evil but cannot quite pursue the good we truly want. But every day, if we will it, by grace, we can be a little more free to do so. C.S. Lewis points describes how this completely reshapes how we should view each other:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, ore else a horror and a corruption such as you can now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one of these destinations…There are no ordinary people…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
That’s why, today, if you find yourself today struggling, tired, impatient with your imperfection, the main message you need to hear is this: hang on. Do not lose sight of your goal. You will probably have another cookie. You may binge watch when you know you shouldn’t. You may spend another day or week or year in a relationship or habit or job you know you shouldn’t really be in. But hold on. Do not stop trying. Persist. Do not let your failures and imperfections confuse you. Hold fast to what you know is good, even if you fail to attain it again and again. Do not let the cynicism of the scribes sink in, the despair that tempts you to believe that the good isn’t good after all; that perhaps you ought to just give up, and embrace the evil squalor of its opposite, your worst self, the world as all the tyrants and oppressors would make it. Reject that thinking. Do not believe the good is impossible. Do not point fingers, or fixate on your imperfection. Focus on your freedom. Severing just one link breaks a chain. I can’t explain how or why it works. But something about even the flawed pursuit of the truly good somehow, even if slowly, exorcises our demons. It doesn’t happen automatically. We have to choose it. But with God working alongside us, miracle beyond comprehension, it does work.