Finding by Maria Popova

Maria Popova, author of Figuring and curator of brainpickings.org

Along with my oft-mentioned experience reading about Voyager 1’s encounter with Saturn as reported in National Geographic, my desire to learn more about more things was excited by reading Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain. Subtitled, “Reflections On The Romance of Science”, the book is a series of essays that explore everything from the biographies of some of Sagan’s heroes, the weird attractions of pseudo-science, the promise and hope of space exploration, and the limits of science fiction. Written for any average reader, it is an invitation not only to wonder, but to discovery about the interconnectedness of awe, beauty, and understanding, and to contemplate a different perspective of our life here on Earth.

Having recently felt lost, wondering if it were possible to recapture some of that wonder I felt as a teenager when I considered the possibilities Sagan offered up, I decided to pick up my battered, yellowed copy and read it again for the first time in decades. I discovered, to my sadness, that I knew each word so well, each image Sagan’s writing brought to mind, that even after – what? 30 years? More? – this book was so ingrained inside me that I realized there was nothing left to discover. Rather than offer an fresh opportunity at wonder, it was like returning to my hometown and discovering how sad I was it was no longer the little village I knew.

Then my wife gifted me Finding for Christmas.

I subscribe to brainpickings.org, enjoying the wonderful essays its curator, Maria Popova, offers up as fresh takes on matters scientific and cultural. I had seen the book announcement she made, which is how I ended up with a copy last Wednesday. What I knew about the books content was the ad copy she offered up. That and she would cover a wide variety of topics through looking at the people whose lives embodied them.

After an introductory chapter entitled “0”, she begins with a sketch of Johannes Kepler’s struggles during the last years of his life both to complete and publish the first science fiction book (written to present the Copernican system to a non-scientific audience) and clear his mother of charges of witchcraft. That he succeeded in the latter but not the former is a tragedy of the times.

Now, Kepler received chapter-length attention in another of Carl Sagan’s works – Cosmos – and I found myself thinking, I know this story.

But, surprise!surprise!, I didn’t know this story. Not at all. For Sagan, Kepler’s story is one of the victory of patient observation overcoming the ideological blinders of a kind of Platonic Idealism that was still regnant among so much of early-modern science. Popova, however, saw in Kepler’s story – his work with Tycho Brahe, the development of the laws of planetary motion, his struggles against a legal apparatus that still considered “witchcraft” a thing to be punished – a whole. Particularly his efforts to offer the world an accessible view of the still-controversial Copernican system (Galileo’s conviction by the Church caused Kepler much angst), brought together many of the themes Popova would explore throughout the rest of her work: how chance and choice, the surrounding mores and and social rules, biography, and the inexorable pull of new ideas create individuals whose findings have changed our world for the better.

Much the rest of the book offers up a series, mostly, of women whose work may or may not have been heralded, whose lives may or may not have been forgotten, whose legacies might or might not have been distorted by those too afraid of the possibilities these women offered the world. Most of them lived in the 19th century, when the social etiquette of the “woman’s sphere” (hearth, home, raising children) was often violently enforced against many women. Many of the women lived outside the simplistic binaries of conventional gender and sexual ideologies. To live as such, to work as such, to create beauty whether in science or art or culture, in the midst of so much that would prevent them from doing so testifies to the courage these women live out in their work-lives.

Of course, not just women appear in these pages. Emerson, because of the central part he played in the life of some of these women as well as our developing sense of “American” culture, is woven throughout the chapters. Whitman, too, one of our marvelous mythologists, shows up more than occasionally. His own life and work offers further testimony to the power of following one’s muse, even if that muse is often a person of the same gender. There’s even a beautiful excurses on Carl Sagan, his partner and love Anne Druyan, and the creation of the “Golden Records” attached to the Voyager spacecraft, labors far outside simple-minded science, but rather a testament of love for humanity at a time when such was scarce.

I rest much easier now, knowing that such a work as Finding exists. There are ample opportunities for another young person to become excited about the possibilities life can offer should we make our way through the vagaries of chance and choice with a modicum of wisdom, courage, and most of all – Love. For Popova, love as portrayed through this book is not an emotion. It is, rather, an approach to life, with ourselves, with others, with the world in which we live, that bundles it all together and creates the possibility for finding . . . all that one can in the meager moments of human existence. It is love for understanding, for discovering, for offering to the world these understandings and discoveries, for those we hold most dear that drives people as different as Maria (pronounced like my daughter’s name, Moriah) Mitchell, Emily Dickinson (some of whose mysterious life is revealed in Popova’s beautiful portrait), Rachel Carson, and Lise Meitner to be the people who accomplished the things they did.

Finding is a book so desperately needed right now. It offers hope, and humanity, and most of all wonder at what may yet be possible should there still be people willing not only to find, but to passionately love finding all the ways there are to wrest meaning from the meaningless of our small blip of life.

Christian Faith In Dark Times by H. Jackson Forstman

The late Jack Forstman

Moving from Hannah Arendt’s Men In Dark Times to Jack Forstman’s Christian Faith In Dark Times was easy. For one thing, both Arendt and Forstman offer insight into how different people of amazing intellectual force and moral power struggled with and either lost or won their battles with particular “dark times”. Unlike Arendt, however, Forstman offers us a view of six of the most creative theological minds in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War as they faced the twin krises of their times: the emergence of Dialectical Theology in the 1920’s and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany. Unlike Arendt, who seems willing to give some failures a pass (read her essay on Brecht), Forstman is unsparing in making it clear that theologians (under discussion here are Friedrich Gogarten, Paul Althaus, and Emmanuel Hirsch) who sided first with the German Christian Church and the National Socialist Party and its leader failed the most crucial test any Christian must face.*

Serving as an excellent introduction to the early years and controversies of Dialectical Theology and its opponents, supporters and hangers-on (this last would include Paul Tillich and, after a fashion, Rudolf Bultmann who considered himself a part of the movement in the mid-20’s but distanced himself over time from Barth’s stridency), Forstman offers readers a bird’s-eye view of an important historical moment in the life of Christian theology in the West. Born in the disillusionment that flowed from the collapse of the West in the First World War, its initial proponents, Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, sought to reaffirm that most basic proclamation of the Christian faith – that God is God, not a predicate of any human construct nor the subject of human activity and inquiry. While shifting his emphasis over the decades of his long career, Barth never lost this most basic point: God is. Everything else is not God. That distinction, what Barth called after Kierkegaard an “infinite qualitative distinction” should humble our statements regarding theological possibilities. For Barth, the far-too-enthusiastic participation of the German churches and theological faculty in prosecuting the war** showed the emptiness at the heart of then-regnant Liberal Theology.

Over the ensuing years, Dialectical Theology served much the same function as, in a different context, punk music served in Great Britain in the 1970’s. While punk was a living, vibrant, edgy scene that offered to those who understood it a way out of the morass of the over-corporatized megagroup music then in favor, the truth is it was a commercial failure and was, as even Elvis Costello would say, an “elitist” approach to musical revolution. So, too, with Dialectical Theology; while from our perspective a century after the publication of Barth’s Romerbrief it’s easy enough to see the change it and subsequent publications in much the same vein brought to European and later American theology, at the time it was loud only because Barth was his own best publicist and had a very loud, one might say strident, voice.

As the times changed, however, attention shifted to the growing power and influence of a political movement few intellectuals took very seriously. Philosopher Hans Georg-Gadamer, in an anecdote Forstman includes in a footnote, was at the time (the early 1930’s) a student at Marburg and one of a circle of young disciples of Rudolf Bultmann. Gadamer knew nothing about the National Socialists other than their outrageous views, criminal activities and thought it nonsense that such a thing might one day become powerful enough to rule Germany. Intellectually and practically, Hitler and National Socialism up to the moment it seized power, was an improbable joke.

Only when the National Socialists became the second largest party in the Reichstag in elections in 1931 did people suddenly realize that if Hitler were a joke, no one was laughing anymore. Due to the volatility and ineptitude of Weimar Republic German politics and politicians, Hitler was reluctantly appointed Chancellor of a coalition government by President von Hindenburg. After an attempted arson on the Reichstag building, the Nazis moved swiftly to consolidate power through the passage of what was unceremoniously called “Enabling Legislation” granting to the Chancellor a series of emergency powers that resulted in the destruction of rival parties, the jailing of opposition leadership in hastily-built concentration camps, and the emergence of an enforced Cult of Personality that included requisite loyalty oaths to the National Socialist State and the person of Adolf Hitler.

Not long after the enabling legislation was passed, Tillich lost his teaching position but was offered a soft landing at Union Seminary in New York City, thanks in part to the intervention of Richard Niebuhr and his brother Reinhold. Others – Gogarten, Hirsch, and Althaus – not only signed the oath but Hirsch and Althaus wrote offering an enthusiastic “Yes” to the person of Hitler and the work of the Nazi Part in the State. Karl Barth would only sign an oath if a qualifying sentence would be added; after much back-and-forth, the state accepted, Barth signed, then a week later was dismissed from the theological faculty in Gottingen. Like Tillich, Barth had a soft landing in his hometown of Basel on the Swiss/French/German border.

The unlikeliest of heroes, Rudolf Bultmann emerges from Forstman’s text as the most courageous of the men investigated. He refused to sign the oath but never lost his teaching position. He continued to be critical both of Nazism and the German Christian movement throughout the war years, preaching often at local churches and never shying away from speaking the Gospel in a demon-haunted land. He always faced opposition, even protest, but he kept his position, continued to teach, and after the War became known in the English-speaking world for his exegetical work on New Testament texts.

The question Forstman asks at the beginning of the book – “[A]re there in Christian faith understandings of God, self, and the world that can help one recognize the demonic before it shows itself boldly?” – has become ever more relevant. I first purchased and read this book in 1992. At the time, there were certainly troubles and frustrations, both within the churches in the United States and in our political life. In the ensuing quarter century, however, what was only nascent if at all has become our own kairos. We Christians living in America have faced over recent history moments of choice; by and large, the majority of American Christians have chosen poorly. This has harmed both the churches in America as well as our common life as American citizens. I know there are some, perhaps many, who wouldn’t abide the idea that our politics has become demonic; that this fiendish infiltration took root first in the churches before spreading itself out, allowing for the election of our very own clownish, ridiculous leader, Donald Trump.

Here we are, however. I think that the best Christian theology offers tools for those willing to use them to be able to stand in critical distance from our own moment and shout a “No!” that would make Karl Barth proud. Alas, I think too few people use these tools. Thus it is we find ourselves in our current state of affairs. Forstman’s book, then, is hardly at all dated; like Arendt before him, Forstman challenges his readers to recognize the fallen angels of our time, to wrestle with them honestly and fearlessly, and be able to call them by name even as they continue to ravage our churches and world.

*The exception seems to be his rather more tentative statements regarding Hirsch. Considering Hirsch never repudiated his membership in the Nazi Party, held fast to the virulent anti-Semitism of the Party, and accepted exile from academic life rather than deny his adherence to Nazi ideas, this hesitancy seems more than a little misplaced. Yes, Hirsch was brilliant, as those things can be understood, in the depth and breadth of his intellect. To call an unrepentant Nazi “extremely ethical”, as Forstman does, does violence to the word.

** I do not know if Barth ever knew this, but the infamous speech Kaiser Wilhelm gave in defense of his declaration of war – infamous both because of the content of the speech as well as a photograph of the event shows very clearly a young Austrian immigrant, Adolf Hitler, looking on in rapture as Wilhelm spoke – was written in large part by Barth’s teacher, one of the greatest historians of Christian teachings, Adolf von Harnack.