Tag Archives: truth

The Tree of Pythagoras

How many penguins are there on the ice?
One, two, three, four, five. There are five penguins.

How many fingers are on a baby’s hand?
One, two, three, four, five. There are five fingers.

It is quite odd that, despite there being quite little in common between penguins and baby fingers, we can still proceed to count them in exactly the same manner. This is because counting is not so much about things as it is about us–about how our minds work with distinguishable volumes.

We take a mirror and observe ourselves amidst the counting process, and we find a lot of things going on! When we count, we recognize a large mass of interest, identify pieces that are similar and pieces that are different, associate a different number to each piece, and separate the unidentified mass with the mass we have previously identified.

Counting has three traits that make it very interesting. Firstly, it is a basic ability of (roughly) all human minds; secondly, it is consistent, producing the same result regardless of who is counting; and thirdly, it is intangible.

Although these are very crude distinctions, not many things satisfy the three traits simultaneously. For instance, desires, aesthetics, and opinions are intangible, and are capacities common to everyone, but they are not consistent, whereas  limbs, organs, and DNA are (roughly) consistent and common to everyone, but are not intangible. Even still, tradition, culture, and expertise are consistent and intangible, but are not common to everyone.

But to name a few other things that do (or could) share the three traits of counting are reason, justice, morality, and harmony.

A natural question to ask here then would be: is the process of counting at all more intimately related to any of reason, justice, morality, and harmony? Can we create an ideal world of justice through reason alone? Can we prove what is good and righteous with the tools of mathematics?

To begin with, the relation between counting and harmony had been known since the ancient times; its discovery is accredited to Pythagoras. Pythagoras discovered that every harmonious sound can be expressed by comparing two ways of counting, and it was striking, because well, there seems to be no immediately obvious reason for them to be related at all. Excited with this result, Pythagoras went on to establish an exclusive cult-academy of Apollo, where he preached the divinity of numbers and  taboos against beans as the ultimate truth.

One could say Pythagoras went overboard with a cult; but I would suppose he was only very optimistic that the aforementioned similarities between mathematics, harmony, justice, reason, and ethics would ultimately all point towards an essence that would unite them all. Pythagoras was just the first to carry the hopes that would later fascinate the dreams of Plato and the Enlightenment philosophers as well, of utopias governed by perfect morality and perfect faculties of reason.

Driven by the success in the theory of rational numbers, one of the things Pythagoras taught was that every existing number was in fact, rational, and was treated by his followers as a demigod with exclusive access to divine knowledge. However, his teachings turned out to be incorrect, as it did not acknowledge the existence of irrational numbers. According to folklore, Pythagoras is accused of murdering the student who approached him with the length of the diagonal of a unit square.

The Pythagoreans’ murder of this student seems to be only one of the many instances of persecution towards those with foreign knowledge, by those who defend a knowledge system already established in its place. In these instances, it seems as if there is a curious underlying connection between what the knowledge system would claim as right and what the moral system would pronounce as evil; is it natural to assume our knowledge systems capable of distinguishing even moral goods and evils as well?

But before we incriminate Pythagoras for the murder, I think we can at least first understand his desire to assume perfection and mastery, as also one that we might as well find in ourselves–to wish that every number must be one we have known very well already, to wish that everything that could be would already be something we were good at, seems a very common wish that anyone could naively hope for.

In fact, I think this desire can also be found in the story of Adam and Eve, the first created man and woman in Genesis. Adam and Eve also, I presume, knew of the same marvels of knowledge, the power of that godly point of view around which things seem to fall to complete order and harmony. They desired it so much that they were tempted to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that God had expressly forbidden them from eating. They assumed their knowledge was enough to tell them what was Good for them; but their knowledge could only foresee the forbidden fruit, as another harmless, nourishing fruit. With great excitement would they then have been tempted to believe, that the fruit would in fact, make them even more like God.

Instead, as the narrative turns out, taking the matters of Good and Evil into their hands resulted in a curse of humanity they could not have foreseen. The knowledge of Adam and Eve was not robust enough to predict the outcomes of good and evil as they had supposed. The story of Adam and Eve makes me wonder then, whether pretending our knowledge is all, that we can determine what is good by ourselves, that it would make us godly, will one day only make us realize how bare we really are, and our “perfect knowledge” compared to the light of God, or a spark of truth from an other, instead end up only creating space for fear, lies, and sin.

Reading Genesis as explaining the cause (rather than the origin) of evil, the story might be telling us that when we mistake our knowledge as godliness, it follows as a natural consequence to be banished from the lifestyle of Eden, of the joy in observing and cultivating the beautiful things of the world, wishing only the best of things to come.

I follow a Christian tradition that teaches that we are not to assume any righteousness of ourselves apart from the one given to us by grace, and that we are not to think of anybody as stupid, likening this very thought to the equivalent of murder. Though humanity has long been banished from the Garden of Eden, I think it may well be the case that we are still forbidden from writing the knowledge of Good and Evil ourselves. Rather, we are to obey what has been revealed as Good and Evil by the laws of God.

My own experiences of learning was as much a revelation of my ignorance as it has been an acquiring of knowledge; and it makes me doubt whether there can be ultimate knowledge of any kind. Even in matters of doctrine and theology, so deeply intertwined with the revelation that we hold ultimate, I think that what we know now has always been very little compared to what we have not yet known; and thus, that our growing knowledge should bring us to humility, instead of bringing others to our judgment.

In our current body of knowledge, there are two large portions of “facts” (statements considered consistent and universal) that constitute our ultimate notions of reality. One consists of historical facts, and the other consists of scientific facts. I think the reason they are so deeply trusted is because both kinds withstand the passage of time.

Historical facts withstand the passage of time by the way we understand the system of causality. Since an event cannot be influenced by any event occurring after it, a historical fact remains true for all moments after it occurs.

On the other hand, scientific facts withstand the passage of time by making average statements of time. Since we have taken the average  behavior of all time, the resulting phenomena are essentially timeless; ready to be imagined to reoccur at any arbitrary point in time, given the right preconditions. Scientific facts are produced after assuming the inductive hypothesis–that what has occurred today will occur tomorrow–which seems bizarre in the time scales of our schedules, but holds for much material behavior.

Both systems are powerful, but I think it deserves noting how the initial assumptions of the two types of facts are in fact, mutually exclusive. One assumes the fundamental particularity of every moment in time, viewing reality as consisting of events, while the other assumes the fundamental homogeneity of every moment in time, viewing reality to consist of timeless substances. Thus it is inevitable that these portions by themselves can only illuminate a portion of the reality that we believe is ultimate; what is really real, really important, really true.

As such, I think that even facts can only be as ultimate as the rational numbers had been to the Pythagoreans, and there will yet to be an infinitude of truths of faith that do not yet pertain to such facts, among the miraculous, the mysterious, and the cosmic imprints that have been revealed.

It sure must be exciting to share!

Hyunmoon graduated from Princeton in 2013 with a degree in mathematics. He is interested in modern cosmic ideologies and is now at Seoul National University trying to understand the structure of empty space through the mathematics of Lagrangian Floer Homology.

Advertisements

So You Want to Be a Christian Journalist?

When I first came to Jordan, I didn’t think much about my purpose, vision or values as a journalist. I just thought, I love writing and I’m good at making friends, so inshallah this will work..! I also was desperate for income and thankful just to have my pitches published at all. But recently I’ve been thinking and praying about why I write and who I’m writing for. I’m trying to articulate the mission and values underpinning my decision to write – and in extension, my mission and values in life (whoa).

This is important because a) my discipler Ivy told me to do it when I graduated and I do everything Ivy says, hahah; and b) journalism is a spiritual minefield for competitive types like myself. Journalism fosters a striving mindset, especially among freelancers. Everyone is always scrambling to one-up each other, get the next scoop, pitch a better story and write something that will get you noticed and pay the rent. Hustle is everything. Humility gets you crushed.

How does the Gospel Worldview apply in this context? What does it mean to write not for my self, but for Christ and His Kingdom? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Don’t be a hater.
“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” – 1 Peter 2:1

Half the Internet seems to be made up of haters and trolls, ripping each other apart and belittling anyone who disagrees with them as ignorant fools. It’s so common that it seems OK, which makes me sorry and sad.

I pray about this all the time, though, because I am naturally disinclined to be humble and so very quick to judge. When someone says something I find bigoted or mean, my knee-jerk response is equally dismissive mockery. I often want to ridicule the politics and opinions that I disagree with.

In Western media today, slander is not only easy but also lucrative. There are so many liberal outlets that love scathing exposés of “dumb Republicans” and so many right-wing outlets that do nothing but denunciate the left. As a freelancer scraping by from commission to commission, it’s really tempting to join in.

But Christ preaches a message of humility, which means I am not to denounce anyone, even if I disagree with them. Even when criticizing, I must be gentle and gracious, remembering that I don’t know everything. My goal is not to bash the other side to the ground but to ask genuine questions so we can make better polices, tell fuller stories, consider more narratives and seek truth. I want to build, not to break. I am to always remember that I am not infallible. I may very well be wrong.

2. Tell truth that makes peace.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” – Proverbs 31:8-9

“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” – James 3:17-18

Sometimes journalists put on a hero affect, championing investigative work that speaks truth to justice and holds the powerful accountable. I am all for this, but pray also for words and stories that will tell truth in a way that ushers in peace. This means a) humanizing rather than polarizing, and b) rejecting vitriol.

My activist friend Kristian moved me during a trip to Israel/Palestine last August when he said, “I always assume good intentions.” Let us not demonize anyone based on assumptions about their backgrounds or beliefs, he said, but approach them thinking, You are a human like myself. I believe you want people to live and thrive, not to hate or oppress or destroy. This seems like a pretty basic humane mindset, but it’s not at all the standard in much of today’s journalism. We are quick to take sides, tacking good guy-bad guy narratives on everything from healthcare to foreign policy to environmental protection. It’s an easy narrative and one that makes for a good story – the evil man oppressing the small and weak! The rich stepping on the poor! The Man, who must be resisted!

The first problem with this approach is that it makes people shut down. Readers see vitriol and they stop listening. Rather than persuade others, it triggers their self-defenses. The second problem is that it doesn’t sound like Christ.

The Gospel narrative does not sugarcoat injustice. Christ does not brush over Sin and Dark and our screaming, falling world. But He also doesn’t pin blame on the Right or Left or Americans or elites. The Gospel, I think, asks us to humanize. Our tendency is to cry, “The world is broken, look, and IT’S ALL THIS OTHER GUY’S FAULT!” The Gospel says instead, “The world is broken, and the fault is upon all of us, and only Christ can save.”

When I wrote this story last fall, an aid worker I interviewed begged me not to take a simplistic good guy/bad guy approach. My Sudanese refugee friends had been telling me, “The UNHCR and NGOs are racist! They give aid to Syrians but not to us!” I realized that would be the easy story to write: Sudanese are being overlooked. This is discrimination. But the harder and more truthful story was that yes, there is injustice, but not out of malicious intent. Everyone is trying to help, yet it’s not enough. The problem is complex. Unilateral blame is easy. Finding a solution is not. But let’s go for the latter, because that will move us toward actually getting a blanket and food and medicine to our neighbors who need it, whereas the former makes a flashy headline and nothing else.

3.“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3

I bolded and italicized and title-ized the entire verse because this is the mantra I pray and ask for grace to remember every single day.

This verse hit me deeply this year when I started working for a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to refugees, migrants and other marginalized people. Many of our projects are politically sensitive and require discernment in their media coverage – which means, counter to my previous journalistic assumptions, I should not always write everything about every story. In fact, there are some stories I shouldn’t tell at all.

Without Philippians 2:3 in my mind, all I care about is getting big scoops and deep stories with enthralling, juicy conflict. But when the Gospel comes in, my key question changes from What will make the best story? to Is my writing going to help or hurt people? As a self-seeking journalist, my portfolio and career come first. As a Christian, people become ablaze with dignity and importance. They are my brothers and sisters and neighbors, image-bearers of God who mean much more than fodder for my next pitch. Protection of the weak takes priority over my collection of clips. It doesn’t matter if I never get to write a story again.

I know these lessons are basic. But I wrestle with them every day, not only in what stories to write but also what to include in each piece. Paradoxically, writing for my Audience of One means using more discretion and sensitivity than I would if Christ didn’t factor into my work at all. I need prayer, humility, grace and a clear set of principles so that I won’t be lured to pursue gold stars of journalistic success at the cost of others’ suffering.

Actually, I need prayer, humility, grace and a clear set of principles in general. I prayed for discernment on what it means to be a Christian journalist, but ended up with answers on how to follow Christ, journalist or not – funny, yeah? Or divinely planned by a wise and loving God who shows us more of Him in every single thing we do… 🙂 PTL.

Christ at the Checkpoint

What would Jesus do if he were standing at a checkpoint in Israel/Palestine today? Asked that question one year ago, I would have given you a blank stare. Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I thought of Israel only as a Bible-place of God’s chosen people, quaintly holy and surely blessed. Checkpoints, occupation, Palestine – these words meant nothing for most of my 22-year-old life.

Today I write from Bethlehem at the end of “Christ at the Checkpoint,” a Christian conference that asked “WWJD?” in context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I have an answer.

The question is complicated, as is any discussion of Israel and Palestine in America. I studied the Middle East at Princeton and Oxford, where my classes were objective, historical and politically correct. I swallowed timelines and parsed narratives, but never wanted to make a value judgment on the situation. In my eyes, Tigers for Israel and the Princeton Committee on Palestine were akin to College Republicans and Democrats. Both had valid points and interesting arguments, but no one was right or wrong. Both groups also seemed very emotional, and I wasn’t one to get swept away with radical types.

Then I graduated and came to the Middle East. I first visited Israel and Palestine last August, after a summer of Arabic study in Oman and before moving to Jordan. I wanted to see things for myself but kept my eyes narrowed, wary of activists’ exaggerations.

Instead, I found an occupation; a deliberate power imbalance where the weak were daily stepped on by the strong. Israel’s being “chosen by God” somehow exempted it from international law, basic human rights and the command to love our neighbors. My church and state saw innocent people illegally hurt and beamed in approval.

This went against everything I knew about Christ’s teachings. I came expecting to find suffering but not systematic injustice, and never any Wrong in which my country, church and self were complicit. I felt shocked, confused, and used.

My friends in Jordan are always astonished to hear that I went to the best school in America, but never knew that there is ongoing oppression in Palestine. “I thought it was complicated,” I tell them.

Living here, I’ve learned that injustice is only complicated to those who don’t suffer from it. In faraway America, I’d confused myself with semantics and details on who shot what or signed which treaties when and where, and why this or that made occupation reasonable.

But nothing is complicated to my arbitrarily detained friend in solitary confinement, to the mother whose baby cries from tear gas, to the man who has lost three daughters in a second’s bombing, or to the child who is afraid. Nitpicky suspicions fall apart when I face their eyes and stories. I am ashamed that I ever thought violence might be justified in the ostensible name of God.

At the conference, one older British woman told me she was a Christian Zionist.

“It’s wonderful that Jesus said we are to be peacemakers,” the woman said, brushing white hair back with wrinkled hands. “But I’m afraid.” How can we give up land to Arabs who are bloodthirsty terrorists, she asked? There are too many Muslims wanting to destroy the West, she said, in Israel and in Europe, feeding off welfare systems to plot suicide bombings behind closed doors.

“I like this conference but have trouble applying what we hear,” the woman said. She’d lived in an Israeli settlement for 10 years, working for Christian Friends of Israel. “I want to feel for Palestinians as I do for Jews when they are dying or hurt. I want to feel for children, women, civilians…” Suddenly she was crying. “Oh, dear, I’m sorry. I’m not quite there, but I want to be. Do you understand?”

I did. It can’t be easy to stake your life on something and see it flipped inside out, I thought, remembering an Israeli friend who’d changed his thinking after a gap year in Tibet. “The Tibetans live there with their language, religion and culture. It’s all Tibetan,” he’d told me, face wrenched, words slow. “But the people in control are all Chinese. Another race is in charge. I thought that was so wrong. Then I felt upset, because like, you know, it was sort of, it reminded me of what we have here.”

Questioning one’s belief system hurts. An Omani friend once told me that he’d woken up every night at 4 a.m. for two weeks, crying, when he converted to Christianity. “It felt like I was ripping off my own skin,” he said.

“Can we pray together?” I asked the woman, and we did.

Globalization is a gift to my generation. We don’t believe people in other countries are so different that we can treat them as lesser humans. A surfer friend in Tel Aviv once asked me: “What are the Arabs like? Do they drink? Smoke?” I laughed, telling him about my Jordanian friends who Instagram their parties, struggle with their sexual orientations, play flamenco guitar and wish they could just make music instead of being engineers and accountants. We are young, we are the same, we all just want to live. Our generation knows this.

Yet relating to one another is not enough. Before coming to the Middle East, my American millennial privilege had made me globalized but desensitized to suffering. I knew injustices existed but was too busy writing Facebook statuses about my thesis to examine them. I enjoyed feeling like a generally good person and skirted around sensitive questions that might threaten my career or upset my worldview.

Here, I’ve learned that people suffer when the privileged are ignorant or apathetic. Millennials like humanitarianism. We Tweet about Syria, work for nonprofits and glory in social entrepreneurship, all of which I love. But what if we microfinance a rural woman’s handicraft business, and then a drone kills her and her children? Seeking justice must extend beyond doing Good to also checking ourselves for Bad. We must ask harder questions, dig deeper into our state and military’s actions, not to undermine America but because we love her.

Having seen the occupation, I believe it is unjust and must end. I am not against Israel, America, or evangelicals. I just don’t want policies that hurt people in my church and nation’s name without our understanding or consent.

Conservative evangelicals may call me naïve. My response is not argument but invitation. I grew up in Asia, so when Americans ask if Shanghai is a Communist rice field, I laugh and ask them to come look around for themselves. When others say Palestinians are hateful and all Arabs want to push Israel into the sea, I again say, come and see.

As a follower of Christ, I believe that God stands with the oppressed. But oppressors are themselves oppressed by insecurity and fear. I’ve heard many Israeli and American friends speak out of terror: the Communists will get us! The jihadis will bomb us! The non-Western world lives in cultures of hate that will crush us the moment we let them, so we’d better crush them first!

If Jesus were here today, I believe he would pierce these lies in a second. They are so flimsy against the truth that man is man, filled with dignity, and no one is less human or less fiercely loved by our God than another. I believe Christ can and will free the oppressed by freeing their oppressors from fear.

But we must first commit to seek truth, relentlessly and humbly. I speak to Americans, Christians, and especially my generation: friends, political vitriol and religious rhetoric are distractions. Let us choose honesty over comfort. Let us ask questions even if they lead us to give up our privileges. Let us be smart and let us be brave – above all, let us be human.

I originally wrote this piece for +972, an independent online magazine focusing on Israel and Palestine, after I spent last week in Bethlehem at Christ at the Checkpoint. I volunteered on the media team doing FB, Twitter and their blog posts (learned a lot about ignoring Internet haters and trolls, haha). For those who want to learn more about Christian Zionism, I HIGHLY recommend watching this documentary (use code CATC2014 to get it for free this week). I also found this dialogue on replacement theology, between a Wheaton prof and Messianic Jew, really helpful. Also loved Princeton alum Joseph Cumming on Christian response to rise of religious (Islamist and Jewish) states, and Munther Isaac on neighbors.

(Ekuo I’ll also write another normal blog post! But wanted to share this as well.)