Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Faith in Picogram Quantities

The proverbial mustard seed
In a footnote to the account of Jesus healing the afflicted child that his disciples failed to heal (here for my post; here for Elder Holland's talk), Jesus said: 
If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.      Matthew 17:20
There are 90,000 mustard seeds in one pound of seed.  If you do the math and convert to grams, 1 mustard seed weigh 0.005 grams or 5 mg.  It makes me wonder how many grams of faith it took to heal that child.

I spend my days looking at laboratory measurements of a variety of hormones, which when deficient or present in excess result in disease. Hormones are incredibly powerful molecules that have dramatic effects on human physiology.  Even picogram (1 trillionth of a gram, or 1 x 10-12) or nanogram (1 billionth of a gram, or 1 x 10-9 grams) quantities of hormones can cause dramatic changes in physiological parameters like blood pressure, heart rate and glucose utilization.  Adrenaline and noradrenaline are some of the best examples, but cortisol and thyroid hormone are also impressive in this regard.  The pituitary and adrenals especially have a dramatic ability to respond almost instantaneously to situational demands brought on by illness or circumstance.  By secreting minute quantities of highly potent chemical messengers, these glands adapt physiologic activities to  keep us going in the face of stresses that would overwhelm us.

It is interesting to speculate what kind of effects would be generated by a picogram of pure faith. I'm certain it would be more than enough to get us through the trials and tribulations on even our worst days. It's a shame we haven't figured out a way to synthesize faith in a test tube or genetically modified E. coli so we can supplement people with hypofaithism as if they had hypothyroidism or hypogonadism.  I guess we're pretty much forced to manage this deficiency state with lifestyle modification.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Eritis Sicut Deus: You Will Be Like God

Faust in his arrogance, as Mephistopheles patiently waits.
An etching from page 4 by Harry Clarke in
Faust - by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (translated by Bayard Taylor)
I'm stuck on and struck by many nuanced messages that fell out of the tragedy of Faust, which I just finished reading (here for quick a summary of the story). For example, in what seems to be an unimportant filler scene from Act IV, Faust leaves Mephistopheles (the devil) alone in his study. A young student comes to Faust seeking direction in what to study. Mephistopheles, pretending to be Faust, immediately seizes the opportunity to ensnare the young man. The devil deceives the student with his feigned wisdom and great knowledge. He directs him away from the study of theology and directs him to study wordsConvincing the student that he was sharing a great secret of wisdom, Mephistopheles writes the following in the young man's notebook: 
“Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum"
(You will be like God, knowing good and evil). 
The trap of Mephistopheles was hauntingly familiar, and it certainly was one that had worked before.* As the young man leaves awestruck, Mephistopholes says under his breath: 
Follow the ancient text, and the snake thou wast ordered to trample!  
With all thy likeness to God, thou'lt yet be a sorry example!
The student naively believed that words from his renowned teacher could save him. In reality Satan exulted in knowing that by using a catchy phrase, he had persuaded the student to follow the same serpent that was climbing the trees in the Garden of Eden. This old, but simple formula worked: this young student was now less like God that ever before. 

Fundamentally, Faust made the very same mistake. Supremely arrogant, he trusted solely in his own intellect, his knowledge and his power with words.  He no longer feared the devil and considered God unnecessary. He just needed one favor, and that's where Mephistopheles factored in. It was the perfect storm. 

When I first met Faust in Act I, I was struck by his Abrahamic ambitions for knowledge.** Tragically, in his hour of desperation, he summoned a devil to help him. Contrast this with Abraham who called on the Lord in his hour of desperation. Where Faust was enslaved, Abraham and was delivered and enlightened.*** 

Seeking knowledge is an essential part of becoming more like our Savior. But in this quest we must ever remember that knowledge of good and evil is not enough to make us like God.**** And it is certainly not our intellect or our clever aphorisms that will save us in our moment of terror.


* Genesis Chapter 3
** Abraham 1:2 describes Abraham's desires for happiness, peace, rest and great knowledge in a way that resembles the inner yearnings expressed by Faust in his study.
*** Abraham 1:15
**** Even knowledge of the divinity of Jesus Christ is not enough to make us like God: Mark 5:1-14; Acts 19:13-16

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Faustianity and the Battle for Souls

Justifying the Means
"Faust Painter"

I just finished reading Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  It is touted as one of the greatest works in German literature, and is full of themes about heaven and hell. I liked it, but knew very little about what I was getting in to.  This play puts the "T" in tragedy. Here's a quick overview:

In heaven, God agrees* to allow Mephistopheles (the devil) to try and foil Faust, a brilliant physician that was restlessly searching for inner peace and infinite knowledge. Frustrated, Faust resorts to magic to conjure up a spirit to help him in his search.  Unwittingly, he summons Satan. Mephistopheles initially appears in the innocuous form of a poodle, which Faust brings home to his study. The poodle transforms into Mephistopheles and Faust recognizes him as the devil. Faust is titillated and invites him back not once, but three times. Mephistopheles then persuades Faust to a wager, which he signs in his own blood. The devil will serve Faust and bring him knowledge and power, but at the moment Faust wishes to stay in the moment forever, he will die and forfeit his soul.**

Faust falls for Margaret, a beautiful and virtuous god-fearing girl. With the assistance of Mephistopheles, Faust makes use of magic potions, bribery, lies and flattery to seduce her—and impregnate her.  To make things worse, the potion they used to make Margaret's mother sleep ends up killing her. Things continue to unwind when Faust kills Margaret's brother, who finds out about the sordid affair.  Faust and Mephistopheles flee and when they return, find that Margaret is in prison and sentenced to death for drowning her illegitimate child. Faust immediately offers to free her. But, racked with guilt, Margaret refuses and calls on God for forgiveness.  We hear a voice from heaven announce that Margaret is saved as Faust and Mephistopheles simply run away. It's not exactly a Princess Bride ending.

In the beginning, Faust wanted good things: knowledge and understanding. Yet, he was so desperate to get them that nothing was off-limits. Faust actively conjured up a devil and sacrificed his spiritual values for power and knowledge—things he deemed good. But his methods caused him to rapidly lose sight of his lofty goals.  In no time he was bogged down in things that he would have found abhorrent before his compromise. Nothing good ever happens in this story.

This is by no means the first Faustian pact, but Goethe's story is so memorable that it now defines the genre. Though we may not conjure up a devil and sell him our soul, it is very easy to place ourselves in his company. Our choices and compromises so easily force away the Holy Spirit, leaving us alone with the likes of Mephistopheles. It's not long until we find ourselves comfortable in his presence, and repeatedly inviting him back for a visit.  As Cervantes*** wrote:

"Tell me thy company and I will tell thee what thou art."

So what is my point? It seems that our Christianity is increasingly replaced by Faustianity: the relentless pursuit of our selfish goals without regard to ethics or spiritual values. We take little heed of the casualties we create along the way—so long as we are able to get away safely. I see it as supreme selfishness and blind ambition, and it is very much the up-and-coming thing. It may be the fastest growing religion on earth.

* Shades of Job 1:6-12
** This is one of most famous parts of the work:
When thus I hail the moment flying: 
"Ah, still delay--thou art so fair?" 
Then bind me in thy bonds undying, 
My final ruin then declare
*** Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, LVI:1021