The Art of Fasting

Among our greatest tools of spiritual growth are prayer (of diverse variety), fasting, and almsgiving. Indeed, all three are especially encouraged during Lent. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus warns us about the proper use of these ‘holy weapons’ in the arsenal of the pious soul in training. I am thinking, primarily, of the sequence of warnings Jesus issues in the Sermon on the Mount, as documented in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel.

To wit: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 6:1) And again: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Mt. 6:5) And finally: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Mt. 6:16)

The talk here is of action and reward: the hypocrites perform these three ideally pious acts merely “so that they may be seen by others,” that is, for recognition, even fame. But such actions, Jesus admonishes us, lose their worth—their reward—when they are directed to such self-seeking ends. Everything hangs on the little word “so,” the link between deliberate action and intended result, as I was learned once in a Bible study of this passage. This “so,” Jesus explains in the case of each potentially penitent act, must be aimed always at “your Father who is in secret.” Only in seeking to contact the Lord do prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have their merit… and their reward.

This tension (acting for a higher cause or merely for recognition) is played out with soul-wrenching drama in a short story by the German-Czech daytime office worker and moonlight fiction writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924). This short story, indeed, has surprising topical relevance to thinking about Good Friday (a day of fasting) and Easter Sunday (a day of feasting), as apparent from its title “A Hunger Artist” (Ein Hungerkünstler in the original German). Although the story hardly allows for a purely Christian allegorical reading, the psychological toil of its titular “hunger artist” bears striking similarity to the Gospel’s teaching on fasting. I would go so far as to contend that Kafka deliberately arranged for crossover between his hunger artist’s starvation spectacle and the practice of Christian asceticism. In any case, this bizarre short story illustrates the art of fasting in a way that complements Jesus’s teaching, and it is this illustration which I would like to investigate in turn.

The Hunger for Attention


A Hunger Artist” is a brief story, so brief that it serves as its own summary. But, to be brief, Kafka’s story recounts the once appreciated art of fasting (“Those were different times,” he writes) through the downfall of one particular hunger artist, whose showmanship in “a small barred cage” at first draws crowds of enthusiastic spectators only to wane in popularity until he is eventually replaced. At a low point in his career, the children for whom this hunger artist was once “especially put on display” have to rely on their “family father” (Familienvater) to thoroughly explain to them what a hunger artist even is. Thus, the story tracks a trajectory from fame to irrelevance, confounded at every turn by misunderstanding.

From this summary, one could easily read Kafka’s story as a conflict between a tortured artist and a fickle audience that goes from applauding his efforts to ignoring his continued artistic dedication simply because their interest shifts, and they “preferred to stream to other attractions on display.” “Fame is bee.” – so begins Emily Dickenson in a famously short poem, which concludes, “It has a song— / It has a sting— / Ah, too, it has a wing.” This is a story, allegedly, of art against society, the creation of art for appreciation vs. art for art’s sake.

Yet, such a reading of the story overlooks long, winding passages in which the hunger artist wrestles not with the caprices of his spectators but with his own self-worth. In these passages, we see how the real misunderstanding does not arise between the fans outside the cage and the performer inside the cage, but occurs primarily within the cage itself. The hunger artist is misunderstood because he misunderstands himself: he thinks his unyielding devotion to self-denial through fasting will win him acclaim among the world, whereas the real reward for his vain performances is the cage of a false self, a self which seeks to overcome its own bodily needs only to double-back and become trapped in self-obsession. When the hunger artists fasts only for himself, he ends up a huddled mess in a hay-filled cage. Ironically, this is precisely the situation where he begins, for his motive was same the whole time, only then, in those “different times,” the crowds nourished him with the short-lived recognition he desired.

I don’t want to paint Kafka’s story as a simplistic moralizing narrative against vanity, though. As with many of Kafka’s characters, the hunger artist pivots around various psychological extremes, occasionally deserving our pity, sometimes earning our scorn, but often vacillating in the space between. This ambiguity is important to note not because the story ultimately pardons self-obsession but because it tracks the route to self-obsession as a decidedly circuitous one. In the course of this progression, several twists along the path overlap with the points raised in the Gospel’s provisions on fasting.

The Reward of Fasting for the Self

To better understand the psychological struggle of Kafka’s hunger artist, I should highlight a few more details. First and foremost, in the early days of the hunger artist’s fame, he worries that those watching him, the guards (Wächter, literally “watchers” in German) above all, think that he wants to cheat by breaking his fast while they are not looking. As if to heighten the tension, the guards are “usually butchers, strangely enough” who are selected by the public (one gets the sense that “hunger artists” are a sort of public good at the beginning of the story, like playgrounds of fire hydrants, whom everyone wanted to see “at least once daily”). Hence, his ‘watchers’ have an intimate connection to food, to flesh, the very thing he wishes to reject. (Kafka doesn’t use the normal term for butcher but rather Fleischhauer, “flesh hacker.”) Moreover, though, they suspect that he really would break his fast if given the opportunity, so they sit at a distance to goad him into cheating. Understandably, the hunger artists takes this as an insult, as an abuse:

Nothing was more tortuous to the hunger artist than such guards; they made his soul gloomy; they made his fasting terribly hard; sometimes he overcame his weaknesses and sang during their watch, as long as he could hold out, in order to show the people how unjust their suspicions of him were.”

We might sympathize with this sad soul at such moments, yet notice that he acts, as the hypocrites in the Gospels do, “in order to show the people” some merit about himself. He can fast. He would never cheat. That his spectators have a certain view of him is what cuts him to the bone. On the other hand, he far prefers when the guards pay attention to him and listen to “stories from his life of wandering” as he listens to their “tales in turn.” This sounds nice and cordial, but we immediately learn that he does all of this in order to be able to show them always that he had nothing edible in the cage and that he was fasting, like none among them could.” (emphasis mine)

Just as in the Gospel’s warning, the hunger artist fasts for himself, so that others will esteem his accomplishments. This self-obsession is further emphasized in the next section of the story, as we hear that “fasting could absolutely not be separated from suspicions,” for “no one could know from their own observation whether the fast was really unbroken and without error; only the hunger artist himself could know that, only he, therefore, could be the observer totally satisfied by his fasting.” In this gesture, Kafka dramatically declares that the hunger artist alone could be the one to recognize fully his successful fasting, the only one who could really pat himself on the back for a job well done. Hence, any ultimate recognition to be gained from such his fasting must be given by himself; it would be self-recognition, and that would undermine the point… or perhaps prove the point that the quest for recognition, rather than moving outward, is a quest that isolates the self in its own desires.

Outward, however, is the direction in which fasting and other penitent acts must take us. Sadly for the hunger artist, his fasting leads him to question whether he is emaciated not from his fasting but only “out of dissatisfaction with himself.” Fasting, taken by itself, is easy for him. “It was the easiest thing in the world.” Despite the ease of his great act of penitence, though, “this dissatisfaction always inwardly gnawed on him, and never once, after no period of fasting—one must afford him this witness—had he left the cage on his own volition.” Notice that dissatisfaction, not hunger, is what “gnaws” at him, and that he would stay in the cage as long as he could to try to ward it off. The hunger artist has trapped himself.

The extent of the this famished performer’s vanity comes to the fore in what is quite possibly the most direct reference to the Gospels in the story. The Impresario who promotes his performance sets an upward limit of forty days for the his fast, that is, the famous forty-day-long stretch of Jesus’s fast in the desert (based on the Israelites’ forty years of wandering), after which Lent is patterned. But our less than humble ascetic aesthete (if you will allow me an indulgent play-on-words) would fast longer if he could, he could last “unlimitedly longer.” Why stop at forty days? “Why did they want to rob him of fame,” the narrator asks, “to fast further, to become not only the greatest hunger artist of all time, which he probably was already, but also to cross over into the incomprehensible, for he felt no barriers for his ability to fast.” He could do it. He could best Jesus. But the others simply do not understand.

As soon as the public misunderstanding of the hunger artist’s fasts morphs into a disinterest, though, the hunger artists real limits are brought to light. Somewhat tragically, the entire reason the Impresario limits the hunger artist’s performance to forty days is because after that time people simply lose interest. Once the artist finds himself without a steady audience, he joins a circus and fasts as long as he wants, but no one affords him the attention he thinks he deserves. Even the small sign posted next to him, announcing who he is and how long he has hungered, fall into disrepair, such that “no one counted the days, no one, not even the hunger artist himself, knew how great his accomplishment was, and his heart became heavy.” Still, he continues his work “honestly,” fasting, indeed, with excellence, “but the world cheated him of his reward.”

The Reward of Fasting for God


In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, we learn the most about the two robbers executed on either side of Jesus. One of these men, the so-called “good robber,” responds to the other’s mockery of Jesus by saying “we have indeed been condemned justly, for we are getting our reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Lk. 23:41). The hunger artist thinks he’s being robbed of his reward, his recognition, for his fasting. But truly, his search for self-affirmation earns him his just reward, which is self-entrapment. Nonetheless, a final moment in “A Hunger Artist” provides some hope of redemption, as the “good robber” is provided redemption for acknowledging his own wrongdoings.

It comes by way of reaching out, moving beyond a misunderstanding of the self’s desires.

On a rare occasion of acknowledgment, a single spectator approaches the cage. When the spectator asks at what point the hunger artist will finally end his fast, he responds, seemingly incongruently, with the words: “Forgive me for everything.” Although only this single spectator-turned-listener “understood,” finally, what the hunger artist has said, he responds in the plural: “we forgive you.” In turn, the hunger artist confides in his lone companion that “you all” (again in the plural ihr) should not be astounded by his fasting, for in truth, he would have eaten his share like all of the others, only he could not food that tasted good to him. Thus, the grandiose displays of the hunger artist collapse into the petty fuss of a picky eater. But at the same time, his struggle escapes the singular, opening outward to other selves.

The Gospel tells us, for its own part, that our attempts at self-acclaim are likewise petty. What really matters is that we direct our acts of penitence outward toward God. The hunger artist finally makes the first steps toward God, away from the entrapped self, in one of the story’s final passages as he confesses the insubstantial grounds of his alleged greatness to an caring observer. But the burden of selfishness is not carried, perhaps, by the hunger artist alone. After his final exchange with the spectator, the artist expires and is buried along with the hay from his cage. In its place, a young panther is put on display with “nourishment that tastes [good] to him,” thereby recalling the source of the hunger artist’s error. The panther “lacks nothing” and becomes a grand attraction of the circus’s public. But the price the animal pays for this exultation is its freedom. It is encaged by spectacle.

If we allow our own efforts of penitence to be directed either at earning the recognition of others or promoting our own achievements, they too will rob us of our freedom, for our actions will be aligned not to our own choice but to the choices we feel we have to make to prove something of ourselves to others. A paradox seems to follow out of the other end of this tension, though. If we align ourselves NOT to a misunderstanding of our own desires, including the desire to be seen by others, which stands at the forefront of Kafka’s short story, BUT to the proper ordering of our desires in God, we come to realize true freedom. By giving in to God’s will for us, we discover that the path to our true happiness is not the path that implodes back into the self, but which elevates the self to God.

In brief, God wants the best for us. But when we blindly seek to advance ourselves in life by making our actions only about ourselves, we get no further than the bars of our self-built cages. This all requires more explanation. But suffice it to say: Kafka’s hunger artist shows us the way with no exit.

The way to start is to make our fasting, and other actions beyond that, not about winning fame, but about pursuing the Good and the Beautiful. Only then will fasting become an actual art and not merely a side-show for selfishness.


I just want to take a moment to apologize.

I’m sorry for being lazy. I’m sorry for feeling like time isn’t worth being spent. I’m sorry for forgetting about God. I’m sorry for thinking that being sorry doesn’t matter.

I apologize for just thinking about food and sleep and getting by. I’m sorry for neglecting my relationships and responsibilities I had all along.

I apologize for feeling resentment and jealousy towards those who seem to have it all more figured out than I do. I’m sorry that I just ate 3-5 handfuls of mini M&Ms that were just sitting on the counter, and although I don’t know who their proper owner was, I know it wasn’t me.

I’m sorry for abandoning a number of people who deserve attention and love. I’m sorry for essential becoming vacuumed into myself and being blind to everything outside of me. I even feel the need to apologize to the person I was 6 months ago for about-facing and walking the other way for a few miles.

I’m sorry for taking so much and giving so little.

I’m sorry if this essentially sounds nonsensical.


These verses come from the Sidney Psalter, a versification of biblical psalms from the 16th century. Psalm 6 is a penitential psalm.

Psalm 6: Domine Ne in Furore

Lord, let not me, a worm, by thee be shent,

While thou art in the heat of thy displeasure;

Not let thy rage, of my due punishment

Become the measure.

But mercy, Lord, let mercy descend,

For I am weak, and in my weakness languish:

Lord, help, for ev’n my bones their marrow spend

With cruel anguish.

Exploring Meaninglessness with the Darkly-minded, Slightly Emo, Older Cousin of the Biblical Family

Whether through television or real life experience, we’re all familiar with those social gatherings with all of the extended family invited to gorge themselves on fine cooking and indulge in a general atmosphere of conviviality. At these gatherings, many overused archetypes of various family members are destined to show up—the fat, obnoxious uncle with his snappy one-liners; the old, consternated grandmother who has a soft spot for the grandkids; the dilapidated granddad who we really ought not allow near the liquor cabinet lest we want to relive the offensive diatribes of yesteryear. Then, over in the corner, slouched against a wall dressed In solid grayscale, the T shirt beneath his cardigan sporting a few skulls and cross bones, is the dissonant outlier of the family gathering, the darkly-minded, slightly emo older cousin, who is talked about in passing as being “really a very talented painter,” and “always up in his room thinking.” Deep down, everyone there knows that this misunderstood not-quite-a-teenager-any-more young man doesn’t belong. And yet, he is a part of the big happy family all the same.

This is the way that I thought about the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when I first encountered its terse collection of 12 chapters nestled between Proverbs and the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. If Ecclesiastes is the strange, morbid second cousin (once removed on his mother’s side) of the biblical family, then Proverbs and the Song of Solomon are two beloved brothers. Ecclesiastes just doesn’t fit.

Now, let me explain. The reason the book seems out of place is because of its content and tone, not because of its familial relation to other books in the Bible per se. After all, it arose from the same scribal communities as other books ascribed to King Solomon. Still, something seemed off with this one, as my initial response to reading its somber passages was this: “What is this? Am I even reading the Bible?”


Perhaps to offer a flavor of this Old Testament outlier we can examine a passage from the 9th chapter, which in my biblical edition receives the subtitle “Take Life as It Comes.” I think we’ll see how Ecclesiastes handles issues of wisdom, death, mystery, and the pivotal Hebrew word חבל hevel (literally translated to “breath” but often taken to mean “vanity” or “meaninglessness”[1]) in a rather strange manner compared to the transcendent theology common to the Bible.

“Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.” (Eccl 9:1-3)

And what is that common fate that seems to disregard morality and conduct? “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.” (Eccl 9:5-6) This obsession with the passing away of things, the notion of ephemerality, haunts the entire book of Ecclesiastes. The pattern is essentially this: the  Qohelet (the Teacher and speaker of Ecclesiastes) describes something considered meaningful—the pursuit of wisdom (Eccl 1:12), obtaining wealth (Eccl 2:9), human friendship, (Eccl 4:9)—but then, like the pessimistic, black-garbed second cousin, realizes that these things won’t be remembered and will pass away like the breeze, leaving  the Teacher to conclude “Surely this is also vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl 4:16).

This dismissal of the meaning of things that are impermanent and will pass from memory—this is a very modern existential struggle, which is discussed in a similar way in a 2012 novel that I read recently, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace:

I’m talking about the individual US citizen’s deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all out time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it’s not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put “die,” “pass away,” the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday—“ (143)

Given the shared language of passing away, the fleetingness and ephemerality embodied so well in hevel or vanity, Ecclesiastes is rendered very modern in its message. However, neither Ecclesiastes as a whole nor the above passage denies that life has meaning; they’re just worried about ephemerality. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2) describes not the purposelessness of life but that “everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away,” as Wallace writes.

Carpe Diem, but Not Quite

What should one do amid the fleetingness of life? The Teacher of Ecclesiastes commands, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long approved what you do. . . Enjoy life with your wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given to you under the sun, because that is your portion in life. . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might” (Eccl 7-10). This declaration to “enjoy life” through food and drink and “whatever your hand finds to do” seems to condone an almost unbridled hedonism. Drink and be merry, not obey God and His will. At first, this was the real shocking passage for me, since it seems to disregard consequences and morals with the same irresponsible fervor evoked by YOLO (said, almost exclusively, before someone does something stupid). Is Ecclesiastes promoting that kind of life style? Not quite.

It’s important to understand that the whole eat, drink, and be merry in ancient Israel was not so much about excess as just enjoying the everyday—a meal with the whole family, not a Dionysian symposium of wine-chugging.

Moreover, the mention of eating in drinking in Ecclesiastes is accompanied by a note of dependence on God, as the Teacher notes that enjoyment “is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Eccl 2:24-25).  The hedonism, here, is not nihilistic and morally unrestrained, but God-given. The message of carpe diem (seize the day) lives in these passages but is breathed by God into man, such that enjoying the little things, food, drink, & co. becomes part of humankind’s God-given lot.


Ecclesiastes, though, seems to take the fleetingness of life further than any other biblical book, ostracizing itself from the family conversation like the brooding adult-ish teenager. Take this passage, which flies in the face of humankind’s dominion over animals proclaimed in Genesis: “For the fate of animals and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals downward to the earth?” (Eccl 3:19-21).

By reducing human life to nothing more than the animalistic, Ecclesiastes contradicts the very chapter of Genesis (Gen 3) it references with “all are dust” bit. No wonder its canonical status was contested, as Temper Longman describes, “The book was accused of contradictions, secularity, and even outright heresy” [2]. However, Longman resolves the heresy conflict in his exegesis by citing the first and last verse of Ecclesiastes, in which another voice other than that of the Teacher speaks: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone” (Eccl 12:13). (If humans are no more than animals, are we holding animals to those standards, too?) The proclamation to obey God, while seemingly out of place, underlies much of Ecclesiastes, and ultimately, I think that the outcast slightly-emo, older cousin has something pertinent to say about God.

In God’s Time

Probably the most beautiful section in Ecclesiastes is chapter 3, in which the listing oppositional pairs, such as birth/death and weeping /laughing reminds us that “for everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1). There is well-known hymn based on the passage, actually.

The passage both issues a warning and offers reassurance; where there is happiness, there will someday be sadness, but where there is sadness, there will sometime be happiness. In this way, maybe it’s not so bad that the worldly sensations are fleeting, for we need not bear one feeling for too long.

Directly after this section, the Teacher reminds the reader that all of this happens in God’s time: “He has made everything suitable to its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccl 3:11). With the assuredness of God’s plan comes the inability to understand it fully, though it may be accessible in part. Indeed, it would be presumptuous to claim knowledge of God’s plan—there is foolishness in presuming. As my former theology professor said fondly, “We plan. God laughs.” Our plans might come to pass, deo volente (God willing).

This, I feel, is what Ecclesiastes’s Teacher is really getting at with the talk of vanity, hevel, fleetingness.

As humans, we cannot contemplate God’s ways. We live on this earth, which isn’t a perfect place, and we experience much suffering and injustice. Yet, there are times of goodness and joy and companionship with great friends. We cannot understand everything, but in obedience to God, we wait for a time of plenty. We cannot know what will become of us, but we must live out our days, and we ought to trust God in that time. Earthly things are “vanities” but God is eternal, and God may yet guide us to a resting place “because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets” (12:5). This is a view of low-epistemology, of human ignorance, yet also a testimony to God’s greatness and a bleak yet apt theodicy to explain evil: Don’t question why there is evil. Of course there is evil. The world is full of it, for it is not the place of God’s eternal goodness and need not be good; still, there will be “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;” (Eccl 3:4). Though the Qoheleth tells us to enjoy life, this is not license to embrace personal hedonism: it is the proclamation to seize the day—carpe diem—for only God know what comes next.

[1] Raymond C. Van Leewen, “Ecclesiastes”  The Harper Collins Study Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 892.

[2] Temper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 26.

Dealing with Something That Might Not Really Be Fully Understood Ever

There are some things out there in the universe that are nigh near impossible to define: what exactly God is, the concept of infinity (and hence the first thing on the list), the limit of y = 1 over x as x approaches 0. . . what women want. Now, in this realm of undefined, ambiguous notions consider this simple yet puzzling statement: “God is Love.” In Kurt Vonnegut’s much acclaimed and much beloved (by me not the least) novel Cat’s Cradle, this statement earns the following response from Dr. Hoenikker, an eccentric scientist who is every bit as difficult to quantify as the aforementioned phrase: “What is God? What is love?”

For a while there, in my ongoing struggle to answer both of the questions that Dr. Hoenikker poses, I thought outright that love didn’t exist. Now, please allow me to be more specific. Of course I knew that people said that they loved each other, and I knew that I cared deeply and passionately about the members of my family and about certain concepts, God among them, but I had a great difficulty saying that romantic love was anything at all like what we understand it to be.

I think one of the greatest difficulties in my search and with the idea of love in general, is that the English language possesses a woefully inadequate supply of words to differentiate between the varieties of love that we feel, and within the wide network of things that this English term love attempts to define, it impoverishes itself, being neither specific enough nor broad enough to define any idea well. In an essay aptly titled “Love,” published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosopher Bennett Helm wrestles with the homonymic quality of love, stretching from this single word various emotions and expressions tagged with designating adjectives like “philial,” “erotic” or “erosic,” “platonic,” and “value-ascribing.” I think that Helm is of the same mind as me in wishing that English could be more like Greek, with its cleanly separated terms for the various powers pulsing through our bodies that often fall under the blanket term of “love;” words like eros, agape, and philia; and in Latin, amor, amicitia, and the theologically powerful caritas. In Russian, I’ve been told, there are some seven words for love, among them любовь (Ee-yoo-beet) which can be translated as the “flame of love.” Yet, in English we are left with the plainly powerful, painfully imprecise word “love.”

The Confusion: This Love (Is Takin’ Its Toll on Me)

Love’s ambiguity wasn’t really my basis for denying its existence, though. That would be, I suppose, rather like claiming that blue isn’t a color because there are too many dissimilar shades of it. The problem for me is that I couldn’t understand how love, especially romantic love, was anything more than just a combination of a few other basic emotions. For example, it seems that love, with all of its psychological attachment and clinginess, is no more than an exaggerated friendship. What factors make it anything otherwise, anything more than another very strong human relationship? On the other hand, I couldn’t understand how romantic love was anything more than the clinginess of friendship with the addition of sexuality. But if love can be so easily conceptualized as an admixture of other more basic traits, then where is its essential power? If love really is an all-powerful, subsuming essence of life, then it shouldn’t be so easily reducible. If anything, other things (sexuality, friendship) should reduce to it. Otherwise, love is not really an essence of life at all but a confused product of more basic forces.

Important Questions: What Is Love? (Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no mo’)

From this state of confusion, I want to explore several questions about love, namely:

(1)   Is love an essential force that cannot be reduced?

(2)   Does romantic love exist independently from sexuality, that is, is romantic love autonomous?

(3)   If romantic love is NOT autonomous and necessarily relates to sexuality, are our romantic interactions anything more than evolutionarily determined mating practices?

(4)   Is love a transcendent experience, and, if so, how can this help us to understand God?

Finally, I want to extend this question as a source of reflection:

(5)   What do you mean by love?

Love as “Essence”: All You Need Is Love

Before delving into whether or not love is an irreducible “essence,” I think I ought to identify what I mean by love. Colloquially, love is understood to be felt through a physical sensation—a warmth in the chest when someone is present, an emptiness when that someone is gone. Yet, the reasons why one feels these sensations ought to be part of the definition as well. For these, I turn to the three Greek terms eros, agape, and philia.

Eros arises from passion and desire, usually in a sexual sense, though Socrates sees this desire reaching further, as Helm explains: “Socrates understands sexual desire to be a deficient response to physical beauty in particular, a response which ought to be developed into a response to the beauty of a person’s soul and, ultimately, into a response to the form, Beauty.” In this case, the desire is for more than a person’s body, as the real desire is directed toward the ideal Beauty that manifests itself in that person. Eros, then, is a very visceral response to beauty, a desire to be close to it.

Philia, on the other hand, is a friendly affection or appreciation, the sort of warmth one feels when in the company of one’s best buds. But this feeling of love also extends to the love one may have of one’s community or country at large—it’s the appreciation that says, “that’s what I’m all about, or I can get behind that!” as well as “I’ve got your back, or you can count on me!” In this way, philia is derived from a sharing of ideals or interests—the camaraderie to eros’s companionship. Philia—it’s about friends coming together.

Finally, agape is the unconditional love of God for humanity and humanity for God, as well as a general love for all humanity, a kind of brotherly love. Helm describes agape as “’spontaneous and unmotivated,’ revealing not that we merit that love but that God’s nature is love.” Unlike philia, the love of agape is not built on shared ideals; rather, it is a love that God naturally has for us and that we in turn have for God and each other. In this sense, caritas is very much the Latin analogue of agape—it’s about moving beyond yourself, toward God and your fellow human beings.

These three terms describe different sources of love—beauty, friendship, God and neighbor. But these are all different kinds of love, not what love actually is. The similarities among them, then, should define what love is at its essence. As I see it, the main similarity is an individual’s deep, necessary (innate) attraction to something beyond oneself—to an ideal, a person, or a deity—that produces a pure and guiltless happiness that comes from making one feel whole.

The French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes about love in a very similar way. For him, love is a cosmic power that overwhelms the world, that traces back to the most primitive of interactions at the molecular level which gain sophistication in the interactions of living things. In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard writes of love,

“It is a general property of all life and as such it embraces, in its varieties and degrees, all the forms successively adopted by organized matter.” (81-2)

As a “general property of al life,” Teilhard is answering our first question in the affirmative—love is an essential force that is not constructed of other concepts like friendship or sexuality. In fact, sexuality and friendship and even kindness seem to require love as a base. Teilhard also affirms the idea that love works toward completeness:

“Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.” (85-6)

Here, Teilhard explains that living beings actually need love to be complete, that without it, one is deficient. Pursuing excellence, looking for a spouse, working toward a successful career—all of this requires love, an inborn desire to move beyond yourself toward fulfillment, which will bring happiness and wholeness. Teilhard’s emphasis on the necessity of love reminds me a lot of 1 Corinthians 13, which Noah discussed in a previous blog post:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13: 1-7)

This passage does two very important things in defining love’s essence; the first three verses emphasize the necessity of love, and the next four give some hints of what love is and is not—kind, not envious; trusting, not recording of wrongs; joyfully truthful, not delightfully evil. These distinctions will be important later when sexuality and love is discussed. For now, I think maybe the Beatles were right to sing that “all you need is love,” for with love as an essential force one can channel a benevolent mindset that, when followed, leads us on the path to happiness.

Romance v. Sexuality: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Let’s assume that Teilhard is right about love: it is this essential force that leads us to fulfillment, manifested in our attraction toward things outside ourselves and our immediate needs, through agape or philia or eros. But if we define love, the basic all-across-the-board love, in that way, what does that make romantic love, the makes-your-heart-race kind of love that is normally implied when someone says the word “love”? Is romantic love just a fulfilling experience that integrates sexuality? Or is there something else to it? Cue question (2).

A few months ago, I had a long, long conversation with a few friends about this very question. What we ended up with were two proposed models for how friendship, romance, and sexuality relate.


In the first model, romance is a sort of intermediary stage between friendship and sexuality, the ultimate end of which is sexual interaction. The friendship doesn’t necessarily go away when romance begins, nor does romance end when sexuality begins; rather, they built off of each other, the friendship and romance sustained throughout. This seems to be more or less the kind of linear model bought into by romantic comedies and other media. It’s simple; it works. But is it right? Keep in mind that if romance is all that romantic love is, then romantic love yields to sexuality later down the line. Or, if this entire arrow scheme is all that romantic love is, then sexuality subordinates romantic love—it’s all just part of the sexual cycle. Any romantic relationship that isn’t tending toward sexual expression, by this logic, is incomplete. I, for one, hope that there’s more to it than that.


The second model, on the other hand, grants autonomy to all three ideas (friendship, romance, and sexuality) in classic Venn diagram shape. In fact, the linear model can be seen as a route through this diagram, as seen below.


That’s all fine and dandy, but what does each section mean? Where does romantic love fit in? The all green friendship section is easy enough—it’s a (friend)zone where you aren’t interested in someone as a sexual or romantic partner (maybe philia fits here). The pink section, then, is the voracious and licentious zone of loveless one-night-stands and unfriendly sexual favors (unless one can go straight to loving someone without friendship or romance [even love-at-first-sight requires some courtship before sexual interaction, right?]). The blue section might be reserved for someone met through speed dating or some other process that circumvents friendship and goes straight to courtship. The overlapping sections, though, are more difficult to quantify: the section between friendship and sexuality might be friends with benefits; the one between romance and friendship, a celibate relationship; the one between romance and sexuality, a sexually active relationship between two people who are not friendly toward one another. The center section is a synthesis of all three, perhaps a functional marriage in which the pair can confide in one another as friends.

But this diagram leaves us with a lot of questions. What differentiates romantic actions from sexual ones? One could just say that sexuality includes all sexual interactions, and romance is the sort of innocent lovey-dovey stuff and walks on the beach. But usually, these two are conflated. People don’t usually act romantically toward someone whom they are not interested in being sexual with potentially down the road. Still, there are certainly people who date without the prospect of sex entering into the picture until after marriage. But, even then, if one dates just to find a marital partner, isn’t sexuality still the end goal that subordinates romance?

Where, then, is romantic love? Is it autonomous? Maybe. Perhaps there are aspects that make romantic love more than just friendship + sexuality.

For example, Helm cites an argument from a R.C. Solomon who defines romantic love in terms of union: “Love is the concentration and the intensive focus of mutual definition on a single individual, subjecting virtually every personal aspect of one’s self to this process.” This means that two romantically engaged people work toward forming a shared identity for themselves that includes similar interests, life goals, etc. Sounds a lot like Genesis 2:24:

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Another view is that romantic love is an expression of a robust concern for another person’s well-being. However, this could also be applied to a friend or a child just as well. Maybe romantic love involves a deeper level of trust and reliance towards one’s beloved. In this case, the difference between romantic love and friendship or philial love is one of degrees, not kinds. You trust your beloved as you do your friend, only more so. You care about your beloved’s well-being as you do your friend’s, only more so. But this means that romantic love isn’t autonomous from friendship. In order for it to be autonomous in and of itself, it would need some other aspect, but if that aspect were sexuality, then it would not be autonomous from sexuality. Is that a problem?

Maybe. If romantic love is all about sex, then why wait until marriage to have sex? Maybe the union or the commitment is important. Either way, the thought that I HAVE to reject is that sex = love, a horrible misnomer with we are barraged by popular songs and movies. This is precisely why I can’t bring myself to use the euphemism “make love” to describe sex, as if the sexual act were somehow what allows a couple to love each other. Liberated, bare-naked sex is not enough to constitute romantic love. Nor do I personally think that it is a necessary condition for it (i.e. friendship + sex ≠ romantic love). There’s a great line about the relation of sex and love in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a war novel with a love story woven grittily into its pages. A priest opines to Mr. Henry, an American ambulance driver in the Italian army, concerning the latter’s sexual encounters with Italy’s finest harlots:

“What you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.” (72).

This attitude of self-sacrifice exemplifies the Christian understanding of love (caritas) which I’ll discuss later. For now, let’s assume (against my will) that romantic love is not autonomous, that its definition depends on sexuality.

My Chemical Romance

Several years ago I was sitting alongside a river in Germany. The stars spanned across the firmament of the heavens. The air was cool. My friend, however, was not feeling so tranquil. He was confused about love, much as I am. “How can love be real,” he lamented, “if it’s just chemical interactions in our bodies? How can it be important if it’s just our drive to pass on our genes?” At the time, I responded that just knowing how something works chemically ought not to deprive it of meaning. One can know that water droplets adhere to one another through hydrogen bonding and still be astounding when they defy gravity by flowing along the bottom of one’s outstretched arm. Yet, I am still troubled by my friend’s lamentation. If romantic love and sex are ultimately just about passing on genes, microscopic collections of DNA that may play a very, very big part in who we are, how we behave, and each choice that we make, what room is there to be in awe of someone you love romantically? If all those warm and romantic feelings can just be reduced to “Wow, I like your genes,” what more is there to it? The whole mating process seems completely indifferent to the love between to people, unfortunately meaningless. (That’s one interpretation.)

As it turns out, the neuroscience of attraction and affection are rather interesting and perhaps meaningful. Hormones, as many of us know, are involved in sexual development and attraction, testosterone being the big one for men (increasing aggression, for example) and estrogen playing an important role for women. Pheromones are another chemical indicator, communicating messages outside of the body, especially in various insects to direct social and sexual behavior (seen in chemical trails left by ants).

Several neurochemicals receive a lot of attention in human attraction and sexuality. Scientists tend to divide the chemicals into two groups—those that cause attraction and those that cause attachment. Oxytocin, known as the “human super glue” creates powerful attachment between two individuals and is released during intense physical contact of the sexual kind. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are present at higher levels during the attraction phase of a relationship. Serotonin, in particular, is linked to obsessive thoughts about a potential mate. In addition to indicating attraction, dopamine also induces pleasure though a neurological “reward” system: like giving a dog a treat for rolling over, our brains produce dopamine to reinforce certain behaviors.

That’s all very interesting, but what does that tell us about love besides how bodily chemicals are involved? As I told my friend, knowing how something happens doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, it seems to make it more real. Similar chemical processes are involved in other sensations, such as a baby bonding with its mother. The chemical understanding of love seems only to reinforce the idea that it’s all very complicated. What’s more, the differences between chemicals that produce attachment and those that produce lust (as well as those released during sex) indicate that the sensations of being in love vs. infatuation vs. lust are all quite unique. If different chemicals cause these sensations, then there ought to be a perceivable difference between feeling infatuated and “the real deal.” Certainly, there is still room for transcendent experience.

Beyond the Sensual Body:  Transcendent Love

If romantic love’s definition is dependent on sexuality, that doesn’t mean that people are just evolutionary automatons attempting to pass on their genes—there’s much more than that (many people deliberate prevent the passing on of genes through the sexual act in the modern age of sexual liberation). Yet, defining love just on a basis of sexuality seems to dampen it. Why is there a need for all of the ceremony and dating rituals if it all comes down to a moment of passion? Doesn’t romance possess an intrinsic worth? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy seems to think so. Therein romantic love is honored with a grace mightier than mere sensuality. The romantic love of medieval knights and damsels, for instance, transcended desire and “theoretically was not to be consummated, for such love was transcendentally motivated by a deep respect for the lady.” This understanding of romantic love harkens back to Plato’s writings of Socrates, in which a beauty beyond the body was the real desire of eros.

By most any account, those who have experienced what they feel to be romantic love regard it as a very powerful experience, one that cannot so easily be dismissed. There is something about it that is elevating and fulfilling. This understanding of love from a Christian sense.

Christian teaching frequently uses the rhetoric of love. As mentioned previously, this kind of love does not entail the erotic passion of eros but the unconditional devotion of agape or caritas. It is a love made dually powerful through its assurance that God will always present us with the offer of love and its notion of commitment to something far greater than ourselves. This is not a simple Valentine’s Day affection. This is determined commitment to servitude, something “you wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve” as Hemingway’s priest says. If Teilhard is correct in thinking that this fulfilling force of love pervades the universe, then encountering God’s rejuvenating, fulfilling love should be as simple as acting on this desire to extend beyond ourselves–to transcend and produce happiness. Hence, Christ issues his two most important commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”(Mark 12:30)  and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31). How does one do that, you may ask? Return to 1 Corinthians 13 and its definition of love: patient, kind, not boastful. This behavior often involves sacrifice; indeed, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross demonstrates the will do take on the burden of all wrongdoings to grant as all another chance to love each other more fully. That’s a love that perseveres always. This behavior, Teilhard feels, will bring humanity to its Omega point, that is, toward union with God.

There’s a great scene in Cat’s Cradle where sex is shown to be subordinate to other forms of bonding. The protagonist ends up on this island where many inhabitants secretly practice a cultic religion called Bokononism, the main holy rite of which is placing the soles of your feet against the soles of another person’s feet and reciting a chant. There is a beautiful woman in the novel who is not at all interested in sex–she just cares about this rite. Placing the soles together to form one soul, to create companionship–this dyadic bonding is more important to her than intense physical pleasure. And now that I think about it, this is what really sets romantic love apart. A strong bond between two people to form a singular “we.”

I’m not going to pretend to understand love all that well. It’s not my story to tell. But I think that there is a lot more to it than kissing and physical contact or sappy terms of endearment. I approach love like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart approaches obscenity: I know it when I see it. Or in this case, if I feel it. For now, I’m going to go listen to all of the songs linked in the subheading of this post. To me, it seems like love in its totality transcends all definitions but this: Love, like God, is something that is only known when experienced. God is love.

Cum Caritas (with the love that God has for each person, and which each person is, in turn, called to have toward God and each other),


Choose Your Own Adventure v. 1.0

For all of you loyal blog-followers out there, or for those of you who may have enjoyed the most recent post, “On Free Will, or Did I Have a Choice to Write This Post?” I have a very empowering announcement:




Below I have inserted a poll with topics that are playing theological hop-scotch in my head as of late.

PLEASE, PLEASE. Choose one. Exercise your putative free will (oh, the memories of last post’s inquiry into the choice of free will).

Yay, choices! Yay, theology!

Cum Caritate,


On Free Will, or Did I Have a Choice to Write This Post?

Many moons ago, I had a conversation with a marginal friend about the existence of free will–that ever important concept that reassures us that our decisions do indeed matter and that we are NOT just robots set on a track that has unalterably been laid out before us. My friend argued that free will is a mere illusion because every action has already been determined by the action before it (if I look at my keyboard, I will necessarily see the “g” key, and seeing it, I will press it, and so on). I do not choose any of these actions; they simple proceed from one cause to one effect to one cause to one effect, ad infinitum. This is problematic. If I can’t choose any of my actions, why bother doing anything? Why behave? Why seek to do good if there is no real seeking, since we’re all synchronized to a narrow system of cause and effect? I’ve brooded over this free will debacle a whole season long. The following are my findings, arranged by academic subject. Browse at your discretion (if it actually exists!).

DISCLAIMER: Okay, readers. This is about to get intensely theo-LOGIC-al. Comment now, OR forever hold your opinions.



The war over free will or no free will has ravaged the realm of philosophy from Plato to Popper. It boils down to anti-free will determinism facing off against pro-free will thought. As required of philosophical conversations, let’s define our terms.

Determinism: “The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.” as per the Stanford Philosophy Department website. [1]

In laymen’s terms: There is no free will, as all human actions and natural events are precipitated by a cause, continuing along an unbroken, singular cause and effect chain according to natural universal laws, e.g., if I drink coffee this morning, I will urinate at exactly noon, after which I will wash my hands, scratch my chin, look at my face in the mirror, contemplate the existence of free will, and, as a direct unavoidable consequence, I will blink three times, and nod twice, in an attempt to spite my predetermined path and claim that I really did have a choice to nod and blink, exactly that number of times, when in reality, drinking coffee in the morning naturally led me to do this, and I had no choice in the matter. Moreover, my decision to drink coffee was just a result of another cause, which could have no other manifested effect than my drinking of coffee. That cause is my sleep deprivation from staying up to write this post, which had its own singular cause, stemming from its own cause, ad infinitum leading back to the alleged Big Bang.

Free Will: “a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” (again, as per the Stanford Philosophy Department website [2]).

In laymen’s terms: Individuals who can think and weigh outcomes have the ability to choose one option or another when confronted with a decision-making situation, e.g., I want to buy a car, and I can choose between a blue or red car. My past experience does not lock me into an answer; I can choose one way or the other. It’s up to me.


The great 17th century French philosopher René Descartes struggles with this free will conundrum in his 4th meditation from Meditations on First Philosophy [3]. Like many of us do, he exalts free will as all important: “It is only the will or free choice that I experience to be so great in me that I cannot grasp the idea of any greater faculty.” In the next paragraphs, he explains that the source of free will is God, and that in a perfect world, we would have all the knowledge that we need to make informed decisions. Whenever we have all the sufficient information, Descartes claims, we will always choose the right option. Conversely, poor decisions are only ever made when we possess inadequate information. Here Descartes seems to border on a kind of determinism: given the right circumstances (INPUT) by God, an individual will necessarily choose the right option, which is to say that they don’t really choose at all. One divine input = one human output, a 1-to-1 cause and effect chain. Still, Descartes contends that human freedom is maintained in his system of free will: “Nor indeed does natural knowledge ever diminish one’s freedom; rather, they increase and strengthen it.” Essentially, more information just helps us to freely choose the right choice. This, HOPEFULLY, moves us closer to a nuanced view of free will. Now let’s think about different kinds of choices.


Obviously, some decisions are more important than others (whom you marry vs. what you eat for breakfast). We can classify these decisions or choices into two (2) categories: (1) pivotal choices and (2) simple choices.

(1) pivotal choices are those that largely affect an individual and the surrounding, usually in an easily perceivable way. These are the choices where we really stop and think, delineating pros and cons, measuring risks, and projecting possible ramifications. When you encounter a pivotal choice, you know you’ve hit a wall. The effects can be massive, determining one’s career path, one’s health, one’s mental stability, even one’s final destination (heaven or hell) from a theological perspective. An example of just such a moral quagmire that qualifies as a pivotal choice is whether to kill or spare the life of a captured enemy soldier.

(2) simple choices are those which have little perceivable, lasting effect on the well-being, temperament, and life path of an individual–that being that they require little critical thought. Examples include whether to brush one’s teeth at 8:00 am or 8:15 am, what to eat for lunch, whether to step with one’s left or right foot initially, or how many times to blink while looking in the mirror. Of course, one can argue that when taken together, these small choices add up to manifold, critical effects: developing cancer from too many microwaved chicken nuggets; failing an admission’s test due to less-than-punctual brushing habits. However, these effects seem unlikely and are compounded over long stretched of time; individually, the decisions remain negligible in the scheme of one’s life. One could also subscribe to the untold ripples of the Butterfly Effect, but that is highly speculative.

Unlike pivotal choices, simple choices are not necessarily confined to humans. An animal can choose what it eats each day, where it nests, and so forth. These simple choices rule an animal’s survival, though: a poor nesting ground could spell the end of a toucan’s colorfully-beaked existence. However, these animals do NOT seem to weigh any of their choices, a necessary condition for pivotal choices, and, quite possibly for free will. Free will is still very much a HUMAN issue.


I have to admit,the study of physics is NOT my forte, but it is intensely interesting. Physics has actually paved the road of determinism (no free will), as Albert Einstein was a staunch opponent of philosophical free will:

In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. [4]

This all ties into the notion of causation: one cause leads to one effect, and so on. Everything is a predetermined INPUT and OUTPUT, as in a well-functioning computer system. However, the understanding of cosmological phenomena, chiefly the groovy, interstellar oddities that are black holes, complicated the clean-cut system of cause and effect.

Black Holes: Total Insanity

The physical understanding of causation rests on the tenet that information cannot be destroyed, that it is preserved, though transferred from one form to another. This is because information must be accessible to verify causal relationships. If A + B = C, and all of a sudden B disappears, how can we prove that the relationship holds true? In the mega-gravity of a black hole, information very much seems to be swept into the abyss, creating problems for determinists.

Back when black holes were in vogue, wheelchair-bound genius Stephen Hawking and his retinue of science buddies encountered the problem of light and hence information, among other things, vanishing into the void of black holes. The question arose: Does the existence of black holes jeopardize the preservation of information and cause-and-effect relationships, if black holes truly do destroy information?

The question sparked a debate between Hawking and physicist Leonard Susskind, described in Susskind’s book Black Hole Wars (soon to be featured on the History channel’s Monday lineup #HistoryChannel’sFormulaicallyNamedShows). [5]

Hawking said, NO. Information is NOT lost in black holes. He reasoned that anti-particle-particle pairs fray at the event horizon of the black hole, such that information would escape, resulting in Hawking’s radiation of black holes. Consequently, black holes are really white, spitting back the information rather than annihilating it. [6] Perhaps black holes are worm holes to other universes, in which only white holes and no black holes exist.

Susskind said, YES. Information IS lost in black holes. He explains the dilemma via his holographic principle, which envisions the universe as truly 2-dimensional, with 3-dimensionality being an illusion of the immense size of the universe. Somehow, matter that a black hole cosmically slurps becomes lost on its 2-dimensional event horizon. However, this hypothesis is rooted in the untested grounds of string theory, a conceptual web of esoteric physics which I do not even begin to pretend to understand.


A quantum physicist by the name of Hugh Everett III postulated a different understanding of cosmological possibility and choice with his multi-versed many worlds theory. This theory essentially posits that many possible “tomorrows” could take place, and that they actually do take place in a branching system of multiple parallel universes, one for each possible action. This applies especially to non-determinist quantum mechanical processes, such as radioactive decay, in which substances can break down in an random number of ways. [7]

Assuming that the our universe began in a Big Bang-type event, and that from this event all else followed in a neat 1-to-1 cause and effect chain (universal forces were born, hydrogen atoms form, helium arose as an element, yada-yada), the many worlds theory would postulate that many different universes branched off in other directions, as forces and elements formed differently. Even if the 1-to-1 causation holds up, one could ask whether the universe necessarily HAD to start the way that it did. Perhaps out of the initial random nothingness, any number of things could have emerged from a single CAUSE. Who’s to say that one particular cause HAD to start it all (theologians who say that the cause was God, that’s who!)? In this way, maybe a very limited free will DOES exist in the undetermined randomness of preexistence that spawned what became a predetermined universe following along a chain of 1-to-1 cause and effects that the first cause enacted.

The IMPORT of all of this into understanding free will is that black holes challenge the presumption of single 1-to-1 cause and effect relationships. Perhaps, as Everett contests, there are many possibilities that emerge from a single INPUT.


To reiterate the cosmological physics approach to free will:

If all actions can be explained in a single, linear chain of causation, then was the original cause precipitated? Was ONLY that one original cause possible, or WAS there a realm of possible initial causes, hence indicating an extremely limited, though still present degree of freedom in the events of the universe: from an unstable state, did the Big Bang necessarily occur as it did, or were there multiple options, choices, as it were, from which the universe could choose to enact itself?

With the 1-to-1 causation relationship called into question, we can examine some mathematical models of how cause (INPUT or X) related to effect (OUTPUT or Y).

Causation 1 to 1Causation Multiple Outputs

Here we have two mathematical functions, a parabola y=x^2 and a sideways parabola, y= + or – root*(x). The first functions as a simple 1-to-1 cause and effect function. For every INPUT, e.g. -1, there is exactly one OUTPUT, e.g. 1. This is what the determinists contend as true for free will. However, even here we have an interesting feature: in a parabola, OUTPUTs are repeated: 1 is the OUTPUT of both -1 and 1. The tight-knit relationship between 1-to-1 causation is challenged by this first graph.

The second graph, also representing an INPUT-OUTPUT relationship, describes how one INPUT, i.e. one cause, can result in multiple OUTPUTs, i.e. effects. The INPUT of 1 (which we can think of as an sensory INPUT in an individual, say seeing a red car) results in two OUTPUTs, 1 and -1 (which we can think of as resultant actions by a rational individual, say buying a red car OR buying a blue car). Although the sideways parabola, a radical relation, is not technically a function, it still shows that cause and effect need not be 1-to-1, as determinists claim.


Applying the principles of multiple outputs for multiple inputs, we can discuss how one cause can give rise to multiple, diverging effects, some of them good, some of them bad. Here free will has an opportunity to make its case.

The Free Will Graph of Multiple Output Causation


where f(x) is the free will function measured in goodness outcome, and where X represents life experience, the points representing critical decision junctures, e.g. to take a particular job, to forgive someone or lash out at the person.

This graph epitomizes the lengthy discussion which I have attempted to conduct concerning free will so far. The graph tracks the life experience of a rational individual who encounters pivotal decisions at critical junctures marked by points above. Much as espoused in Everett’s many worlds theory, the individual’s life branches off into multiple possibilities, some tending toward goodness (positive Y axis), others toward evil (negative Y axis). The branching off portions of this graph take the form of what is known as a piece-wise function, in which multiple functions are strung together into a single relation. [8] Though it may seem problematic that some functions occupy the same domain (X values), this is ameliorated by the linear trajectory: an individual can’t be on two paths at once, but he or she can choose which path to take. All of these choices are affected by the same initial conditions, or causes, yet their ending effects are so different, hence emphasizing the decision making process via free will.

From the onset, the first choice doesn’t seem to generate much difference in goodness outcome: perhaps the pivotal choice was as simple as deciding to become an accountant or a salesman (not to undermine the importance of variances in business careers). However, after pivotal choice two, at around 1 life experience, the situation changes: the green C 1.2 and the dark blue C 1.1 seem to be mirror images of each other (as if to show the real parallels of parallel universes). By pivotal choice 3, at about 1.5 life experience, a new choice emerges: the red MLK path, titled thusly for its lofty goodness outcome, as per the 1960s civil rights’ leader.

By pivotal choice 5, at about 2.6 life experience things get dicey: C 1.2 forks into 3 branches: purple C 5 converge, green C 1.2, and light blue Delinquent Path, so called because of its depths of moral depravity. This choice 5 might be whether or not sell cocaine to pay the bills for that YACHT you thought that you could afford. In this case, D is yes, C 1.2 is no, and C 5 conv. is unveiling the minor cocaine smuggling ring to the police. Importantly, C 5 conv, is a converging path: it forms back up with C 1.2, such that the goodness outcomes are the same either way. This, I think, is a very reassuring message, since it states that sometimes, our decision will turn out well even between two different, albeit similar, choices. Notice again how the purple C 5 conv. path emerges at decision 11, after what I term the “sequence of rapid pivotal choices,” (points 7-10) only to converge again. Perhaps some alternate dimensions are inexplicably linked.

The sequence of rapid pivotal choices is about as close as this model comes to the causation of determinism: each pivotal action gives rise to the next; however, the individual can still choose different options, as the decisions aren’t locked in among this liberating wonderland of realized possibilities, each existing within its own spawned parallel universe, yet capable of converging back in on another path, as in C 5 conv.

This mathematically modeling aims to illustrate how multiple OUTPUTs can arise out of one set of initial conditions, resulting in moral decline or magnanimous ascent to ethical righteousness, all through the vehicle of the all important free will.


While the explanation of free will through mathematics and science delves deep into the process of choice, none of this has much currency if we don’t know why we should care. Theology offers that why in abundance.

As stated before, I am frustrated by the determinist notion of unbridled 1-to-1 causation because it removes the relevance of morality, the very premise of which is the human ability to choose actions and behaviors, either for good or for evil. Christian theology maintains that free will is paramount in human interaction, and that it allows us to live happy and fulfilling lives in line with God’s love as revealed through Scripture. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states regarding freedom:

1730 God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.” [9]

Who doesn’t want to feel free to choose their own actions? Isn’t that a large part of why teenagers rebel against their parents, of why the Thirteen Colonies fought against the British? Free will is clearly important to how we live our lives, and it does seem practical to act under the assumption that we CAN and DO elect our own actions, through our own volition NOT through a pre-designed set of causes. However, even within the realm of theology, there are ideas that seem to conflict with free will.


Predestination is the belief that the final destination of each human soul is preordained and known by God, as are all other events. It is primarily attributed to the 16th century Swiss-French reformer John Calvin. [10] This view does not hold up entirely to the Catholic understanding of salvation history and God’s plan for us. While God certainly knows all things, God does NOT necessarily will all things to happen: God does not pull every last puppets’ strings, as it were, from a Catholic stand point. People have a free will, and can therefore make decisions unfettered as they will. St. Paul, however, warns against the unbridled license of doing whatever one wants with this God-endowed free will:

[ The Believer’s Freedom ] “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. (1 Corinthians 10:23, NIV, 2011)
Having freedom, like having a pet dog, means big responsibility, with many potential accidents waiting to happen. This only seeks to further solidify the significance of choosing from a number of possible options or paths, such that goodness is obtained.
Although Catholic teaching grants people free will, such that they can determine their own fate, God still knows what their fate will be. Some argue that God’s omnipotence clashes with human free will. However, apologist Fr. Vincent Serpa O. P. thinks otherwise:
There is nothing to reconcile. Because you know that the sun will be in the sky tomorrow doesn’t mean that you will have caused it to be there! Even though God already knows what our free choices will be in the future, our choices are still ours and are still free. If our free choices change how the future will be, God already knows that and has known it for all eternity.[11]
Though God knows what we will do, it does not infringe on our ability to choose. Everyone knows that given the opportunity to play soccer or baseball, I always choose soccer; I still get to make that decision, of course. We are the agents of our actions, no matter that God knows what those actions will be.
Theologically speaking, free will is an incredibly vital topic which I could discuss in far greater detail. This seems to suffice for an understanding of ‘why’ free will is important and non-contradictory within the scope of Catholic thought.


In the scientific realm, free will also musters a surprising amount of vigor among scientists. While scientists as a whole do not place much credence in theological approaches to questions of human nature (42% of scientists do not believe [note that 25% identify as agnostic] in the existence of a personal God according to a 2009 Pew Research Poll), matters beyond the experimental purview of scientific empiricism still way heavily upon them. Evolutionary biologists are especially opposed to religious interference with science, as Graffin and Provine report that 78% of biologists surveyed in 2003 Cornell Study thought that religion and science should remain distinctly separate spheres. In the study, the majority of biologists rejected religious belief in question after question. YET when it came down to the existence of free will among humans, the researches may as well have been standing on their heads. Graffin and Provine explain:

Darwin concludes in the last sentence of the book[The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication], “we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination.” Darwin, however, had solved the problem of free will more than 30 years earlier; he believed it was nonexistent.

To our surprise, 79 percent of the respondents chose option A for this question, indicating their belief that people have free will despite being determined by heredity and environment.

The professional debate about free will has moved far from this position, because what counts is whether the choice is free or determined, not whether human beings make choices. People and animals both certainly choose constantly. [12]

A new bastion for free will coalesces through this surprising agreement between theologians and evolutionary biologists, for whom “what counts” is “whether the choice is free or determined.” There is a particular wing of this evolutionary biology that applies both to me and to this argument of free will: twin studies.


Twin studies are near and dear to hearts of many an evolutionary biologist for one main reason: they set as a given the same genetic make


up of two identical twins, thus eliminating the variable of genes. This is especially useful in studying the debate of nature v. nurture, as nature becomes a given for two identical twins. I think that this same elusive genetic likeness can be applied to the free will controversy by setting given INPUTS as the same for two individuals.

To start: I am a twin. My brother and I have been roommates for nearly 19 years straight, from womb to dorm. Consequently, we have eerily similar personal experiences, and nearly identical pivotal choices. What school to attend, what clubs to join, what classes to take–all the important decisions have been shared. If we negate the simple choices (choice of lunch, hair style, minor friendships), my brother and I are a scientific experimental ideal: two individuals with effectively the same givens, the same circumstances, the same INPUTS. Now, observe the OUTPUT.

Imagine the graph of the free will function again (or just scroll up). A single line slides along the graph, mostly stable, until it reaches a critical juncture. This is where my twin brother and I must decide what we are to study in college. My brother and I, like most ordinary twins, have very similar interests: we both play soccer, we both read, we both excel in school. If determinism is right, all of our similar causes should lead up to one shared effect at this juncture. There are many options for both of us–(engineering, humanities, science, art)–that, the determinists will admit. But can we really choose, or have our past experience (one shared experience) locked us in to the same choice? With all other things equal, I chose to study English, and my twin brother (with effectively the same INPUT) chose engineering. It could have just as easily been the other way around (I still like math, as per the above graphs, and my brother is an avid reader of David Foster Wallace). Yet in this instance, our collective path diverged into two.

Some would say that there were enough differences between my brother and I to set out single-stream, 1-to-1, predetermined cause and effect chain along different routes. However, I think that this study into this pivotal choice of identical twins is convincing experimental evidence that supports the case for human free will. Unless time travel becomes feasible and we can literally replay the option selection of an individual, I don’t think that the determinist-free will debate can be resolved definitively. It was worth a shot.


Even if determinism is correct, and we all are pre-programmed to make decisions along a rickety chain of one cause to one effect, I think that the whole notion of “no free will” is a MOOT POINT. No matter what, we all have to make tough decisions, and knowing that the outcome is predetermined since the Big Bang doesn’t help us to weasel out of our predicaments. Free will, if only a falsehood, governs our lives. Perhaps scientists AND Descartes are right: given enough information, anyone’s actions can be predicted to a tee. So long as all previous causes are known a guy in a lab coat should be able to tell me when I’m gonna hiccup and in what exact order I trace my footsteps across a college quad. I don’t think that’s likely. I’m prone to thinking that things could turn out one way or entirely a different way, once we reach a crossroads. To end on a point of literature, the French-Algerian novelist Albert Camus once wrote a book called L’Estrange (The Stranger), in which a character encounters many pivotal choices and acts like a grade-D lunatic with his free will, half-heartedly attending his mother’s funeral and shooting to death an intimidating but unprovoked Arab. While in prison recounting his choices, Meursault, the aforementioned lunatic says this:

“Yes, it was the hour when, a long time ago, I was perfectly content. What awaited me back then was always a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet something has changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day…as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent.” (Part II, Chapter 3)

Thank you so much for bearing through all of this. It was a joy to write. I finished at 6:32 AM, writing all through the night. And that was a choice.

Cum Caritate,


Print Sources:

[3] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, “Meditation Four: Concerning the True and the False,” (1641).

[12] Graffin, Gregory W., and William B. Provine. “Evolution, religion and free will: the most eminent evolutionary scientists have surprising views on how religion relates to evolution.” American Scientist 95.4 (2007): 294+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.

Busy, Busy, Busy

clock-rush-hour-clipartIn Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, a satirical story concerning modern society, religion, and science, there’s this phrase busy, busy, busy that comes up a few times. The narrator explains that it’s said “whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.” [1] In this way, the narrator just dismisses the unfathomable busy-ness of the world and chooses not to bother himself with it. That’s one approach.

But I’ve got a gripe with people being busy. Everyone from my best friend to the guy grilling up my fast-food seems to be in a constant rush. We’re caught doing ten things at once, weaving laundry lists of to-dos, and locking ourselves into a go, go, go mindset. And when it comes time to relax, many people I know claim that they “don’t have the time.” Well, time isn’t really that elusive of a thing: it’s always there, the secondhand still spinning. It’s only a matter of making time, finding time, allocating time to various pursuits. For many people, all the time gets delineated towards the rush of frantic business.

The rush used to govern my life. It still does, just to a lesser degree. I like to think of it as a guideline rather than a codified system of governance. I’ve been in such a rush recently that I delayed writing this blog post for four whole days!

Lucky for me, I’ve starting to fight off the busy feelings and learned to settle down a little bit. That wasn’t so much the case a few days ago. That era breathed with busy, busy, business.

I was running, nothing less than a headlong sprint. My surroundings blurred past me, looking like those wacky paintings smeared with odd colors. I’m surprised that I didn’t trip.

By the time that I’d arrived at my destination, I was panting. I sped past a few people, who themselves walked deliberately, and found my seat in a massive auditorium. I was late.

The music sounded a while after that. Readings were read, more hymns sung. Everything seemed a blur. In my head, I was planning out my day—books to be read, websites to be visited. After the communal procession I sat down to hear a series of speeches that would center me a little more, forcing me to reconsider the whole rushing notion.

A vigorous old man delivered the first speech. He spoke of how all these different parts work collectively in a whole and how we all benefit from setting aside our individual desires to take part in one body. He said that we can’t attribute to ourselves all the hasty good that we do, that the real source of good is found elsewhere. Honesty, modesty, and charity were what he preached. The mental formation of my daily plans began to slow, as I honed in on the speaker.

The next man was a white-haired provost, dressed in long red vestments. He spoke about how everyone in the auditorium was a bunch of praise-worthy overachievers, how we had all of these activities going on, how one of us was part of 25 student organizations—twenty-five!

But amidst all that rush, he reminded us, we ought not to forget everything else going on. We ought not to let the simple things of life just pass by in the haze of meetings, classes, tryouts, and accolade grabbing. I was hooked. I don’t want life to pass me by! How am I to enjoy the journey and not worry chiefly about the destination, as my mother has oft told me?

This was his simple proposal: Stop for a moment and listen. Truly listen to what someone else has to say. Listen with intent. Grasp every word, holding it in your mind a while, chewing it over.

So I tried that, when I found the time (not had, found). I was drawn into a chapel by a euphony of piano chords. At the grand piano sat an entranced man, tapping away at the ivory keys.

I recognized this man from amidst my daily rush. I remembered his name because it was truly one-of-a-kind. Jesus-is-Lord, he is called.

“Hey, Jesus-is-Lord,” I yelled over the rift of music. He stopped, removing some ear buds from the side of his head.

“Hey, what’s up?” his smile said. And then we talked. And I listened for a long time.

He told me about how music praises God, and how he improvises these streams of chords into a spiritual expression. It helps him to center to himself, he told me. It lets him slow down.

I just tried that trick that I had learned from listening to Jesus-is-Lord minutes ago, actually. I had many other things to do, but I found a piano and played (granted, I have played before). My wrists are sore. There is much left to do. But in abandoning the rush I feel the real rush, the rush of God’s spirit inspiring my interactions. I used to live in what mostly felt like an electric field of busy, busy, busy. Now I feel a little more like I’m floating along a stream, taking in the setting as I go. Never have I been happier.

1. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle, “Dynamite Money,” (New York: Delacorte Press, 1963), 61.

Thinking About It. . .

I just finished reading some blog posts by a Catholic apologist named Matt Fradd that dealt with the conflict between atheism and science and God. In the comments section was a number of posts from both the theist and atheist sides of the fence. Reading the comments, I felt sad. “Why can’t we all just stop fighting about God and just live our lives peacefully?” I wanted to ask. “Instead of arguing about cerebral theological concepts, why don’t you go take out the garbage or call your mother or address any other number of immediate concerns?” was another question that I wished to enter into the fray of mud-slinging and high sophistry. Promoting human well-being—isn’t that what we should focus on? Or, I don’t know, seeking good in the world—isn’t that more important that arguing about beliefs that are just way out there?

Now that I think about it more, I guess that the definitions of “good” and “human well-being” and how you go about promoting those critical fields rest upon the existence of God. If there is no God, can we still trust the Bible’s rendition of how to live a good life? If God does exist, should we even worry about enjoying earthly life if salvation, or alternatively, perdition waits around the bend, the distance to which is infinitely small if those fates last for all eternity? This is some heavy stuff, and like many people, I often just don’t want to deal with it.

But at some point, we do have to deal with it. Death, the prevalence of suffering, the absence of apparent purpose, and so many other dilemmas force us to dip into the theological well-spring, or else reject it to reach toward science or philosophy as our guide to addressing these tough issues. When it comes down to it, we all have to live our lives. We all probably die. I don’t know, since I never have felt the terrifying clutch of death. For that matter, how do I even know that my foot won’t fall through the floor when I take my next step? Well, now here I go, jumping onto the loony train of epistemological thought.

I suppose that if I want to live life practically, I have to assume some things. For example, that gravity will continue to operate as it has for the last 19 years of my experience, or that the people with whom I interact aren’t just robots, and maybe, too, that there is a loving being who is directing everything in line with some kind of plan. Is it really that outrageous to make that jump? Am I an imbecile for assuming, just as I assume that my parents really love me, that God is out there, that God made everything, and that God grants us a little peace of mind by ensuring the continuity of our souls? Does that make me a lunatic? And, conversely, are people off their rockers if they think otherwise? If someone thinks that God didn’t make the universe and that spirituality exists as a figment of our imaginations, is that person bonkers?

No. But to return to the comments section of Matt Fradd’s posts, there were a score of people who had gone bananas. Just complete bananas. All of this bantering and scoffing at others’ beliefs. Were these people posting without hardly thinking?

Yeah. I think that some of them were. And this is really the point for me. If you’re going to belief something, think it out. I don’t mean lengthen your arguments in favor of it in a way to justify it. I mean take it to task. Take it back to the drawing board and scribble all over it. With the pen of the opposition. Consider the fullness of what you are saying, the critiques and rebuttals. And then, no matter what you believe, I can respect that. I would hope that it would benefit the greater good, but if it doesn’t I know that you have thought it through. I will still disagree with you and argue my side, but I will be open to your input and criticism, and you ought to be open to my own, if you really are receptive to the critical process that hopefully formed your beliefs. If you aren’t, I’ll call your views lazy. Who knows? You might just change my mind. But you have to think, really think, before you even try.

Cum Caritate et Cogitatione (With love and thought)


Division: Hard in Third Grade, Still Hard Now

Disagreeing with people is a tough business. It’s much more comforting to just go along, equivocate, and lock away one’s opinions without stirring up conflict. So when my loud and loquacious priest spoke about a divisive chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel at mass today, I expected a wave a discomfort to sweep across the pews.

The passage was Lk 12: 49-53, which concerns Jesus’ message of bringing division to earth. To start, the priest centered upon the initial image of fire in verse 49, already a bit unsettling:

“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Fire obviously carries much symbolic weight in the Bible from the burning bush of Exodus 3 to the Pentecostal flame of Acts 2. In this case, it is a fire of discomfort, one lit beneath us to cause division. The line that really hit home for me, though, was verse 51:

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

I mean, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, right? But as the pastor continued his homily, I realized that the division that Jesus was talking about wasn’t of the malicious, war-mongering kind. Instead, this was a division inspired by righteousness. The division that divides father against son and mother against daughter is neither an absolute separation nor an extreme departure from the loving relationship between these people. They are not divided in the heart. Instead, the division is embodied in the courage to stand up for what one’s beliefs. It is a temporary division, a challenge to someone, perhaps a father or son or mother or daughter, whose actions run counter to Christ’s message. This division is the compassion directed at someone who has strayed from the path. You divide yourself from the lost lamb’s views, address the harmful behavior, and attempt to bring the departed back to the proper road. Disagreement and conflict arise from this division only to redirect someone on a path toward God.

The priest offered this fantastically appropriate example to illustrate the division about which Christ speaks. While sitting in a coffee shop, he overheard two college students talking about their weekend. One expatiated upon all of the drunken ecstasy she had enjoyed while indulging in alcohol. The other listened and then said that she thought the way they were spending their weekends wasn’t right and that they should focus more on studying. The other suddenly got defensive (the division), and so the two exited the shop in somewhat of a high dudgeon.

But as the priest explained, the two will need to reconsider their friendship and views after this moment of division. They are not necessarily set against each other as enemies. Instead, division leads both of them towards righteousness by forcing them to reevaluate and reflect upon their different views with the ultimate hope of coming together in a common love for God. This is what Jesus is saying about his message right here: disagree and open up dialogues to direct others toward faith. Christ tells us not to sit by passively; rather, he enlists us to go out and spread the Gospel through compassionate dialogue, which will cleave some from their views. Just like dividing 35,576 by 42, this stuff can be hard, but in the case of the latter, doing so is necessary to promote goodness for oneself and for others, too.

Thanks for reading.

Cum Caritas