Yet another story about transformations (part 1)

based on an untitled image by Ralf Kunze:
based on an untitled image by Ralf Kunze
Tim Wood joins us this week. He has had articles, interviews, reviews, profiles, poetry and fiction published in various places. He serves as an editor for GrandViaduct press and previously was publisher of artsDFW: the monthly guide to the arts in Dallas, editor for Negations: an Interdisciplinary Journal of Social Criticism and has been cited in The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Physics and has completed course work for a Masters in Humanities. Follow him on twitter: @4til7.

When Joe asked me to contribute, he was pretty open ended about what I could write. He suggested I could share my testimony. The short version of that is that I went off to college and had some long talks about Gd0 with several people and I ended up praying the sinner's prayer. Which isn't much of a story. Certainly not an exciting one involving divine light (although I ran into that latter) or the many other things that can crop in conversion stories. It did turn my life upside down and fundamentally changed who I was. I changed so much over the following months that most people forgot what I used to be like. While there's a place for conversion stories, I thought I'd tell a different story.

It begins with Gregory of Nyssa, or more specifically a piece he wrote on "The Life of Moses." Gregory lived in the fourth century and, like all of us, he had strengths (he was important in the history of the church) and he had weaknesses. One of his weaknesses is that he wasn't a mathematician. He argued that since Gd was infinite, he was "circumscribed by no limit": "if [Gd] were thought to have a boundary, this would imply the existence of a limit distinct in character from itself." While I agree with Gregory about the existence of Gd, he's wrong in his understanding of the infinite.1

The catch is there isn't one kind of infinity. As one of my high school teachers put it, there are many kinds of infinity. Some are bigger than others. Most are constrained in some way. As I learned in college, there are "unbounded" infinities and "bounded" infinities. If I walk in a circle, I can literally walk forever and never reach the end of the circle ... as long as I stay on the circle. My walk, and that circle, is a bounded infinity. While it is endless, it has a limit.

Switching to the idea of god —granting god for the sake of argument— there is a sense where we, plants, animals and the universe as a whole are in some sense distinct from god. As Gregory says, "that whatever limits is greater than that which it encloses."2 Even if one imagines a Gd that "encloses" everything else, that doesn't mean god is everything and is, if you will, some ultimate infinity that is unbounded all-encompassing.

There's a sense where nothing can be all-encompassing. At some point, every child realizes Santa's toy sack has to be bottomless. It doesn't matter how many toys you throw into Santa's sack, it holds them all. But, no matter how many toys you throw in Santa's sack, there's always something more: the sack itself. No set, no matter how big can include itself. In mathematics, they call this the incompleteness theorem: a set can't contain itself. It seems an unbounded all-encompassing infinity is an illusion.

But this is where the story gets interesting...

Watch for part two next Thursday

0 - Many English language bibles, use "GOD" which is distinct enough from "god" to, functionally, be a separate word that specifically refers to the monotheistic god described in the Bible. When I use "Gd", I'm adopting the Jewish custom of not spelling out the proper name of god.
1 - Gregory of Nyssa, "The Life of Moses" in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Bernard McGinn editor and translator, p18.
2 - Ibid
3 - Thank you for reading the footnotes and discovering that the title is a bit of a play on words referring to mathematics, spirituality and computer science but not the number 42.


Interesting topic Tim. Thanks for posting. I look forward to the continuation
Jason Pratt said…
Nice to see GregoryNys referenced! Good start. {g}


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