Translucent Yet Powerful

Translucent Yet Powerful

Easter 23

The 1937 Nobel Prize fo4r Medicine was awarded to a Hungarian biochemist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. He is noted for a great many things but I think his definition of water is the best. “Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”

Water is necessary for all living things, animal or vegetable and sadly it is not as abundant as the world needs. Water became the answer when on man sought to discover what the world was made of by rational thought. Known as Thales of Miletus, he is considered to be the first philosopher. Because water is essential to all living things, Thales reasoned that everything must be derived from it. Water exists in several forms: solid when cold; a gas when heated; liquid in what most consider its natural state. From this beginning and the reasoning of Thales of Miletus comes the modern theory that all matter can be reduced to energy.

The Tao philosopher Lao Tzu also considered the philosophical properties of water in the sixth century BCE. “Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet, when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant; the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it.”

Thales reasoned that the earth grew out of the water that surrounded the land masses. Over seventy-one percent of the earth’s mass is water, after all. His student Anaximander reasoned that the earth must float on air. If water supported the earth, he asked, what supported the water? Anaximander believed everything could be reduced to air. While neither man was correct, their argument/counterargument form of deduction still forms the basis for philosophical thought and discussion today.

OF course, though, philosophy encourages questioning and someone did just that after Thales and Anaximander. Heraclitus proposed a “theory of opposites”. He believed that rather than everything being derived from a single element, there was an underlying principle of change. The world to him consisted of opposing tendencies. His argument to support this theory was the basic fact that the path that went up a mountain was the same path that went down the mountain. Another analogy was the fact the while a river remains constant, the water within it is constantly moving and flowing. Heraclitus proposed that the reality we see as constant is really a reality of processes and changes.

Later Xenophanes would suggest that the knowledge we claim to know is just a hypothesis. Our searches for knowledge start from working hypotheses but the actual ultimate knowledge, the “truth of reality” will always be beyond our grasp to understand. Xenophanes believed in a cosmic composition of life, based upon two extremes – wet and dry. He combined the Milesian ideas of air and water with Heraclitus’ views of opposites and used fossils to support his theories. This was the first evidence-based argument recorded.

Philosophy would not remain in this mode of thinking for long. It would evolve into theories based upon something being everything and nothing being impossible to be something. We’ll save that for another day, though. What we should focus on today as we start Monday is whether or not we are one element or living in a state of contrasting opposites.

Night falls at different times on the earth as the planet revolves through its orbit around the sun. Just as the timing of the night is different so does what nighttime looks like. For the child growing up in a refugee camp, night might be a period of cooler temps but scary flashes of light indicating mortar rounds being fired. For the child snug in their bed in Paris, the City of Lights, nighttime is a warm blanket and a calming bedtime story.

Today I heard a story about a school-aged child whose class went on an over-night field trip to a state camp. The two-day excursion included nature walks and environmental lessons. The child’s class was to be the last to experience such a visit as the camp was deemed inefficient with a delinquent revenue stream. Sitting around the campfire, the children listened to the sounds of the night. Two weeks later, as he closed down the program and prepared for his next job, the director of the program received an envelope of thank-you notes from that last class.

The drawings of the various birds, and other wildlife discussed he had expected but it was the simple handwritten note of a young girl that truly touched him. “Thank you,” she wrote, “for showing me what creation is really about. I liked the walking, the trees, the flowers, and learning how to reuse things. I liked seeing the baby rabbits and although it was scary, even the snake in the grass on the trail. My favorite, though, was learning that nighttime can be nice. At my house I cannot see the stars. I see the restaurant signs. We don’t have quiet on our block. We hear cars and sometimes, gunshots. At camp, I got to see the stars and hear the quiet and then the call of the night animals. What I saw at camp was creation. Bobby next door calls it Allah and my grandma calls it God. I am just going to call it life. Thank you for showing me what life can be.”

We all see life each and every day. Like the water Lao Tzu spoke of, life can sometimes attack us and we might feel we cannot withstand it. With knowledge though, and thought, we can learn to be flexible and by being flexible, gain strength. Knowledge is power when applied properly. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr summed it up: “Science investigates religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control.”