Mary Poppins and Hopium

Mary Poppins: A Deus Ex Machina

The following material is extracted from the manuscript of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits.

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Mary Poppins

Last week may family and I saw the movie Mary Poppins Returns. We had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I had not seen the original Mary Poppins, so I was only vaguely familiar with the story line.

As I am sure that most of you know, Mary Poppins is a governess who floats down from the sky to help families in distress. Then, once she has sorted out their problems, she floats back into the sky to await the next movie release, I suppose.

The term deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) is used in drama to describe an action or event that comes from outside the plot and that resolves the difficulties in which the characters are enmeshed. The fictional character Mary Poppins is an example of a deus ex machina. On page 81 we discussed Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ concept. Mary Poppins can be seen as a ‘White Swan’.

Wilkins Micawber
Wilkins Micawber

On page 10 (of the book) I describe the philosophy of the wonderful Dickens character, Wilkins Micawber. He is always on the edge of bankruptcy, but he is always cheerful and hopeful. One of his stock phrases that he uses in response to the crisis du jour is, “Something will come up”. He trusts that a Mary Poppins, a deus ex machina, will come to rescue him.

I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be more beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if -if, in short, anything turns up.

Now, the Mary Poppins movie and the Micawber character are both fictional, and not to be taken too seriously. But, on a more somber note, when faced with the realities of resource depletion and climate change many people have a similar response. They acknowledge the nature of our predicaments, but they say that, “Something” — they don’t know what it is — “will come up”. The something may be a new technology, it may be a new source of energy, or it may be the latest political initiative.

Hopium

The optimists may be right — maybe something will, in fact, come up. But the term for this attitude is not hope, it is “hopium”. (It’s the response that many investors have when they own a stock that is going down in value — they hang on in the hope that the situation will somehow improve.)

Those who take the attitude of “something will come up” do have some historical basis for their claim. For example, in the book SuperFreakonmics the authors Levitt and Dubner talk about the horse manure problem that large cities faced at the end of the 19th century. Horses were used for all types of transportation: streetcars, wagons, carriages all had to be pulled by horses. The book says,

The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?

. . . in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure.

The problem was so severe that a ten day conference was organized to try and come up with solutions. After three days the conference was ended because no progress was being made.

The solution to the problem was, of course, the introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile. Within a very short period of time motorized cars, trucks and streetcars replaced the horses and the “peak dung” problem simply went away. Of course, we now face the pollution problems created by automobiles.

The following points should be noted about the horse manure predicament.

  1. It was not solved by people trying to work out a solution. The solution seemed to come out of nowhere.
  2. It was not solved by tuning the existing system, for example by finding ways of needing fewer horses in the cities, or trying to develop more continent horses.
  3. Government intervention was not a factor, nor were government actions such as modifying tax codes or writing regulations to do with horse management.

So maybe someone will come up with an invention that converts the Age of Limits predicament into a problem. For example, if someone were to develop an electric battery that could store 100 times the energy of the batteries now in use the world would change in a hurry. The recent increase in production in the United States as a result of “fracking” is certainly making a short-term difference to the American economy. New technology can help.

But just relying on such a breakthrough is irresponsible. New technologies and new initiatives will use energy, and the First Law tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Then the Second Law tells us that all of our activities, no matter what they are, will increase system entropy.

Overthrowing the Tables of Technology

Jesus overthrowing the tables in the Temple as an analogy for religion overthrowing the authority of science and technology.

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.

Matthew 21: 12

We have seen in earlier chapters how the success of science works has marginalized religion‘s role in explaining how the world works. The development of scientific principles, followed by the astounding growth in industry over the course of the last 300 years has firmly established the authority of science and technology as a means of explaining the world around us. Over the course of the last five centuries we have seen the following events such as the following unfold.

  • Galileo said that the earth, the moon and the planets are all made of the same material. There is no quintessence. Later, we learned that we ourselves are also made of earthly materials. We are not special. There is no physical City of God.
  • Copernicus told us that our earth is not at the center of the solar system. We are live on a small planet orbiting an average star. We are not special.
  • Charles Darwin delivered probably the most devastating blow to our self-esteem. He said that we are not the pinnacle of life, nor do we represent the culmination of evolution. We have evolved, just like all other species. Darwin stated that evolution favors the survival of the most adaptable (not the fittest). There is nothing inherently special about having a big brain, or in being able to control fire, or in being able to manage large groups through the use of writing and money. It just so happens that these attributes worked very well for our species during the 10,000 years of the Holocene to such an extent that we have radically altered it. Maybe those attributes will be a handicap in the coming Anthropocene. Species do not evolve toward some type of pinnacle; they merely evolve to meet changing circumstances. We will see how adaptable we are when faced with the world that we have created.

But now, as we enter the Age of Limits, science is losing its prestige.

The over-turning of the tables in the Temple as described in all four gospels provides an analogy. While no one would claim that science and technology are corrupt in the manner of the merchants in the Temple, we nevertheless see that we have corrupted our planet; science and technology have stumbled, and stumbled badly. This gives an opportunity for the religious community to provide leadership in explaining what is going on, and in coming up with responses that work.

In Chapter 2 saw how van Doren explained Augustine’s response to the catastrophic events of the early 5th century by contrasting the City of Man with the City of God. He and the other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of the City of God. In doing so they created the theology of the medieval church. This project culminated in the works of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

What Thomas Aquinas had tried to do was to resolve the question of the two cities, the one of God and the other of Man, which had lain at the heart of theological speculation for a thousand years. Augustine had viewed them as in eternal conflict. Thomas tried to bring them together in peace. In effect, he tried to write a single constitution for both cities that contained no internal contradictions. He tried harder than anyone ever had, and he was the greatest thinker to do so. But he failed.

The great intellectual challenge of the Middle Ages — understanding the nature of the City of God — lost its momentum and was replaced by the energy, insights and excitement of natural science: physics, chemistry and biology. Theology was no longer the Queen of Sciences.

We, in our time, are at a similar juncture. But this time it is the other way around. Science is losing its authority; the sense of never-ending material progress is being challenged on all sides and we are wrecking the environment and do not know how to extract ourselves from the morass that we have created. So maybe the time has come to develop a theology and a way of life that addresses the situation in which we find ourselves. So, maybe now is the time for Christians to show leadership. It has happened before. Leaders such as St. Augustine and Benedict of Nursia led western society through the Dark Ages that followed the decline of the Roman Empire. Can we repeat?