Jolo: Bombs at the Cathedral

Jolo’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish lost 15 of its members Sunday morning. They stopped living when a bomb shredded part of the cathedral.

Maybe they survived the first blast, but not the second. Either way, they’re dead. So are five soldiers.

I’m not nearly as upset as I would be if this had happened in my town. But I’m upset, just the same. I’m also trying to see this as a time to remember that I’m expected to love God and my neighbors — and see everybody as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2537; Catechism, 1789)

A “Good Community”

(From Google Maps, used w/o permission.)
(Satellite view of Jolo, Sulu, Philippines.)

Jolo is the capital of Sulu province, home to around 125,500 folks, and one of many municipalities not covered by Street View on Google Maps.

The closest ‘street view’ area I found was Zamboanga City, Mindanao, about a hundred miles northeast of Jolo.

Jolo is a little like my home town, if I think of Fargo-Moorhead as a single urban entity. The population is about the same as Fargo-Moorhead’s when I last lived there. Both are regionally-prominent spots in a country’s outlying regions.

On the other hand, Fargo’s current temperature is 4° Fahrenheit/-16 C. At midday. In Jolo it’s 79° Fahrenheit/26 C, and two in the morning. If I unexpectedly woke up in Jolo, it wouldn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t in the Upper Midwest any more.

Regional cultures and histories are different, too. About six centuries back now, folks from the Middle East arrived in Jolo. I’m not sure how the first meetings went. By 1405 or so, Jolo was part of the Sultanate of Sulu and officially Muslim.

My guess is that the local’s first encounters with foreign traders came much earlier. The city’s name, Jolo, apparently comes from ho lâng and ho ló, “good people” and “good community.” The names speak volumes, I think, of the folks living there and the Chinese traders. Traders noticed that material they left unattended on the shore was still there when they returned.

Time passed, Ferdinand Magellan showed up in 1521 and said the Philippine islands belonged to Spain. Spain’s occupation forces followed, successfully held northern parts of the archipelago, but not the Sultanates.

Jolo kept being a regionally-important port city. That probably helps explain why so many folks there have Chinese ancestors, who learned the local language — mostly in Singapore.

Spanish authorities tried solving their Muslim problem by burning Jolo in 1876. They followed up by building the smallest walled city in the world — a distinction of sorts — possibly as a defense against other European forces who wanted a piece of the action.

The United States acquired Spain’s claim to the Philippines in 1876, following traditional European habits for a while. We’ve learned quite a bit since then. What not to do, partly.

These days, about 90% of the folks in and around Jolo are Muslims. Quite a few of the others are Christians of one sort or another, and that brings me to Sunday’s news.1

Death in the Cathedral

(From Huw Evans picture agency/Philippine army/AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The bomb attack devastated the church in Jolo”
(BBC News))

Jolo church attack: Many killed in Philippines
BBC News (January 27, 2019)

Two bombs at a Roman Catholic cathedral in southern Philippines have killed 20 people and injured dozens more, local officials say.

“The Islamic State (IS) group said it was behind the attack on Jolo island, where jihadist groups are active.

“The first blast happened as Sunday Mass was being celebrated. A second device exploded outside as soldiers responded….

“…The local officials say the first blast happened at 08:45 local time (00:45 GMT) inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which has been hit by bombs in the past.

“The second explosion was shortly afterwards on the doorstep of the church.

“Police initially put the death toll at 27 but later lowered it to 20, saying there was double counting in earlier official reports….”

I’ve got mixed feelings about what happened in Jolo. Mostly, I’m angry and upset over the deaths and destruction. That makes ‘weeping with those who weep’ a bit easier.

“Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
(Romans 12:1415)

Blessing folks who do this sort of thing — that’s probably easier for me than it is for folks closer to the attack. Even so, it’s not easy. But it’s still a good idea.

From my viewpoint, killing folks at Our Lady of Mount Carmel is “senseless.”

That doesn’t keep me from realizing that others have their own perspectives.

Apparently an IS statement describes Sunday’s target as a “crusader temple.”

I can see how someone living in Jola might see a Christian church or cathedral in that light. Folks who decided to cooperate with the Sultanate of Sulu, back in 1405, might not have been insisted that later generations remember their pre-Islamic roots.

In any case, six centuries is a long time. Long enough for family memories to get a tad fuzzy. The area’s more recent history hasn’t helped the situation either. My opinion.

Between conflicts of the Hatfield-McCoy variety, turf and autonomy issues and a succession of occupation forces, there’s a smorgasbord of local and regional tensions.2

“Deep Indignation”

(From Philippine army/AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The first bomb went off in or near the cathedral of Jolo, followed by a second blast outside the compound as government forces were responding to the attack”
(Al Jazeera))

Philippines church bombing: Twin blasts hit Jolo cathedral
Al Jazeera (January 27, 2019)

ISIL claims responsibility for the attacks that killed 20 people and wounded more than 100.

“…Sunday’s incident claimed the lives of at least 15 civilians and five soldiers, police said, adding that 111 others were wounded….

“…President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo condemned the ‘act of terrorism’ and vowed that government forces will pursue the perpetrators of the attack.

“‘The Armed Forces of the Philippines will rise to the challenge and crush these godless criminals,’ he said.

“Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, said he expressed ‘the firmest reproach’ for this episode of violence. As too did Yousef Al-Othaimeen, the head of the OIC, the world’s largest body of Muslim-majority countries, who said he expressed ‘deep indignation’ over the bombings….”

I figure someone, somewhere, has decided that Francis and Yousef are in cahoots, or Satanic stooges, or space-alien shape-shifting lizard-men. Or something equally colorful and unlikely.

There’s something oddly appealing about conspiracy theories. I find them appealing, sometimes, in stories. What’s odd, maybe, is how many folks take them seriously. And that’s another topic.3

Back to death, destruction and Jola; sympathizing with folks in the Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish isn’t hard. We share the same faith, and apparently at least one of the same devotional habits.

The photo used by both BBC News and Al Jazeera shows a Divine Mercy picture between two stations of the cross. I’m not involved in Sauk Centre’s Divine Mercy devotional group, but I do spend about an hour a week at the chapel. (October 15, 2017)

One of these days I may talk about how paying attention to Jesus and what our Lord said isn’t idolatry, but not today.

America and the Kilkenny Cats

Frothing radio preachers denouncing the ‘whore of Babylon’ helped me become a Catholic. Decades later, I may understand their viewpoint a little better; and even have a sort of sympathy for them.

They may have seen ‘those Catholics’ as foreign agents, in thrall to a diabolical mastermind: a fifth column threat to their “Christian” America.

Never mind that, as a Catholic, I’m expected to recognize legitimate civil authority and be a good citizen. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 18971917)

Remembered rants of yesteryear help me understand why some folks in the Philippines might think bombing a “crusader temple” is a good idea.

Understanding motives, or trying to, is one thing. Thinking that spitting venom is a good idea, or applauding mass murder, is another.

In a way, I’m impressed that there isn’t more bloodshed in Jolla. Counting the cathedral, I found a half-dozen provocative landmarks within a mile of the city’s center.

There’s the Tulay and Abu Harris mosques, a Sacred Heart of Jesus Chapel, and — right next to the Kasanyangan Mosque — the Notre Dame of Jolo School for Girls.

If the not-uncommon idea that religion makes folks kill each other was true, I’d expect the city’s population to end up like the Kilkenny cats:

“There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
Till (excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails)
Instead of two cats there weren’t any!”
(Kilkenny cat, Wikipedia)

Life and Dignity

On the other hand, I’m not all that surprised either.

I figure that many, probably most, Christians and Muslims aren’t fanatic assassins or kill-crazy psychopaths.

Others are arguably a bit cracked, but only occasionally violent. (September 22, 2017; June 4, 2017)

There’s the ‘don’t get mad, get even’ attitude; and that’s yet another topic.

Instead, I’ll talk about life, dignity, and how that applies to lethal threats.

I think human life is precious. Sacred, because “…it involves the creative action of God…” (Catechism, 2258)

We each have equal dignity. How we act, who we are or where we live doesn’t affect that. (Catechism, 360, 17001706, 19321933, 1935)

Thinking that human life is precious doesn’t mean that I must let someone kill me. My attacker’s life is precious, but so is mine. Defending myself is okay. Even if that results in my attacker’s death. It’s a question of intent. (Catechism, 2258, 22632269; “Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas, II-II,64,7)

That’s not even close to ‘I thought he was going to hit me, so I killed him.’

And that’s yet again another topic:

1 Jolo, Sulu, the Philippines:

2 Factions and friction:

3 Making sense and other options:

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Faith, Feelings and a Viral Video

I’m quite sure something happened in Washington DC last Friday.

What happened isn’t so certain.

Someone posted an edited video that went viral. There’s been outrage, apologies, and additional footage found that may not support the outrage.

I don’t know enough to have an informed opinion about whatever happened. That won’t stop me from sharing why I think what we do matters, and think acting as if I believe what I say is a good idea.

Choosing Right — or Wrong

Religion and politics can inspire emotions, and sometimes seem guided by them.

I sympathize, a little, with folks who think religion has no place in politics.

Maybe folks who think ‘religious people’ should keep away from politics see religion as essentially irrational. And often, if not usually, destructive. It’s not a new idea.

“Bunch together a group of people deliberately chosen for strong religious feelings, and you have a practical guarantee of dark morbidities expressed in crime, perversion, and insanity. This was aggravated, of course, by the Puritan policy of rigorously suppressing all the natural outlets of excuberant feeling–music, laughter, colour, pageantry, and so on.”
(H. P. Lovecraft, in a letter to Robert E. Howard (October 4, 1930))

“I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion is anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.”
(“Why I Am Not a Christian,” Bertrand Russell (1927))

“Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.”
“So potent was Religion in persuading to do wrong.”
(“De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things),” Book I, line 101; Lucretius (1st century BC) (Alicia Stallings translation))

I’m no fan of Europe’s state-run churches. The ‘God agrees with me’ attitude I see in some — not all — politically conservative beliefs on my side of the Atlantic isn’t appealing, either.

W. J. Bryan’s 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech and its 20th-century analogs are among the reasons I don’t miss the days when America was a “Christian” nation.

Folks like Lovecraft, Russell and Lucretius lived during eras that didn’t encourage blind trust in traditional beliefs.

Lucretius started composing “De Rerum Natura” when Rome’s Senate was scheming itself into the Final War of the Roman Republic. Cicero coined “o tempora o mores” during that mess. It was not a tranquil time.

Lucretius inherited ideas about natural causes and divine pique we’ve traced back to folks like Hippocrates of Kos, Anaxagoras and Ajita Kesakambali.

Lovecraft and Russell watched Europe’s top diplomatic minds forge a plan for peace that led to global war and the dissolution of European empires. Again, not a tranquil era.1

Being Human

There’s nothing wrong with emotions. They’re a part of being human. Emotions connect “the life of the senses and the life of the mind.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 17631766)

Emotions aren’t good or bad by themselves. They just happen. (Catechism, 1767)

Emotions can tell me something needs attention. What I decide to do — that’s what can be good or bad. Ideally, my feelings and my reason would be working together. In any case, I’m expected to think. (Catechism, 1765, 17671769, 17771782)

We don’t live in an ideal world. That’ll likely become more obvious as America’s upcoming presidential campaigns get started. I expect the usual emotional appeals, demonizing and defamation — and other opportunities to practice patience and detachment.


I grew up in the Sixties, when many young Americans started wondering if there was more to life than making money and climbing the corporate ladder.

I was one of them. I never stopped being a Christian, partly because my parents practiced a sane sort of American faith.

On the other hand, I got exposed to enough rants and anguish over newfangled notions to encourage a somewhat skeptical view of traditional attitudes.

In a way, I don’t blame staunch defenders of propriety, God and the American way. Their world was crumbling around them. America’s youth seemed ill-suited for their assigned role as upholders of liberty, conformity and suburban living. (May 12, 2018)

Small wonder, from some viewpoints, considering ‘subversive’ ideas spread by mass media:

“…Creature comfort goals
They only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see….”
(“Pleasant Valley Sunday” The Monkees (1967))

“I’ll lie, cheat, steal for this company … but I will not give up my integrity….”
Brigadoon” (1954)(via

By the same token, I don’t feel like branding ideas as “Satanic” simply because they aren’t European imports or made in America.

Which brings me to why I see detachment as a virtue. Even though I keep running into the idea as something in Buddhism and other Oriental religions.

Basically, it’s because I’m a Catholic.

Detachment from wealth, making Jesus my top priority, comes with the package. (Catechism, 2544)

This is, again, not a new idea. And money isn’t the problem. It’s disordered love of money. (Sirach 21:8; Mark 12:4144; 1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5)

Folks needing reminders about what we believe isn’t new either.

“…Now the perfection of Christian virtue lies in that disposition of soul which dares all that is arduous or difficult; its symbol is the Cross, which those who would follow Jesus Christ must carry on their shoulder. The effects of this disposition are a heart detached from mortal things, complete self-control, and a gentle and resigned endurance of adversity. In fine, the love of God and of one’s neighbour is the mistress and sovereign of all other virtues: such is its power that it wipes away all the hardships that accompany the fulfilment of duty, and renders the hardest labours not only bearable, but agreeable. There was a dearth of such virtue in the twelfth century...”
(“Auspicato Concessum,” … on St. Francis of Assisi; Pope Leo XIII (September 17, 1882))

Free Will, Hypothetical Melodrama and Real Issues

I think I have free will. I can decide that I’ll do something, or not do it. I’m responsible for my actions. (Catechism, 17491756)

On the other hand, I’m only expected to make decisions based on what I know, and how I can act. (Catechism, 17351737)

Whether something is right or wrong depends on what my goal is, my reasons for wanting it, and the circumstances. Intentions matter, but ‘I meant well’ doesn’t make everything okay. Doing evil so that good will follow is a bad idea. (Catechism, 1750, 17551756)

Here’s where it can get a bit sticky. I can’t, or shouldn’t, kill another person: even if I’m doing it to help someone else. Not even if it’s legal in my part of the world, or I think I won’t get caught.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that one of my kids needs a new heart.

I know of a nearly-perfect donor, an orphan with no near relatives. There’s also a hospital handy with all the right equipment, staff, and flexible ethical standards.

Getting the orphan to the hospital, arranging a convenient accident, and getting my kid a new heart would be wrong. Even if my only motive was saving my child’s life.

It wouldn’t be right, even if American law was a bit less rigid about who’s a person and who isn’t.

The point in that melodramatic and hypothetical situation is not that organ transplants are Satanic. Or that helping the sick offends God.

Health is a gift from God. Taking care of my health, within reason, is a good idea. (Catechism, 2288, 2289, 2301)

What is, and is not, within reason depends on goals, intentions and circumstances; just like any other decision.

What’s tricky, I think, is remembering what’s right and what’s not during a crisis.

My experience strongly suggests that thinking clearly during an emotional meltdown is pretty much the opposite of easy.

But I’d still be expected to think, not just trust my feelings. Nobody said this was going to be easy, and that’s another topic.

Being Alive

Murders happen, but my guess is that most folks think killing an innocent person is wrong. And that it should be illegal.

I gather that suicide is more debatable. And debated.

My up-close-and-personal experience with suicide started with an impulse in my teens. At the time, I figured I’d probably last longer than the vexing situation. That was no great virtue.

I’m very stubborn, and even then recognized that there’s no future in suicide. Besides, I keep wanting to see how things turn out.

Decades later, after many more suicidal impulses and the death by suicide of someone very dear to me, I learned more about why it’s a bad idea.

And why I must not give up hope for folks who decide that life shouldn’t continue. (Catechism, 22802283)

Murder and suicide are big deals because my life, everyone’s life, is sacred. It’s a gift from God. We’re made in the divine image. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 2258, 2260)

That’s why I’m obliged to see murder and  suicide as bad ideas, refrain from kidnapping and take reasonably good care of my health. Among other things. (Catechism, 22582317)

Kentucky: Viral Video

(From Kaya Taitano/Social Media/Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Video of US teenagers taunting Native American draws fire
BBC News
(January 20, 2019)

Footage of a group of teenagers – many wearing Make America Great Again caps – taunting a Native American man in Washington DC has drawn criticism.

“The teenagers, students at Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School, are seen mocking Omaha elder Nathan Phillips as he sings and drums.

“The students were taking part in an anti-abortion rally on Friday, while Mr Phillips, a Vietnam War veteran, came for an Indigenous Peoples’ March….”

This is where I could start a rant about why folks in Kentucky hate the Omaha, the subversive nature of Catholic education, or how this is the president’s fault. But I won’t.

The first two probably wouldn’t get traction. It’s been some time since serious thinkers blamed the “city of hate” for a presidential assassination. Maybe we’ve learned a little over the last half-century.

I still run into Americans who apparently don’t like or trust anything Catholic.

But full-bore anti-Catholic bias seems to be out of vogue at the moment. At least as a mainstream, socially-acceptable attitude.

The assassinated president being Catholic may have had something to do with that, and that’s yet another topic.2

As for blaming what those kids did on the current president, I don’t see a point. There’s more than enough sound and fury on all sides of America’s current political fracas.

Criticizing BBC News for touching on American politics in the first and third paragraphs is an option, too. I can think of several reasons for mentioning “Make America Great Again caps,” a Native American being taunted and an “anti-abortion rally.”

Maybe they were seen as vital parts of the story. Maybe the idea was to imply that since some jerks display support for one side, everyone on that side is a jerk. Or maybe it’s just another attention-grabbing journalistic gimmick.

In any case, BBC News also quoted an excerpt from, and linked to, what the Covington diocese and the school said:

“The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School have issued the following statement:

“We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.

“The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.

“We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.”
(Statement on the actions of Covington Catholic High School students, blog, Catholic Conference of Kentucky (January 19, 2019))

Make that what those kids may have done.

By Monday, BBC News had a follow-up article. And what I think is an interesting caption for the picture.

“…However, Additional Video….”

(From Kaya Taitano/Social Media/Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

(Nick Sandmann (left) and Nathan Phillips (right) both said they were trying to defuse tensions
(BBC News))

US teen denies mocking Native American
BBC News
(January 20, 2019)

A teenager involved in a controversial encounter between a Native American man and a crowd of students has spoken out.

“A video appeared to show some of the boys laughing and jeering as Omaha elder Nathan Phillips sang and drummed in Washington.

“The footage, which went viral, led to widespread criticism of the boys.

“However, additional video footage has provided further details of the incident, while student Nick Sandmann has denied mocking Mr Phillips….

“…Mr Phillips – a Vietnam War veteran – and many other Native American activists were also at the memorial, having taken part in the Indigenous Peoples March.

“Meanwhile, a group of black men, who called themselves Hebrew Israelites, were at the scene. Video footage shows them shouting insults at many people, including Native Americans, as well as the schoolboys.

“As the group shouted at the students, some of the teenagers began chanting, and one of them took his top off.

“Mr Phillips then approached the students, singing and beating a drum, in what he said was a prayer to defuse tensions.

“He was surrounded by the students, some of whom began chanting and singing as well….”

I wouldn’t try, or hope, to convince someone with a ‘my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts’ attitude.

In my case, I don’t have nearly enough facts to have a reasoned opinion about what actually happened on Friday. And I am very glad I’m not expected to sift through what folks remember, what they think they remember, and verifiable facts.

Maybe the kids, seeing what may happen as a result of their actions, have decided on what they hope is a plausible but not entirely true story.

Or maybe they really were trying to defuse a tense situation. And did something that a diplomatic ambassador with decades of training and experience might not have.

I’m willing to accept option number two. I remember being a teen, and am grateful that I won’t go through that again.


(From Thomas Nast, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“The American River Ganges:” Nast cartoon in Harper’s Weekly magazine (1875))

As I keep saying, I don’t miss ‘the good old days,’ partly because many of my ancestors are Irish.

I probably look sufficiently “Anglo-Teutonic” to pass for part of  H. Strickland Constable’s “superior races.”

That doesn’t mean I think America should keep non-WASPs where traditional values say they belong: in the servant’s hall, fields and factories.

I couldn’t have that opinion, even if I was 100 proof Boston Brahmin with a lifetime Algonquin Club membership.3 Not if I’m going to take being Catholic seriously.

Having Boston ancestors wouldn’t be the problem. Keeping traditional ‘us and them’ values would be.

Loving God and my neighbor is a core Catholic value. Or, as our Lord put it, “the whole law and the prophets.” I’m also expected to see everyone as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

And I’m expected to see humans as people; no matter how young, old, or sick the person is. (Catechism, 22702279)

My country’s changed since the Sixties. I think we’re making real progress in accepting non-WASPs, and see that as a good thing.

What I call life issues is a somewhat different matter.

I think seeing folks who aren’t old or healthy enough to matter as “persons” is starting to catch on. I certainly see that as a good thing. I’ve spent my life being rather close to being Lebensunwertes Leben, life unworthy of life. I can’t reasonably support the idea. (November 10, 2017; August 14, 2016)

I see capital punishment as a life issue, too. Not because I think “a murderer is only an extroverted suicide,” as Monty Python’s cracked criminologist put it. Or expect every murderer, given a chance, to turn out like Alessandro Serenelli. (March 19, 2018; November 21, 2016)

Being “pro-life” and not in favor of capital punishment doesn’t mean I’m conservative, liberal — or confused. Just Catholic, and trying to act as if I take our beliefs seriously:

1 Viewpoints and wars:

2 Attitudes and a little history:

3 More attitudes and history:

Posted in being Catholic, discursive detours | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Space ‘Firsts:’ New Horizons, Chang’e-4

It’s been a month for space exploration ‘firsts,’ and a ‘farthest.’

Ultima Thule became the most distant object visited by a probe on January 1, with the New Horizons flyby.

A few days later, China’s Chang’e-4 mission landed in the von Kármán crater, part of the moon that’s not visible from Earth. It’s the first lunar farside landing, and the first time plants sprouted on the moon.


(From Camille Flammarion, “L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire;” via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

It’s been years since I saw that picture used an example of medieval beliefs. Maybe word got around that the illustration can’t be traced back further than Camille Flammarion’s 1888 “L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire.”

I’ll grant that the Flammarion picture seems to show ‘Biblical’ cosmology. Particularly “the mighty dome of heaven” in Psalms 150:1. The first Genesis creation story tells where the dome fits into God’s creation:

“Then God said: Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other.
“God made the dome, and it separated the water below the dome from the water above the dome. And so it happened.
“God called the dome ‘sky.’ Evening came, and morning followed—the second day.”
(Genesis 1:68)

It sounds a lot like part of a Sumerian creation story. 19th century Scholars uncovered that shocker when they started translating the Epic of Gilgamesh.

I could get upset that parts of Genesis might seem familiar to folks who knew about Nammu and An, Enlil and Enki. Or troubled, at least.

Some folks apparently are, judging from a few items I found online. I’m not.

The domes in Genesis and Psalms, pillars of the earth in 1 Samuel 2:8 and Job 9:6, and the ‘Biblical’ cosmology’s surrounding waters look like elements in Sumerian beliefs and literature.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Later Mesopotamian civilizations had their own names for Sumerian deities and ideas, adding or changing them while keeping the underlying imagery.

Hebrews lived in that part of the world. It’d be odd if they hadn’t been aware of the regional culture.

I see “the mighty dome of heaven” and “pillars of the earth” in 1 Samuel as poetic imagery. Not evidence that the Bible is basically Sumerian.1 (January 19, 2018; March 24, 2017)

I’m not sure where Flammarion got his picture’s caption:

“A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”
(From Flammarion’s “L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire,” p. 163 (1888) (Translation via Wikipedia))

It fits the idea that a “medieval missionary” might go looking for earth’s edge. And might help explain Ernst Zinner’s 1957 statement that it came from the German Renaissance.

Imagining that medieval Europeans thought Earth is flat made sense, sort of, in the 18th through mid-20th centuries.

Seeing the millennium separating the Roman Empire and Renaissance as a dark age got traction during the Enlightenment. The occasional Flat Earth enthusiasm probably helped.2

So, arguably, did post-Darwin faith-based meltdowns. Belief that faith and reason, religion and science, are mutually exclusive is still popular in some circles. (January 19, 2018; August 13, 2017; October 28, 2016)

I figure folks who are convinced that using our God-given brains upsets an irritable Almighty are sincere. So, most likely, are folks who seem to view religion, Christianity in particular, as nonsense.

Since I’m a Catholic, using reason isn’t an option. It’s a requirement. So is reading and understanding the Bible. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 154155, 101133)

It’s not ‘just the Bible and me.’ My faith is an individual thing, in the sense that it’s my personal relation ship with God. In another sense, It’s about me being part of a community. A big one. (Catechism, 299, 751770, 954959)

Getting back to the Bible, Catholicism isn’t a roll-your-own faith. The Bible is important. But I’ve also got the accumulated wisdom of millennia for guidance. (Catechism, 7495, 890, 2033)

“Truth Cannot Contradict Truth”

We’ve been learning that this universe isn’t nearly as small and new as some folks thought.

How someone sees humanity’s growing knowledge depends, I think, on attitude.

I like living in an era when much of we know has been uncovered since my youth.

That’s just as well, since I’m supposed to willingly embrace all truth. Including truth we find in the natural world. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 142150, 2500)

I don’t have a problem with that, since I think all truth comes from God. (Catechism, 215217)

Embracing all truth is one thing. Understanding it is another. Sometimes we need time to figure out how what’s being discovered fits with what we’ve known before.

I think Pope Leo XIII was right:

“…Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

Chang’e-4 Landing

(From CNSA/CLEP, via The Planetary Society, used w/o permission.)
(Chang’e-4 on Earth’s moon: January 3, 2019; before the rover’s deployment ramps (at top) were lowered.)

Chang’e-4 deploys rover on far side of the Moon
Jason Davis, The Planetary Society (January 3, 2018)

“Following an historic first landing on the far side of the Moon earlier today, China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft is already hard at work. The lander’s first order of business was deploying its rover, which is named Yutu-2, China’s space agency announced. The rover rolled down its ramp at 14:22 UTC to begin exploring Von Kármán crater….”

China’s lunar exploration program is named after Chang’e, a moon goddess.

That’s arguably more appropriate than naming America’s moon program after Apollo.

The Olympian deity’s portfolio included music, poetry, arts, oracles, archery, herds and flocks. Also diseases, healing, light, sun, knowledge and protection of young. The moon, not so much.

Maybe the program’s public relations folks figured Apollo sounded better than Artemis, Luna or Selene.3 And lacked Luna’s mockery potential.

Symbolism and Fifties Fears

I’ve read that Chinese mission planners picked Von Kármán crater for at least two reasons, aside from being a fairly flat place to land.

Scientists figure the crater’s rock and soil will tell them more about what’s inside Earth’s moon.

There’s also a symbolic reason for picking Von Kármán crater.

It’s named after Theodore von Kármán,4 Qian Xuesen’s PhD advisor. Qian founded his homeland’s space program in the mid-20th century, retiring in 1991.

I don’t know what Qian would have done here in America, if he’d been allowed to keep working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

JPL’s origins go back to the 1930s, when Qian and other California Institute of Technology (Caltech) graduate students tested an alcohol-fueled rocket.

Along with Theodore von Kármán, they set up what would become the JPL.

The group got its current name in 1943, when it became an Army facility run by the university.

Someone, somewhere, said Qian was a communist. US Army Intelligence knew about the claim, but didn’t suspend his security clearance.

Time passed. Anti-communist enthusiasm grew, getting presidential approval in 1947.

In 1950, someone in America’s national government said Qian was a communist sympathizer. His security clearances were promptly suspended.

His colleagues at JPL tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the feds that he wasn’t a threat.

With no reasonable hope of finding professional work in America, Qian decided to go home. That resulted in his being detained for about five years. Then, being useful as a hostage, he was allowed to leave America.5

Small wonder Qian isn’t particularly famous on this side of the Pacific. Or fond of my country’s government.

That wasn’t among America’s shining hours. Or the only time folks let views hamper judgement. I’ve talked about political correctness, the Popish Plot and blame games before. (June 1, 2018; November 17, 2017; June 25, 2017)

Von Kármán Crater: Science

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Miljkovic, used w/o permission.)
(Lunar crust thickness, from NASA’s GRAIL data.)

Earth’s moon keeps one face pointed toward us as it orbits.

Pretty much, anyway. Librations, science-speak for wobbles, let astronomers get glimpses of about 18% of the far side.

I don’t think anyone seriously expected spectacularly different terrain on the unseen 38%. Certainly not something along the lines of Burroughs’ habitable moon.6

We got our first, fuzzy, look at the lunar farside from the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 in 1959. America’s Lunar Orbiter missions filled in some details from 1966 to 1967.

Folks at the IAU have assigned names to the major landmarks and many smaller features.

I have mixed feelings about that. Colorful names, like “Dracula Planet” for TrES-2B, probably won’t get approved. But I’ll grant that having one name for something is easier than remembering that the Charles V comet and Great Comet of 1556 are the same thing: C/1556 D1. (October 13, 2017)

Which reminds me, about the NASA map’s KREEP Terraine. The acronym comes from K, potassium’s atomic symbol; and REE, for rare-earth elements.

Now, back to why landing in Von Kármán crater makes sense.

Samples from the Apollo missions strongly suggest that asteroid impacts spiked, from 4,100,000,000 to 3,800,000,000 years back. Some scientists started calling it the Late Heavy Bombardment or LHB.

Others aren’t convinced that the LHB happened. Or say maybe it happened, but only in our part of the Solar System. They may be right. Evidence for the LHB comes mostly from Earth’s moon.

The Kármán crater is in the South Pole-Aitken basin. The basin is one of the Solar System’s biggest craters, made by something hitting Earth’s moon roughly 4,000,000,000 years ago. That’d be early in the LHB.

Evidence in Von Kármán crater supporting LHB models, or lack of evidence, will help settle the debate.7

China’s Lunar Communications Network

(From Loren Roberts for The Planetary Society, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The lunar farside doesn’t have as many broad, flat areas as the part visible from Earth. But aside from that, landing on either side is about as safe. Or risky.

Getting signals back from a lander is another matter. That’s why China launched the Quèqiáo communications satellite last year.

Quèqiáo is circling Earth-Moon’s L2, the Lagrange point above the farside’s center. It’s both the Chang’e-4’s link to Earth and the first communication satellite in that location. The first that I know of, anyway.

Two Longjiang microsatellites were launched with Quèqiáo. One of them is in lunar orbit, making very low frequency observations.

The Longjiang satellite probably has at least one radio-astronomy experiment on it. Maybe something for observing the solar corona, too.8

Postcards from the Moon

(From CLEP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“A picture of the lander taken by the rover’s panoramic camera (PCAM)”
(BBC News))

(From CLEP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“An image of the rover taken with the lander’s terrain camera (TCAM)”
(BBC News))

Best Photos From China’s Far Side Moon Landing
Paul Rincon, BBC News (January 11, 2019)

A Chinese rover and lander have taken images of each other on the Moon’s surface.

“The Chinese space agency says the spacecraft are in good working order after touching down on the lunar far side on 3 January.

“Also released are new panoramic images of the landing site, along with video of the vehicles touching down….”

The BBC News article includes at least part of the panorama and a 360-degree azimuth projection from one of the lander’s cameras.

The article also explains why first images from Chang’e-4 showed a reddish lunar surface. What we were seeing were raw images from the lander. Friday’s have been color-corrected.

Or maybe it’s part of a vast conspiracy. Maybe Chang’e-4 really landed on Mars. Or the landing was staged in the America southwest. Or something even more imaginative.

I don’t know why conspiracy theories pop up, or why some folks believe them. They happen often enough for at least one statistical analysis, and that’s another topic.9 (January 5, 2018; September 29, 2017; December 23, 2016)

Looking Ahead

(From CNSA/CLEP, via Smithsonian Magazine, used w/o permission.)
(Yutu-2 on the lunar farside.)

Best Photos From China’s Far Side Moon Landing
Jason Daley, Smithsonian Magazine (January 7, 2019)

“China’s Chang’e-4 lander reached the Von Kármán crater near the moon’s South Pole on Wednesday, marking the first time a human craft has visited the lunar far side….

“…Because the far side of the moon is shielded from the radio signals coming from Earth, Chang’e-4 will conduct low frequency radio experiments using a new technique. Astronomers plan to connect a radio instrument on the landing craft with one aboard the Queqiao satellite and use the dual-system as a radio telescope—free from noisy radio interference that is common closer to Earth, reports Michael Greshko at National Geographic.

“‘This will allow us for the first time to do radio observation at low frequencies that are not possible from Earth, from close to the moon and on the moon,’ Radboud University astronomer Marc Klein Wolt, who leads the project, tells Greshko. ‘This will pave the way for a future large radio facility on the moon to study the very early universe in the period before the first stars were formed.’…”

(From CLEP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Cotton sprouts seen close-up under a protective cover on board the Moon lander”
(BBC News))

China’s Moon mission sees first seeds sprout
BBC News (January 15, 2019)

Seeds taken up to the Moon by China’s Chang’e-4 mission have sprouted, says China National Space Administration.”

“It marks the first time any biological matter has grown on the Moon, and is being seen as a significant step towards long-term space exploration….

“…Plants have been grown on the International Space Station before but never on the Moon.

“The ability to grow plants on the Moon will be integral for long-term space missions, like a trip to Mars which would take about two-and-a-half years.

“It would mean that astronauts could potentially harvest their own food in space, reducing the need to come back down to Earth to resupply….”

China Focus: Moon sees first cotton-seed sprout
Yu Fei, Gu Xun, Gao Shan; Xinhua (January 15, 2019) via; : ZX, editor

“…After Chang’e-4 landed on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, the ground control center instructed the probe to water the plants to start the growing process. A tube directs natural light on the surface of the moon into the canister to allow the plants to grow….

“…The experiment has ended. The organisms will gradually decompose in the totally enclosed canister, and will not affect the lunar environment, said the China National Space Administration (CNSA)….”

Those cotton sprouts are the first grown on Earth’s moon. That’s a big deal.

As Chongqing University’s Professor Xie Gengxin, the experiment’s chief designer, said: “We had no such experience before. And we could not simulate the lunar environment, such as microgravity and cosmic radiation, on Earth.” (Xinhua)

He also hopes that his plant experiment will get young folks interested in space exploration and popularize science.

The Chang’e-4 cotton sprouts are the first grown on Earth’s moon, but not the first off-Earth plants.

Scientists have grown Chinese cabbage, lettuce, radishes, sunflower and a zinnia on the ISS. Experiments on the Tiangong-2 space lab grew rice and Arabidopsis.

The low Earth orbit experiments brought plants through their full growth cycle. Some of the ISS crops included a harvest, giving the astronauts fresh produce.10

I’m not sure why the Chang’e-4 plant experiment ended soon after sprouting. Maybe we’ll read about that later. Or maybe not.

Folks running China’s space program don’t seem overly anxious to let outsiders know the details of what their vehicles carry.

That’s a bit frustrating. But Chinese leadership’s exaggerated — my viewpoint — ‘privacy’ concerns make writing this post easier. Now that I think about it, maybe ‘privacy’ isn’t the right word. Since it’s a government policy, maybe they’re ‘national security’ concerns. And that’s another topic. Topics.

We do have some information, though. Those remarkable images, for starters. Also Chang’e-4’s hoped-for low frequency radio wave and cosmic ray observations .

I hope they’ll release at least some data. The photos are fascinating, and tell us quite a bit about the lunar surface. But scientists can learn quite a bit from what the mission’s other instruments detect.

The Chang’e-4 radio astronomy experiment(s) may answer some questions about cosmic background radiation. And maybe raise new questions.

My guess is that this won’t be the last bit of radio astronomy done on or over the lunar farside. The advantages are obvious.

Earth’s noisy in radio wavelengths. Human activity accounts for some. The rest comes from natural sources like lightning and the Solar wind meeting Earth’s magnetic field.

Setting up radio and other observatories on the moon won’t be easy. But I’d be surprised if someone doesn’t decide it’s worth the effort, eventually.11

New Horizons: Ultima Thule

(From JHUAPL, used w/o permission.)
(New Horizons approaching Ultima Thule, December 31, 2018.)

NASA Spacecraft Reaches Most Distant Target in History
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA News (January 1, 2018)

“NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule in the early hours of New Year’s Day, ushering in the era of exploration from the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system….

“…Images taken during the spacecraft’s approach — which brought New Horizons to within just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima at 12:33 a.m. EST — revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers). Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other. Flyby data have already solved one of Ultima’s mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons. This explains why, in earlier images taken before Ultima was resolved, its brightness didn’t appear to vary as it rotated. The team has still not determined the rotation period….”

Compared to what Chang’e-4 has been sending back, images from the New Horizons Ultima Thule flyby have been underwhelming. I’m hoping that we’ll see more detailed images later. Scientists figure it’ll be late 2020 before they receive all the flyby data.

Even so, they’re better than our first looks at Ultima Thule; like that NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI animation made from images taken 70 and 85 minutes apart, a day before flyby.

New New Horizons was about 1,200,000 miles from Ultima Thule at the time — roughly four times the distance between Earth and our moon. On top of that, the probe’s transmitter strength is a dozen watts. No wonder they’re low-resolution.12

Sunlight on Ultima Thule is dim, too.

I don’t think that’s as big a factor, though. Apparently daylight on Ultima Thule is nearly as bright as lighting in most American living rooms.

The name, “Ultima Thule,” isn’t official yet. Even its designation, (486958) 2014 MU69, is the Minor Planet Center’s provisional tag.

I’ve read that the New Horizons team will suggest an official name after they know more about Ultima Thule. Then the IAU will decide if it’s okay.

I doubt they’ll suggest “Frosty.” Or “Tenpin,” as a nostalgic nod to early estimates of Ultima Thule’s shape.13

I’d be satisfied with Ultima Thule, which didn’t stop me from suggesting a few unlikely names. Like “Yeti,” the Nepalese abominable snowman. “Isaac” could be a double nod to Newton the astronomer and Snowman the artist.

For those who like classic names, there’s Khione/Chione: which won’t work, since the name’s been used: 6261 Chione.

Ultima Thule Flyby

(From NASA/Bill Ingalls, used w/o permission.)
(New Horizons okay, Ultima Thule flyby data successfully collected. January 1, 2019.)

(From James Tuttle Keane/NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI, used w/o permission.)
(At right, an educated guess on its shape — based on pre-flyby images.)

NASA Spacecraft Reaches Most Distant Target in History
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA News (January 1, 2018)

“NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule in the early hours of New Year’s Day, ushering in the era of exploration from the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system….”

Combining two images from the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) gave scientists a higher-resolution look at Ultima Thule.

They figured it might be shaped like a bowling pin. Or it might be two lumps, probably touching each other.

A day later, we got better look at the Kuiper Belt object.

‘Frosty’ Shape, Reddish Color

(From NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

(From NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“One of the probe’s instruments recorded the colour (L) of Ultima Thule. This has been laid over the high-resolution B&W image (C) to produce a combination (R)”
(BBC News))

Nasa’s New Horizons: ‘Snowman’ shape of distant Ultima Thule revealed
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (January 2, 2019)

The small, icy world known as Ultima Thule has finally been revealed.

“A new picture returned from Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft shows it to be two objects joined together – to give a look like a ‘snowman’….

“…The new data from Nasa’s spacecraft also shows just how dark the object is. Its brightest areas reflect just 13% of the light falling on them; the darkest, just 6%. That’s similar to potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, the mission’s deputy project scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

“It has a tinge of colour, however. ‘We had a rough colour from Hubble but now we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red,’ added colleague Carly Howett, also from SwRI.

“‘Our current theory as to why Ultima Thule is red is the irradiation of exotic ices.’ Essentially, its surface has been ‘burnt’ over the eons by the high-energy cosmic rays and X-rays that flood space….”

I like the “potting soil” comparison. It gives me a better impression of Ultima Thule’s appearance than numbers. It’s easier to imagine, at any rate.

I’m not sure that Ultima Thule would seem as bright as those images. Potting soil isn’t very light-colored.

But Earth’s moon looks bright in large part because we mostly see it in the night sky. It reflects about as much light as Ultima Thule, on average; more when it’s a full moon.

On the other hand, Ultima Thule is much farther from our sun than we are.14

With sunlight about as bright as interior lighting, my guess is that Ultima Thule would seem about the color of unusually iron-rich potting soil. Not that its surface is rusty.

Scientists think Ultima Thule is made of stuff that’s liquid or gas at Terrestrial temperatures, like methane, ammonia and water. That seems reasonable, but we won’t be sure until New Horizons transmits more data.

Outward Bound, Looking Back

(From JHU-APL, used w/o permission.)
(New Horizons’ position before the Ultima Thule flyby, and other Kuiper Belt objects.)

New Horizons will be traveling through the Kuiper Belt until the late 2020s, sending back observations until at least April of 2021. That’s when current funding runs out.

Scientists are looking for another Kuiper Belt object, one that’s not far from the probe’s current path.

The probe’s nuclear battery should last until 2030. Maybe longer. How long its propulsion system’s fuel supply holds out depends on how much gets used while turning the spacecraft and changing course.

With or without a second Kuiper flyby, data from New Horizons will tell us more about the heliosphere: a sort of bubble blown by our star’s solar wind.

The last image planned for the LORRI camera is more of a snapshot than a scientific observation.

New Horizons will take a picture of Earth, like Voyager 1’s 1990 Pale Blue Dot.

That’s if all goes well.

If not — that’s why the ‘I can see my house from here’ photo op comes last on LORRI’s task list.

A slight error could put the sun in the field of view would very likely burn out the camera.

New Horizons’ snapshot will, for a time, be our most distant view of Earth.

There’s no science-related reason for getting it. Nothing worth the effort and risk.

But I think it’s a very ‘human’ thing to do. Echoing Mallory’s “because it’s there,” LORRI specialist Andy Cheng said: “It’s just such a great thing to try.”15

Kuiper Belt and Beyond: Charting Solar Borderlands

(From WilyD at English Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Positions for some known Solar System objects on January 1, 2015.)

Clyde Tombaugh’s 1930 discovery of Pluto started speculation that we’d find more trans-Neptunian objects. (TNOs) The area’s named after Gerard Kuiper, one of the scientists who wrote about TNOs.

The “Kuiper belt” name is a bit controversial. Some think it should be the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt. Or maybe the Whipple zone.

What Kuiper belt objects should be called is debatable too. Tombaugh suggested kuiperoids. Trans-Neptunian object is another recommended label. I like kuiperoids, myself. I’m not sure why

We’ve found and charted several thousand Kuiper belt objects so far. Or whatever they end up being called. We’ll probably find around 100,000 that are 100 or more kilometers across, and billions smaller objects a kilometer across or larger.

They’re most likely stuff left over from the Solar System’s formation.

Since they’ve been in cold storage ever since, knowing what they’re made of should tell us more about how our planetary system’s development.

The Kuiper belt, distant as it is, isn’t at the Solar System’s edge. It overlaps the scattered disc’s inner reaches.

Beyond both, scientists are pretty sure we’ll find billions of comets-in-waiting.

The Oort cloud is still theoretical, but is the best explanation we’ve got for where some comets come from. The odds are good that we’ll find more bits and pieces of frozen stuff scattered through interstellar space.16

Seeking Knowledge

Sound and fury over religion and science, what I’ve encountered, focuses mostly on evolution and whether Ussher’s chronology is Christianity’s firm foundation. Maybe, when that uproar loses steam, tight-collar folks will dust off Copernican angst. Or maybe not.

In any case, a fair number of folks seem to think someone can either be interested in science or be Christian. Real science, that is, not the post-Sixties “creation science” weirdness. (October 18, 2018; March 31, 2017)

I didn’t see a problem with admiring and studying God’s creation before I became a Catholic. I still don’t.

What’s changed is how much I know about why it’s okay.

God is large and in charge, creating a good, ordered and beautiful universe. (Genesis 1:31; Psalms 115:3; Catechism, 268, 279, 295)

This universe follows knowable physical laws. (Catechism, 32, 299, 301305; “Gaudium et spes,” 15; Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

We’re born with a thirst for knowledge. Studying God’s creation can tell us a little about God. (Catechism, 282289, 299, 301)

Seeking knowledge, studying this universe and developing new tools, are part of being human. (Catechism, 22922295)

Knowing that this universe is far more vast and ancient than some of us imagined doesn’t bother me.

I see what we’re learning as new opportunities to admire God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
“the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.”
(Psalms 19:2)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.
“For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.”
(Wisdom 11:2224)

“What are mortals? What are they worth?
What is good in them, and what is evil?
“The number of their days seems great
if it reaches a hundred years.
“Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
so are these few years among the days of eternity.
“That is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.”
(Sirach 18:811)

Opportunities for admiration:

1 Imagery, literature, assumptions, and Flammarion’s effect on gas mask sales:

2 More assumptions:

3 Names from an earlier time:

4 Newer names:

5 Technology, science and politics:

6 Burroughs’ moon:

7 Earth’s moon:

8 Exploring the lunar farside:

9 Some conspiracies have been real, which gave one physicist data to work with:

10 New harvests:

11 Radio astronomy, background:

12 asdfasdf More about New Horizons:

13 Names and minor planets:

14 Vision and perceptions:

15 Science, technology and being human:

16 The Solar System and beyond:

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Epiphany: Still Shining

While writing about Epiphany, I meandered past Gothic cathedrals, kings and chancellors, and some of what’s happened over the last two millennia.

The magi, too: the first of many from all nations who recognized and welcomed the good news our Lord brings. That’s in the day’s Gospel reading this year, Matthew 2:112.

Maybe listing this post’s headings will help. Then again, maybe not:

The Magi, Herod — and Three Anxious Days

Epiphany is when we celebrate the Magi’s arrival — first in Jerusalem, then Bethlehem. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 528; Angelus, Pope St. John Paul II (January 6, 2002))

Their first stop, in Jerusalem, had consequences. But I don’t blame them. They were looking for a newborn king, so checking in with the regional boss made sense.

Their interview with Herod directed them towards Bethlehem, and obviously impressed the Roman client king.

Herod seemed eager to “do him homage,” as Matthew 2:8 puts it. Maybe Herod wanted to keep his “homage” low-profile.

Whatever he had in mind, Herod waited for the magi’s report.

The magi paid their respects and left their gifts gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)

Acting on information received, they headed for the border after honoring our Lord, not Jerusalem. Joseph, Mary and Jesus headed for Egypt. After sundown.

Lacking the magi’s information, Herod fell back on his usual protocol: killing whoever might become a threat. All the boys in Bethlehem age two or under, in this case.

Not surprisingly, the deaths of a few unimportant kids in a small town didn’t make it into Herodian records. (January 15, 2017)

Our Lord’s family stayed in Egypt until things cooled off a bit back home.

A bit, but not completely. Herod hadn’t gotten around to killing one of his sons.

After Herod’s death, the Roman emperor let Archelaus keep part of his father’s territory: Judea.1 Joseph, Mary and Jesus settled across the border, in Nazareth. Maybe because it’s Mary’s home town. (Matthew 2:923; Luke 1:2627)

Christmas-to-Epiphany Gospel readings aren’t in chronological order. Last Sunday’s was was mostly about three very stressful days for Mary and Joseph, when Jesus was 12.

They’d been in Jerusalem, celebrating Passover. On the way back, a day into the trip, Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus wasn’t in the caravan. (Luke 2:44)

Any parent might be anxious if their 12-year-old disappeared.

These two were the foster-parents of God’s son, responsible for his welfare. And they’d lost him. Small wonder they experienced “great anxiety.” (Luke 2:48)

That account has a Hollywood ending of sorts.

“And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”
(Luke 2:52)

But our faith isn’t all about good times and Hollywood endings. The Feasts of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents follow Christmas in the Church’s yearly cycle.


My language gets “Epiphany” from ancient Greek by way several other languages.

The word’s Greek roots had meanings like “display” and “shine.” “Manifestation,” too.

Folks have called Epiphany the festival of lights, Three Kings’ Day and Little Christmas. And still do.

If Epiphany is about light, how come my culture shows the magi in Bethlehem at night? That gets me back to light.

The magi were following a star.

Not, maybe, a particularly bright one. But a light in the darkness just the same.2

“…Perhaps because the star was not eye-catching, did not shine any brighter than other stars. It was a star – so the Gospel tells us – that the Magi saw ‘at its rising’ (vv. 2, 9). Jesus’ star does not dazzle or overwhelm, but gently invites….”
(Homily, Epiphany of the Lord; January 6, 2019; Pope Francis)

“…He is the ‘sun that shall dawn upon us from on high’ (Lk 1,78). He is the sun that came into the world to dispel the darkness of evil and flood it with the splendour of divine love. John the Evangelist writes: ‘The true light that enlightens every man came into the world‘ (Jn 1,9)….”
(Homily, Epiphany of the Lord; January 6, 2002; Pope St. John Paul II)


I’ve run across folks who see Europe’s Middle Ages as the Age of Faith.

For some, all that faith made it the Dark Ages, when ignorance and superstition reigned. Others might see it as an equally-mythical Golden Age.

I see the millennium after the Roman Empire’s decline as another few pages in humanity’s continuing story.

Folks in Europe coped with good times and bad, punctuated by the occasional incident like Charlemagne’s Verden massacre.3 (April 30, 2017)

One of Western Civilization’s more promising periods started a couple centuries later.

Europeans had nice weather from about 950 to 1250.

That gave them time for something other than surviving. Some folks living in Frankish lands designed stone buildings — with walls made mostly of glass.

I think they were perhaps the most innovative architectural engineering Western civilization produced until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Not everyone felt that way. “Gothic” buildings blatantly disregarded Roman architectural norms. That, I suspect, is why Giorgio Vasari used the term “barbarous German style,” and that’s another topic.4

Medieval Legacies

Medieval Europe, or any other place and time, wasn’t all about architecture.

Christianity was increasingly common in Europe, so some of the most notable Gothic buildings are cathedrals.

Schools run by cathedrals and monasteries, and scholastic guilds, became the first universities.

Folks like Saints Hildegard of Bingen and Albertus Magnus were laying foundations for today’s science.5

Meanwhile, top-rank warlords had limited control over territories that were becoming today’s nations. I see that as a good news/bad news situation.

On the ‘up’ side, kings occasionally kept their vassals from raiding and pillaging each other’s manors.

On the ‘down’ side, Europe’s national leaders upheld their warlord traditions through centuries of increasingly-destructive warfare.

A little over a century back now, they decided that war wasn’t a particularly good idea. Not between Europe’s rulers, anyway.

Their solution was a network of interlocking treaties. One country in the network attacking another would bring each country’s buddies into the war — then each of the buddies’ allies.

Nobody, they figured, would be stupid or crazy enough to set off a pan-European war. Not with the Edwardian era’s state-of-the art weapons.

It looked good on paper. Then, on June 28, 1914, a student activist of sorts killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia supported Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia.

By the end of August, Europe’s war had spread across Asia and reached the Pacific. Nearly a half-century later, survivors decided that we’d had enough.6

I think they were right. (December 24, 2018; April 15, 2018)

I’m getting ahead of the story. Let’s see, where was I? Herod. Magi. Charlemagne, Hildegard of Bingen. Right.

Archbishops and Kings

We don’t hear much about Theobald of Bec these days. That’s probably due to his successor being Thomas Becket.

England’s King Stephen made Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury in 1138.

I’m not sure why. Maybe he figured Theobald would be more cooperative than someone in Stephen’s own family.

Archbishop Theobald wasn’t particularly easygoing. He figured that as Archbishop of Canterbury, he needn’t take orders from the Bishop of Winchester.

I think that makes sense, since Winchester was in the Canterbury archdiocese.

The Bishop of Winchester didn’t. Maybe because he was Henry of Blois, AKA Henry of Winchester, King Stephen’s brother’s son. He’d wanted to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Like most things involving humans, it’s complicated.

Then there was the Council of Reims in 1148. I gather that Reims was an important city at the time.

Reims had been capital of the Remi when Julius Caesar’s troops arrived. The Remi decided that cooperating with the Romans was a good idea. That helped their city become home to between 30,000 and 100,000 folks.

Fast-forward nearly a millennium. Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire was a couple centuries into its millennium-long run. Reims was still an important city, and headquarters for an archdiocese.

Hugh Capet was a king — of the Franks or of France, depending on who you listen to. Either way, he was boss of a territory that’s roughly where France is today. That’s likely why so many folks paid attention when Hugh called the 991 Council of Reims.

A top item on the 991 council’s agenda was the case of Arnulf, Archbishop of Reims, against Hugh.

Hugh said Arnulf was part of a conspiracy against Hugh. The Council went along with Hugh, deposing the archbishop.

Pope John XV didn’t accept the verdict, or the Hugh-friendly chap Hugh’s council said was Reims’ new Archbishop. That mess wasn’t settled until Pope Gregory V’s time.

The Catholic Church was dealing with one of our rough patches around the 10th and 11th centuries.

One of the problems was excessive overlap of royal and church authority.

A reform was in progress. From King Stephen’s viewpoint, it was too successful, partly due to Archbishop Theobald’s work. Again, it’s complicated.

The 991 council’s aftermath, and Theobald’s track record, may explain why King Stephen didn’t want ‘his’ archbishop going to the 1148 Council of Reims.

Theobald was in a bind. His king told him to stay put, the Pope told him to attend.

Theobald attended, talked the Council out of excommunicating his king, that’s yet another topic, but asked the Pope to let Stephen fix the problem.

King Stephen didn’t like that, so he confiscated Theobald’s property and didn’t let him back into England.

The exile didn’t last. Theobald outlived King Stephen, and historians still don’t agree on what sort of person the archbishop was.7

“…This Turbulent Priest?”

Thomas Becket was Theobald of Bec’s Archdeacon of Canterbury, starting in 1154. Theobald added more ecclesiastical jobs to Becket’s job description. Thomas got the work done, which got Theobald’s attention.

The archbishop told King Henry II that Thomas would make a good Lord Chancellor. Henry II gave Thomas that job in 1155.

Becket took his Chancellorship seriously, enforcing the king’s revenue sources — including churches and bishoprics. Like I said, that was one of our rough patches.

Theobald died in 1161.

A royal council of bishops and nobility confirmed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry II let Becket take the position, maybe because he figured Becket would keep his ‘king first’ policy.

Becket didn’t.

He resigned his job as Chancellor and kept doing what Theobald had been doing: unraveling royal control over clergy and churches in England.

Henry II didn’t like that. At all.

A particularly tense situation in 1170 ended with Henry’s now-famous “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

Henry II may not have used those exact words. Probably didn’t, since the “turbulent priest” quote is an oral tradition; and my language has changed in the last eight and a half centuries. Another version, in Latin, is far more flowery.

Whatever Henry said, four knights figured their king wanted Thomas out of circulation. They went to Canterbury Cathedral and told Becket that he’d go with them to see Henry.

Becket didn’t cooperate. They left the Cathedral, retrieved their weapons, returned with drawn swords, and vivisected Canterbury’s archbishop.

The bloodstains have long since been cleaned up.

Thomas Becket was recognized as a Saint. Henry II did a high-profile public penance for ordering the hit.

Folks set up a shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, marking the spot where Becket died.8

Henry VIII’s Decisions

(From Mike Peel, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A bit of Merton’s Priory, after Henry VIII’s agents did their work.)

Richard the Lionheart was England’s after Henry II. Henries IV through VI reigned during the 1400s. Lancaster’s Henry VI had another go at the throne, followed by York’s two Edwards and a Richard.

The House of Tudor came out ahead in one of England’s civil wars.

That put Henry VII in charge. England’s next king would have been Arthur: the one born in 1486, not the famous one.

Saying that the King Arthur couldn’t have existed caught on, at least as far back as 1925. Mainly because Arthur most likely lived after the Roman Empire pulled out of the British Isles. They’ve got a point. We’ve got precious little British documentation for the generations after from Rome’s pullout.

The now-familiar Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot tales make good melodrama, showed up something like a millennium after Arthur’s day, and that’s yet again another topic.

Back to Henry VII and the 1486 Arthur. Briefly. Briefly for me, that is.

Henry’s heir apparent got sick and died. Henry VIII was the next-oldest legitimate male heir, and England’s next king.

England’s Henry VIII may be most famous for his half-dozen wives.

His reign might have been much less messy if he’d lived well before the 16th century. Or been less concerned with appearances.

Henry’s wife #1 had several kids, including Mary I. Her sons were either stillborn or died shortly after birth.

Maybe Henry VIII figured he’d gotten a defective wife.

What’s more certain is that he told Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage. The Pope refused, one thing led to another, and Henry VIII decided he’d do better with a state-run church.

That’s a huge over-simplification. So is what follows.

State-sponsored churches were becoming popular among northern European leaders. England and Europe had been nominally Christian for centuries. That, and tithing customs, gave high-level Catholic clergy considerable economic and political clout.

The Italian Renaissance was in progress. Wealth from global trade was trickling into northern Europe, but not fast enough for monarchs like Albert, Duke of Prussia and England’s Henry VIII.

The situation arguably led to centuries of region-themed propaganda, the Thirty Years War and the Enlightenment. (January 12, 2018; September 10, 2017; August 4, 2017)

Henry VIII’s decision to nationalize England’s religion did wonders for the royal treasury.

His appraisers traveled the country. Some churches and monasteries were converted to profitable rental properties. Reclamation crews “rescued” books, furniture, lead roofs and anything else with resale value. (October 27, 2017)

Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral lasted until 1538. Henry VIII’s agents had it removed, along with other reminders of the “turbulent priest.”

The nationalized church became a useful part of England’s government.

Purging Thomas Becket’s memory from England wasn’t entirely successful. Folks remembered the spot where Becket was killed. Some have been keeping a candle burning there.9

“The King’s Good Servant…”

These days, Thomas More may be the best-known casualty of Henry VIII’s national church: thanks to Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” and film adaptations of the play.

That picture isn’t More. It’s John Fisher, another Englishman who thought even kings should follow some rules.

Thomas More became Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor in 1529.

In 1530, he refused to sign a letter to Pope Clement VII, asking that their king’s marriage be annulled. That didn’t endear More to the solid English churchmen and aristocrats who wrote the letter.

A royal decree of 1531 required all English clergy to take an oath, saying that Henry VIII was “supreme head” of the Church of England. English bishops at the 1532 Convocation of Canterbury agreed, after getting the words “as far as Christ law allows” added.

Some bishops in England wouldn’t cooperate. John Fisher was one of them. He was a cardinal by the time he was accused, tried and convicted of treason.

More didn’t take the oath either, and resigned as Lord Chancellor. He might have survived, since he didn’t publicly criticize the king’s actions.

Then More didn’t attend Anne Boleyn’s 1533 coronation. She’s wife #2. That, apparently, was an act of high treason. Thomas More was accused, tried and convicted. It took the jury all of 15 minutes to reach their verdict.

Before his execution, More said he was “the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”10

I hope I never have to make the sort of choice Thomas Becket, John Fisher and Thomas More faced. But I think they had their priorities straight.

Simple, Not Easy

Ideally, obeying a national leader and following God’s rules would be easy.

As Jesus said, God’s laws are quite simple:

“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
“This is the greatest and the first commandment.
“The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.'”
(Matthew 22:3740)

I should love God and my neighbor. That’s “the whole law and the prophets”

It’s simple. And not at all easy. Particularly since the ‘Samaritan’ story makes it clear that everyone is my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

Those principles don’t change. This natural law is written into each of us. How we apply the principles should change as our cultures and circumstances change. The trick is to make new rules that fit natural law. (Catechism, 19501960)

We’ve learned that societies work better if someone’s in charge. How we pick our leaders is our choice. What’s important is that the system supports the common good, and that we’re comfortable with it. (Catechism, 18971917)

But as I keep saying, we’re not in an ideal world.

Maybe it’d be easier if blindly following whatever the nearest boss says would be okay. It’s not. No king, emperor, or other leader is above the natural law. (Catechism, 1902, 1960, 2155, 22422243, 2267, 2313, 2414)

Reason for Hope

Anguished laments are easy, and fashionable in some circles. What’s being deplored varies. My guess is that climate change is still on the A-list, but American news has been focusing on politics lately.

Don’t get me wrong. I care about what’s happening on Earth, and would prefer more reason and less hysteria in politics. (January 8, 2018; May 26, 2017)

But instead of lamenting the prevalence of angst, I’ll take a quick look at a few things that haven’t gone horribly wrong.

The Industrial Revolution left a mess we’ll be cleaning up for generations. That’s the bad news.

The not-so-bad news is that we’re cleaning up the mess.

We’re still plagued by wars. That’s bad news.

But folks in a few places aren’t slaughtering each other in wholesale lots. Europe is one of those pockets of comparative calm.

European leaders have somehow avoided killing each other’s subjects for nearly three quarters of a century.

That’s reason for hope. So is what I think could be an end to our empire-collapse-rebuild cycle.

Sargon’s Akkadian Empire brought a measure of stability to Mesopotamia. Later Mesopotamian civilizations remembered him as a wise and strong leader. Maybe for the same reasons that Lincoln, Washington and Alfred of Wessex seem a bit larger than life.

Four millennia after Sargon, we’re trying something new: an international entity that’s open to all nations. The United Nations is no more perfect than the Sargon’s empire. But I think it’s a good first effort.11

The Best News Ever

Now, about that good news — the best humanity’s ever had.

God loves us, and wants to adopt us. All of us. Each of us. (Romans 8:15; Ephesians 1:35; Peter 2:34; Catechism, 13, 2730, 52, 1825, 1996)

I thought God’s offer sounded good, and accepted it. That’s why I keep trying love my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. That won’t change the course of history, make war obsolete or solve this world’s problems. But it’s a start.

That’s why I keep suggesting that working together is a good idea, and passing along the best news ever:

This post’s first photo is from ISS036-E-28913; courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center. (….; August 4, 2013)

1 Roman provinces, mostly:

2 About Epiphany:

3 Ages, assumptions, and all that:

4 Architecture, mostly:

5 Mostly medieval:

6 Wars and survivors:

7 Kings and an archbishop

8 Another king and archbishop:

9 16th century politics :

10 Deciding who’s the boss:

11 Efforts, good and otherwise:

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