Saturday, April 17, 2010

Beginning of the End or End of the Beginning

I suspect that many Christians are looking at the current events in the world and thinking that perhaps (just perhaps) the Mayans are right and the world will end on 21/12/12. Let's look around.

Environmentally we see Global Warming, Earthquakes in Haiti, China and Chile, and now a volcano in Iceland knocking out a sizeable majority of air travel in Europe. There are struggles and conflicts in Thailand, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. And then of course there is the relentless battery against the Church.

It seems that every Christian body is under attack at the moment. We have governments trying to impose regulations on who we can marry, whom we can ordain and what actions we can regard as good. We have scientists not only preaching atheism in a most evangelical fashion but trying to use the weight of the law to force their views. We have a media which is more concerned with peddling distortions and muck-raking in order a) to earn more money and b) to silence the voices of moral authority. We have historians and authors trying to publish their own fantasies about the origins of the Church at odds with the Tradition we have received. We have infighting, division and schism.

The Lord says: And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled : for all these things must come to pass , but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. And then shall many be offended , and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise , and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound , the love of many shall wax cold .

The beginnings of sorrows - ah! the Church has suffered many of them since our Lord walked bodily among us. It's very tempting for us to think that the end is very near. We can turn to the Apocalypse with a sense of frightened justification and look for the true Millennium, seek out the one who bears the number 666 (or 616) and await the beast rising from the sea.

However, this is rather rash. It is very easy for us to get nervous and start interpreting the Scripture or Tradition in a way that will alleviate our fear. The Lord says we are always going to hear of disasters - natural, political, social and moral, but we should not take them as necessarily being the End of the World.

I think that the Maccabees had the right idea - within reason.

In the first Chapter of the first book of Maccabees, we read of the enforced apostasy on Israel. We read of the abomination being erected in the Holy of Holies, of the Israelites being told to conform to the worship of Zeus, of Jews forsaking the worship of God for the state religion.

And the Maccabees said "NO!"

Of course, they then take arms and a lot of bloodshed ensues (that's clearly how things were done back then), but in the ensuing war, the orthodox Jews were united.

We are in the same boat, with the world trying to enforce its morals on us by corrupting our leaders and vilifying those who stand against. Like the Maccabees we need to say "NO" and we need to fight, and fight hard.

Of course, the only weapons appropriate to the Christian are Faith, Hope and (most importantly) Love expressed through the Truth, Prayer, and Worship. We must discipline ourselves like good soldiers in living the Christian life well so that the love of God shines through us brightly to destroy the malignant spirits lurking within our societies and to win others by our sheer devotion to God.

And we must come together, unite despite our differences, to show the World that the Worship of the One True God will not be crushed.

The Ordinariate does offer such an opportunity. It is a start, the first wave of what should be the move to Church Unity. I doubt that it addresses all the problems, but it is a start and it is a chance for us to fight back against an antipathetic establishment.

We can only do this if we in one Christian community are prepared to trust each other, make ourselves vulnerable to the other Christian community. We can be defensive and be very scholarly in our defences, building up an impenetrable wall demonstrating that the other is utterly wrong, keeping ourselves utterly pure and isolated waiting for the other to move first; or we can accept that there are differences which may be mutually interpreted as error but the intention to worship, pray and study together is of greater importance and so make a move towards the other.

Let us look for ways to increase the spirit of the Ordinariate in finding ways to become a United Church even if we cannot agree to the details of the Apostolic Constitution. Let us pray for our leaders, especially Pope Benedict, so that further ecumenical dialogue can take place unhindered by hysterical and malignant reports by the media.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mean, Mode and Median

I loathed Statistics at school. It put me in mind of the tedious double Geography lessons that I would always try to skive out of with a judiciously placed piano lesson. For me, Statistics represented the dirty side of mathematics, where the elegance edifice of pure mathematics met with murky reality. It's only since I've taught the subject that I realise how beautiful it can be.

Yet I've always been troubled by the notion of "average" - i.e. trying to find a single number which best represents a statistic of a population. School statistics gets you as far as learning about the mean, median and mode.

To refresh the memory of my readers who may not have touched upon this for some time, the mean is what we tend to call THE average - add up all the data and divide by the number of pieces of data you have. This is where you'll get your 2.5 children. The mode is the most frequently occurring value of the data, and the median is the middle number that you would find if you arranged all the data in numerical order.

What you may not have been taught in school is that two of these averages are biased!

By biased, I mean that the expected value of the average depends very significantly on the sample of the population that you choose, i.e. if you use a biased average you can't get an accurate value of the average height of the population by recording the average height of 200 people.

In fact, the median is biased and so is the mode. The mean is not. We can reasonably expect that value of the mean of any sample will be the mean of the population. Not so the median and mode.

But let me remind you about the mean: add up all the values and divide by the number of values you have. If you have 10 people and the total amount of money that they have in their pockets is £453.20, then the mean amount that one person has is £45.32. The mean is a rather Procrustean quantity: it levels the playing field by cutting off the bits that are too high and gluing them to the bits that are too low. The mean is a truly communist average.

And yet it is the mean that we think of most when we think of "average".

How willing are we to describe ourselves as average? Does that mean that we fit a Procrustean bed of qualia? If we mean "mean" when we say "average", then to describe ourselves or anyone else as average we are fitting them into a mould within our minds to "aid" understanding. Except we lose information and make our average humans less than human. The mean human being is not a human being.

Human beings are biased.

That's not something to be ashamed of. In fact it is something to rejoice in, provided that we recognise our bias when we make objective judgments. Our bias is the result of our upbringing/heritage/nature/interactions and without our bias we would cease to be the persons we are.

We can have a bias for pure mathematics, but pure mathematics can naturally lead us into contact with the filthiest mathematics going - statistics and theoretical physics. But it is knowing this bias that allows us to engage with the mathematics at its most necessary as a language of pure reason to make reasonable judgments about the universe. However, we should not focus on the mean values but try to see how our reality possesses bias away from what we expect and imprint upon our understanding.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Feast of the Resurrection

Thomas autem unus ex duodecim qui dicitur Didymus non erat cum eis quando venit Iesus dixerunt. ergo ei alii discipuli vidimus Dominum, ille autem dixit eis nisi videro in manibus eius figuram clavorum et mittam digitum meum in locum clavorum et mittam manum meam in latus eius, non credam.

et post dies octo, iterum erant discipuli eius intus, et Thomas cum eis. venit Iesus ianuis clausis et stetit in medio, et dixit pax vobis. deinde dicit Thomae infer digitum tuum huc et vide manus meas et adfer manum tuam et mitte in latus meum et noli esse incredulus sed fidelis. respondit Thomas et dixit ei Dominus meus et Deus meus. dicit ei Iesus quia vidisti me credidisti beati qui non viderunt et crediderunt. multa quidem et alia signa fecit Iesus in conspectu discipulorum suorum quae non sunt scripta in libro hoc. haec autem scripta sunt ut credatis quia Iesus est Christus Filius Dei et ut credentes vitam habeatis in nomine eius

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said , Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: 31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

St John xxi.24-31

Uncertainty does seem to rule our lives. Philosophically, it is very difficult to be certain of anything since we are capable of questioning everything and anything we like. Our "understanding" of quantum physics remains based upon things that not only do we not know, they cannot be known. Mathematically there are things which may be true but for which there is no mathematically rigorous proof. Science, properly done, can only be agnostic with regard to religious faith.
With regard to the resurrection, we have a stark choice - either Jesus did, or He did not, rise from the dead. Again, it is impossible to prove one way or the other. If it happened, it is a unique event in history and cannot be subjected to scientific rigour. Knowing God, this was deliberate for the Resurrection was not an event to demonstrate that He exists once and for all, else the Incarnation would have taken place with entirely different agenda. No, this Resurrection was for a few little folk to complete their faith. Remembering the words of Iranaeus, evidence is not enough either to convince the unbeliever nor dissuade the believer.
Yet St Thomas is lucky. He doubts in the Resurrection, but He has not doubted the Lord, at least until His Crucifixion. Until that awful night in the garden, he has been prepared to die for Christ, to die for His teachings and to die for love. Clearly, St Thomas had faith in Jesus as a teacher, a rabbi, and as an extraordinary worker of miracles. His expectations, however, overruled his capacity to believe. That is why the Lord was able to convince him with empirical evidence of the gruesome practice of putting Thomas' fingers in His side.
Clearly, there is a type of doubt that is not an enemy of Faith, but rather strives to perfect our personal faith. Faith is indeed certain, but we are not perfect - our perfection comes with an encounter with the risen Christ. What must St Thomas have been like after this encounter? It certainly did not change his resolve to die for the Faith which Tradition tells us happened in India. However, would this have happened if he had not had his faith perfected with his fingers and hands in the wounds of Christ.
In doubting, we recognise the cracks and imperfections in our faith. When faced with the troubles and difficulties and sheer horrors of living, the cracks show and are evident. We have a choice: do we ignore those cracks and pretend that they do not exist only to fall through them later in our lives? Do we give up knowing that we are imperfect, unable to rectify the problems, and succumb, not to doubt, but to unbelief? Or do we recognise that our faith is tiny, almost insubstantial and fragile as Jesus often complained, accept that in humility, and use what we have to trust that the Lord will help us to heal those cracks by more and more experiences of the Resurrection.
Yes, blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. Again, as the Lord teaches us, even a little faith will help us to move mountains - indeed having the tiniest amount will be enough to approach the King of Heaven.
We bring ourselves to the Cross for our sins to be removed. We bring ourselves to the Tomb to remember our fragility even to death. We wait in the garden in hope (the hope which breeds faith which in turn breeds love) for the Risen Christ to work in us the miracle of healing.
I wish you a very happy and fulfilling Pasch.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Seven Last Words: Into Thy Hands

Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum

Πάτερ, εἰς χεῖράς σου παρατίθεμαι τὸ πνεῦμά μου

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit
St Luke xxiii.46

A bedtime prayer, taught to Him by His Mother as she tucked Him in to bed at night after a long day.
As the last of His strength fails, He thinks of His family, remembers his childhood, the comfort of a human embrace of love, of tenderness, of warmth that every human being should have. All He sees is the hatred being spewed forth at Him now, yet all He knows is Love.
And having said His prayers, He falls asleep.
And God dies.

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Seven Last Words: It is finished

Consummatum est


It is finished
St John xix.30

Tetelestai! Surely the most glorious word in the Greek language. Here it is practically untranslatable!
Fulfilment, consummation, completion.
This is no cry of despair.
This is no horrid realisation that all the work has been for nothing.
This is triumph!
It is orgasmic in its outpouring of strength and life and blood and sheer, pure and uncorrupted personal love for so so many individual people.
The Anointed One has done exactly what He came to do and He has succeeded.
And He receives, in His last moments, confirmation from the Father that His faith is rewarded.
How do we return that love?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Seven Last Words: I Thirst



I thirst
St John xix.28

How can God be weak?
The great paradox of the Incarnation is revealed at the Crucifixion. A human body can only take so much. Yet, why desire something to drink if one knows that one is only moments from death? Why not tough it out to the end? Why show yourself to be even weaker and incur further laughter from the crowd?
Even here, Jesus shows that humility is a beautiful gift of God. Rather than show pride, the English stiff upper lip, He shows us that even God is weak and vulnerable. And He bids us recognise our own weakness, and to ask for what we need, even if all seems lost. There is no point in being proud or vain, in boasting in strength, because weakness is an inevitability.
We give Him vinegar to drink.
What does He give us to drink in return?