Monday, October 31, 2011

Original Sin and Post-Atlantan Pelagianism

I've posted on the results of the Diocese of Atlanta seeking to rehabilitate Pelagius. It's only really fair that I try to understand and examine why, though my theology isn't as good as perhaps it ought to be. I think I'm able to give a few thoughts but I am sure that I shall require the comments of those better in the know.

First, let me re-post the text of Article IX:

Of Original or Birth Sin
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated, whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek phronema sarkos (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire of the flesh), is not subject to the law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess that concupiscence and lust hath itself the nature of sin.

De Peccato Originali
Peccatum originis non est (ut fabulantur Pelagiani) in imitatione Adami situm, sed est vitium et depravatio naturae eiuslibet hominis ex Adamo naturaliter propagati, qua fit ut ab originali iustitia quam longissime distet, ad malum sua natura propendeat, et caro semper adversus spiritum concupiscat; unde in unoquoque nascentium iram Dei atque damnationem meretur. Manet etiam in renatis haec naturae depravatio, qua fit ut affectus carnis, Graece phronema sarcos (quod alii sapientiam, alii sensum, alii affectum, alii studium carnis interpretantur), legi Dei non subiiciatur. Et quanquam renatis et credentibus, nulla propter Christum est condemnatio, peccati tamen in sese rationem habere concupiscentiam fatetur Apostolus.

From this article, we can see why people object to what Original Sin states. Imagine holding your new first-born child in your arms, the first time you gaze upon a new life, frail, tender, a little bundle of reflexes and then thinking that this new baby "deserveth God's wrath and damnation" by virtue of its original sin. Can we honestly hold it to be true that the natural destiny of humanity is the fiery furnace of Hell?

We do need to be careful on many fronts here. First of all, this is an emotive issue and we can allow our emotions to wander in areas where a clearer head is needed. We must also be clear that there is a place for our emotion and that our sense of outrage at such a statement has a justifiable cause and needs an appropriate outlet.

Let us first be very careful and establish precisely what, according to the article, "deserveth God's wrath and damnation". If we just check the Latin carefully (thought the Cranmerian English is just as ample) "unde in unoquoque nascentium iram Dei atque damnationem meretur" we ask ourselves, what is the object of the passive meretur? Whatever it is, it is in every human being born. It seems to me to be quite clear that it is the Original Sin itself which is deserving the condemnation of God and from this we can infer that it is the cause of this Original Sin who will bear the brunt of God's wrath.

Nonetheless, the Doctrine of Original Sin is scriptural - St Paul's letter to the Romans (v.19) for instance. "As in Adam, all die..." or 1 Cor xv.21. These make it clear to me that the natural end of humanity is not Hell, we are meant (predestined, if you will) for Heaven and for Eternal Life - that is what God wants for us. Hell is the unnatural destiny of Man.

So what happens when we look at our little infant snuggled, sleeping soundly in our arms? Can we call that baby a sinner, by virtue of that original sin? To do so, again, misses a point - can we call anyone a sinner by virtue of original sin? I've mentioned this before - the Church only has the keys to heaven. According to the Apocalypse, it is some great archangel who possesses the key to Hell and he works only at the direct command of God, not of the Church. While we are in this life, we do not possess the wherewithal to judge sinners (motes and beams and what have you). In fact it is a consequence of Original Sin that we do not possess the wherewithal to judge sinners. Our own personal choice within us to Heaven or to Hell lies between ourselves and God.

Well, then? Is it possible for a tiny infant to be a sinner, to be stained with Original Sin? Clearly, the baby is innocent of actual sin i.e. sins which are committed by conscious act. However, as a consequence of a Pro-Life stance, the Catholic Faith teaches that human life begins at conception. If that child is fully human from that point, then it is capable of free choice at that point (a defining aspect of humanity). If so, then it is free to choose between right and wrong and is thus capable of sin even from the word "go".

However, capable does not mean that sin has taken place. We need then to look at Original Sin and how it is transmitted. How can the sin of one man infect all of his descendents? Well, the Story of the Fall makes it clear, the presence of the Serpent from the outset infects humanity by temptation, by lies and by the leading away from God. Even if an infant does not actually sin, it is still subject to being drawn into the darkness. Even Hitler was a newborn baby once.

This, then, reveals the need for the Baptism for infants. The Baptism rite contains an exorcism which is there to free the child from the clutches of the Devil. Of course, the child may still sin after Baptism, but that Baptism puts the child back into the track of its natural destiny, i.e. to God and to Heaven. Faith may be shipwrecked and the child may still fall away from God, but, with that Baptism into the Death of Christ there will always be that chance to take advantage of the Grace given to us in that Baptism to pull us back into the Light.

For children who die before Baptism, I cannot possibly comment on their destiny. I do not believe in a blanket condemnation to Limbo, and neither does the RCC now. The decision lies between God and the individual soul.

I did say that this is an emotional issue, and it is. Sin is a serious, serious, problem and one that does indeed affect (and infect) every child that comes into the world, transmitted by those already present. The least we can do is to ensure that all children get led into the Light and have the opportunity to be drawn by God. This cannot be any more important than for the unborn and is another reason why we need to stop abortion for the good of these little souls.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Episcopalian Erosions

The Episcopalian Diocese of Atlanta has just passed this Resolution:

R11-7 Contributions of Pelagius

Whereas the historical record of Pelagius’s [sic] contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition, and whereas his restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, race, free will, and the goodness of God’s creation, and whereas in as much as the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans, Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta appoint a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in our tradition And be it further resolved that this committee will report their conclusions at the next Annual Council.

That's the resolution. Now let's be clear on the issues. We should not allow ourselves to be sidetracked into rehashing the arguments of Pelagianism as this is rather of secondary importance to what I perceive to be the main issues.

1) Is this an attempt to try and sift the orthodox writings of Pelagius from his heretical works?

2) On what authority is the diocese of Atlanta making this resolution?

On the first issue, we ought to look for the principle of charity. After all, even the greatest theologians have expressed thoughts which the Church has regarded to be heretical. For example, St Thomas Aquinas did not believe that Our Lady was immaculate yet the Roman Catholic Church which bases much of its theology on his teachings has decreed otherwise. In that sense, St Thomas would be speaking heretically. Of course we then have the question as to whether one can be a heretic posthumously or even post-canonisation! We do know that St Peter himself acted heretically when he refused to eat with Gentiles despite the Church teaching otherwise. Of course, St Peter recognised his error and capitulated.

Of Pelagius, little is really known . There is not much in the way of his teaching that survives and what does survive is difficult to be seen separately from his followers who pressed the Pelagian Heresy more forcefully. However, the Oecumenical Councils of Carthage (in 418AD) and Ephesus (431AD) made it clear that Pelagianism, whether or not it originated with Pelagius, is indeed heterodox and thus deviant from the Catholic Faith.

It is true that what the Pelagians leave behind is indeed some very interesting theology on the nature of Free Will and Predestination and Election, but why is the verdict of the Council being challenged on the grounds of an inclement political climate? Surely then, Arianism must also be reappraised since this was the more politically dangerous of the classical heresies. Even the Pope was Arian at one point. Why stop there? What about the Apollinarian heresies? Ebionism, Origenism? Nestorianism? Gnosticism? One might accuse me of a "thin end of the wedge" argument, but the idea remains: if there is the possibility of reclaiming one heretical doctrine into orthodoxy owing to the prevailing culture, why not all heretical doctrines? What makes Pelagianism more palatable?

The second issue is one that concerns me more. On what authority does a single diocese make the decision to re-appraise hitherto heretical teaching? Not all Anglicans subscribe to the XXXIX articles - I myself do not believe them to be the defining element of what it is to be an Anglican preferring a more Wittgensteinian approach of "family resemblance" (more on that later methinks). However, looking at the articles gives:

IX. Of Original or Birth Sin.

ORIGINAL sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated, whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek Phonema sarkos (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire of the flesh), is not subject to the law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess that concupiscence and lust hath itself the nature of sin.

Here is a perfectly Anglican viewpoint which sets the bar. Of course the Diocese of Atlanta can reject the authority of the Articles in general as defining Anglicanism and still remain Anglican. Can it just reject the subject matter at all? The article, unchanged from 1553, was drafted to reject the Pelagian heresy of the Anabaptists and to continue the Catholic line on the matter. Its content follows the conclusion of the Oecumenical Council of Ephesus, consent to which is necessary for membership of the Catholic Church. So to accept Pelagianism is a denial of Catholicism.

Further, that the Diocese has taken it upon itself to examine the issue apparently independently, this means that it cannot be acting Oecumenically. To reconsider the verdict of an Oecumenical Council requires an Oecumenical Council which cannot be called until there is full Catholic Oecumenical Reconciliation. This is another example of the "go it alone" mentality of member diocese in ECUSA. Its Catholicism went long ago, squashed between the mitre and Pantene Hairspray, and this merely points to the untenability of the same attitude. A kingdom divided cannot stand and the liberal churches are again taking too much authority on their own heads with the result that their own house dissipates into the prevailing culture.

If there are grounds to review Pelagius then that review has to happen oecumenically with all Christians. It is clear that Atlanta sees itself as a higher power in deciding doctrine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

For the sake of argument...

It seems that the Philosophy of Religion has become very fashionable lately with all kinds of people stepping into the ring to declare their belief in the existence or non-existence of God with arguments that they believe to be incontrovertible and completely watertight. It is inevitable that someone will find the chink in the argument and then exploit it to demolish the house of cards on which argument rests.

The question is: do we allow our faith to be built on philosophical arguments?

There are three classical arguments for the existence of God: the ontological, the cosmological and the teleological. All three have inherent philosophical problems in drawing the conclusion that a being exists in a wholly other way to the physical universe who is deserving of the worship of all living beings. Yet Organised Religion has not collapsed under the weight of these oft-used reasons for worshipping God.

Some might say that this is because religious believers are inherently stupid and if they only thought harder, they would see that there is no God. One must be careful here: to say that the argument for the existence of God fails is not an argument for the non-existence of God (and vice versa). Others might cite the argument that people want God to exist as an emotional crutch only to have the point made that every human need has a real object, et c.

The main assumption is that it is foolish to believe in God or to have religious beliefs. The valid corollary of the Ontological argument is that if God doesn't exist then there's no point in worshipping Him - that's eminently reasonable. If there is no proof for or against, how then can they define "foolish"?

My problem with the classical philosophical arguments is that they don't begin at the right spot. I do not believe we can reason God into existence like folk have misread St Anselm. I'm much more of a radical skeptic when it comes to proofs or disproofs for the existence of God. I maintain that we know reality so insufficiently that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved by human thought and reason. In the very technical sense of the word, that makes me agnostic - I do not know how to prove beyond all doubt that God exists and I don't believe there is such a way.

So why do I believe in God?

I speak personally and apologetically. I appeal to authority, namely to the person of Jesus Christ Whom I regard as Lord and Master. I believe that what He claims is true.

Of course, what I know of Him comes from Scripture and Tradition, i.e. from the Church. The first records of Him were written down within 30 years of His death (contrast that with centuries for Alexander the Great and other prominent historical figures) and taken from first hand sources. One may say that the Church was selective in the records that it chose for His life. I would have to agree very much that the Church was indeed very selective in what it deemed sufficiently authoritative. The texts it rejected were not contemporaneous with Christ and most extra-canonical Gospels were written long after the fact. All of the texts of the New Testament were written in the first century AD.

It seems to me that the Biblical texts satisfy the CRAVEN tests.

Corroboration: The Gospels (while like most pieces of evidence disagree on details) do indeed corroborate what Jesus taught, the miracles he did and that He rose from the dead.

Reputation: The writers of the Gospels are clearly Christian and very little seems to be known about them to assess their reputability. However, the Gospel of St John shows a knowledge of classical as well as colloquial Greek, St Luke demonstrates a scientific approach in his writing. St Paul himself as another corroborator of the Gospels certainly writes with erudition and tells the story of his own conversion.

Ability to See: if these writers are (as St Luke claims to be doing) writing down interviews with those who knew Jesus first hand within thirty years of the death of Jesus then they do have ability to make a critical judgment to what they saw.

Vested Interest: Considering that most of the people who proclaimed faith in Jesus were destined for painful and humiliating deaths, either they were deluded or felt that the truth was more important.

Expertise: the writers were adult, sufficiently proficient in Greek and privy to the early Christian communities.

Neutrality: What would this mean here? If one is setting out to record the truth, one must believe that truth which one is trying to document. So it is not viable to denounce the Gospel writers as not being neutral because of their Christianity. Again, if they did not believe it to be true, why go to execution for the sake of a lie? Is there a neutral position to take here?

This helps me to regard the evidence of Scripture as reliable.

I dare say that someone will come along and try to demolish my faith in the writers of Scripture and what the Church tells me. They may even succeed at knocking down my CRAVEN analysis, but then I've not been too intent in producing coherent arguments. All I have done is to show some justification in my belief and I do not offer it to convince anyone that I am right, though if it does so then that is a wonderful by-product of my intention. It does, however, put me very close to the basic criteria for knowledge - justified, true belief. I belief that Jesus is Who he says He is. I am justified in my belief given the evidence of Holy Scripture. Is that belief true? If the evidence is true, then yes.

However, it now needs to be demonstrated that the evidence is indeed true. That is now almost impossible to know as this happened in the past. There can be no scientific examination which will confirm the evidence either way. The historians themselves can only speak of likelihood and possibility, so there can be no definite statement from them. Probability and likelihood come with a background arena of reference which is largely but not exclusively subjective and opinionated.

So what have I actually done? I haven't produced an infallible argument for the existence of God save only to say that "God exists because Jesus tells me so". That sounds rather feeble, like passing the buck. It may even make me sound like some kind of simple-minded Evangelical (by which I mean an Evangelical who happens to be simple-minded, not that all Evangelicals are simple-minded) but it makes sense. My Christian Faith stands or falls with the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Surely this is where the Christian Faith has to start.

What it does do is free me from the vicissitudes of Philosophical argument. It also frees me from worrying about whether my belief in Evolution is in contradiction with belief in God. It frees me to criticise and accept Science and hopefully to engage sensibly and reasonably with people of all kinds of beliefs. While it does not make me immune from criticism nor from rigorous defence, it does lift much of the weight from my shoulders rather than paralyse me in enormous and complicated arguments of self-justification. "His yoke is easy and His burthen is light" just as He promised.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Church in the small.

I've been studying this essay on Church Growth by Canon Stephen Scarlett. Before I go any further, I think it best that I reiterate my disclaimer above. What follows are my own personal thoughts. I do not speak authoritatively in any way but merely base my thoughts on what I, personally, have observed. I do not speak for the ACC, of which I am a proud and happy member, nor any other organisation that I name here.

Last week, I acted as crucifer for the 950th Anniversary celebrations of Our Lady of Walsingham in the ACC. For various (and mainly) political reasons the ACC is not allowed to say Mass at the shrine. While this is unfortunate, we carried on regardless and made our celebrations with much joy and ceremony. The little church was packed and we were merely just a subdeacon short of a full High Mass (which is, incidentally, how some people describe me).

We processed outside, not far, just once around the surrounds, and back in the church, for, while the church was packed, it is a small building and there weren't all that many of us.

In this country, it seems very difficult for churches to grow. In the CofE there were many initiatives to try and get people into church, the Alpha Course and Back to Church Sunday. The latter followed the ideas which the good Canon Scarlett outlines - inviting people into church. I often criticised the CofE for Back to Church Sunday on the grounds that it was better to get its house tidy before inviting in guests.

Should I be saying the same to the Continuing Church? It does, after all, have a sad history of division and bitterness between Anglicans and these are hardly attractive qualities for guests. However, the issue is not about the whole Anglican situation, but rather about the parish in which we invite people. Now that's a different situation to what is happening on a global scale.

I would chide the CofE because it was quite feasible for one parish to be believing one thing and the next one down the road to be believing another. From my experiences in the ACC so far (I may be wrong, though I doubt it) there is no such division of belief. I am in regular contact with two priests one who is of a High Anglican nature and the other who describes himself as lower. However, when I go to their Masses, while the flavour might be different (one kataphatic tinged with incense and a modicum of Latin, the other apophatic simple and Benedictine) there is a great unity of spirit and it is the same Church. The words "THIS IS MY BODY" are said with the same intensity of belief in both parishes; the words of the Liturgy are taken with the utmost seriousness; the sermons, though very different in construct fully representing the character of the priest, proclaiming identical messages. This was never the case in the Established Church.

It is here, in the smallness of the parish, that we should be inviting people. Of course, we can't ignore the underlying political currents but these must be left to those in authority. If we trust our bishops, and in the ACC we do as I have seen in evidence long before I joined the ACC, then we know that they will be working towards healing the rifts. It is the job of the laity to ensure that we tend the Church in its greenhouse by supporting our priests and, more importantly, living the Christian life with an increasing degree of devotion but in the smallness of our lives.

One of the biggest lessons a Christian has to learn is humility. It's a big idea in the Benedictine Rule and a major theme of Our Lord's teaching. Readers of this blogling will be very clear that humility is not something that I have a great deal of. "Who does he think he is?" was often whispered around my last parish behind my back.

It is in humility that we can find ways of implementing Canon Scarlett's ideas. There are several realisations we have to make.

  1. In the U.K., proselyting does not work. In my experience, the mention of Religion makes people move away from you or make bitter comments. British folk do not like having their reserve challenged and it does seem that just mentioning the Holy Name pushes people further away. It is clear that we need to find a way of engaging with people which is respectful of people's nervousness and aware of their discomfort.

  2. One idea seems to prevail across worldviews:

    In the worldview X, there are people who do not follow the worldview properly, therefore the authority of worldview X is suspect.

    I know, because I have succumbed to this myself in discussing the relationship of Science and Religion, and perhaps you can see this in some of my earlier writings. It is logically invalid but is very persuasive because it has an emotional content. Canon Scarlett is very correct: in the main, people are not going to be persuaded by arguments but rather by a personal engagement. It is clear that we have to be thoughtful about our Faith and able to communicate intellectual integrity at the emotional level.

  3. The Continuum is tiny and confused in the U.K. The ACC is actually very stable at present largely because we're not trying to "make history" - but is that a good thing? On the other hand the TAC has tried to do something worthwhile and positive for church unity but is paying the price for it because it was not engaged wholeheartedly. The TAC in the UK looks as if it will have its home in the Ordinariate largely because of the Papal flavour English Anglicanism (not quite the tautology you might think) possesses. However, there is an inconsistency of doctrine: are Anglican priests really priests? In the ACC the answer is a big yes, in the TAC it's rather equivocal. The confusion of the TAC is the ACCs problem by virtue of their common origins and common doctrine (modulo the issue of validity of orders). It is clear we need to recognise that there is confusion within our institution and to make sure that, while there may be this confusion, our Gospel message is clear.

  4. The Continuum is tiny in the U.K. There are the ecclesiastical giants of the CofE and the RCC, there is also the non-ecclesiastical giant of the nice, warm bed on a Sunday morning. The ACC is very clear on what it is and what it offers: Catholic Faith, Orthodox Worship, Apostolic Order. However, what does this mean for the people that we're trying to reach? Are we trying to reach members of the CofE? This is largely impossible for most members are not aware of nor care that their orders are slowly becoming unApostolic and that their faith is not Catholic. The RCC, is of course, rather more strong in its structure, though there is erosion of its own Catholic Faith. If we're reaching out to people who have been displaced by both of these great institutions, where do we find them? Where do we find them with the few resources that we have? Where do we find them with the few resources that we have, given that we are getting older?

We have to be humble about this. The task is very definitely beyond us members of the Anglican Diaspora scattered over the country and the world. All we can do is continue. Hang on! That's what we are doing if we're Continuing Anglicans. We need to be whole-hearted and devout in our faith, each little member of us. Church-wide, each individual needs to be following a life which contains prayer, penitence, study, devotion, meditation and evangelism.

Each of us needs to be praying daily for the growth of the Church and for the power to do what is impossible for men. If we're meeting in upper rooms for Mass, doesn't this put us very close to what was happening in the very beginning of Christianity?

Each of us needs to be examining our conscience daily. It's a good Benedictine practice, but one that ought to be adopted by all Christians. It is our sin that has got us into a mess, but we have been given a way out in Christ. Our sins block what God can do in us and what He can do in us in the world. It's horrid but it needs to be done.

Each of us needs to study not just our Bibles and Catechisms, but the world around us. We need to hear what the world is saying so that we can hear its needs and recognise the Diabolical deceits with which the Devil is trying to meet those needs with falsehoods and analgesics. We need to be able to think clearly - this is a particularly Anglican trait with our application of Reason to our Scripture and Tradition.

We need to devote our lives, genuinely to Christ. The first commandment is that we should have no other gods, but how seriously is this ingrained in us? Participation in the Mass is mandatory for our own good and most, if not all of us, do that and do it well precisely because we are in the Continuum because of the sanctity of the Mass. But what more? What about in our daily lives?

We need to meditate - to find silence with God. This is terribly hard in a noisy world, but it is possible. It is clear that the ACC has so much to offer the world. It is a conduit for Holiness and Grace, so the more we listen out for God's voice and pray that this voice may be heard in the Church, the better we can be at doing the impossible with His power.

We need to evangelise. We still have the problems I mention above, but we can remember that it is our lives that can convince people of the truth. Miracles can and do happen though, largely, we have lost the gift of seeing them and the faith for doing them. St Francis of Assisi says that we should preach the Gospel continuously, using words as a last resort. It may sound dreadfully Pentecostal, but I think it is very true, if people see the Grace of God in us, then they will want it. If people see in us the pearl of great price, then they will begin to sell what they don't need in order to get it. The appeal of Christianity will be in the good lives and examples of Christians. We may not convert people, but we can put a stone in their shoe to help them stop and think.

Above all, we need to be cultivating within ourselves a sense of humility so that God can work in us because we can so easily block out that message. As Bishop Mead put it at the celebration of Our Lady of Walsingham, we cannot afford to keep washing our hands of the Gospel like Pontius Pilate whose life was full of the excuses of the proud not to hear God, and rather to emulate Our Lady and Richeldis who, in humility, threw aside what prevented them from saying "yes" to God yet still being aware of their smallness and limitation.

In the Continuum, we may be small and limited. I believe, however, that somehow God can do something quite brilliant if we are humble enough, in our smallness, to let Him.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Story of Science

I've been hammering Science quite a lot lately. It's very easy to get into a defensive frame of mind, especially when the popular view presents a false dichotomy of Faith and Science. However, it does seem clear to me that the materialist's claim to be the sole possessor of true Science is tenuous and as much a matter of faith as any other religious/philosophical belief. It is the latter thesis that I have tried to put forward. I suspect that I may have overstated my case on a few occasions.
It is vitally important that we learn Science, for it is here that we do indeed learn about the physical world, after all it seems very reasonable that the world does indeed possess a material nature. We observe, and though we can doubt the veracity of what we observe, we can still make observations and describe those observations in a methodical and formal way so as to communicate, predict and utilise the matter and energy around us.
The recent discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos has certainly sparked some speculations in the Scientific community. According to Einstein's theory of relativity, an important foundation of modern science, nothing can travel faster than light, and so to observe something do just that makes a physicist sit up and take notice, because if what he has seen is true, he will have to revise his entire understanding of the universe. However, it may be a mistake or fault, or even ratification of a theory of parallel universes or wormholes in the fabric of spacetime. There is bound to be some explanation for this occurrence.
Thus buzzing around the Scientific journals now are all kinds of theories and explanations - all forms of mathematical narrative to try and give some rational explanation as to how Einstein's story of the universe is the right one, or to tell a new story with a fresh new narrative.
It is possible that some scientists will object to my use of scientific explanation of the structure of the universe as a story. I'm not entirely sure why, if I'm honest,because much of our communication with other human beings is some form of narrative designed to tell an important truth about some aspect of our lives, from communicating the frustration that the gas-man wouldn't come out to mend the boiler to the ecstatic vision of a new nebula discovered by the Hubble Space telescope.
For many Scientists, the idea of "story"has a fictional element to it. Dawkins rejects the Old Testament as a bundle of stories about what he perceives to be an unpleasant deity. Yet, he will nonetheless use narrative to tell the story of Evolution. Narrative is natural to human beings and so the story becomes a perfectly decent way of communicating even scientific truth. There used to be a set of continental cartoons about personified blood-cells and germs which definitely did the job of informing, in a rough and ready way, how the body worked.
Science still relies on some stories to fuel the scientific imagination. It doesn't mean that the stories are fiction; it doesn't mean that they are fact either. It does mean that there is something in the telling of the story that engages human curiosity about the world around us. It does communicate that the universe has indeed a meaning which is worth discovering, a mystery that it is worth engaging with and finding a deeper narrative with which to create some great joy in the mind of Man.
However, Science cannot dismiss Biblical texts as fairy-stories with the implication that they are wholly fictitious. First, the stories being told are very different but still have points of engagement, such as Noah's Flood. Second, the Biblical stories do have great historical credibility particularly in the New Testament many parts of which were written within a remarkably short space of time after the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Compare that with the biographies of important historical figures (such as Alexander the Great) which were written a few centuries after their subject died. There are several discrepancies between the narratives of Scripture and the archaeological evidence. This may be due to a difference in what the narrative is trying to communicate or it may be due to a difference in how historical evidence may be interpreted.
Of course, Science is practically redundant in historical investigation. One cannot re-stage the Battle of Waterloo under scientific conditions. Nor can Science prove that the explanations that might be had for the Plagues of Egypt, the Feeding of the Five Thousand or the stigmata of St Francis of Assisi are exactly true and factual. It can only speculate and possibly discuss likelihoods under present conditions. Nor can Science even talk about the probability or otherwise of the existence of God, for to talk about probabilities involves some background in which to calculate the probabilities. One cannot find the proportion of universes in which God exists from the total number of universes.
Yet, the stories that Science tells are indeed compelling and are worthy of much reflection. Religious folk can gain much knowledge of God by reflecting on what He has created, especially if they do it honestly by considering the implications of different theories such as the Big Bang or the Creationist theory of a young universe and any other theory that should present itself. Science is not capable of destroying religious faith and so the Religious community has nothing to fear from studying all these wonderful stories and narratives that Science gives us in order to understand the physical make up of what God has created. However, it is worth remembering, that if a Creator God does exist, then we are characters in his story as well as History.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Who's in a name?

Homily preached at Eltham College on 3rd and 4th October based on the second chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi verses 5 to 11.

During your summer holiday,
you meet,
staying in the room next to you,
a woman and her three new triplets.

Of course,
you go all gooey over small babies
so you wander over and say hello.

After the appropriate amount of baby-talk,
the mother introduces her brood by name:
the largest LaFayette,
the middle LaToyah
and the youngest LaTrine.


You can’t quite believe your ears,
have you heard that name correctly?

Isn’t that another word for outside toilet?

Being the polite person that you are,
you ask why that particular name.

The reply?

It sounds nice.


How do you feel about your name?

After all, you didn’t choose it for yourself.

It was foisted upon you by your parents.

You may loathe it but,
looking down the school roll,
there isn’t any name that appears
particularly ridiculous.

There are no
Moon Unit Zappas
or Peaches Geldofs,
no Fifi-Trixabelles
or Harper Sevens on the School Roll.

You can always count on the fact
that some parent in the world
is going to inflict
their warped sense of humour
onto the tiny infant
that has just been born to them.

How many boys have received
eleven Christian names
all after the players
for Doncaster Rovers in 1978?

Worse still,
Mr Dover is always going to be tempted
to name his daughter Eileen
– thank about it, Eileen Dover –
or, what about his son Ben?

There’s always the temptation
for Michael Foot to name his daughter Sonya,
and in America,
there is a girl called Deebra Strapp.

Is her son called Jock, one wonders?

If parents can be so rubbish at choosing names should they not hold off until you can choose your own?


Well, this would result in you being called “Thingy” or “Doo-dah” or “Wosname” for the first eleven years of your life.

If you are younger than eleven
and you choose your own name,
the result could be just as silly:
Ben 10 Smith,
Pikachu Palmer-Patten
or Kinder Surprise Jones,
for example.

However, if you don’t have a name
until you’re eleven,
you would lack some significant
personal sense of identity.

You may not realise that a name
is a terribly powerful thing.

In Egyptian mythology,
the Goddess Isis gains power
over the Sun-God, Ra,
by discovering his secret name.

In Greek, the word for “name” is onoma,
which itself is derived from
the word nomos meaning “law”,
“principle”, even “authority”.

Your name represents
not just a handy way of referring to you
other than “Oi! Fishface”
but marks you out as a being
in your own right
with a will,
a purpose
and an ability to express
that will and purpose.

Names have an intrinsic meaning.

Jonathan comes from the Hebrew
“Jeho Nathan”
meaning “God has given.”

In Latin that’s Deusdedit
– an early Archbishop of Canterbury,
or in Greek, Theodore.

“William” means a determined protector.

“Robert” means “famed” or “bright”,
the female equivalent is “Clare”.

“Raj” means “King”
as does “Roy” or “Rex”.

Most interesting is the name Joshua.

Joshua is the Hebrew word
meaning “God saves”.

It seems clear that the chap
in the Old Testament
who has a whole book named after him,
is instrumental in saving Israel.

One might say that he is well named.

Joshua was
and still is
a very common name.

If we now translate that name
into Greek we get some inkling
of how powerful a name can be.

So, if Joshua means “God saves”,
what’s the Greek version of Joshua?


The answer is, of course, Jesus.

Now think of the impact
of that name on humanity,
whether or not you happen to believe
in who Jesus claims to be.

For many people,
it’s a name so Holy that it needs
to be treated with the profoundest respect
for what they believe Jesus has done
and is doing for them.

For others it’s an expletive
- a word to use when your Xbox bursts into flames.

But, then why should any person’s name
become a swear word?

Would we like our name
to be used as a way of expressing
deep negative emotion?

Doesn’t that cheapen who we are?

Wouldn’t using that name in such a way
count as profound disrespect for that person?


This brings us back to the power of names.

We can ruin our good name,
just as Adolph Hitler
and Osama Bin Laden have done.

These names will always be associated with evil,
even if the owners of those names
were nonetheless highly flawed
and vulnerable human beings.

That was their fault,
a result of their choices.

Their acts changed the meanings of their names.

And Christians believe
that Jesus fulfilled the meaning of His name.

What then does this say
about the parent who calls their child
Daisy Boo, or Buddy Bear?

Have these children
been given a name
with which they can be respected?

Have these children been given a name
which they can make great
with works of kindness and hard work?

Surely this demonstrates
that some parents see their children
as fashion accessories
rather than people
with the potential to become great?

It’s going to be hard for
Daisy Boo Oliver to be taken seriously
with a name like that.

Perhaps she has the ability to do just that.


Whether or not you love or hate your name,
you still have the potential to make that name good.

You have the ability
to live your lives in such a way
that the mention of your name brings joy or relief
to whoever hears it.

You have the ability
to make the school proud
to have your name on its roll.

You have the ability
to pass on what your name means
not just to your children,
but to all who look up to you for inspiration.

Tough job.

How are you going to do that?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Hypocrite and the Extremist: Poles apart?

I'm sure that I have made my friends, colleagues and readers cringe with some of the things that I say and write. I'm certainly not the most socially intelligent and perhaps it can be rightly said that there is a little of the Sheldon Cooper in me.

In England, Religion is not really something that should be discussed in polite company. There is an understanding that in England it is better not to rock the boat, so perhaps my somewhat forthright views have an American origin via my conversations with my friends. Certainly, my new Church (the Anglican Catholic Church) has inherited an American flavour. According to the Affirmation of St Louis, the normative BCP is the American BCP of 1928. I'm not going to quibble with that, save to remark that there are some odd changes in phraseology (particularly in the Venite) which I'm going to have to get used to.

I do have to admit to a certain "evangelical" bent and I'm not entirely sure where that came from unless it is something that wormed its way into me during my declining years in the CofE. By this, I mean that I think that a few friends wish they'd never mentioned to me any topic on the lines of, the Rapture, W"O", the "corruption" of the Church, et c.

One comment seems to run constant, "things are always black and white to you." To be honest, I've never understood why save possibly the force with which I say no to certain alterations to Christian Doctrine made by liberals. For holding a definite position, I get labelled as an extremist.

This rather does bring up the rather thorny issue of Extremism. If you think about it, every dichotomy (or trichotomy, or n-chotomy for a given value of n) has an extreme position, whether it be political, social, religious or even which end of the egg one cracks. The question is, is Extremism wrong?

We have to be very careful here, because the idea of Extremism has very negative connotations. The deaths of 11th September were attributed to "Islamic Extremists" whatever that means. It was a religious/political extremist (whose sanity is in doubt) who caused the deaths of about 80 people in Norway recently. Maybe you can think of many other examples of this sort of Extremism.

I've heard it said that the present Pope is a Catholic Extremist, but I wonder what this means. I suspect that those who call him thus have an objection to something that he has spoken out against:- Abortion, Islam, Relativism, Contraception.

While the Regensburg lecture and its controversial indictment of Islam was largely the result of too complicated a train of thought, nonetheless, in holding to Christian precepts the Pope is making a very definite statement that Islam is not the right path to God. Likewise, any Islamic leader, just by being Islamic, is making a very definite statement that Christianity is wrong. Just by accepting the doctrines of one's Faith immediately presents certain definite views which are potentially (and often necessarily) incompatible with another's. There is an extent to which there can be no middle ground - one cannot be both a Christian and a Moslem. Likewise it is very unlikely (and some might say logically impossible) that both Islam and Christianity cannot be true.

In being a Christian, I am putting myself into an extreme position that Islam is not the path to the Truth. The same is true for my Islamic friend in his proclamation that I am wrong. We're both extremist in the relativistic sense that there is no way we can worship God together, but does that mean I have to renounce him as a person?

The same is true of the Abortion and Contraception issues. The Commandment of God is that murder is wrong - murder of course being an unjust killing. If there is doubt that a few cells in the human body are growing in order to form another human body, then there is sufficient doubt, not only to question whether that bundle of cells is already a human being in the same way as we are, but also whether the deliberate impedance of a human being being born is morally objectionable. If Abortion and Contraception cause such a moral uproar, suddenly things become much simpler when bedroom activity is left to happily married couples who can control themselves!

Again, these ideas are quite logical consequences from believing in God. If God commands that X shouldn't be done, then the greatest care should be taken that X isn't done and this means that situations require great examination to ensure that X isn't done even when it isn't completely obvious. If one doesn't hold to the idea that God exists, then some of the believer's injunctions against X will appear arbitrary and oppressive. However, again, it is the initial belief that produces the polarisation, and polarisation in the eyes of some relativists is the same thing as extremism. How can one side convince the other of the truth if there can be no common ground between them?

One could try to be a Relativist and try to make common ground where there is none, but that only brings up another set of extremes and destroys common ground with the Absolutist such as the Pope.

Of course, the believer, particularly the Extremist, in both Absolutist and Relaticistic senses, is entirely open to hypocrisy, i.e. failing to practice the same principles that he preaches, and this will be utterly obvious. Too often Christians will focus on keeping one particular commandment (such as not murdering) and fail to keep another commandment (such as "Love thy neighbour") or even fail to keep the commandment in its principle (such as torching an abortion clinic). Does this negate the truth of the commandment that he holds so dear?

It's quite interesting that of all the things English society loathes, it's the hypocrite. Perhaps this is a vestige of the time when England was a Christian country and the KJV roared out the Lord Christ's woes against the hypocrites. It's true that the behaviour of the hypocrite (particularly the Extremist hypocrite) renders his doctrine questionable, but the fact is that it doesn't make his doctrine false.

The Lord Jesus, when speaking against the Pharisaic hypocrisy tells His disciples, "what they say, do, but what they do, do not." The teaching of God is not rendered invalid by the behaviour of the hypocrite and the extremist. It still requires acting upon. Of course, if one is serious about keeping the Christian Faith, then it is important to recognise that every sin that we commit is an act of hypocrisy too on top of the act of sinning per se. Perhaps, then, one argument on the side of miracles is for the continued existence of Christianity in the hands of hypocrites and sinners!

It is however very interesting that of all the commandments to be extremist about, it is never the doctrines of forgiveness or of unconditional love. Perhaps this failure to be extreme about these marks out the nature of the Extremist from the necessary extreme positions that our belief naturally gives us. The saints are all Extremists: they held nothing dearer than the will of God even to death - always theirs. St Therese of Lisieux is certainly an Extremist of the more wonderful kind in that she aimed at nothing but perfection in all of her little daily chores, yet one cannot put her into the same bracket as the nominal Christians who will blow up other nominal Christians as does happen in various parts of the world. However, no saint scrimped on the doctrines of forgiveness and love because they saw themselves in need of both as well as other people.

There is much good in reflecting on the consequences of one's belief system and examining whether we are entirely committed to what we hold to be true. If we have an extreme faith which is cognisant of the fact that there is no middle ground, how can we nonetheless give true respect to those on the other side of the gulf? Perhaps it's time to stop speaking and to start doing.