Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"The Dawkins of Sport"

I hate sport.

I believe I've said so before, but I just don't get it. My main issue is with the whole idea of competition - how we rate win or loss. We teach sport in schools to encourage teamwork and how to cope with success and failure, and to develop competitive skills. Part of my task as a teacher in loco parentis is to prepare my wards for the real world and the reality of competition, of the reality of one job and a thousand applicants, of the reality of standing head and shoulders above the rest.

I don't understand it. Surely this is a symptom of a fallen world in which resources are fought for rather than shared as everyone has need. That's the ideal, surely - naive perhaps, but ultimately more stable if everyone buys into it. However, if not everyone buys into it, then the vision becomes unstable. So why not stop teaching sport in school? Why not encourage non-competitive exercise such as gymnastics or swimming to keep the body healthy, and then some kind of construction project, or cleaning the school, community service, musical activities et c? This way we would reduce the sense of tribalism that sports teams engender, encourage a vision of unity of purpose and co-operation, and fundamentally reduce the fighting between groups.

It seems that our idea of sport is merely a by-product of our evolutionary past in competing for a resource. Now that we have, by and large in the West, control over our resources (perhaps to the detriment of others in the World) Sport remains an outlet for our primitive urges to compete. We're surely above that now and we should, given the amount of fighting that comes from competitive tendencies, jettison the idea that Sport is anything other than a crutch for our primitive urges and should be removed as soon as possible if we should hope to progress as a species.

Does this sound like a reasonable argument?

If I were able to put this plan into action, could I be accused of indoctrination?

Perhaps, this approach is merely symptomatic of a crutch that I might possess about winning or losing. Perhaps I am so obsessed with the pressure of winning that I try to remove that pressure by excising the very thing that's causing me the problem. In which case, which way of life is the crutch: a world with competition in which our primitive urges are exercised and in which the pain of loss is as real as the exhilaration of success, or a world without competition in which the fear of failure and loss is removed?

I will admit to perhaps being something akin to the "Dawkins of Sport". I don't see the value of Sport based upon the arbitrariness of Success and Failure as defined by humanity. However, I really don't expect my views to be shared nor really, do I seek to make my colleagues in the Sports' department redundant. I concede that there are values in Sport that I may not comprehend but which are healthy and good. However, I am content not to possess these values.

Of course, Religion is seen as a pathology or sickness and a means of indoctrination by those who do not understand it. However, there does not seem to be a good argument as to why Atheism is not a pathology or sickness and a form of indoctrination. I've said before that Atheism and Agnosticism are as much a belief system as any other Religion or Philosophy. There are always assumptions which can be questioned most legitimately and reasonably even at the fundamental basis of any form of Science. As a schoolmaster, I indoctrinate my students into the ways of mathematics though perhaps I will reveal to them my concerns that there is tension between mathematics as a rational system and as a basis for empirical enquiry. I am a professional indoctrinator, so are my colleagues in the History department, but I am not going to say that their indoctrination is invalid because they cannot test their theories. We cannot KNOW historical events in the same way as we KNOW scientific results which are different from KNOWING that 2 + 2 = 4.

However, the worrying side of indoctrination must come when that doctrine prevents people from co-operating with, or even simply operating in Society. A creed which seeks to destroy Society as a forum in which any person can function and find value and love is one that requires a much greater scrutiny and from which much must be demanded if it demands so much.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Language of Disunity

The Christian year sees us at that wonderful crossover time of Pentecost and Trinity before the long green months. In Pentecost, we see the undoing of Babel; in the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, we see the perfect unity of God in three persons. These two Sundays, vital in the Church seasons, are about the uniting of what cannot seem to be united.

I alluded, in a recent sermon, to the undeniable fact that if we approach God through Our Lord Jesus Christ, then we must necessarily approach other seekers of God through Our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, if we are not drawing closer to such folk, then it is clear that we are not in The Way. I have previously drawn an analogy of our movement to the meeting of parallel lines at "infinity". The Father truly draws us, like a moth to a flame, though of course some choose their own course and are drawn to the neon lights of the world. If we are truly being empowered to follow God through the Holy Spirit, then that power must be unifying, not divisive.

Of course, I've touched this subject before, and many who have talked with me about it, express their heavy-hearted view that unity cannot come this side of the Day of Days. They are right. Whilst humanity still walks in the way of the fallen, and bears the burden of the knowledge of sin and its inevitability, the Human Will will flag and pull us off course. We must trust in the guidance of the Holy Ghost. 

Humanity doesn't have the greatest record for expressing unity. Certainly there are many words which we can use to separate, divide and differentiate, rather than integrate, multiply and gather. In Church circles, we have such words as: irregular, invalid, heretical, anathema which run counter to communion, catholic, valid and canonical. Yet, if we use the word "communion" it's largely accompanied by the words "out of"; the word "valid" is accompanied by "orders" and the obligatory "?"; the word "Catholic" gets associated with "whosoever will be saved : before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly." One cannot think of words of unity without thinking of how words of disunity are used.

Of course this is inevitable. God has called the Church out of the world. He has called it to be different from the world, distinctive from the world, visible to the world. We are presented with the Great Dichotomy, in or out, sacred or profane, truth or falsehood, destiny or doom. The Gnostic heresy (oops! there's a word of disunity) presents us with a very clear false dichotomy - Flesh is evil, Spirit is good. That runs counter to the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation and yet it is still bubbling under in our culture, even if that culture seems to be more materialist.

The way we are able to talk about even being involves dichotomy. We can only distinguish things if they are different. We have to be able to separate in order to say anything meaningful at all. Thus, discrimination is a vital part of our understanding of anything. We should not be ashamed by this in any way, and yet we are! While there are many incidents of sexism and unfair discrimination between men and women (usually against women), it is the very act of trying to be "inclusive" to minority groups that is causing yet more unfair discrimination. Should a "former" man transexual be allowed to use the ladies' restroom? That might sound petty, but the ladies' restroom is often a place of safety and sanctuary for those feeling a bit vulnerable. Those who believe in same-sex Holy Matrimony are calling anathema to those that do not and seeking legal ways of enforcing that anathema. The root of this is a failure to accept a simple, natural and healthy dichotomy that men are men and women are women and there is no middle ground save a few biological cases of intersex - there aren't as many as people think!

Disunity is not the same as discrimination. Discrimination allows us to tell things apart. Disunity keeps things apart. If we look at the Body of Christ, we can tell all kinds of Christians of different persuasions. These persuasions are based on interpretations of the Christian Faith. One can discriminate between these interpretations such as between Roman Catholic and Old Roman Catholic by looking at history, but then that discrimination can turn into a disunity by one declaring the other invalid.

Some interpretations of Christianity are indeed invalid. If you have to change the Biblical text physically to support your interpretation as the Jehovah's Witnesses have done, then this is not Christianity. It is another religion which has just as much human right to exist as any other, just as much human right to be free from persecution, just as much human right to be respected, just as much human right to thrive and grow, but it is not Christian. If Christianity is indeed true (and I believe so strongly that it is) then that interpretation is indeed finite in its lifespan.

We Anglican Catholics have our interpretation of Christianity and are committed to seeking the Truth. We do not believe in unity at any price, but rather unity where there is real unity. In order to unite there has to be discrimination and discernment. As our statement on Church Unity says:
As criteria for engaging in formal dialogue with other Churches aimed at achieving full communion or ultimately organic unity, we would see their possession of historic continuity in Catholic Faith and Apostolic Order, including doctrine and discipline faithfully reflecting the canons and decrees of the seven Ecumenical Councils, with recognizably common Scriptures, Creeds, Sacraments and Ministry, as the starting point, not the conclusion, of such endeavors. These are the minimum requirements for the recovery of authentic Christian unity, and we have no authority to alter or reduce them. To those who embrace them we will gladly extend the right hand of fellowship.

This statement may upset some, even many, but if we're pursuing the Truth what can we do? Truth naturally divides from Falsehood, so Our Lord comes not to bring us unity but a sword to divide Truth from Falsehood. Unity with God means being cut off from that which is not God. We must allow that disunity for the simple sake of just existing, and having our existence begun, continued and ended in God.

The world contains much Evil - much not-God. It is this that needs to be shown up even if it exists in our own hearts. If we are to exist as units with a degree of freedom that God wants us to possess, then we have to know Evil as much as it makes us ill in doing so. Yet it is the distinction between Good and Evil that is blurred in our own, fallible minds and without God shining light on us and drawing us, we will not be able to discern the difference. Unity with the world is not an option, as there is Evil in the world, not as a whole, but as an infection. Unity with God is the salvation and it comes with division, but only of the right kind. Thank God for His terrible swift sword!

Monday, June 09, 2014

Assuming the scientific

I've recently completed a review of A. C Grayling's "The God Argument" for the Trinitarian, the Gazette of the Anglican Catholic Church. Of course, it was necessary and reasonable for my review to be limited by a word count so I really was not able to expound as much as I'd liked. Then again, I really didn't want to deluge poor John Omwake, the Editor, with something that was fundamentally unreadable.

As it is, it's really helped me to realise how much the apologetics on both sides are going into some very deep philosophical waters, more than the average person with common sense would like to consider. People don't have time nor the energy to consider the argument. Most don't care and most people find the issue of God irrelevant. However, to my mind, David Bentley Hart's book - "The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss" is a real game changer. I am grateful to my brother priest Fr Robert Hart of The Continuum blog for putting me onto that text at last year's Provincial Synod.

I still feel that there is one thing on the matter that needs to be said. I was (I hope I still am) friends with two reputable authors who have publish a series of books on on and around the Scientific Worldview. Their last book in a series was, I felt, a little near the knuckle when they expressed the opinion that they wished that there were no bishops whatsoever. Theirs is obviously a viewpoint the Church is an institution that is harmful to society. Whilst any Christian freely admits that members of the Church is responsible for some very unpleasant behaviour and lack of love to their fellow men, such behaviour is seen to be unacceptable by the tenets of the Church. The Church, of course, is a body of sinful men and women. The law of the Church shows us up to be fallen, the love of God meets us where we are. Where many of those whose influence in the Church is greatest have gone wrong more often than not is by Pharisaism - enforcing the letter of the law rather than the spirit. We must meet and accept people where they are.

However, it is the idea that Scientific Atheism is not a faith that I find their arguments fail. By Scientific Atheism, I mean the idea that Science is a complete system of epistemological enquiry. This means that objective knowledge of existence or non-existence can be determined by scientific method. Thus, in the scientific milieu, there is no room for metaphysics since physics is sufficient to determine knowledge.

However, if faith is the holding of an assumption to be true but unprovable, then we make the observations about Science which Prof Edward Feser makes in his book on Scholastic Metaphysics.

According to Feser there are three assumptions made by Scientific Atheism:

  1. There is an objective world external to the mind of the scientist.
  2. This objective world is governed by principles that can be expressed in scientific or mathematical laws.
  3. The human mind and perception can accurately determine these laws.

It is also worth noting that the terminology "law" is a bit of a misnomer since a physical law (such as Hook's Law, Newton's Laws of motion et c.) is purely descriptive of a physical system and, although often powerfully predictive, do not actually control the physical world. There is no physics police for all those who break the law of Gravity. One can see that there is an equivocation in the word "law" which does confuse those who hear it and produces a few category errors.

I have heard the slogan "Much of what you see or hear is a lie" or "do not trust your senses - here is the scientific reason why!" This seems to me to be sawing off the empirical branch on which Science is sitting.

If Science cannot prove the three assumptions made above, then in asserting them, they become dogmata of a faith.

Grayling in his booksays (p55 in the Paperback)
Some who wish to make room for two "magesteria" repudiate this last remark [i.e. Religious belief being untestable is therefore irrational], by arguing that religion and science operate in wholly different spheres, and therefore do not compete and cannot be compared. Unfortunately for the apologists, this attempt will not work. Religions make claims that certain entities exist in or attached to the universe and further claim that this fact has a significant impact on the universe or at least on humans on this planet. yet they are untestable, and at sharp odds with everything that science and common sense shows us about the nature of reality.
It's not really a convincing  argument, is it? Mainly because Gayling has assumed 1,2 and 3 above. His objection to testability rules out any historical evidence on which science relies, and this includes Evolution itself. If he wants me to accept Evolution as an accurate and common sense record of the origins of the species (which I do, just for the record), then he has failed. If there are not two "magesteria" - i.e. worldviews, or theories of knowledge - then how on earth has he shown that the other "magesterium" does not exist by remaining fully in the scientific "magisterium"? He will object by saying you can't prove a negative. This is bosh -I prove negatives all the time, I still have some mathematical knowledge. Ah, but is mathematics testable?

The fact of the matter is that this debate is going to run and run, and David Bentley Hart is quite correct from keeping out of it. I rather think I shall follow his lead. I believe God exists and it seems to me to be utterly impossible to prove that or disprove that scientifically. I also have ample evidence which shows that Scientific Atheism is just as much a faith as my own.

What's my job? To convince people of God's existence? To convert them? No. Not at all. The visibility of the Church presents the question to the world. The existence of things presents another question to the world. The problem of evil presents yet a further question to the world and those who will pick up these questions and wrestle with them honestly will find answers and yet further questions. My job is to seek the Truth and help others to find it too. That doesn't mean that the search for truth needs to be carried out in the dry world of academic and abstract argument.

Most people don't come to faith in God by "indoctrination" as Grayling claims: many find faith through the experience of living and the little things in life rather than the big ideas. I certainly see God at work daily, but I am not about to put that in a test tube!

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Babbling brook or brooking the babble?

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on Whitsunday 2014 

Search engines are marvellous things. If you’re not on the internet, the whole idea of Google or Bing will, of course, mean nothing to you. Search Engines are facilities that simply help you to look for information on the web. They can help you find all kinds of weird and wonderful things from around the world. Of course, that does mean that you’ll come across a web page in Manderin or Guajarati. If it looks like a useful web page but you don’t know Mandarin or Guajurati, what do you do?

Never fear! The search engine Bing has a translate facility, so you can translate the whole page into English. Wonderful news! However, there’s a problem. A search engine is not a human being. It cannot make sentences meaningful which is a bit of a problem if you don't use them carefully.

Some people have obviously used a computing translator in order to translate international signs. A sign that would read, “Careful! Danger of slipping and falling!” gets translated as “Slip and fall down carefully.” “Caution! Missing step” becomes “Watch out, your foot is missing” and “fire extinguisher” has also been translated as “hand grenade”. So you can see that it’s not enough to be able to say words in a different language, you have to say what you mean. The trouble with different languages is that something always gets lost in translation. No two languages have exactly the same meanings and this is a problem when you're trying to communicate with other people.


We see the Apostles filled with the Holy Ghost going about speaking different languages and clearly with some fervour. To many of the people, they are pleased to hear words in languages that they understand and so expertly. There isn’t a Pamphilian phrase-book in sight! Yet others resort to cynicism and scorn, accusing the disciples of being drunk. For them, the message of God through His disciples is lost in translation: the words are meaningless babble for these folk.

Babble? For a first century Jew, this confusion of language would ring a bell in Hebrew history. Thousands of years earlier, on the plain of Shinar, mankind says
“Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
So a tower is begun, and God Himself says,
“Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.”
So the tower of Babel never gets finished. It seems that Pentecost is Babel all over again! Confusion, different language, different meanings! What is God up to in confounding our language?


It seems rather unfair of God to cause disruption, but then what is He disrupting us from? The Tower of Babel is planned by people trying to put God aside and make themselves the centre of attention. These folk do not want God being the centre of their lives, but themselves. They want something of themselves to worship. However, in creating individuals, God has given us our own points of view which can be used for good and for evil, just like anything else. Just as we have arms that can hug or hit, so do we each have minds that can both unite and divide, and wills that can love and hate. When we blindly insist on our own ways then we lose out on what others mean and we cease to understand them. This is the confusion that God has given us: it is a by-product of His giving us personal free-will. The confusion comes from our failure to see God as the One who gives meaning in the first place.


Babel is about division. People are separated from each other by their language because they wish to leave God out. God, however, wants us with Him. This is why the day of Pentecost is so important. Whenever the Bible tells us that someone is filled with the Holy Ghost, it is always to speak God’s word. It is always to speak a truth and to speak words of love and unity. In filling the Apostles with the Holy Ghost, the same message of God’s love for us is brought to people of different languages for us all to understand. Every human being is told of the love that God has for them even if we do not understand the language.

This is the story of Babel backwards, because God is at the centre of worship. Confirmation with the Holy Ghost brings us the ability to come together even if we do not quite understand one another in full. St Paul reminds us that the fruit of the Holy Ghost is, “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance” and these are all unifying – ways of living that are the same in any language. It is this fruit that we must pray for, and it is this fruit that we need to grow in our lives.


There is one God in three persons – a perfect unity. If we truly seek God and to be re-united with Him, then not only will we draw close to Him, but we must also necessarily draw close to those others who truly seek Him. Can we truly communicate that without being misunderstood?

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Heaven's above?

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension 2014 

 It’s a fact that many people on the street don’t know what happened to Jesus after the Resurrection. They know of the Baby Jesus at Christmas and they may know roughly what Easter is all about, though even this is not certain these days. Mention the other feasts of the Lord such as the Epiphany (which they might know as Twelfth Night), the Transfiguration or the Ascension, and many people on the streets of Britain will not have a clue. Is this their fault? Not if they haven’t been taught about these things. So whose job is it to teach them?


Many Christians, too, find themselves confused about the events in the Lord’s life, especially as some Churches have re-invented meanings. However, the Ascension of Our Lord is not something that is readily spoken of, despite it, like the other events in the life of Our Lord, is of vital importance to understand. In writing the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke gives a detailed account of the Ascension into Heaven. “And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.”

Yes, that’s it!

That’s the Ascension in its entirety. St Mark is the only other Biblical writer to catalogue the Ascension and that is with the words, “So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.” Compared with Elijah being carried up into Heaven by a whirlwind, this seems positively tame, undramatic and an abrupt end to Our Lord’s ministry. Is this why the Ascension is so understated, because Christians themselves find it a bit difficult to explain without seeming a bit silly?


Christians do have to be a bit careful here. Our Lord ascends into Heaven, but this does not mean that Heaven is in the sky as many people seem to think. Indeed, the Bible shows us quite clearly that Heaven is not really somewhere we could call a place. It’s not like London, it’s not like Europe, it’s not like a planet out there in some far distant galaxy. Heaven is where God can be seen, and where Our Lord Jesus can be seen at His right hand. Yet God is always with us, and we’re not in Heaven, are we? In his Revelation, St John the Divine reminds us that our concepts of heaven and earth will evaporate.

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold , the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful”

It’s truly difficult to say what Heaven is because it is somehow where God dwells with us and yet is not somewhere to which we can point. We can only see through a glass darkly. St Paul tells us that the imperfect vanishes when the perfect comes, and this is the key to understanding what Our Lord’s Ascension is about and what it means for us.


As we’ve found out before, Our Lord Jesus cannot be perfect until He has died on the cross. When He rises from the dead, we know that He has a physical body like ours, yet that can do extraordinary things such as appear in locked rooms, bear the wounds that killed Him, eat, drink and ascend into Heaven. This is the body that He promises us.

“For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.”
In appearing to us after the Resurrection, the Lord is showing us that our lives as they are now are important and to be cherished Our lives now form the seeds for our transformation into heavenly bodies. This is why the ascension of the Lord seems to be an anti-climax – it is simply not the end of Christ’s presence with us, but rather the beginning of seeing Christ’s eternal presence with us. It is because He has ascended that He can be present with us all our lives. It is because He has ascended that he can be really present in the Holy Eucharist, for the Holy Eucharist brings us into Heaven, even if our senses cannot really take that in. We see through a glass darkly.


We can be assured that, by following Christ all the days of our lives, we will too end up in Heaven with Him where He is preparing us a place-to-be. That place-to-be begins with us here and now, yet can we really hope to comprehend it?