Tuesday, June 26, 2007

You just get what you believe in.

This is an attitude that I seem to be hearing quite a bit. So what precisely does this belief state?

Essentially, it's a palliative statement designed to offend no-one. The whole premise of this statement is that when we die we will all go to the afterlife that we have in our belief system. Those who believe in reincarnation get reincarnated. Those who believe that we go to Heaven go to Heaven, and those who believe in nothing, well, cease to be.

Essentially then we are saved by faith alone! - but faith in what we choose to believe.

Of course from a Christian point of view there are several problems. If God created the Universe, then quite clearly it is His idea of Heaven that counts and not ours. If we reject Him then we reject His Heaven which he prepares for us. If we Christians go to the Heaven we believe in then the God we worship is a created god, nothing more than an idol.

There are other problems with this idea besides Christian doctrine. If we are all in charge of our own afterlife, then this points to another solipsist universe. We become the creators of our own ends. What we say goes. If our final end is our decision, then it is limited by our imagination. There is no Eternity in the Human mind. It is clear from our humanity on Earth that no matter what we enjoy, we can have too much of it. A Heaven of chocolate pudding would soon become a Hell as our taste for chocolate pudding evaporates within the first four hours of our attainment of our personal Nirvana.

Well perhaps our taste for chocolate pudding will never fade. Perhaps we will remain in love with our favourite dessert for all Eternity. Well, then surely we would cease to be the human being that we are. We wouldn't be we! Perhaps that's what we're truly frightened of - being the people we are. Perhaps our Heaven is the place where we find solace from the tyranny of existence. In ceasing to be the people we are, we are faced with only one alternative - Oblivion.

But can we really reconcile an afterlife of Oblivion with a life which sees people suffer pain and misery. Could we really turn to the starving child in Africa as that poor little life ebbs out and say "don't worry, there's nothing after this!" Well perhaps that might be a blessed relief, but where's the justice? A life of suffering followed by nothing? Whose imagination is that? What is the point?

Certainly if the Universe is indeed a the product of a Calabi-Yau 3-fold with a 4D spacetime, then there is plenty of room for us to exist without meeting another person - all 6000 million of us and the ones who have ever lived. But an existence where we go where we believe is inconsistent with our life on Earth. We do live with others. Even the most colossal introvert like myself has experiences of others and it is through those experiences that we grow. If our destiny is to go our own separate ways then what is the point of that interaction? If our end is solipsist, then so surely is our beginning. If not, then why is there an existence over which we have no control which evolves into an "Eternity" of our own imagining?

If our existence is not dependent on an uncreated God, then there seems much inconsistency. Sure, it's possible that I believe in God because He satisfies a desire in me for a consistency of my existence. But the fact that I exist and that others exist with me, apart from me, different from me in a diversity of ways, and there still exists some order as we all try to live together point to the necessity for that consistency. The Natural Law shows us consistency of our experience, and that consistency points to a God who made order from chaos.

I am not a solipsist. There's no way that an introvert like me has the capacity to imagine the different people of the world. I believe in a Creator God and I am pleased to rely on His Eternity a truly Transcendent Eternity rather than my paltry understandings of Infinity. I would rather explore the Heaven of an infinite being rather than the vapid and facile imaginings of my own mind. No. I've no idea what heaven will be like. I don't want to know now because I can't know now. All I can do is trust the One who made me.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ten in the Bed… the sinister version.

Sadly, one of the most hard-working members of my Parish died on Monday after a long battle with cancer. I couldn't preach according to the lectionary because of the nature of the material.
I therefore preached a more personal sermon today, and I publish what I would have said here.

Sermon preached at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Swanscombe on the second Sunday after Trinity Sunday 17th June 2007, based on II Samuel xi.26—xii.15 and St Luke vii.36—viii.3.

Leo is desperate. It is now nearly three days since he last got his fix of Heroin. There is only one clear thought in his head: get the next dose as soon as possible. He searches his pockets, his coat, his room. No money. So he leaves his filthy squat lined with dirty newspapers and even filthier hypodermic needles, in a frantic search for money to stop the pain in his stomach.

On his way he meets Kyle. Kyle refuses to give him any money, so Leo stabs him dead with his rusty penknife. He takes from Kyle a grand total of £3.87. Not enough.

Of course, Leo is caught and convicted of Kyle’s murder.

How long do you think his sentence should be?


He is sentenced by the judge to 7 years. Too short?

In prison, Leo attempts to kick the habit. But he is always faced with the same symptoms. He sits in the centre of his cell with a gut-wrenching pain in his stomach, his hands shaking almost uncontrollably, dreading the return of his cell mate. Several times he succumbs and manages to get hold of some heroin from the underground trade. But still he must face the withdrawal symptoms, the same symptoms which cost Kyle his life in return for £3.87, the same symptoms which make Leo wish that he were dead.

Does the severe physical and psychological pain of Leo’s withdrawal symptoms change your mind about what his punishment should be?

For what is Leo being punished?


In the court, the obvious charge is murder, but killing Kyle was the result of Leo’s desperation for his next fix of heroin. Heroin is an addictive drug, so is Leo’s real sin getting hooked on it in the first place? But it was his girlfriend Britney at his sixteenth birthday party who persuaded him to take heroin in the first place because it felt good.

So what was the cause of the chain of events that resulted in Kyle’s death?


Sin begets sin. It’s like a sinister version of “There were ten in the bed.” When the little one says, “Roll over,” someone ends up falling out. Someone said “Roll over” and the result was that Leo fell out. It only has to be a little one.

There is always someone who shouts “roll over.”

Robert forgets to hold the door open for Nancy and it hits her, taking the skin off her elbow. This puts her in a bad mood so she shouts at her secretary Jean for being, in her words, “bone idle”. Jean takes Nancy’s criticisms seriously and tries to compensate by working harder. She spends more and more time at the office trying to sort out what to do, so much so that she forgets about the needs of her children Bradley and Britney who crave attention from their mother and, without her guidance, start to wander away from the straight and narrow. And then Britney gets invited to a sixteenth birthday party where she meets Leo…

So is Robert’s unthinking action the cause of Kyle’s death?

Not entirely, but his actions certainly contribute. The cause of Kyle’s death goes back further in many, many directions and things get more complicated and twisted and we lose track of who caused what.


“For by one man came death…” As Christians, we believe that all sin has its source from our very beginning as human beings and we can see that that very first sin has affected humanity all around us, and will continue to do so.

As Christians, we come here every week and say “we have sinned.” How often, though, do we think honestly of the consequences of our actions? A moment’s lack of thought can set the wheels in motion for a murder. This isn’t something we like to think about, but it’s true – each burst of bad temper, each incident of “oh it doesn’t matter, no-one will notice,” each “I wish I were married to his wife” adds to a stream of events which will end in catastrophe for someone.

How could we live with ourselves if we knew the full extent of our actions?


One woman knows.

It frightens her. She’s filled with remorse at her actions as she sees their effects on her life and the life of her community. It seems that everyone around her is pointing – sinner! They believe her to be fully responsible for some of the unpleasantness in this town. Her sin is always before her and she cannot shake off the guilt. So what can she do?

She sees Him at dinner in Simon the Pharisee’s house and she begins to weep for her sins, for what she’s done, washing His feet with her tears – and her sins are washed away by His love. She is free from the guilt.

She still has to live with the consequences of her sin. She is still called sinner and shunned by those who have not heard the message of the Son of God. In the eyes of this world, nothing changes. But through her encounter with the living Christ she finds out that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.


Through the love of God the effects of our sins are cancelled out. They die with us in this frail and fleeting world. To be forgiven fully, we need to bring all that we have done to Him in honesty. This is why the confession at Mass is so important - we need to say “I have sinned”. We will only be forgiven as much as we are willing to confess. Christ shows us that in His parable.

How much was your confession worth today?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus

Debate on this has been raging in the Anglo-Catholic Central message board. Is a Protestant sufficiently outside the Catholic Church to be excluded from Salvation?

We might be able to argue contrariwise through the Fathers, maybe even from Scripture itself that anyone outside of the Catholic Faith cannot be saved. However, one thing disturbs me - I Corinthians xiii.

si linguis hominum loquar et angelorum caritatem autem non habeam factus sum
velut aes sonans aut cymbalum tinniens.

I'm sure that we can argue someone outside of the the Church and to Damnation, since St Cyprian is right - there is no salvation outside of the Church. However, Salvation belongs to God.
I am not learned enough to get into this argument on the level of the Fathers, but a mere appeal to I Cor xiii suggests that if we can argue someone out of the Church, then we cannot ourselves be part of it unless we find ourselves in great pain.

How can we speak of the pain of others as Christians and not feel their pain ourselves? Our disunity as Christians is a scandal, and our further schisms too lightly described as "an embarassment". It must hurt us, it must be seen as the worst thing, but if people have no choice but to walk away then what can we do?

That there is a clear demarcation between right and wrong is correct. That we can see a clear demarcation between right and wrong is absolutely fallacious. The boundary between right and wrong is fractal possessing structure on every scale of magnitude. Get too close and you lose the bigger picture, go too far out and you lose the fine detail. Only an infinite mind can resolve an infinite structure. There are things which are irreconcileable within the paucity of our belief.

There are the "pot-boilers" which inflame polemics between the Catholic Church and the Protestant. As I said below, I believe the Catholic Church to be more consistent in its interpretation of the Divine Will from His Revelation. Only when this consistency is rejected do the "pot-boilers" become valid because they are argued from inconsistency.

We cannot adopt consistency and inconsistency. Either the ordination of women is valid or it is not. Since it is not valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church, there is an irreconcilable split between those who hold it and those who don't. Does this damn women "priests" and their supporters? I pray to God that it isn't so, but I do believe that they have put themselves into severe danger.

So the Church is split, rent and fragmented into Communions and all we can do is follow the Rule of St Benedict and never despair of the mercy of God. We must also trust in God's ability to hold contradictions together. Reconciliation can and will only occur as a result of the Grace of God and if I am honest it will only occur at His hands. Until then the talking must occur, but there must also be a time for silence.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Making sense of beyond sense.

In some ways I'm at a bit of a disadvantage being a mathematician. It does mean that taking things on trust is not a natural thing to do. Of course there exists for each of us a level where we are forced to take something on trust, but some seem quicker to do this than others.

Unlike mathematics or science, Religion is not based on assumptions but certain inspirations and revelations, and it is upon these that the whole identity of the religion is based. Looking at the complexity of Catholic Doctrine, I can understand why some feel that it is restricting and stifles the spirit. Why is Christ's message of the love of God and the love of our fellow man not proclaimed as simply by the Church? Surely the doctrine of the Real Presence is unnecessary? Why do we ask the prayers of the dead? There does seem to be an inordinate complexity to all of these issues, but largely how does this complexity arise?

Complexity arises because of consistency. If we in the 21st Century are to find ourselves following the same religion as the Fathers, then we have to be consistent with their teaching. But why is consistency necessary? Is it necessary for our Faith to "make sense"?

It is necessary for us to understand what it means "to make sense". A religion exists to provide some meaning to our lives, to answer questions, to provide us with the means for a well-formed judgment, and a reliable direction for our lives' journeys. It also provides us with some comfortable cloud of unknowing in which, although not all of our questions have answers, our lives can go on regardless of not having those answers. One only has to read the works of the Cappadocian Fathers to see the edges of human understanding when they describe God as having a reality beyond all being, and that even the word "being" does not do justice to his existence because His reality transcends the idea of existence.

This makes our mind boggle and rightly so. Our understanding hits a wall and can proceed no further, but our relationship continues beyond our thoughts and into the darkness of Love.
However, in knowing that there are boundaries to our understanding there is a great temptation for us to be fearful or lazy about the limits of our thought that we feel that we can make statements which contradict our faith but need not be defended because their defense lies within the Cloud of Unknowing.

For example, Dr Ann Holmes Redding claims that it is perfectly consistent to be both a Moslem and a Christian. It may be consistent to live according to societal rules of both Islamic and Religious Cultures which are certainly consistent, but there is no Moslem that would subscribe to the Nicene-Creed as interpreted by the Catholic Church.

I am a Catholic because it is the most consistent expression of the Christian Religion. It eliminates personal interpretation of Revelation. Some may argue that this is a bad thing because it removes the possibility of God's personal relationship with the individual. But a submission to the Catholic Faith is a submission to a stable rock of Doctrine independent of the "winds of doctrine" produced by the winds of Zeitgeist. If the Christian Faith changes from century to century, how can we be sure that it is any way the Faith founded by Christ? If the Fathers held to the Real Presence - i.e. the physical presence of Christ in the Consecrated Eucharistic elements - then we must hold to the Real Presence. If not, then we have to answer the question: when the Presence suddenly cease to be Real? Was the Church so horribly mistaken? If it was mistaken, then how do we know it was right in everything else?
We could just cast the inconsistency into the Cloud of Unknowing and say "Oh well, it's a matter of faith", but if we investigate in honesty then we find that the inconsistency does not lie in the Transcendent nature of God, but rather the doctrine of men.

Of course, we can only make inroads into the unfathomable Cloud if we continue to talk and continue to treasure our beliefs almost simultaneously. God gave consistency to us so that we might have stability and order. It is a typical trait of our God to create order out of Chaos, and while our Church may be buffeted by strong winds at the moment, as long as we hold onto the order that the Church possesses by virtue of her espousal to God, then we shall pass cheerfully and boldly into that cloud validly and with humble boldness and eventually out into the knowledge of God.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

It's a mystery...

Homily preached at Eltham College on Corpus Christi 7th June 2006.

A man walks into a Church
and goes into the Confessional.

"Father," he says,
"this is my first confession,
and I have a terrible sin to confess."

"Don't worry, my son,"
says the priest,
"I am duty bound not to reveal
anything said in this confessional."

"Are you sure, Father?

It's a terrible sin that I've committed,
and I'm so ashamed."

"Of course I'm sure, my son.

I cannot utter it to anyone at all,
even you after you leave."

"Then I can confess?

Oh, but it's a terrible sin."

"Yes my Son.

It'll remain between you,
me and God, I promise.

Now tell me all about it."

So the man confesses his sin to the priest.


And the priest?

Well he's a man of his word....


It's irritating when
our curiosity is not satisfied
- when we run up against something
that we’d like to know
but can’t find the answer.

It causes us frustration.

It's the same feeling
we get when we're trying to fill in
the Times Crossword which,
judging by the complexity of the clues,
seems to have been compiled
by someone who's
had fifty-seven Red Bull's and has been picking the clues
from the Oxford English
dictionary at
random with a pin.

Here at school,
there are many mysteries
that we face as both students and staff.

Why is it that the interactive whiteboard
always fails when the teacher wants
to use a PowerPoint Presentation?

Why do we have to learn
to solve simultaneous equations?

Why is it that the French
can't pronounce the last letters
of any of their words?


Life is full of mysteries,
some which can be explained.

Why does toast always land butter-side down?

Well it's because of the relative sizes of chairs,
tables and toast which allow only
time for a half spin of toast
before it hits the ground?

Why are ghosts always grey shadows?

Well, a scientist in Coventry
proved that low frequency vibrations
affect the eyes and brain
to produce sensations in
the peripheral vision
making grey shapes
in the corner of the eye.

How can we find out how old Sir Patrick Moore is?

Well, there's always radio-carbon dating.


On a more serious note,
Science and Religion always appear
to be at loggerheads when it comes
to explaining mysteries:
Evolution versus Creationism,
Life after death –
or nothing at all?

It’s important to realise that
despite explanations,
the issues of the Beginning of the Universe,
the Dawn of Man,
the Meaning of Life
and Life after Death
can only be nothing more
than theories.

No-one was about
at the Beginning of the Universe
to ask God just how He was going to create it.

Three million years ago,
there was no intrepid journalist
scouring the savannah planes with a microphone
grilling gorillas in the hope that
one would say
“well, actually
I’m evolving into
a human being.”

Science deals with observables,
hypotheses that we can test by experimenting.

Religion deals with unobservables,
things that we cannot even begin
to test empirically- by experiment.

How do you test for Life after Death?

Use an unusually long pair of tweezers
to extract people from Purgatory and ask them?


The Christian Faith challenges us
to accept that there will always be things
that we cannot adequately explain.

It challenges us
to live without knowing all the answers.

We have no scientific proof of the existence of God –
we never will have
because we can't stick God into a centrifuge.

We cannot understand the Holy Trinity
because there is nothing like the Holy Trinity
within range of our chemistry set.

We have to live with these mysteries by Faith.
there is no scientific proof
for the non-existence of God –
nor will there be.

Atheism is just as much a matter of faith
as Theism.

So if there will always be
things we don’t know,
what’s the point of finding anything out?

What’s the point of school
if at the end of it we find ourselves
with more questions than answers?


Education exists so that
we can handle mystery
in a responsible and respectful manner.

We can only find out
what we don’t know by looking at
what we do know.

We can only affirm
what we believe by testing
it honestly and rigorously
in the world around us.
In education,
we cannot just say “I don’t know” and leave it there.

We have to say
“well, what do I know?”
and go from there.

That’s a good exam tip, by the way.

The major causes of
religious intolerance occur between folk
who cannot handle mystery in a responsible way.

It’s one thing to believe that you’re right –
it’s fine to believe that you are right –
so long as you are honest
about your reasons for believing
what you do,
and are also honest
about what you don’t know.

You have to be responsible in treating those
who don’t share your beliefs
with the dignity that any human being deserves
by virtue of being a human being.

You can only really find out what you do
and don’t know
by talking to people.

An honest debate is good –
debate is necessary! –
even if it does get heated,
as long as, after the debate,
both sides can shake hands and say words of kindness
and appreciation to the other.

What is the greatest mystery in your life?

What are you doing to get to the bottom of it?