Thursday, September 29, 2011

Michaelmas: Angels and Demons

Written for the Magazine of St Peter and St Paul's Church, Swanscombe at the request of a friend.

Do you get the feeling that Dan Brown has it in for the Church? First there was the Da Vinci Code with a lot of untruths about Jesus having a family and the Holy Grail being his descendants. Then came the story Angels and Demons with a group of Scientists trying to blow up the Vatican!

It does seem that there are many people in the world who have it in for the Church as a whole. There are a whole host of reasons. Professor Richard Dawkins believes that the God of the Bible is cruel, jealous and arbitrary. Christopher Hitchens believes that God doesn’t exist because Christians are so bad. Karl Marx sees religious belief as something that drugs people from seeing the truth about their own poverty. What do you think about this? What arguments have you heard that God doesn’t exist? Is the Church living a lie?

It’s very easy not to care with our comfortable lives or our economic worries and it isn’t surprising that people fall away from the Faith because it fails to address their concerns. But then didn’t Jesus say something about the word of God falling among nettles and thorns? Our modern society believes that the only things that exists are the things we can lay our hands on or measure in some way. Our society doesn’t believe in God for the simple reason that He cannot be observed in action, put into a test-tube or seen through a telescope. If God doesn’t exist, then neither does life after death, so eat drink and be merry et c. How can anyone answer back at this?

It’s understandable that we feel daunted at going against this Materialism in our society, especially when it means that we come up against our friends and even family, or even ourselves! How tempting it is to put down our daily Bible reading in favour of watching Emmerdalenders or Coronation Farm! In the light of so much against us, it’s easy for us to feel weak and helpless.

And what would the Lord say? Easy: “Be not afraid!” Listen to the two Patron Saints of the Church in Swanscombe. St Peter says, “be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about seeking whom he may devour, whom resist strong in the faith.” [1 Peter 5.8]. St Paul bids us be strong and disciplined and “put on the whole armour of God. that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” [Ephesians 6.11] What are these Patron Saints saying?

First, as sure as God exists, so does the Devil. It’s very tempting to write off both Angels and Demons as fairy stories and not really existing – that’s actually something that the Devil wants so he can hide from us. If, however, we believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ, then we don’t really have a choice about believing in Angels or Demons, because the Lord Jesus himself casts out devils and talks about Satan and Beelzebub and the like. The Lord Himself tells us that we will one day judge the Angels, and remember the angels present at His birth! If Jesus says that Angels and Demons exist, and we believe Him, then Angels and Demons exist.

Second, St Peter and St Paul tell us what demons are. If you think about it, you already know the answer. Who is it who tempts you into losing your temper, or avoiding the train fare, or filling in the wrong numbers on a tax return? Who is it that puts the ideas in people’s heads to riot? Remember that poor girl who had just graduated and was trying to become a lawyer, and yet still looted a television during the riots despite the fact she knew it was wrong. We are all susceptible to temptation, but just as we are led to God by angels, so are we led away by demons. They may not have pitchforks, horns and pointy tales, but they’re there! They are those powers which tempt perfectly sane and moral people to act insanely and immorally. That includes me, and that includes you.

Third, St Peter and St Paul tell us what to do - be Faithful. We may not be able to answer back to those who shout that God does not exist, but we can refuse to allow their words to rattle us. The first way of showing faith is prayer. To pray to God shows already that you believe He exists. Pray for strength. Second, receive the Holy Sacrament every Sunday, because you are receiving Our Lord. Third, keep up the Bible reading, because then you can hear God speak. Fourth, don’t be afraid. It is written He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. (Psalm 91)

On September 29th we remember St Michael, the warrior angel who defeats Satan. We also remember all angels who are sent by God to help us. If we play our part and open ourselves to God then we find some assistance in the angels. We also must remember that the Devil is only an angel, he is not equal to God. If we are faithful, then we can resist him. It takes a lot of work and prayer, but there are more on our side than we think there are!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Noticing the Community Trust

While on your morning constitutional, you notice in a shop window a home-made sign which suggests that if you ring the number (apparently that of a mobile phone), you will be given assistance with all your computing troubles. You know that your laptop has been a bit slow lately, and defragging doesn't seem to do the trick. The question is: do you ring the number and get the assistance?

Chances are you would not; you would feel uncomfortable about contacting someone whom you had never met, whose credentials you had never seen, to fiddle around with your laptop when you don't quite know what you are doing? How do you know he won't put on some malware that will give him access to your sensitive information? Would you have had a different opinion if the sign had possessed a professional letterhead, or had was representative of a recognised computer repairs chain?

How would you react if the sign had been handwritten and said, "Carefull, door brocken!"

Faith and trust do not seem to be in great supply these days. There seem to be many people who do not trust the Governments scheme of cutting spending. Certain conspiracies such as the unusual circumstances of the death of Dr David Kelly have some very serious adherents. There seems to be no faith in the Roman Catholic Church leadership in Ireland following the Abuse scandal. Trusting what scientists say is also not gaining any ground. There are people who doubt that science can tell them how to live.

Actually, there are very good reasons for these cases of mistrust, people have good grounds for believing all of these institutions to be untrustworthy. With regard to the cuts in public spending, does anyone trust a minister who says, "We're all in this together and you must sacrifice a third of your pension to contribute to our plan of putting this right"? One might be more sympathetic to this view if the loss of a third of a pension were truly unilateral and that the minister himself was going sustain a comparable cut in pension.

With regard to Dr Kelly, given that the then Government was using much underhand propaganda and spin to convince Parliament and the country of the necessity of the invasion of Iraq and that Dr Kelly stood against this, one might be forgiven for doubting that his death was indeed the suicide as proclaimed in the media.

When bishops and archbishops do indeed try to hide the details of abuse by clergy and move the offending clergy on to places where they abuse again, then it is not surprising that this damages not only the trust in the parish priest, but also in the bishops that support them. It all looks like an inside job.

Who can trust Science to tell you how to live when one week eggs are bad for you and the next they're not only good for you but essential. The recent "discovery" that drinking lots of water can in fact be bad for you does seem to indicate that Science doesn't know what it's talking about sometimes. What is not often apparent is that Science is deeply divided about the nature of the origins of the Universe. While that might make for some exciting research, it doesn't exactly fill one with faith when discoveries made one week are shown to be false or out-of-date the next.

All in all, the levels of trust in society are falling. I've hear several people say, "I don't trust anybody now. Just myself." One can see that people are no longer in respect of their superiors to make good judgments on the basis that they believe previous judgments to be flawed. Marriage is no longer the uncompromising commitment that it used to be. Pre-nuptial agreements are now common fare in case of divorce.

For me, this represents the breakdown of community. People are becoming increasingly wary of commitment in case it all falls through and causes much in the way of pain. In order to be convinced that a commitment is worthwhile, credentials have to be presented and, in some cases, the credentials of those who give the credentials are being checked too. When does one become satisfied in trusting another?

It seems to me that the lack of trust in people is because of a growing materialism and relativism. For the Moral Relativist, there can be no real trust, no faith in people, because their moral standards are necessarily different. We cannot trust David Beckham to score a goal if the goalie picks up the goal post and moves it out of the way. Yet this would be perfectly consistent with the relativist's rules. Materialism demands evidence of reliability - credentials, certificates, references, bibliographies. This evidence is, however, necessarily inductive, i.e. based on a posteriori likelihood rather than a priori proof. We all do that, but are we coming to a point where this is not even enough?

I find materialism completely untrustworthy because it begs its own question. Where is the evidence that materialism is true? What is the scientific evidence to suggest that scientific evidence is enough to describe reality accurately? Herein lies the death of verificationalism.

In an episode of last year's Doctor Who, there was a rather fascinating conversation between the Doctor and Amy Pond:

The Doctor: Amy. You need to start trusting me. It's never been more important.
Amy: But you don't always tell me the truth.
The Doctor: If I always told you the truth I wouldn't need you to trust me.

I find this rather telling. Despite the fact that the Doctor doesn't always tell Amy the truth, he still asks her to trust him and it turns she does. Of course, this trust is due mainly because she has become increasingly familiar of the Doctor. Of course, this may well be part of the Time Lord charm which we humans lack, But it does raise the question, what does it take for a person to become trustworthy in our eyes? Do we have a personal criterion for deeming a person trustworthy? If we do, can we speak it?

If we're going to learn to trust again, then we are going to have to recognise our communities again. This needs to start locally. Of course, there are people that we know we cannot trust, but there needs to come a point where we set forward some way of trusting them again. I believe that this comes through cultivating our faith in God.

I trust God when He says that He exists and from that I trust Him when He says that He is truly good, almighty and all-knowing, though I cannot pretend to fathom what He means. One might call me a fool. Perhaps I am, but I have here the foundation on which I can live and learn to trust people and to give them a way of earning my greater trust. I recognise that human beings fail and fail badly, me included, but I have faith that God will not let me down. This comes from my belief that God is good. That sounds as if I believe that God exists in order that I can live. I assure you that my reasons for believing in God are more substantial that that, but you'll have to trust me on that!

Faith in God means that we have a binding influence, an inherent commonality with our neighbour whoever they are. This means that because I am commanded to love my neighbour, then I have to have an initial respect for them, a basis on which my trust can build. If someone else professes belief in the same God, then that trust can feedback into the system. Thus the Church, when done properly, can present a community of trusting, yet fallible, individuals. By trusting God, we are presented with the necessity of trusting our superiors to guide the way. Yes, of course, breaches of trust - even gross breaches of trust - will probably still happen, but if we are following the Commandments of God and not changing their sense through relativistic capitulations to a materialistic society, then we can begin to help that materialistic society to grow and heal, and maybe even see the God in Whom we have faith. That might be a better advert than a tatty home-made one in the shop window.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Science, Sorites and Society.

Just so that you know, I'm a mathematician (not a proper one, though) and not a scientist. I'm not really a philosopher either but I certainly know I'm doing myself a disservice by trying to label myself as this thing called "mathematician". That's a very typical practice of society - everything has to be packaged in nice little boxes in order for things to make sense.

I do actually love Science very much: I wish I were better at physics not least because it inspires some truly fascinating mathematics which in turn inspires some rather fascinating experiments. The Hadron Collider experiments and the attempts to find the elusive Higgs Boson are true nail-biters. The energy window for finding the Boson is shrinking fast. Can we find it, or is our understanding of physics flawed?

If we do find it, then this bodes very well for the theory which we have, if not it means some exciting new challenges upon which will stretch our understanding of the facts that we have.

Likewise, I find the idea of Evolution not only fascinating but indeed compelling. I've studied many an evolution equation, both discrete and continuous. Langton's ant is also a fascinating example of how a simple rule can bring about both unpredictable and predictable behaviour. Conway's game of life certainly does point to some deeper ideas as to how Evolution can bring up the creatures we see around us today. I've always thought that if God had wanted to create something then I couldn't think of a better way for Him to do it than have us evolve as we have done. It is absolutely fascinating.

But it is just a theory.

Now, we reach a rather important problem with the way that Science is being done these days, and the status which it is given (or perhaps rather that the Scientists believe that it has). If one, for example, doubts that Evolution is true, then one is pilloried by the established scientists. Some scientists can become very much like their own caricature of the Church in opposing freedom of thought. This is despite the fact that, if a deterministic theory of the universe is correct, then given the same laws and the knowledge of the states of every particle in the universe, there is no way of knowing whether the Universe actually began with the beginning of this blog entry. It's actually a very simple extension of the theory of ordinary differential equations. Is it true? I don't know. I can't know. I can try to find out, but how?

And that's the point.

Science, these days, has fallen into a fashion of reductionism, the idea of reducing things to component parts so that we can study the component parts and make inferences as to how they fit together to make up the whole. This reminds me somewhat of Sorites Paradox: if we remove the grains of sand one by one from a sand heap, at which point does it cease to be a heap? However, it's not quite fair to accuse Science of blindly reiterating this paradox. Scientists will try to deduce properties of the heap from the grains of sand. One then has to answer for oneself how one can deduce the "heapiness" of the heap from the grains of sand.

What about a beach? Can one deduce global properties of a beach from all the grains of sand?

Further, if the law of Gravity as we understand in this little locale of the Universe is indeed a universal law (and how do we know this?) then every individual particle must influence the motion of every other individual particle. Given that there are (from what I remember of the most recent physical theories) 10^79 (i.e. 1 followed by 79 zeroes) protons (I may be wrong) in the universe, that surely makes it a bit tricky to get a theory of everything.

In mathematical mechanics, we make assumptions and simplifications - A uniform ladder of mass m kg is resting on rough ground against a smooth wall...etc - these words "uniform" "smooth" "rough" are all simplifications which one makes in order to make some, often beautifully, accurate predictions. We certainly got to the Moon and back using effectively Newtonian Mechanics. However, these assumptions break down. One could use statistical mechanics, but then one gets into likelihoods and probabilities. Scientific Certainty comes with a given margin of error. If it doesn't, something's wrong.

But such is life. We seem often to look for the truth by breaking things to bits. Further to what I said in Horror and Holiness, we have not only stripped the clothes off of the nubile virgin, but also her skin and her flesh to see what makes her tick, and in so doing we destroy not only her dignity, then her beauty, but her humanity as well. This is not to say that we shouldn't be curious about our beautiful universe, but rather that we should not expect Science, or even Philosophy to have definite answers. There's a definite and horrible tragedy there that doesn't seem in any way romantic.

Being religious, I get accused of obfuscating the truth with mystery and meaningless ritual. I find that unfair. One can attempt to probe mystery and then uncover the answer that one was searching for. A materialist will carefully dissect a consecrated wafer to find God, but will only find bits of consecrated wafer or atoms of consecrated wafer or (if he is really lucky) a Higgs Boson within the consecrated wafer, in which case the papers will have a field-day ("God particle found in Wafer"). But a materialist will only find material because material will be all that they will look for. A scientist who happens to be a Christian may also tackle the same experiment, though I doubt that she would be very happy to do so, but she will find exactly the same as a materialist.

However, the ordinary Christian at Mass will receive a wafer and in so doing will find God, and that Christian will need no specialist knowledge in order to do so except their faith. Of course, the argument goes up. "We can't argue with you religious types. Everything comes back down to Faith with you." That's true of materialists too and their faith that everything that is is material.

This reductionism and Sorites principle is also endemic in Religion. I see it very much evidenced in Anglicanism where things seem to split and split and split ever more finely. It's anti-catholic in its scope and its a scandal, particularly in the Continuum, that there should exist shibboleths to categorise one Anglican from another. Those who have become "former Anglicans" have now rent the Traditional Anglican Communion. This may or may not have been necessary, but it has rocked the identity of the TAC in this deconstruction.

I find myself becoming very doubtful these days with what I'm being presented as certainties. The certainties of my Faith are contingent on the fact that I have Faith, and even then I believe in a God who will surprise me, maybe even scandalise me. That's not to say that I believe that He will contradict Himself - I believe Him to be faithful to me even if I am far from faithful to Him.

I recently learned that a priest before Mass lays out his maniple, stole and cincture in an IHS and I saw in this how a priest takes great care in ensuring that he suffuses himself in Christ. All this is contingent on his faith and the faith that he wants to communicate to his parishioners. I find sacred action and holy ritual to be affirming, though I cannot always find an adequate reason why I should find these things affirming. I suspect it is because it helps me to become suffused in a God whose existence is utterly inexpressible. The theory is beautiful but inadequate, the search meaningful but incomplete, the logic infallible but infinitely far from exhaustive in its search for Truth, the ideas worthy to be expressed but too restrictive.

Catholicism is only truly evidenced in Christ who can be the only uniting principle in opposition to the reductionism that Christianity has contracted from an apparently materialist society. Catholic, Protestant and Anglican are united in their belief in Him and, as they search for Him, honestly and in the greatest childlike humility. This is surely the only way to guard against some truly demonic attacks against the integrity of the Church.

For the Christian, life must be suffused with Christ so that our lives do not fall to bits, into component parts where the meaning of life is lost. I saw something of that while I was studying for my doctorate in four-dimensional geometry. As a result, I had no option to preface my thesis with this (especially with the reference to four dimensions).

That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen. (Ephesians iii.20)