Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Queen of Paradise مريم


A couple of days ago I came across the following tweets, written by a Muslim:
“Mary = Maryam/Miryam. “None among women have reached perfection except Mary the Virgin” - P. Muhammad”

“Since the Quran venerates her & the Prophet Muhammad called her […] the Queen of Paradise, I do recourse to her intercession.”
As you can imagine, it stopped me in my tracks and I have been trying to find out more about where these statements fitted within Islamic teaching. While I was vaguely aware of the Qur’an considering Jesus a prophet and also mentioning Mary (and doing so more extensively even than the New Testament), what I learned over the last couple of days goes so far beyond that and I would like to share it with you.

Muslims believe that God sent the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad, who transmitted to him God’s words, verbatim - the Qur’an. There Mary is mentioned from the start and the Annunciation, is recounted as follows in the third chapter (Surat 'Āli `Imrān):
“[T]he angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds. O Mary, be devoutly obedient to your Lord and prostrate and bow with those who bow [in prayer].”” (Qur’an, 3:42-43)

“[T]he angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary - distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah].
He will speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity and will be of the righteous.”
She said, “My Lord, how will I have a child when no man has touched me?” [The angel] said, “Such is Allah; He creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.
And He will teach him writing and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel.
And [make him] a messenger to the Children of Israel, [who will say], ‘Indeed I have come to you with a sign from your Lord in that I design for you from clay [that which is] like the form of a bird, then I breathe into it and it becomes a bird by permission of Allah. And I cure the blind and the leper, and I give life to the dead - by permission of Allah.”” (Qur’an, 3:45-49)
The Qur’an also talks about Mary’s birth, the years leading up to the Annunciation and her life of prayer under the supervision of the prophet Zechariah in earlier verses:
“[W]hen the wife of 'Imran [Joachim] said, “My Lord, indeed I have pledged to You what is in my womb, consecrated [for Your service], so accept this from me. Indeed, You are the Hearing, the Knowing.”
But when she delivered her, she said, “My Lord, I have delivered a female.” And Allah was most knowing of what she delivered, “And the male is not like the female. And I have named her Mary, and I seek refuge for her in You and [for] her descendants from Satan, the expelled [from the mercy of Allah].”
So her Lord accepted her with good acceptance and caused her to grow in a good manner and put her in the care of Zechariah. Every time Zechariah entered upon her in the prayer chamber, he found with her provision. He said, “O Mary, from where is this [coming] to you?” She said, “It is from Allah. Indeed, Allah provides for whom He wills without account.””(Qur’an, 3:35-37)
Later on, chapter 19 (Surat Maryam) is dedicated to Mary, which after an account of John the Baptist’s birth proceeds to re-tell the Annunciation (having the angel say to Mary: “I am only the messenger of your Lord to give you [news of] a pure boy.”) and then proceeding to the birth of Jesus:
“So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place.
And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”
But he called her from below her, “Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream.
And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates.” (Qur’an, 19:22-25)

“[S]he pointed to him. They said, “How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?”
[Jesus] said, “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet.
And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive
And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant.
And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive.”” (Qur’an, 19:29-33)
Mary is mentioned 34 times in the Qur’an (the only woman to be referred to by name) and there is a wealth of ways in which she is revered and taken as an example in Islam. What am I, a Catholic, to make of this though? Primarily, my reaction is one of joy at having discovered a previously unknown community of my Mother’s sons and daughters. There is no doubt in my mind that Muslims who look to Mary as a role model (which I didn’t know existed before) have a lot in common with me and that is unquestionably a delight. Even from the few quotes above (that barely scratch the surface and don’t even touch on exegesis), it is clear though that there are dramatic differences here both in direct contrast (e.g., the account of Jesus’ birth being at odds with its Christian understanding) and in terms of lacking parallel accounts (Mary’s youth not being recounted in the New Testament), not to mention the very different conception of Jesus as compared to the Christian one. While it would be a mistake to look for syncretism (it always is), I believe it would also be a missed opportunity to only focus on differences. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear about there being goodness and truth to be found in all religions (§843) and that they all “reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men” (Nostra Aetate 2). I certainly feel enriched from having read the above passages of the Qur’an and will seek to further deepen my understanding.

Allāhu Akbar.

Contemporary art and its enemies

To paraphrase Karl Popper, let me start by saying that it is “impossible to make art in such a way that it cannot be misunderstood.” Over the course of this last week I have come across no less than three articles in which Christian authors denounce the evils of contemporary art.

Cathedral our lady angels 4961 large slideshow

First, there is our old friend Nikos Salingaros - of Oakland Cathedral review fame, who has a go at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels this time. His argument is again the same: “We have here a celebration of asymmetry, which might be understandable if there were a sound reason for it coming either from design necessities, or from religion.1 But there is none. The building’s asymmetry serves an essentially negative purpose: to deny coherence and harmony.2” And there is the usual litany of nonsensical gems like: “geometrical fundamentalism,” “naked concrete walls [being] ultimately unpleasant,” lacking “connective ornament,” and claiming that religion “has a natural affinity with traditional architectural expressions of coherence” before taking Antoni Gaudí’s3 name in vain. There is only one thing to say in response to this: bullspit! Instead of trying to debunk this junk head on, I think that I have a sense of the root cause of his confused misreading of this piece of architecture: an expectation of the literal. God is perfect harmony, so churches need to be perfectly symmetrical; the Church values continuity, so a church needs to look old; the soul needs to ascend to God, so there need to be vertical lines in the church’s geometry (and the list of naïveté goes on and on). What I believe this approach entirely misses are two key aspects of beauty: mystery and surprise! Why is it that an object evokes emotions, triggers reflection, prompts insight and delivers aesthetic joy and pleasure? Sure, there are plenty of theories, but periodically an artist comes along and creates a piece that breaks them, yet that is unmistakably appreciated as art. Surprise too is a key element of art, in my opinion, and the kind of literal expectations that Salingaros relies on would entirely eradicate it.

Second, I have made the virtual acquaintance of another budding art critic: Jimmy Akin, who takes it upon himself to have a go at the Vatican’s touring art exhibit: “The Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art,” exclaiming that the works “from the mid-2oth [sic] century onward were terrible.”4 Akin is much more to the point than Salingaros and doesn’t even feel the need to back up his claims - the art of the last 60+ years is just “terrible.” But what he lacks in specificity, he certainly makes up for in initiative, with the “brilliant” idea to do something about “all the lousy Catholic art” by “supporting Catholic art education so that we can get better Catholic artists.” So far so good - I am filled with anticipation of the centre of excellence he’ll propose to support and the examples of their great Catholic art, done right [no, not really]. Instead, Akin unveils the following “stupendously amazing” piece by a 12th grader:

Pieta drawing

And, just to underline the horrors of the “lousy” art we have had to put up with, he pulls out Pericle Fazzini’s “The Resurrection” situated in the Vatican’s Paul VI’s hall:

Paul vi resurrection

I am stunned by this guy’s barefacedness. How can he put a school-kid’s (admittedly skillfully executed) drawing of Michelangelo’s Pieta beside Fazzini’s masterpiece (a 66x23 foot bronze created it in 1977 and showing Jesus rising from the crater of a nuclear bomb) and say: more of the former and less of the latter, please! The mind boggles!

Third, I have come across a far more cogent, yet - to my mind - still misguided, piece by Francis Phillips. Here the composer James MacMillan is first quoted as saying that “[a]rt can be a window on to the mind of God. Through this window we can encounter beauty and divine truth” and I am thinking that I have finally come across a good piece on the subject, following the arid head banging of Salingaros and Akin. Sadly, Phillips decides to take us down a frustrating route too, by turning a promising piece into a crusade against the National Gallery in London showing Richard Hamilton’s “The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin.” The piece is a giclée photomontage that bases itself on Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, but with two female nudes where Fra Angelico has the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Phillips proceeds to label it as “scandalous,” as “shocking to Catholics, who have a particular reverence for the Virgin Mary,” as skewed for “[p]ortraying the Angel Gabriel as a young woman [since] the traditional Christian understanding of angels [is] as sexless spiritual beings”5 and as “desecrating.” Personally, I have a profound love for Mary and a deep gratitude to her for being the model of the perfect Christian, but I have to say that I disagree with all of the above. Since some of you may side with Phillips in your reaction to this piece, I will not reproduce it here, but only provide this (NSFW) link for those of you who choose to follow it. I have to say that I am not a fan of this piece by any means, but my reaction is one of curiosity about why Hamilton made the choices he made in it. Instead of a feeling of indignation, my response is more one of boredom and I would just walk past it and enjoy the rest of the National Gallery’s exquisite collection, instead of mounting a (failed) attempt to have it taken down, as Phillips did.

A point that seems to emerge to me from these last two articles is one of a decorative and exegetical role for art. A looking for pieces that would be good interior decoration for a church or that would illustrate a passage from Scripture or the Catechism. While some great art can certainly do that, it will do so in a way that transcends the simple, literal and functional. Other, equally great art would be entirely out of place as decoration though, yet would have the capacity to “be a window on to the mind of God.” I am certainly not thinking of Hamilton’s piece here, but more of something along the lines of Richard Serra’s work, such as his “Trip Hammer”:


Relegating “the mind of God” to decoration just seems like something that not even a heathen would do ...

UPDATE (12/11/2012): My bestie JM went to visit the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels, with my über-besties MR and RR, and had the following to say:
I went to visit the Cathedral last weekend, in anticipation of coming down either on the side of its supporters or detractors. Instead, while I am undeniably an outright fan of it as a place of worship, I have to say that it is so ugly on the outside that only its mother could love it. You would be forgiven for mistaking it for a car park or a storage facility, if it wasn't for the separate bell tower carrying a cross and the rather beautiful statue of Mary above its main entrance.

The interior is another story and is an unreserved and total success. The space is vast without being overpowering; it is light and welcoming and beautifully laid out not only in the main nave but also with its numerous chapel-like spaces that face out and away from the building’s main volume. They, like the whole church, are bathed in natural light and house content as diverse as a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Día de los muertos arrangement, a temporary exhibit by a local painter, artifacts from Pope John Paul II’s visit to LA and the confessionals. Outside too, the space is at the service of the community, with a great playground and a cafe/grill on the other side of a large square adjacent to the Cathedral.

In many ways this church is like one of those great Northern European cathedrals turned inside out. Instead of an ornate exterior and a plainer interior, here money has been spent on the interior space that church goers enjoy (including a great set of tapestries showing the communion of saints - and not only of canonized ones) while leaving the exterior plain and purely functional. Would I have preferred a more pleasing external architecture? No doubt! But, I believe the diocese spent their money where it matters to its members and visitors. This is a church that embraces those who come to it, instead of advertising itself to all. Not that the latter has little value, but I see why they would have favored the former. For some photos of my visit, see this Flickr set.

1 I wasn’t going to engage with this nonsense, but - come on! - to claim that there is no "religious" reason for asymmetry! How about the following (vastly incomplete) examples: good - evil, infinite - finite, uncreated - created, selfless - selfish. And the list could go on and on.
2 How about: to show movement, ascent, growth, a pull towards God?
3 To invoke Gaudí in an argument for traditional, symmetrical, literal architecture is just beyond nuts!
4 The hubris here would easily make Achilles’ dragging Hector’s lifeless body behind his chariot in front of the gates of Troy an act of level-headed diplomacy.
5 Not noticing the irony of this objection. Would the sexless angel better be portrayed as a man? Why?

Monday, 29 October 2012

Divergent rays

Nasa sun

The Gospel verse “In the beginning was the Word” has been going around in my head, ever since it dawned on me last weekend that it clearly points to something having preceded it. Thinking more about it made me revisit a text (actually, various fragments of it, since it has, as yet, not been published in full) where Chiara Lubich recounts her “intellectual visions” of Paradise that started in 1949. In particular, I wanted to re-read how she described Jesus, the Word:
“I found myself […], as in a vision seen with the eyes of the soul, having come into the Bosom of the Father, who showed me, as it were, the inside of a sun that was all gold or flames of gold, infinite, but not frightening.”

“[F]rom the walls inside the Sun, the Father pronounced the word: Love, and this Word, concentrated in the heart of the Father, was his Son.”
The picture here is very vivid and in many ways like those of St. Hildegard of Bingen’s visions. It transmits a very clear sense of what it may have seemed like to be there “in the beginning.” Reading on, Chiara also shares the following vision of creation:
“When God created, He created all things from nothing because He created them from Himself: from nothing signifies that they did not pre-exist because He alone pre-existed (but this way of speaking is inexact as in God there is no before and after). He drew them out from Himself because in creating them He died (of love), He died in love, He loved and therefore He created.

As the Word, who is the Idea of the Father, is God, analogously the ideas of things, that “ab aeterno” are in the word, are not abstract, but they are real: word within the Word.

The Father projects them — as with divergent rays — “outside Himself,” that is, in a different and new, created dimension, in which he gives to them “the Order that is Life and Love and Truth.” Therefore, in them there is the stamp of the Uncreated, of the Trinity.”
I find the above paragraphs particularly important since they indicate several key ways of thinking about how God and the universe are related:
  1. That God (the Trinity, the Uncreated) can be found in nature since it bears His “stamp,”

  2. that Jesus - the Word - is not only God who made himself present in the world as a human being 2000 years ago, but is the very means by which the Father goes “outside Himself” in His Creation,

  3. that creation is an act of self-noughting love, and

  4. that creation can be thought of as a new dimension of God.
This relationship is clearly not that of a “God of gaps,” cobbled-on caricature, but a tightly-interwoven, integral, first-person communion. Creation is to God as the rays of the sun are to the sun.

In fact, the picture of the sun and its divergent rays (and the use of “picture” is very deliberate, given what follows), is also very much consonant with Wittgenstein’s thoughts on how a system (the world) and its meaning relate:
“The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.

If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.

What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.

It must lie outside the world.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.41)
Where does this leave a Christian in terms of how science and revelation make sense of the world? I believe, James Clerk Maxwell put it very well: “I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable.” It is with this mindset that Prof. John Lennox commented on the Higgs Boson discovery by saying “God created it, Higgs predicted it and Cern found it.” Instead of a conflict, the advances of science are as much a source of wonder and joy to a Christian as are the visions of those who seek God and to whom he makes himself known in entirely unscientific ways.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Bishops’ synod conclusions: faith open to reason and science

The Bishops’ synod on the New Evangelisation (i. e., a renewed sharing of the Good News with those who have drifted away from the Church) concluded on Friday and resulted in 58 “propositions” that were presented to the pope and that will form the basis of a future encyclical. If you are not into the whole synod thing, here are (telegraphically) at least the points that stood out for me:

  1. Not a proposition, but nonetheless worth noting, is the fact that the propositions were written in English rather than the usual Latin (although the authoritative final version will still use it) and that “with the kind permission of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, the provisional, unofficial English version, prepared under the auspices of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops [which is normally kept confidential], is published in the Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office.”

  2. Prop. 8: “The world is God’s creation and manifests his love.” This presents a very positive view of the world, unlike attitudes in the past where “the world” was presented more like a necessary evil, in conflict with God.

  3. Prop. 12: The “hermeneutic of reform in continuity,” championed by Pope Benedict XVII is taken as the underlying method, as described here: “There is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God. [...] However, wherever this interpretation guided the implementation of the Council, new life developed and new fruit ripened” (Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2005)” I believe this shows very clearly an acknowledgement of the need to keep updating the Church and also the tension of this process with the need to stay faithful to Jesus’ teaching.

  4. Prop. 13: “believers must strive to show to the world the splendor of a humanity grounded in the mystery of Christ” Again there is recognition of the value of the natural (humanity) and a claim of its fulfilment in the divine (Jesus).

  5. Prop. 17: “It is necessary not only to show that faith does not oppose reason, but also to highlight a number of truths and realities which pertain to a correct anthropology, that is enlightened by natural reason. Among them, is the value of the Natural Law, and the consequences it has for the whole human society. The notions of “Natural Law” and “human nature” are capable of rational demonstrations, both at the academic and popular levels.” This was followed with a call to develop a “theology of credibility,” that expresses Church teaching in terms consistent with current scientific understanding.

  6. Prop. 20: “Christ, the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Jn 10:11) is the Truth in person, the beautiful revelation in sign, pouring himself out without measure. It is important to give testimony [...], not only of his goodness and truth, but also of the fullness of his beauty. [...] Beauty attracts us to love, through which God reveals to us his face in which we believe.”

  7. Prop. 54 (in full): “The dialogue between science and faith is a vital field in the New Evangelization. On the one hand, this dialogue requires the openness of reason to the mystery which transcends it and an awareness of the fundamental limits of scientific knowledge. On the other hand, it also requires a faith that is open to reason and to the results of scientific research.”

  8. Prop. 55: “believers and non-believers can dialogue about fundamental themes: the great values of ethics, art and science, and the search for the transcendent. This dialogue is directed in particular to “those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown” (Benedict XVI, Address to the Members of the Roman Curia, 21 December 2009).”
I was pleased to see so much emphasis on reason, science and credibility and will try to do the little I can to contribute towards them myself.

Monday, 22 October 2012

In the beginning

In the beginning

This is my third attempt at starting a post1 that I have been thinking about intensively all weekend (and that follows a train of thought that I have nursed on and off for years). Why write about it now? Because I believe I have finally understood something that has been staring me in the face for years: the opening line of St. John’s Gospel is a joke!

“Whoa!” I hear you say “Hold it right there!” Before you start crying “Blasphemy!” or “Stone him!,” please, do hear me out.2 I don’t mean to say that it is ridiculous, frivolous, trivial or inconsequential. On the contrary! I believe that I can now see a twist of humor in it that furthermore alludes to complexity that would otherwise have taken tomes upon tomes to try and spell out and that would have been well beyond St. John or the Christians of the first many centuries.

Picture this (imaginary, non-canonical!) scene:
God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are sitting around a table, chatting (you can imagine that this is what they spoke about in the scene Rublev painted, if you like):

Father: OK, guys, let’s get John started with his Gospel.

Jesus: Dad, can we have him spell out how it all started, and not just open with my birth?

HS: Sure(!), but the maths might be a tad beyond him, don’t you think?

Jesus: I didn’t mean to give him the full recipe, HS! This is not about repeatability and independent verification …

HS: So, were you thinking along the lines of the atemporal - yet dynamic, hyper-dimensional, infinite, partaking in the finite, linear, half-axis of time and being delimited in space? Even if we dumb it down to the level of philosophy, it’s still a tall order (although if anyone can do it, I can!).

Father: Look, HS, Jesus does have a point - we could give them a sense of what is going on, without having to bring Ambrose, Thomas or Albert forward. Surely you can think of some little quip to point them in the right direction.

[A “moment”’s silence later.]

HS: It’s a bit cheeky, but how about this - and I’m just riffing here (plus they’ll have to wait for Ludwig and Martin to start unpacking it) …

Jesus: Get on with it! We may have all eternity, but I’d rather get back to giving Sidd some more hints.

HS: All right, all right! How about John opens with this: “In the beginning was the Word!”

The Father and Jesus look at each other, wide-eyed, exclaim: “Genius!” and the triune bursts out laughing.

The insight I had, while walking to mass on Sunday morning and thinking about Dei Verbum, the Johannine prologue and Descartes’ “cogito,” was the following: Saying “In the beginning was the Word” is like starting a recipe with “knead the dough.” A word cannot possibly be the start: it requires a language, other words, syntax, grammar and speakers and listeners who know how to play the games it facilitates. Saying “In the beginning was the Word” is saying “Look, this is as far back as we can take you, but know that there was lots that came before.” It places at the beginning an innocent-looking entity: a word, yet one that vehemently points beyond itself. To meaning, to reference, to relation, to function, to communication, to a meeting of minds. With a simple sentence, John (with some help), gives a masterclass on the inevitability of the preexisting and the core of Trinitarian relationships, where, like a word, each person points beyond themselves.

“Alright,” you say, “but why call it a joke?” I believe the structure of this sentence is precisely that of all one-liners: the first part (“In the beginning”) prepares you for a certain set of expectations and the second surprises you with something that just does not fit (“the Word,” which cannot possibly be in the beginning :). This is exactly what Kant meant with “Laughter is an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.” Not wanting to kill humor with explanation, let me leave you with another example of the same comedic form: “Every winter when the first snow fell, I’d run to the front door with excitement, start banging on it and shout: “Mum! Dad! Let me in!”” (Milton Jones).

Realizing the above, I started seeing the Johannine pattern elsewhere too. Descartes, starts with “cogito ergo sum,” in an attempt to draw a line and derive a philosophy from that stake in the ground. Yet, it is a line that carries a lot of baggage beyond itself. My own earlier attempt too, which tries to take the “cogito” a step further by starting with “Language” is nothing but an explicit acknowledgement of such a necessary preexistence and in no way escapes or circumvents it. Unsurprisingly, the account of creation in Genesis uses the word/language mechanism for indicating the process of creation, where matter is spoken into being (“Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1:3)). More surprisingly, one of the Hindu creation accounts (the Nasadiya Sukta in the Rigveda) also employs a similar, though not identical, mechanism: “The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining […] that was the primal seed, born of the mind.” Even the creation account of the Sumerians (The debate between Sheep and Grain, written in the 3rd millennium BC), highlights the role of language in the process: “the great gods, did not even know the names Grain or Sheep.”

What is clear to me from the above is the fundamental role of language in the process of something coming from nothing, which in a sense undermines the idea of a true nothing having preceded the something. With this in mind, the Christian identification of Jesus with “the Word,” which I have been wondering about for years, makes perfect sense. The Father makes himself known to us by speaking his Son, who in turn points back to Him: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) and then: “The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves.” (John 14:10-11, with a nice hat-tip to orthopraxy).

So, let me finish with a one-liner: “In the beginning was the Word.” :)

1 In a previous version I would have taken you through Lemaître, the Planck epoch and the opening lines of the Tanakh, before getting to the Johannine prologue.
2 Thanks to my über–bestie, PM, for his Nihil Obstat and Transferitur (the Imprimatur of the digital age) - much appreciated!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Hellfire and brimstone: not in my name

Larson hell” title=

While the current bishop’s synod in Rome is a joy to follow (with gems like Archbishop Williams’ talk or the pope’s opening sermon and contributions from many of the world’s bishops as well as other invited participants), there are the inevitable oddities swirling around its periphery.

Today, for example, I came across a piece about one of the synod’s observers, Dr. Ralph Martin, Director of Graduate Theology and New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, who argues that “Evangelization should include fear of hell” and that “[t]he assumption that almost everyone is basically good and destined for heaven is a “silent apostasy” infecting a culture “drifting toward destruction.”” Martin then proceeds to invoke Lumen Gentium (the Vatican II document I am reading now) and say that while it “does allow the possibility “for certain people to be saved without hearing the Gospel under specific conditions,” [...] very often people aren’t inculpably ignorant of the Gospel, they’re not seeking God, they’re not living according to the light of their conscience, they’re not responding to God’s grace, and they actually exchange the truth of God for a lie.” In summary, “we can’t presume that everyone’s on the way that’s leading to Heaven.”

I couldn’t disagree more!
  1. While Martin (rightly) points out that people are often “not living according to the light of their conscience” (and who isn’t at some time or another?!), it is some stretch to go from there to suggest that they (we!) are not on the way to heaven.

  2. Lumen Gentium makes absolutely no mention of hell (or any related concept I could think of) whatsoever, so brandishing it as the justification of one’s views is a bit of a leap of (non)faith.

  3. Martin’s approach seems divorced from both Benedict XVI’s and John Paul II’s teaching about hell:
    “[H]ell is the ultimate consequence of sin itself... Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.” (Blessed Pope John Paul II, general audience, 28 July 1999)

    “Who will [be in hell]? The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, “It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Matthew 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.” (Blessed Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope)

    "Perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.” (Pope Benedict XVI, question and answer session with the priests of Rome, 11 February 2008)
    With the above concept of hell (a voluntary separation of oneself from God, in the face of God!), it is hard to see who would be there. Benedict XVI only goes so far as to say that there are perhaps “not so many” there, while John Paul II flatly refuses to speculate! Both of their positions are very much aligned though with the view that Martin opposes (“[t]he assumption that almost everyone is basically good and destined for heaven”) and calls a “silent apostasy” … Not the smartest of criticisms to level at a pope and especially not at the current and previous ones.

  4. Threatening others with hell just seems to be contrary both to the Golden Rule and the Good News that Jesus taught, as can be seen also from what some of the early Church Fathers had to say about the subject, including St. Gregory of Nyssa’s belief that “all free creatures will share the grace of salvation” (i.e., apocatastasis) and another exclaiming: “If anyone has to be in hell, let it be me.” Even just from the perspective of charity, I cannot see how I could wish for anything other than for hell to be empty.

  5. Even from a psychological perspective, reinforcement of good behaviour is more effective than threatening to punish bad behaviour (e. g., see Kahneman’s treatment of the subject).

  6. Jesus’ call is a positive one: love your neighbor as yourself, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners, ... Following it leads to heaven, while just trying to avoid transgressions that are punishable is not enough.
I don’t mean to deny the reality of hell - just like heaven (communion with God-Love), a foretaste of hell (separation from God-Love) can readily be had in this life already. What I am saying though is that a focus on hell is counterproductive. By keeping my eyes on God in my neighbors, I am leaving myself less time to be absorbed by myself. Hell is kept at bay by my being busy with the pursuit of heaven.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Dei Verbum: a first look

Word made flesh 2

As set out in a previous post, I have embarked on a journey through the 16 Vatican II documents, starting with the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum here.

Before getting into it, let me start with a few words to those of you - my friends! - who hold no or other beliefs about God than me. Without meaning to tell you what to do, I’d say that probably the best attitude to have when reading this post (and the rest of the series that will follow on Vatican II) is that of Thomas Nagel in his well-known paper entitled: “What is it like to be a bat?1 I don’t mean to get sidetracked here into his superb challenge to how consciousness is to be approached, but would just like to take some pointers from him on how one can consider the words of another, who holds different beliefs (and I am talking purely about understanding, without meaning to reduce relationships to knowledge alone). Nagel has the key insight that the question of what it is to be a bat is not about what it would be like for me to be a bat, but what it is for a bat to be a bat. “Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.” Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I believe these limitations apply in both directions. I too lack the direct experience of not believing in God or of holding other beliefs to my own, and therefore can only get so far with understanding what it is like to be an atheist or agnostic using my own “inadequate resources.” Sticking to Nagel’s example, trying to understand another person with whom I don’t share a key characteristic is like trying to understand from a bat what it is like to have sonar. Even if the bat could speak English, we wouldn’t have a shared vocabulary for it to quite get that across to me. In spite of such limitations, I hope that you will find interest in how Catholics look at the way they believe God has revealed himself to the world, which is precisely the subject of Dei Verbum.

Where else would the discourse start but with a quote from the New Testament, where John says the following:
“We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:2-3)
This puts us in a very clear context from the word go: that of continuity with Jesus’s disciples desiring to share what they have “seen and heard,” for the sake of building relationships with others and with God. The purpose of Dei Verbum then is to clarify how the above revelation of God to the world is to be understood. This revelation, where “the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself.”

Dei Verbum proceeds to present different ways in which God has revealed and continues to reveal himself:
  1. Nature. “God, who through the Word creates all things and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities” and “he ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation.” The message here is clear: God can be found in his creation,2 “known […] by the light of human reason” and all who live for others rather than themselves will find him.
  2. The people of Israel. “Then, at the time He had appointed He called Abraham in order to make of him a great nation. Through the patriarchs, and after them through Moses and the prophets, He taught this people to acknowledge Himself the one living and true God, provident father and just judge.” The books of the Old Testament “give expression to a lively sense of God, contain a store of sublime teachings about God, sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers, and in them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way.” Even though these books “also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, [we] should receive them with reverence.” “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.”
  3. Jesus. “He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them of the innermost being of God.” God sends his Son, Jesus - the “eternal Word” - and through his life, teaching, death and resurrection, God shows himself directly to us and reveals himself in full intimacy.
  4. The Holy Spirit. For someone to “freely assent to the truth revealed by Him […], the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist” and “[t]o bring about an ever deeper understanding of revelation the same Holy Spirit constantly brings faith to completion.” While revelation is complete in the person of Jesus, the Holy Spirit (“the Spirit of truth”), whom Jesus sent to his followers after his resurrection, continues to deepen our understanding of it.
How is it then, that God’s revelation is preserved, maintained and spread? Jesus commissioned the Apostles to share with others “what they had received from [His lips], from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.” They were also prompted to “commit the message of salvation to writing” and, “to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive.” “[T]he Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heretics III, 3)” Since the words of the Gospel are put into practice by Jesus’ followers, and since the Holy Spirit inspires them, “there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down.” This to me is quite a key passage - the account of Jesus’s life and teaching is not a static piece of text, frozen in time, but instead a source of growing understanding and new insights brought about with the help of the Holy Spirit in those who follow Jesus: “[T]hus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; [through the] Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world.” The upshot of this is a very tight link between Scripture (a record of Jesus’ life and teaching) and Tradition (Jesus’ followers’ growing insight into Scripture from putting it into practice and with the help of the Holy Spirit), interpreted over time by the successors of the Apostles.

How is one to understand the nature of Scripture though? Dei Verbum first reaffirms the Church’s belief in “the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, [being] sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.” However, since they were written by men, we “should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.” Here, a distinction needs to be made between passages that are “historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.” “[We] must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. [… D]ue attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.” This is as far from literalism as you can get - instead it is a teasing out of intention from a text anchored in a specific period of history and in a specific geographical location. No wonder its understanding has the potential to grow and for “new insights [to be] brought about”!

An important warning follows next in Dei Verbum: “serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out [and t]he living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith.” Understanding what was meant by a passage from Scripture mustn’t be done on the basis of picking a couple of phrases out of the whole and trying to make sense of them from scratch. They are part of a textual corpus and there is a rich body of existing insight into them and interpretation of them, to which any new understanding can add. Preserving the message God sent us through his Son and the Holy Spirit - and understanding it in the context I am in - requires a careful and critical interaction with all of Scripture, in which the Church’s judgment plays a key guiding and interpretative role too. Ultimately, the aim is “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature” (St. John Chrysostom, On Genesis).

Within the New Testament, the Gospels have a special “preeminence,” “for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word.” Their authors wrote the four Gospels, “selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that […] we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed.” To make these “words of God” “accessible at all times, the Church […] sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books.” Preference is given also to producing translations “with the separated brethren[…, so that] all Christians will be able to use them.”

Finally, all Christians are called to a frequent reading of Scripture and to accompany it with prayer, “so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.” (St. Ambrose, On the Duties of Ministers I)” In this way “the treasure of revelation, entrusted to the Church, may more and more fill the hearts of men.”

So, these are my 1500 word notes on the 6000 word Vatican II text :) - if you are interested, do read it in full. I certainly got a lot out of it and feel very comfortable with what the Church teaches about Scripture: they are believed to be the true Words of God, but since they were recorded by humans and within the “literary forms” and cultural conventions of a specific place and time, the task of understanding what the authors’ intentions were and what God meant to communicate, is a delicate process. That it is a process is also key, to my mind - it is not like these 2000 year old texts can just be internalized immediately (no text can!). Instead, they require knowledge, discernment, an open mind and the willingness to hear what God has to say to me - here and now.

Lumen Gentium is up next, and since it has 27000 words, I reckon it will occupy me for a while :).

1 Thanks to my bestie, Margaret, for introducing me to this paper a good 10 years ago! If you are interested in consciousness at all, I highly recommend it in full.
2 Note, that this does not imply the lunacy of Creationism - instead, I read this as, with our best knowledge today, God sustaining a universe that he made to follow the (his!) Standard Model.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The agrapha: Jesus’ extra-canonical sayings


Over the course of the last week I have come across a - to me previously unknown - source of Jesus’ sayings: the “agrapha,” and this straight from two places: first, Pope Benedict XVI’s off-the-cuff (!) remarks during the first day of the Bishops’ synod, where he quotes Origen quoting Jesus as saying “Whoever is close to me is close to the fire,” where the fire is God’s presence. Second, an article about the Servant of God Igino Giordani, where he reflects on Tertullian and St. Clement of Alexandria quoting Jesus as saying: “Have you seen your brother? You have seen your God.”

So, what are these “agrapha”? The word comes from the Greek agraphon - “non written” and refers to these sayings (sometimes also called logion/logia) not being found in the canonical Gospels, but instead having been (up to a point) handed down by word of mouth. As of today there are 21 that are generally though to be authentic, based on a specific set of criteria, spelled out in the Catholic Encyclopedia. They come from the rest of the New Testament (unsurprisingly) - i.e., being instances of someone quoting Jesus as opposed to Jesus being recorded as speaking directly as in the Gospels, from apocryphal sources - contemporary or near-contemporary sources to the Gospels that have not been included in the New Testament due to overall questions about their authenticity, from the Church Fathers - early Christian teachers quoting Jesus’ sayings passed down by verbal tradition and from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri – a set of manuscripts discovered in 1897 and 1904 dating from the early half of the 3rd century AD. While the current set numbers 21 such sayings, it is certainly open to extension if new sources are discovered and if their likelihood of authenticity is judged high. Also worth pointing out is the fact that these sayings are not attributed the same status as those of the canonical texts (more on that in the future post on Dei Verbum) and that a less stringent level of scrutiny is applied to them.

Nonetheless, if these sayings are likely to come from Jesus, there is great merit in knowing of them and understanding how they might shed new light on what is recorded about Jesus in the Gospels. Having the Pope himself quote one of them and having such a great Catholic writer as Igino Giordani reflect on them, should add further impetus to looking at them myself.

The following then are my favorites from among the full set found here, skipping ones found in the New Testament outside the Gospels, which are already familiar:
  1. Let your alm sweat in your hands until you know to whom to give it. (Didache, 1.6)

  2. Those who wish to see me and take hold of my kingdom must receive me in tribulation and suffering. (Barnabas, 7.11b)

  3. There shall be schisms and heresies. (St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 35)

  4. In what things I take you [by surprise], in those things I also will judge.(ibid, 47)

  5. The days will come in which vines will grow, each having ten thousand shoots, and on each shoot ten thousand branches, and on each branch ten thousand twigs, and on each twig ten thousand clusters, and in each cluster ten thousand grapes, and each grape, when pressed, will give twenty-five measures of wine. And, when one of those saints takes hold of a cluster, another cluster will clamor: I am better, take me, bless the Lord through me! Similarly a grain of wheat also will generate ten thousand heads, and each head will have ten thousand grains, and each grain five double pounds of clear and clean flour. And the remaining fruits and seeds and herbiage will follow through in congruence with these, and all the animals using these foods which are taken from the earth will in turn become peaceful and consenting, subject to men with every subjection. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.33.3-4, quoting Jesus talking about what heaven will be like, his source being “Papias […] who was a[n] earwitness of John and companion of Polycarp”)

  6. Have you seen your brother? You have seen your God. (St. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 1.19)

  7. Ask for the great things, and the little things will be added unto you. (ibid, 1.24)

  8. With reason, then, the scripture, wishing us to become such kind of dialectics, exhorts: But become approved moneychangers, rejecting the [evil] things, and embracing the good. (ibid, 1.28)

  9. Love covers a multitude of sins. (ibid, 4.8)

  10. No man can obtain the heavenly kingdom that has not passed through temptation. (Tertullian, On Baptism, 20)

  11. How can you say: I have kept the law and the prophets? For it is written in the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. And behold, many of your brethren, sons of Abraham, are clad in filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, and nothing at all goes out of it unto them. (Origen, On Mathew, 15)

  12. On account of the sick I was sick and on account of the hungry I was hungry and on account of the thirsty I was thirsty. (ibid, 13.2)

  13. He that is near me is near the fire. He that is far from me is far from the kingdom. (Origen, On Jeremiah, 20.3)

  14. If your brother sins in word […] and makes satisfaction to you, seven times a day receive him. Simon his disciple said to him: Seven times a day? The Lord responded and said to him: Still I say to you, until seventy times seven. For indeed in the prophets, even after they were anointed by the holy spirit, the speech of sin was found. (St. Jerome, Against Pelagius, 3.2)

  15. And taking them along he entered into the place of purification itself and was walking around in the temple. And there came a certain Pharisee, a high priest, Levi by name, and he joined them and said to the savior: Who allowed you to tread on this place of purification and see these holy vessels, neither having bathed nor the feet of your disciples having been baptized? But after having defiled it, you treaded on this holy place, which is clean, on which no other man unless he has bathed and changed his clothing treads, nor dares to look at these holy vessels. And the savior immediately stood with the disciples and answered him: You therefore, being here in the temple, are you clean? The former says to him: I am clean. For I bathed in the pool of David and by one ladder going down by another I went up, and I garbed myself in garments white and clean, and then went and looked upon these holy vessels. The savior answered to him and said: Woe, blind men who do not see. You bathed in these flowing waters in which dogs and swine are cast night and day, and washed and smeared the outside skin, which even the prostitutes and the flute-girls perfume and bathe and wipe and beautify for the desire of men, but within they are filled with scorpions and all evil. But I and my disciples whom you say have not been baptized have been immersed in waters of eternal life. (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840, 7b-45)

  16. Wherever there are two, they are not without God; and wherever there is one alone, I say I am with him. Raise the stone and there thou shalt find me; cleave the wood, and there am I. (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1)
What a rich harvest! There is much here to think and talk about, but I wanted to share it with you as soon as I could, hence the “bare” presentation. Enjoy!

Monday, 15 October 2012

St. Teresa of Ávila: children’s book sneak preview

Teresa avila

On today’s feast of St. Teresa of Ávila, I have a special treat for you: a sneak preview of an upcoming, illustrated book about saints for children by my besties PM and JM. What follows is St. Teresa’s story written for children in the 5-10 year age range:
Saint Teresa of Ávila
(Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada)
1515 AD (Ávila, Spain) – 1582 AD (Salamanca, Spain)
Feast day: 15 October

Saint Teresa of Avila, who lived in Spain and was a friend of Saint John of the Cross, wanted to follow Jesus ever since she was a little girl. At the age of seven she decided to give her life to Jesus and when she grew up she became a nun. Do you know what a nun is? Nuns are women who follow Jesus by spending long hours in prayer, by looking after the poor and sick, by teaching or by helping people in whatever way they can. Saint Teresa was a great nun! She reminded her sisters that it is important to be poor, like Jesus taught us, and she was also exceptionally good at praying.

Do you like to pray? How do you pray? What Saint Teresa understood was, that Jesus is our friend and that praying to him is just like talking to a friend. You can ask him for help, you can tell him what makes you happy or sad, you can thank him for all the good he has given you. If you like, try it next time you pray!

Saint Teresa was also very concerned for Jesus and wanted to make his suffering on the cross easier for him. Even though we weren't there when Jesus died on the cross, we can still be close to him when we are ill, uncomfortable or in pain. Have you ever had a sore tooth, a scratch, a bruise or a bump? In all of these you can be close to Jesus and tell him that you love him.

Jesus loved Saint Teresa so much that he even came to visit her - she could feel that he was in front of her even though she couldn't see him with her eyes. The picture she saw when Jesus visited her, was of an angel who pierced her heart with a burning spear, which is very painful. But then the angel pulled his spear out and she felt great joy! This confirmed to her how important it is to love Jesus when we are in pain and that, if we do so, we will also share with him the joy of rising from the dead.

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.
If you have any feedback to pass on to PM and JM, please, leave it in the comments.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Havel, Jobs and my conciliar reading list


The Year of Faith has properly kicked off in our parish today, with a letter from our local bishop being read out during the masses. While nothing new struck me about its content, it’s focus on two “pillars” for deepening an understanding of the Catholic faith - the Catechism and the documents of Vatican II - gave me an idea. Since I know the Catechism fairly well and have read it in full not that long ago, I'll set myself the challenge of reading the 16 Vatican II documents during the coming year. I’ll proceed in the order shown here, starting with the four conciliar constitutions (being the highest level of Papal decree with legislative power): Dei Verbum (on divine revelation), Lumen Gentium (on the Church), Sacrosanctum Concilium (on the liturgy) and Gaudium et Spes (on the Church in the “modern world”). If you are that way inclined, why don’t you join me in starting with Dei Verbum.

Another pleasant surprise at today’s mass were the Year of Faith diaries ordered by our parish priest from Redemptorist Publications. I am not usually one for diaries, but I was asked by my spouse to buy one and I have to say, I have been impressed both by the layout and aesthetics and the content, from which I would like to share with you two of the quotes provided there for reflection:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” (Steve Jobs)

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.” (Václav Havel)
Kudos to the Redemptorists for such great choices and on to Dei Verbum!

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Eternity today

Arcabas canaa l

Today the Church has launched its Year of Faith, whose announcement motivated me three months ago to start writing this blog. While the Year of Faith was its explicit impetus, my deeper reasons were both a desire to be clearer to myself about what it was that my faith meant to me and implied for me and a desire to make explicit my deep-seated conviction that imitating Jesus was not contrary to reason or to my scientific profession and that it ought to be more accessible to my friends with other religious beliefs or none. By this I don’t mean in any way an attempt to convince them of anything, but simply by making my faith explicit and by revealing its consequences and connections to the broader philosophical, cultural, artistic and scientific contexts, show that it makes sense and that it allows me to seek the goals and values that they themselves share. I was also keen to look for the underlying similarities among all who employ reason honestly and who seek the common good and to show that at this level are all close to one another. Whether this is something that has emerged from the last 68 posts is something you’ll have to judge for yourself. All I can say is that it has been a positive experience for me, especially in the cases where a post has lead to or was triggered by dialogue.

With that preamble out of the way, let me share with you my take on today’s opening of the Year of Faith by pulling together some of the points made by Pope Benedict XVI in his sermon during the opening mass, Archbishop Rowan Williamsaddress to the Bishops’ Synod yesterday and Patriarch Bartholomew I’s greeting this morning. This fact alone, of having the heads of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox communities come together at the opening of this Year of Faith is great cause for enthusiasm to me, as it points to their shared belief in Jesus being present “where two or three are gathered together in [his] name” (Matthew 18:20) and in their shared commitment to “witness together to the Gospel message of salvation and healing for the least of our brethren: the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten in God’s world.” (Bartholomew I).

To my mind, Archbishop Williams’ talk yesterday did a great job of setting the scene by reflecting on what it is that attracts people to authentic, lived Christianity:
“[It is] the possibility, quite simply, of living more humanly – living with less frantic acquisitiveness, living with space for stillness, living in the expectation of learning, and most of all, living with an awareness that there is a solid and durable joy to be discovered in the disciplines of self-forgetfulness that is quite different from the gratification of this or that impulse of the moment.”
He argues, as do I, that the behavior to which authentic Christians are lead by their desire to imitate Jesus has universal value and is not something alien or parallel to what all others seek too. Williams follows the above with a warning though: “The man who seeks sincerity, instead of seeking truth in self-forgetfulness, is like the man who seeks to be detached instead of laying himself open in love.” (Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith , pp. 114) - striving to share with the world what it means to follow Jesus cannot be sought for its own sake as that defeats its own purpose. Such self-consciousness about one’s faith and its perception by others, by definition, cannot be overcome by being even more self-conscious about it:
“We have to return to St Paul and ask, ‘Where are we looking?’ Do we look anxiously to the problems of our day, the varieties of unfaithfulness or of threat to faith and morals, the weakness of the institution? Or are we seeking to look to Jesus, to the unveiled face of God’s image in the light of which we see the image further reflected in ourselves and our neighbours?”
In many ways it is like how Douglas Adams describes flying in the Hitchhiker’s Guide: a throwing of oneself to the ground and accidentally missing, by having been distracted at the critical moment. Sharing my faith is like throwing myself into following Jesus and being distracted by my friends. :)

What does it mean though to follow Jesus? How can you even try to imitate a carpenter, healer, prophet, teacher, … from two thousand years ago? Here Pope Benedict argues that we face a fundamental tension when striving to
“mak[e] the truth and beauty of the faith shine out in our time, without sacrificing it to the demands of the present or leaving it tied to the past: the eternal presence of God resounds in the faith, transcending time, yet it can only be welcomed by us in our own unrepeatable today.”
Applying Jesus’ message to the conditions we are in today is essential, but so is remaining faithful to it and this is the challenge that both the Second Vatican Council, which opened 50 years ago today, and this new Year of Faith strive to address. To Pope Benedict, the key though is the person of Jesus, through whom “God’s face is revealed to us.” “[T]he closer [we] get to him, the closer [we] get to the hearts of [our] brothers and sisters” (Chiara Lubich, Essential Writings, p.37; quoted by Archbishop Williams).

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Good means for good ends: induced pluripotency

Stem cells1

This year’s Nobel prize for medicine1 went to Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon for their work on changing adult cells into stem cells, which is a huge deal not only because of the great therapeutic benefits it will hopefully lead to (e.g., repairing heart tissue after a heart attack or reversing the effects of Alzheimer’s) but also because of how that will be achieved. To get a sense of the importance of this work, let’s first take a quick look at stem cells and then give some thought to the relevant ethics behind their use.

There are 230 different types of cells in a human body that compose its various organs, skeleton, nervous system, etc. and that can take a variety of forms and perform a variety of functions (from providing structural rigidity as bones via fighting off bacterial and viral intruders as lymphocytes to secreting hormones such as adrenal gland cells or lining various body cavities such as Boettcher cells). The key here is that there is a tremendous variety of them and that they differ greatly from one another. Looking at the beginning of the development of a human organism – i.e., the embryonic stage, however, shows that it is made up of identical cells at first and that this initial cell type – the stem cell – then differentiates into the great variety seen in the fully formed organism. Realizing that stem cells can develop into any other type of cell has great therapeutic potential, which is already being applied today, e.g., in the case of bone marrow transplants for treating leukemia. The greatest potential seen for stem cells though is to be able to take them and, by genetic engineering, “program” them to become specific other cell types that can then be used to “repair” a patient’s damaged tissues.

Where does one get a good supply of stem cells though? The most obvious answer is: from embryos. During the first 4-5 days after fertilization they consist of around 100 cells that form a sphere-like structure (the blastocyst), whose interior is lined with pluripotent stem cells – stem cells that have the potential to develop into almost any cell type.2 There is a problem here though, that, while the ends are noble - to cure illness, the means are not. An embryo is a human being and even though it just looks like a bunch of cells, it has its unique genetic makeup and potential that make it as a specific human person. Destroying it for the sake of “harvesting” stem cells is taking its life and no amount of arguing that it is done for a good cause undoes that plain fact. Further down the line this attitude also leads to ideas like conceiving a child for the therapeutic benefit of its sick sibling. The despair of a sick child’s parents here is fully understandable and not to be belittled or questioned, but it strikes me as a fundamentally degenerate reason for attempting to bring a new person into existence (for an opinion contrary to mine, see here). In any case, I don’t mean to focus here on attacking the use of embryonic stem cell, but instead to celebrate the discovery of an ethically sound alternative that also has distinct therapeutic benefits.

The discovery in question is a story of two parts. First, Gourdon in 1958 showed (and in 1962 published) that a cell from an adult frog’s intestine contained the full genetic code needed for the whole frog organism. Extracting the genetic information from the adult cell and transferring it into a frog egg resulted in a clone of the original frog. This was a key breakthrough since it showed that cell development is not unidirectional: a mature, differentiated cell nucleus can be made to become immature, undifferentiated. Second, Yamanaka in 2006 showed that it is not only the genetic information that is fully present in differentiated, adult cells, but that these cells can effectively be “reset” back to their stem cell origin. The result are induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – i.e., differentiated adult cells (e.g., skin) but that were chemically or virally transformed into stem cells and that can then be used therapeutically like embryonic stem cells. iPSCs also have additional therapeutic benefits in that their use would not require immunosuppressants (the cells coming from the same organism that they are later being inserted into) and also that they could be used to test the efficacy of potential treatments before they were given to a patient. In summary, this advance in medicine for which this year’s Nobel prize was awarded will, in the words of Prof Yamanaka, who started his career as a surgeon, “bring […] stem cell technology to the bedside, to patients, to clinic.”

The news of this year’s Nobel prize was wholeheartedly welcomed by the Church, with the European Community’s Bishops’ Conference affirming that it “is an important milestone in recognising the key role that non-embryonic stem cells play in the development of new, medical therapies, [leaving human embryonic stem cell research] ethically-problematic and scientifically and economically less promising.” To my mind the most important aspect of this Nobel prize from the ethical perspective is Prof. Yamanaka’s own experience though. In the scientific, peer-reviewed paper in the prestigious journal Cell, where he and his colleagues published their results, they already indicated that the motivation of their work were “ethical controversies.” In an article in the New York Times, the whole background is then revealed, as Prof. Yamanaka describes the epiphany he experienced while looking down a microscope in a fertility clinic: “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. […] I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.” To me the most overwhelming message here is that it is not at all as if science and religion were at war,3 but that it is a scientist’s own seeking not only of knowledge but also of goodness that leads to good ends and also to their achievement by good means.

UPDATE (16/10/2012): An article critical of Yamanaka’s work has appeared yesterday that argues that the “reprogramming” of adult stem cells was done based on genetic material originally derived from embryos. While this is certainly a relevant point, I don't believe it changes the gist of my initial take on this work: Yamanaka himself used to work with embryonic stem cells and, following the insight he had about the embryos being similar to his daughters, he started working towards the use of adult stem cells only. Yes, the work he does now would not have been possible without his previous use of embryos (including the fact that he gained insights from them that he now benefits from), and the fact that embryos were destroyed in the past that are now benefiting the adult stem cell method is a loss of human life, but (and there is a but!), taking the view that this latest article does downplays the good means that Yamanaka has developed. Was it good that embryos were destroyed before - no, should it have been avoided - absolutely!, but: is it good that they are not being destroyed anymore - in my opinion, yes. I don’t mean to be too negative about this criticism though, as it is important to have as complete a picture as possible and as the points made do raise important ethical questions. Finally, I have to say I am impressed with the article’s author - Dr. Stacy Trasancos - who in fact followed up suggestions by some of her article’s commenters, who argued that the iPSC approach does not have to rely on human embryonic genetic material and has in fact found that this is likely to be possible. Her objections to the work so far still stand, but there is hope for a method that will not rely on the use of any embryonic material at all. An alternative statement of this position can also be found here.

1 Many thanks to my bestie, BM, who is a medical doctor, for proofreading this post and making sure I didn’t commit factual errors about cell biology that were too gross :).
2 With the exception of the placenta, which requires totipotent cells.
3 Although I do have to admit that such a view is not absent among representatives of either party, as I was sadly reminded by my bestie NP - a bona fide chemist working at Oxford, who recently spoke to a religious audience about the positive relationship between science and religion, only to be faced with a mixture of both positive and skeptical reactions.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

From individual to person


I am feeling quite “meta” today and have no less than four reasons for it: first, what I am about to discuss is fundamentally meta, second, the act of writing about it to you is an instance of it, third, it ties several of the strands that I started in previous posts together, and, fourth, it has come to me in a way that illustrates the topic itself (thanks to my bestie, Margaret, of ‘the God of Explanations’ fame). If that is not enough to pique your interest, let me add that it is centered around a talk given by one of my favorite contemporary thinkers - Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The subject of the talk is an exploration of what it means to be human and revolves around the distinction between an individual and a person. In customary magisterial fashion, Archbishop Williams ties together the thinking of St. Augustine, Orthodox and Catholic theologians (Vladimir Lossky and Robert Spaemann), a Russian and a French philosopher (Mikhail Bakhtin and René Descartes), a French thinker (Alexis de Tocqueville), a psychotherapist (Patricia Gosling) and an LSE sociologist (Richard Sennett). The argument begins by claiming that the relevant polarity is not between individualism and communitarianism but between the concepts of an individual and a person.

Here an individual is simply an example of a certain thing: e.g., Bob is an example of a human being, just like Fido is an example of a dog. Seen from this “atomic” perspective (where, incidentally, “individuum” is merely the latinized version of the Greek “atomos”), the individual is the center of their own world – its solid core. Even when they engage in relationships with others, they always have “the liberty of hurrying back home,” and the best relationship they can have with the world, that is separate from them and beyond them, is control. The consequences of such a view of what it is to be human are alienation, non-cooperation and unease with limits. This view is summed up clearly by de Tocqueville saying that “[e]ach person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger in the destiny of all the others.” It is also the psychological and anthropological parallel of the epistemic approach pioneered by Descartes (and driven to its limit in the “brain-in-a-vat” scenario), that I also adapted in an earlier post and that, in art, is mirrored by Antony Gormley’s approach to sculpture.

The other concept of a human being is that of a person, where there is “something about us as a whole that is not defined just by listing the facts that happen to be true about us” and where a person is a “subject [that is] irreducible to its nature” (Lossky). Williams argues though that while “we know what we mean by personal/impersonal and persons in relation, […] we struggle to pin down what we mean that we cannot be reduced just to our nature.” He then goes on to postulating that “what makes me a person and distinct from another person is not a bundle of facts, but relations to others. I stand in the middle of a network of relations.” This leads to the definition of a person as the “point at which relationships intersect.”

Williams then moves on to the question of how one is to determine whether another is a human person and, following from the previous analysis, concludes that this cannot be done on the basis of a checklist for whether a given set of pre-requisites are present. Instead, we need to “form a relation, converse, to determine whether another is a person” and that language helps us to decide. He is quick here to move from a narrow concept of language as verbal only to a broad one that includes gestures and the “flicker of an eyelid.” This means that “[p]ersonal dignity or worth is ascribed to human individuals because, in a relationship, each of us has a presence or meaning in someone else’s existence. We live in another’s life. Living in the life of another is an implication of the profound mysteriousness about personal reality. Otherwise you end up with the model where somebody decides who is going to count as human.” Such a test of human personhood based on relateability very much reminded me of Turing’s test of machine intelligence, where the basis again is not a predetermined set of criteria, but the ability for a machine to converse with (relate to) a human person and for that person to recognize the machine as a person. Williams’ point about “each of us [having] a presence or meaning in someone else’s existence” also brought back echoes of Martini’s “the other is within us.”

How does the individual (which is by far the position with the strongest epistemic justification) see themselves as a person though? Here Williams quotes the following passage from Spaemann:
“Each organism naturally develops a system that interacts with its environment. Each creature stands at the center of its own world. The world only discloses itself as that which can do something for us; something becomes meaningful in light of the interest we take in it. To see the other as other, to see myself as his “thou” over against him, to see myself as constituting an environment for other centers of being, thus stepping out of the center of my world, is an eccentric position. […] As human beings in relationship, we sense that our environment is created by a relation with other persons; we create an environment for them and in that exchange, that mutuality, we discover what person means.”
How do you “step out” and assume an “eccentric position” tough? Here, Williams admits that such “stepping beyond one’s own individuality requires acts of faith. Living as a person is a matter of faith.” And I completely agree with him - strictly from a position of introspective enquiry, from Gormley’s “darkness of the body,” there is no fact-based way out. There is a need for a Kierkegaardianleap of faith,” but I would like to argue that it does not require a belief in God and in fact is akin to Eco’s communist acquaintance’s belief in the “continuity of life” discussed in an earlier post.

Finally, let’s also look at what Williams says about the aspect of personhood that is revealed as a consequence of belief in God:1
“Before personal relations, we are in relation with God. I am in relation to a non-worldly, non-historical attention which is God. My neighbor is always somebody who is in a relation with God, before they are in a relation with me. There is a very serious limit for me to make of my neighbor what I choose. They don’t belong to me and their relation to me is not what is true of them or even the most most important thing that is true of them. Human dignity - the unconditional requirement that we attend with reverence to one another - rests firmly on that conviction that the other is already related to something that isn’t me.”
In summary, a very clear picture emerges here, where I can think of myself as an individual - a world unto myself - or as the intersection of relations with others that allows me to go beyond myself and recognize in others that they are part of my world and I part of theirs. As a Christian this eccentricity also reveals to me that the relations I have with others build on the relations He has with them already and allow me to relate to Him not only in the intimacy of my self but also through my neighbors.

1 As an argument, this is essentially a variant of Bishop Berkeley’s response to the following challenge to his philosophy, where being is predicated on perceiving:

There was a young man who said God,
must find it exceedingly odd
when he finds that the tree
continues to be
when noone’s about in the Quad.

To which Berkeley responded with another limerick:

Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd
I’m always about in the Quad
And that’s why the tree
continues to be
Since observed by, yours faithfully, God