Friday, 23 November 2012

A universe from nothing

Dark energy
In 2009 Richard Dawkins introduced a talk by Lawrence Krauss by eulogizing about his work as follows: “[T]he study of origins, origins of all kinds, right across the board from the origin of the Universe to the origin of Life, to the origin of everything that you can think of [ - w]hat an amazingly exciting initiative.” Krauss himself - whose talk is entitled “A Universe From Nothing” - then goes on to extoll the virtues of wonder by saying that “scientists love mysteries. They love not knowing. That's a key part of science. The excitement of learning about the Universe.” What a great way to start a talk: origins and wonder!

The only thing left for me to do to enjoy the rest of Krauss' lecture about cosmology is to filter out the recurring jabs at “sterile” religion, “where the excitement is apparently knowing everything although clearly knowing nothing” and many more throughout the talk. In fact, Krauss’ and Dawkins’ view of religion reminds me very much of the view that young-earth creationists have of science - both equally ignorant of the other. Leaving those aside (engaging with them would be fruitless), this is what I understood as being Krauss’ argument for the Universe having come into being from nothing:

After establishing that the universe is expanding (with reference to Edwin Hubble’s discovery of it in the 1920s, who observed that all other galaxies were moving away from us and were doing so faster, the further away they were1), Krauss presents three alternatives for how that expansion may be occurring: "[A] closed Universe would expand and stop and then recollapse in a Big Crunch, the reverse of the Big Bang. An open Universe would expand forever and a flat Universe will expand and slow down and never quite stop." The following illustration shows the open and closed cases - the flat one being similar to the open one, but having a limit (bound) to its (still infinite) expansion as opposed to being unbounded.

Big crunch open and flat universe

In the process of determining which of the three cases of expansion our Universe is undergoing, the challenge of measuring the mass of galaxies (to infer from them the curvature of their light-bending effects and therefore the curvature of the universe) and the whole universe arises and attempts to do so show that “most of the mass in [a] system of clusters of galaxies is not where the galaxies are. It's between the galaxies. It is where nothing is shining.” This in turn leads to the realization that “dark matter is a new type of elementary particle,” which further complicates the quest for measuring the mass and energy of the universe.

The consequences of the universe being flat (i.e., expanding infinitely but asymptotically towards a limit) are then spelled out:
“It turns out that in a flat Universe, the total energy of the Universe is precisely zero. Because gravity can have a negative energy. So the negative energy of gravity balances out the positive energy of matter. What's so beautiful about a Universe with total energy zero? Well, only such a Universe can begin from nothing. And that is remarkable, because the laws of physics2 allow Universes to begin from nothing! You don't need a deity.3 You have nothing. Zero total energy and quantum fluctuations can produce a Universe.”

This nothing is further illustrated by results obtained recently about the mass of protons, where:
“it turns out most of the mass of the proton comes not from the quarks within a proton, but from the empty space between the quarks. These fields popping in and out of existence produce about 90% of the mass of a proton, and since protons and neutrons are the dominant stuff in your body, the empty space is responsible for 90% of your mass. So this empty space is vital to science and these calculations are vital to understanding not just protons, but electrons and atoms and produce the best comparisons.”

In other words, the nothing from which a universe can come into being is a “boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles that are popping in and out of existence” “because of the laws of quantum mechanics and special relativity.” This nothing is an “empty space” that is empty insofar as matter and gravity cancel out each other’s energy and insofar as quantum mechanics deals in fields that may or may not yield particles.

As far as this being what I understood, I actually find it quite beautiful - and Krauss would agree by saying that “the only mathematically beautiful Universe” is a flat one, like ours. There is a symmetry between positive and negative energy, light and dark matter, there is infinite expansion that is at the same time bounded, there is a constant dynamic of being potentially versus actually and there is a tremendous amount of beautiful science that has lead to this view of the universe. We have Lemaître’s and Hubble’s insights into the universe’s expansion, we have the astonishing work on measuring the universe’s curvature by means of looking at it's background radiation, we have ways of measuring the mass of distant galaxies and their distances from us and so much more. From this point of view, I do recommend Krauss’ talk wholeheartedly.

Sadly, there is another side to it, which is its being peppered with jabs at religion and a profound ignorance of what many religious people believe. The underlying view of religious faith that informs the criticisms leveled against it here, and in many other atheist forums, seems to have people like Young-Earth creationists, Pentecostal snake-handlers and members of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church as their model. This is akin to me taking someone like Dr. Josef Mengele as the archetype of a scientist and projecting prejudices from him to all scientists. I have about as much in common with the lunacy of the above mentioned “religious” groups as with the barbarity of the above mentioned “scientist.”

Let me be a bit more specific though about why the religion-related claims of Krauss don’t stick, as it can otherwise seem like this is just a lot of hand-waving. First, let’s look at the cosmology (and cosmogeny) presented by Krauss, which postulates a coming-into-being of the universe from nothing. If anything, this scientific insight is fully consistent with the Christian account of creation, where God creates the world from nothing - hence the emblematic Latin phrase: “ex nihilo.” The Christian view of how the world came into being is not one of a God having inhabited space-time and then decided to turn parts of himself into planets, vegetation, animals, humans. Instead, the Catechism here affirms that “God gave a beginning to all that exists outside of himself” (§290), where (in some sense) there was nothing before: “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:3). The Nicene Creed even speaks about God as the creator of “all things visible and invisible,” which can comfortably be applied to dark matter or the negative energy of gravity.

In fact, the Catechism (§296) is insistent on there having been nothing before the Universe started:
“We believe that God needs no pre-existent thing or any help in order to create, nor is creation any sort of necessary emanation from the divine substance. God creates freely “out of nothing”: “If God had drawn the world from pre-existent matter, what would be so extraordinary in that? A human artisan makes from a given material whatever he wants, while God shows his power by starting from nothing to make all he wants.” (St. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum II)”

So, if anything, the model of a flat universe and of the nothingness that is at its origin is in perfect accord with what the Church has come to believe through revelation and the guidance of the Holy Spirit over the centuries (and as early as in the 2nd century in the writings of St. Theophilus!). There simply is no conflict here - listening to the science Krauss talks about just makes me delight in how much better we understand how it was that the universe came into being from nothing. I can therefore happily conclude, again with the Catechism (§283):
“The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers.”

Catholics (and adherents of many other Christian denominations and other religions) are in no way at odds with the advances of science, since - in addition to the benefits that it enables for the good of all, it sheds light on how the universe works and how it has worked since its beginning. Those who believe in God having created the universe (from nothing!), being the source of its laws and continuously sustaining its being can enjoy the advances of science as much as those who don’t hold those beliefs, and I wish that neither side would try to ridicule the other or force them to change their views!

1 Incidentally, it was Georges Lemaître - the Belgian priest and physicist, who made this realization based on Hubble’s data a couple of years before Hubble did.
2 It always baffles me how many atheists hail the latest developments of science as proofs of the non-existence of God, while quite happily relying on pre-existing “laws of physics.”
3 I. e., a “god of gaps” deity ...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The beyond inside

Living success 3d drinking tea

For a while now, I have been coming across rather negative takes on the Dalai Lama’s “Beyond Religion” book from last year. So, when I saw it at an airport bookshop today, I bought it and started reading it on my way home across the Atlantic. Before I tell you more about it, I have to admit to having a deep-seated fondness for and admiration of the present Dalai Lama, stemming from having read quite a bit of his writings, having seen interviews with him (and that gem of a chat between him and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, mentioned here some time ago) and also from counting the movie Kundun among my all-time favorites. With this “baggage” in mind, you'll understand that I was rather skeptical about the book’s reviews and dubious about their being representative of its author’s thoughts.

The criticisms tend to focus on quotes like: “in today’s secular world, religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics” and “when negative attitudes towards religion [...] are motivated by a concern for justice, they must be respected.” Several commentators are then quite content to take these, become indignant and launch into extensive rants in defense of religion. I find that rather misguided and not only a misrepresentation of the Dalai Lama’s thought, but also woefully naïve.

Even just a reading of the introduction to the book makes one thing crystal clear - the Dalai Lama is not turning away from religion or finding it lacking in any way: “religion has helped millions of people in the past, helps millions of people today, and will continue to help millions in the future” and “it may seem [... that] I am advocating the exclusion of religion from ethical systems, or even from all areas of public life [... - t]his is not at all what I have in mind.”

So, what is he getting at?
“[My statements] may seem strange coming from someone who from a very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and to those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.”
All I can say to that is: Amen! Instead of renouncing religion or in any way devaluing it, the Dalai Lama is saying: let’s look for what we have in common and for the good that is deep-rooted in our human nature and nourish it. In fact, he puts the relationship between the ethics that is not contingent on religious beliefs and the ethics that is thus:
“Ethics and inner values without religious content are like water, something we need every day for health and survival. Ethics and inner values based in a religious context are more like tea. The tea we drink is mostly composed of water, but it also contains some other ingredients - tea leaves, spices, perhaps some sugar or, at least in Tibet, salt - and this makes it more nutritious and sustaining and something we want every day.”
This, to my mind, is a beautiful way of putting it, which makes me even sadder to see that the first part of the above quote gets bandied about as further evidence for the Dalai Lama considering religion to be of little value. Instead, I believe, that his metaphor is spot on and emphasizes the riches of faith, while also highlighting the universal access to a great deal of what is good about it. Note, that he is not saying - ethics without religion is water and the extra ingredients that can turn it into tea are religion. He is saying, religion is tea (i.e., water and other ingredients together) - it is a richer, more complex entity than what is accessible otherwise rather than an optional, minimal add-on. In this sense, the striving to bring ethics beyond religion is one of doing so for an ethics that is very much inside religion - like water is in tea.

From my Christian perspective I can rephrase what the Dalai Lama is saying as God, whom I believe to be the source of all goodness and happiness, making a great deal of himself accessible even to those who don’t believe in him (He is love, so why wouldn't He?). This is a source of joy to me and - like the Dalai Lama - something I am grateful for and want to build on in my relationships with all. I am also grateful for what God makes accessible to me through His gift of faith, but it would be foolish of me to be jealous of His generosity and I would be blind if I saw His love only among those who hold the same beliefs as I do. The Dalai Lama’s attempts to tease out what he sees as being universal (i.e., non-belief-contingent) aspects of ethics are to me greatly positive and directed towards making God’s presence evermore widely and clearly felt on earth.

Re-reading the above, a possible misunderstanding of it comes to my mind: “Are you saying that the ethics of religious people is superior? That those of no religious faith are in some way second class ethical?” Not at all! I believe that we are all fully capable of acting selflessly, for the good of our neighbors, those in need and even our enemies - having faith is not a prerequisite for this (and this is essentially the Dalai Lama’s point). So, does faith make any difference? Absolutely! I believe that my faith helps me greatly in trying to live in the above way. Instead of a feeling of superiority it engenders a sense of responsibility in me though, and brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30): from those to whom more was given, more will be expected.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Amazing mechanisms

Crab Nebula

During this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI has started a series of sermons on the Creed, with the latest focusing on how one can come to know God. He starts out by emphasizing that God respects each person’s freedom and that, instead of us having to look for Him, He seeks us out and makes himself known to us. Nonetheless, Benedict picks out three sources for finding signs of God and exhorts believers to “[a]lways be ready to respond, but with gentleness and respect, to anyone who asks you for the hope that is in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15) The Gospel needs to be communicated “joyfully, feeling it to be [one’s] own, through a life truly animated by faith, marked by charity, service to God and to others, and capable of radiating hope.”

The three sources of signs of God’s presence that Benedict puts forward are: “the world, man and faith”:
1. The world. “[D]azzled by the glitter of worldliness,” we are in danger of becoming blind to how the universe can fill us with wonder. Instead, “contemplat[ing] creation, its beauty, its structure” leads us to discover its “amazing mechanisms” and patterns that can lead to an intuition of the “Beautiful One” who is behind them. Benedict quotes Einstein here as saying that the laws of nature “reveal such a superior reason that all rational thought and human law is but a very insignificant reflection by comparison” (The World as I See it). This is not to be taken naively as: look at nature and you’ll instantly believe in God. That is not what Benedict means, nor would that respect our freedom. Instead, the point is: look around you, contemplate the beauty and intricacy of the universe, instead of just getting sucked into the consumerist rat-race, and you might discover God. This is not proselytism (with the emphasis on freedom and on it being up to God to call people, instead of saying that they ought to make the first move, or even be made to make it!) - his advice is good regardless of what you think about the likelihood of God’s existence and is very clearly mirrored in the mystical traditions of all religions and of contemplative practice outside religion.

2. Man. Benedict here quotes St. Augustine as saying: “God is closer to me than I am to myself” (cf. Confessions, III, 6, 11) and “truth dwells in the heart of man” (True Religion, 39, 72). “The ability to stop and take a deep look within ourselves and read that thirst for the infinite that we carry within” is at risk of being lost “in the noisy and distracted world in which we live.” Again Benedict basically says (to paraphrase him): “Don’t take my word for it - just give yourself a chance to reflect about yourself and the world you live in and I believe you will see signs of God’s presence.”

3. Faith. Here Benedict argues that looking at those who believe is a hint about God’s presence too:
He who believes is united with God, is open to His grace, to the power of charity. So his existence becomes a witness not of himself, but of the Risen Christ, and his faith is not afraid to show itself in everyday life, it is open to dialogue that expresses deep friendship for the journey of every man, and knows how to bring the light of hope to the need for redemption, happiness, and future.
This echoes Archbishop Williams’ recent words on what holy people are like and again underlines the “self-noughting” of those who truly believe in God and their friendship with and openness towards all. Benedict proceeds to spell out misconceptions of faith as “illusion, escapism, a comfortable shelter, sentimentality” and instead contrasts them agains what it is: an “involvement in every aspect of life.”
Finally, Benedict concludes with a call for all Christians to purify themselves and make themselves “conform to” Jesus also so that others may rid themselves of a misunderstanding of Christianity as a “mere system of beliefs.” Instead:
Christianity, before being a moral or ethical value, is the experience of love, of welcoming the person of Jesus. For this reason, the Christian and Christian communities must first look to and help others to look to Christ, the true path that leads to God.

Friday, 9 November 2012

What is a holy person like?

Butterfly wikimedia 0085 big

Last Sunday, Archbishop Rowan Williams met a group of young people in New Zealand and spoke to them about what it means to be a holy person. As will be no surprise to you, if you have been following this blog, his words were again a joy to read and I would just like to share my favorite bits with you.

The starting point of the talk is the apparent contrast of the Old Testament concept of holiness, where the emphasis is on being set apart, special, protected and the New Testament view which focuses on ubiquity (St. Paul's addressing the first Christian communities as saints and holy people) and on the central importance of Jesus’ being involved intimately with human suffering, culminating in his crucifixion. This takes us to the realization that "[b]eing holy is being absolutely involved, not being absolutely separated."

Instead of a holy person being "weird, […] drained of blood[, …] in a nutshell, not like us," they go "into the heart of where it's most difficult for human beings to be human":
"And so Jesus goes outside the city, he goes to the place where people suffer and are humiliated, he goes to the place where people throw stuff out, including other people. [… The Christian idea of holiness is …] something to do with going where it's most difficult in the name of the Jesus who went to where it was most difficult. And he wants us to be holy like that."
As a result "there's no contrast, no tension […] between holiness and involvement in the world. On the contrary, the most holy, who is Jesus, is most involved, most at the heart of human experience." Instead of an irritating "saintliness, strictness, devoutness, goodness" that makes people around them feel "worse, guilty, inadequate," holy people "make you feel better than you.":
"But the holy person somehow enlarges your world, makes you feel more yourself, opens you up, affirms you. They're not in competition; they're not saying, 'I've got something you haven't'. They're saying, 'There's an enormous amount of room for you in the world we occupy together.'"
This is not about complacency though, but about realizing that "it's OK, we can start [here]. The world is big enough and God is big enough." Saints "produce joy around them"; when you are with them "the landscape changes - there [is] a new light on it." Holiness is not "a sort of extra special kind of goodness[, …] it's not about competing levels of how good you are[, it's] about enlarging the world, and it's about involving in the world.":
"[H]oly people, however much they may enjoy being themselves, just aren't obsessively interested in themselves. They actually allow you to see, not them, but the world. They allow you to see not them, but God.[…]

[But], there's the catch: if you want to be holy, stop thinking about it. If you want to be holy, look at God. If you want to be holy, enjoy God's world, enter into it as much as you can in love and in service."
These are just a couple of the bits I liked most from the talk and I'd encourage you to read it in full. What struck me as I was reading it was a very strong sense of knowing people just like that! I have been blessed, and keep being blessed, by knowing a number of holy people (a number that strikes me as being undeservedly large!) and counting them among my friends. Meeting them, or even receiving an email or text message from them, leaves me with precisely what Archbishop Williams says - a conviction that they have made me see the beauty of the world and God. As I know some of you are reading this: thank you!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Lumen Gentium: The mystery of the church

Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda

In my attempt to read the full set of Vatican II documents during this Year of Faith, and after having greatly enjoyed both reading Dei Verbum and trying to share my takeaways from it here, I have turned to the next one of the four dogmatic constitutions: Lumen Gentium.1

The first thing to note about Lumen Gentium (LG) is its heft - while Dei Verbum (DV) comes in at ~6K words, LG clocks up just short of 35K. To keep my posts from draining your tablet batteries and to make the challenge more manageable for myself, I am going to look at LG chapter by chapter. The second aspect of LG that jumped out at me was its language as compared with DV. While DV strikes me as much more direct, synthetic and to the point, in LG there seems to be a much greater use of epithets, honorifics and circumlocution. This is not by way of criticism, but just as an observation that would probably make me recommend DV more easily than LG to someone who would otherwise not read these kinds of texts.

With the preambles out of the way, let me share with you what the first chapter of Lumen Gentium, entitled “The Mystery of the Church,” meant to me. While the whole of LG is about the Church, its first chapter is essentially the answer the Church gives to the question: “Who are you?” Even if you aren't a Catholic, you can take the answer to be how the Church thinks of herself, and throughout this chapter you'd see that it does so along two dimensions: God-Church-World and Nature-Mission. The Church presents herself “as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” - facing not only towards God but also towards humanity, and “desires […] to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.”

God the Father created the world and planned to “raise men to a participation of the divine life.” The Church, which Jesus “inaugurated,” is the “Kingdom of heaven on earth,” the Kingdom of the divine life. This may at first sound odd, but I believe, it could also have been put as “where God's law (i.e., love) is adhered to on earth,” with the “where” not being restricted to location but applicable also to persons (i.e., an “in whom” and “among whom”). This ”Kingdom” is “the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ,” where that unity is “expressed and brought about” by the Eucharist:
“[I]n the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. “Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread”. In this way all of us are made members of His Body, “but severally members one of another”.”
The image of the Church as the “body of Christ” is very prominent in LG - Jesus is the “head of the Body which is the Church [… and all its] members ought to be molded in the likeness of Him, until Christ be formed in them.” This is very clearly not just about “what would Jesus do” but about a “becoming Jesus” and thereby “becoming one another.” This is not some rhetorical flourish, but an emphasis on the profound, existential nature of following Jesus, who “is the image of the invisible God and in [whom] all things came into being.” And neither is it about my, individual seeking of God only, but fundamentally about how I relate to others, how I become a “member of another,” how - as Cardinal Martini put it “the other is within us.” This is further emphasized in the following passage, where the role of the Holy Spirit (who “was sent [… to] continually sanctify the Church”) is presented:
“Giving the body unity through Himself and through His power and inner joining of the members, [the Holy] Spirit produces and urges love among the believers. From all this it follows that if one member endures anything, all the members co-endure it, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.”
If this all sounds too idealized and removed from reality, it is worth bearing in mind that it is about what the Church is (or how it thinks of itself) and not about what it looks like. While saying anything about being (as opposed to empirically observed phenomena) is very difficult (if not impossible, if you are epistemologically honest) in the context of philosophy and science. Christianity, on the other hand, holds beliefs about it, justified by revelation in the person of Jesus and subsequently illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

What about the way that the Church appears? How does that relate to the “body of Christ” presented above? Here LG is very explicit:
“[T]he society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.”
Jesus, the Word of God, is to Jesus the person who walked the earth 2000 years ago as the social structure - the Church, is to the Mystical Body of Christ - the Church. Just like every aspect of how Christianity views anything is ultimately rooted in the Trinity, so too the Church mirrors the incarnation of one of its Persons - Jesus. I believe this is a very powerful way of understanding the Church, that reconciles both the temporal, limited, imperfect with the infinite, perfect that sustains it and gives life to it.

Just to avoid giving the impression that LG is divorced from the phenomenological experience of the Church, with its obvious limitations, that sadly also include some shocking perversions, it is useful to highlight the following passage:
“While Christ, holy, innocent and undefiled knew nothing of sin, but came to expiate only the sins of the people, the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal. […]

By the power of the risen Lord it is given strength that it might, in patience and in love, overcome its sorrows and its challenges, both within itself and from without, and that it might reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light.”
Finally, I was also encouraged to see a clear acknowledgement that the Church as an organization does not claim to have a monopoly, by saying that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” and a clear reminder of the Church's status in the world:
“Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to men. Christ Jesus, “though He was by nature God … emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave”, and “being rich, became poor” for our sakes. Thus, the Church, although it needs human resources to carry out its mission, is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to proclaim, even by its own example, humility and self-sacrifice.”
While I have certainly found the first chapter of Lumen Gentium much more challenging than Dei Verbum (and I don't know how well I managed to get my impressions from it across), it has left me with a vision of the Church that is profound, universal, open and positioned to draw itself and all closer to God-Love.

1 If you haven't read my post on Dei Verbum (and I am not suggesting you should feel bad about that :), you might like to at least take a quick look at the caveat there in paragraph 2.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

She said, he said


Have you ever been approached by a Jehova's witness and had them quote from the Bible to you? I have (several times :) and the thing that first struck me, and I have found almost invariably since, is that they tend to use a small set of passages to further their cause while being blind to the fullness of the Good News. A frequent example is their reference to Revelation for arguing that very few will be saved (and that they can get you a seat): "I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the Israelites" (Revelation 7:4). Yet, only a couple of sentences later John says: "After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands." (Revelation 7:9). And my pointing it out to them in their copy of the Bible tends to be the end of our friendly chat …

"OK," you may think, "so Jehova's witnesses are a bit blinkered - but I already knew that!" and you'd be right. There is no surprise there, but where I have been surprised recently was by the controversy surrounding Dr. Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University. Prof. Beattie has last week had an invitation revoked to be a Visiting Fellow at the University of San Diego and to deliver a series of talks. Naturally, she objected and she went on to claim that unfounded denunciations of her writings by numerous “Catholic” blogs were to blame. This is not the first time such cancellations happened either, as plans for a lecture by her at Clifton Cathedral in Bristol have also been cancelled recently on grounds of her alleged heterodoxy. Such claims by her and her critics made me curious about what was behind them and the following is what I managed to piece together.

First of all, Prof. Beattie does not deny that she holds some views that are in conflict with the teaching of the Church (e.g., she signed a letter to The Times, saying that Catholics could, “using fully informed consciences, … support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.”) Instead, she justifies her position by the following:
“I am an academic theologian who is also a practising Catholic. (This is subtly different from claiming to be a Catholic theologian if that implies somebody with a licence who is authorised to teach by the official magisterium). […]

Any academic theologian working in a university must […] seek to promote an intellectual culture in which reason rather than fideism is the basis for enquiry and research, knowing that in the Catholic tradition reason and revelation go hand in hand. […]

I have also always had absolute respect for the difference between the doctrinal truths of the faith, made knowable through revelation alone, and those truths which are arrived at by reason and which involve philosophical reflection informed by natural law and in engagement with other sources of human knowledge. So, with regard to all the doctrinal teachings that belong within the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, my theological position is absolutely orthodox.”
Hmm … where to start?! Even before looking at what Prof. Beattie has to say, I see several issues with how she positions herself, although I also see things that I agree with unreservedly! Promoting an “intellectual culture in which reason rather than fideism is the basis for enquiry and research” is certainly one of them. Where Prof. Beattie and I would part ways though is her compartmentalization of herself: as a practicing Catholic on the one had and as a critical academic on the other. Not only do I believe this to be unhealthy, but also impossible! Either one strives to be a practicing Catholic (with all that implies and not only with a cherry–picking of it), or one places themselves outside that community and is honest about it.

Such bipolarity is further underlined by the last part of the above quote, where Prof. Beattie draws a line between faith “knowable through revelation alone” and “truths arrived at by reason [and] human knowledge.” At its basis this is just as contradictory a position as the practicing-academic one. Dei Verbum states very clearly that “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” (§8). To draw a line between God speaking “of old” and his “uninterrupted conversation” with the Church is just as contrary to what the Church teaches as the other topics that she has been picked up on.

I don’t mean to recount in a lot of detail what Prof. Beattie is being criticized for, and if you are easily (or even not all that easily :) offended, please, skip to the last paragraph.

The key bone of contention, as cited by the “Protect the Pope” blog and many others, beyond her support for same-sex marriage and abortion under some circumstances, is the claim that she describes the Mass as “an act of (homo) sexual intercourse” on pp. 80 of her book entitled “God's Mother, Eve's Advocate.” This is an accusation that Prof. Beattie vehemently denies and claims is a result of a misunderstanding:
“In the work that is cited and quoted by these bloggers, I was writing an extended critique of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose writings I have studied for a number of years. My comments were made in the context of my deep concern over his highly sexualised representation of the Mass. This criticism is shared by a number of others who have written on von Balthasar. The suggestion that I mock the Mass because I criticise another theologian’s interpretation is outrageous.”
I have to say I agree with Prof. Beattie here: the remarks she is being attacked for are ones she herself is critical of and attributes to another. On pp. 196 of the same book she states clearly that “neo-orthodox theology risks reducing the Mass to an orgasmic celebration of homosexual love.” Where my agreement fizzles out though is with her attributing the view she criticizes to von Balthasar. While I haven’t studied his writings “for a number of years,” I am familiar with some of them and have even tracked down the following passage, where von Balthasar talks about the Trinity (which must also inform his views on the mass), in terms that others have taken as him reading their relationships in sexual terms:
“In Trinitarian terms, of course, the Father, who begets him who is without origin, appears primarily as (super-) masculine; the Son, in consenting, appears as (super-) feminine, but in the act (together with the Father) of breathing forth the Spirit, he is (super-) masculine. As for the Spirit, he is (super-) feminine. There is even something (super-) feminine about the Father too, since as we have shown, in the action of begetting and breathing forth he allows himself to be determined by the Persons who thus proceed from him.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-drama. V: The last act, pp. 91)
To take the above and interpret it as von Balthasar talking about homosexual relationships among the persons of the Trinity or during the mass is confused though - and, more importantly from the perspective of the argument I am trying to make here, not what von Balthasar meant! Here it suffices to just read on in the same paragraph, where he says:
"The very fact of the Trinity forbids us to project any secular sexuality into the Godhead (as happens in many religions and in the gnostic syzygia). It must be enough for us to regard the ever-new reciprocity of acting and consenting, which in turn is a form of activity and fruitfulness, as the transcendent origin of what we see realized in the world of creation: in the form and actualization of love and its fruitfulness in sexuality."
Far from sexualizing the Trinity, von Balthasar instead points to the Trinitarian origin of human sexuality, where its self-giving, reciprocal, consenting and fruit-bearing aspects reflect the dynamics of intra-Trinitarian relationships. A very different and wholly orthodox view in my opinion … It may well be that her way of interpreting von Balthasar is again a consequence of Prof. Beattie’s distinction between Scripture and Tradition as it seems like the taking of a text in isolation and a free interpretation of it (free as in fall - not beer :).

In summary, I acknowledge that I only have a very partial view of Prof. Beattie’s thought and even though she recently prepared a “public statement on [her] theological views,” its focus was on what she does not mean rather than on what she does - a useful, but inherently limited exercise. Further, her self-justification seems to rely on a separation between Catholic practice and academic thought and between Scripture and Tradition, neither of which are beneficial or orthodox. While I wholeheartedly support Prof. Beattie’s commitment to a reasoned critique of Church teaching and to the model of “diversity in unity,” her own approach seems to me heterodox not only in content but also in method. Finally, let me express an even more categorical disagreement with blogs like “Protect the Pope,” who snatch a fragmentary quote out of context and present it in a light that is diametrically opposed to its original meaning and, furthermore, that they take this to initiate a witch-hunt! In the end we arrive at a misrepresentation of a misinterpretation, which instead of supporting either party’s position just places both into disrepute. This is not a reasoned diversity manifesting itself (which I would wholeheartedly support and be proud of), but brawlers lashing out at each other in the dark.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The child inside

Tobias angel

The other day I came across a beautiful letter written by the poet Ted Hughes to his then 24-year-old son Nicholas, and reading it I was immediately struck by his fatherly love, by the strange familiarity, yet distinctness, of his advice and by the streak of sadness running through it.
The gist of Hughes’ advice derives from the idea that “every single [person] is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child.”:
“It’s something people don’t discuss, because [they] are aware of [it] only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, […] or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them.
Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable […] eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances.
And when we meet people, this is what we usually meet [and we] end up making ‘no contact.’ But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child.”
When I first read this, I immediately had the sense that it contains those “reflected rays of truth” (Nostra Aetate 2); I could sense the traces of Jesus’s words in it - both in the image of the child as the underlying paradigm (“I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3) and in the mechanism of getting to a true “meeting” by having inner child engage with inner child. In fact, if you read on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says: “whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” (18:5) and St. Paul elsewhere adds: “yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20) which takes us to the long-established Christian image of each one of us being Jesus - having Jesus inside. With this key, I can read Hughes’ “child inside” as Jesus, which makes his proposal for how to truly meet another person essentially take us to Jesus’: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). If Jesus in me and Jesus in another connect, He is not only in each one of us, but also among us. Our meeting becomes like that of the persons of the Trinity, where the “meeting” itself takes on a level of reality like that of those who meet (“[Y]ou see the Trinity if you see love … They are three: the lover, the loved, and the love.” St. Augustine).
Am I saying that this is what Hughes meant? Certainly not. While being clearly distinct, the negative image of a person’s inner child being hidden behind the “armour of [the artificially constructed,] secondary self” does have close parallels with and traces of the Gospel. The difference between Hughes’ “inner child” and Jesus seems to grow further still in the following lines though:
“Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. […] At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation.”
This does sound quite unlike Jesus - or does it? Looking more closely, it seems to me that a lot of what Hughes says here is reminiscent of Jesus suffering on the cross, even to the point of feeling abandoned by his Father (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34). The wretched isolation facing death - that is Jesus on the cross and that is Jesus in me, when I am made to suffer by others or when I make him suffer in me by placing my own interests before those of others. Read in this way, Hughes view of the person and inter-personal relationships, appear in a very Christian light. Here Jesus suffers in those who smother him with an “artificially constructed, secondary self” and shows an “impulse of real life” when he is allowed to meet himself in another person.
Hughes then continues with a seeming contradiction, which, however, supports the above, Christocentric reading:
“That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. […] But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster.”
It is in his suffering that Jesus most vividly show’s his love for us, his friends, and it is in suffering that I too am most undeniably called to make a choice between what matters and that “artificial armour” that I allow to obstruct Jesus’ life in me. This is not some morbid fascination with suffering or a form of masochism - on the contrary, it is a realization that in suffering I have an opportunity to encounter Jesus, who then takes me with him to the joy of resurrection. Hughes does not wallow in the negative either and leads his son to the following conclusion:
“[The] only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all. It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems—he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.”
The call to love that Hughes arrives at is nothing other than Jesus’ challenge to all who came to seek his advice: “love one another as I love you[, for n]o one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).

If, like me until very recently, you haven’t read any of Hughes’ poetry, here is a great selection - mostly from Crow. As you will see, the tone is dark, cutting, negative and atheist throughout, but I couldn’t but see the beauty of his language and the heartfelt cry of his voice.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

All saints

Saints friends

If you are a regular reader, you'll know that the saints are very close to my heart and a frequent topic on this blog. Today, I'd just like to share the above painting with you (the cover of an book on saints for children, in preparation by my besties PM and JM) and the following quote:
“[O]nce you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. ... You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage. ... You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. ... And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints” (Benedict XVI, addressing Catholic pupils on 17 September 2010, during his visit to the UK)
Happy All Saints day!