Monday, 31 December 2012

Happy New Year 2013

My dear readers, many thanks for the 10 295 times that you have visited my blog this year. Since the first post on 9th July, I have greatly enjoyed sharing some thoughts with you (75K words to be precise) and receiving a wealth of feedback, both directly on the blog and via emails and in person. I am pleased to see that so many of you are based in the US (66%), that a good number of you are in the UK, Spain, Slovakia and Russia and that I also have readers from Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Canada.

I am also delighted that - as a bunch - you are keen on art and science (and gossip!), with the following having been the most popular posts so far:
  1. Contemporary art and its enemies (284 views)
  2. An atheist creed (211 views)
  3. A universe from nothing (196 views)
  4. What is a holy person like? (163 views)
  5. Jesus’ wife: clicks, facts and ‘children in a marketplace (161 views)
If you like, you can download the whole content of the blog’s first year as a PDF here.

Thank you again for all your time and attention and all the best for 2013! :)

A mathematical paradox of Christmas

Rembrandt nativity

An aspect of Christmas that is closest to my heart is that, where A is any set and where H is the set of all humans, it is also about the following:1, 2
!∃ A: A ⊄ Q ⇒ Q ⊂ Q ∧ Q ⊃ Q
H ⊂ Q
∃ h: h ∈ H ∧ h = Q ⇒ Q ∈ H ∧ H ∈ Q
In other words,3 God (an aspect of whom is represented here by Q), who includes and exceeds everything (which is beautifully put by the Islamic expression Allāhu Akbar - الله أكبر): “God is greater”), has become an individual human person (h) - i. e., a member of one of the myriad sets whose strict superset He is. The resulting recursive, infinite regress of divine in human in divine ... is a fundamental aspect of what Christians believe and celebrate at Christmas. Yes, there is a lot more to it and, no, I am not attempting either a reduction or any sort of proof here, but, I believe the mathematical representation of what happened at Christmas just makes the enormity and irregularity of it stand out more starkly than using any other means.

God - the transcendent beyond, has become a man - a finite creature, while retaining His transcendence and immanence simultaneously. This paradox (and it strictly is a paradox since it amounts to a finiteness and infinity that cannot be resolved) is a mind-boggling event regardless of the specific circumstances under which it took place and would in any case have shown God's love for humanity. His choice of coming into being as a human from the moment of conception (which Christians celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation and when the above paradox actually took place), being born the way all humans are and doing so under the humblest of circumstances just eases our comprehension of this extraordinary event and of the inexhaustible love that God has for us - a love that can also be read from the above set theoretic notation.

Another level of recursive infinity is introduced when Jesus institutes the Eucharist (making his divine-human self present in a transubstantiated, finite quantity of bread and wine), when it is He Himself who is present among any set of two or more humans who follow his words, and when it is He Himself who is also present in each human being. This makes not only God be transcendent-immanent but every single one if us too, by participation in His life. The ontological configuration that the incarnation introduces is truly a source of constant wonder for me and I hope that I managed to share some of that with you here.

Merry Christmas!

1 Thanks to my bestie PM for fixing my initially muddled notation!
2 Yes, I know I am using Cantor’s naïve set theory here and not Zermelo–Fraenkel (ZF or ZFC), but I do so since the latter has been designed to avoid the occurrence of paradox, which in most cases makes good sense, while Cantor’s system is more unconstrained and is precisely what the expression of the Christmas paradox calls for. Also, note that the term “naïve” here merely means non-axiomatic as opposed to implying any derogatory connotations.
3 In case you are not familiar with (this) set theoretic notation, it reads as: “No set A exists such that A is not a strict subset of Q (where a set X is another set Y’s strict subset if and only if all of the members of X are also members of Y and Y has at least one member that is not a member of X), therefore Q is a strict subset and also a strict superset of itself. H is a strict subset of Q. There exists a h that is a member of H and that is identical with Q, therefore Q is a member of H and H is a member of Q.”

Friday, 21 December 2012

Rational and evidential equivalence


I don’t usually chase popularity, but what I saw after my previous post was published gave me cause for reflection. Of the 94 posts on this blog, “An atheist creed” has certainly had the best first 24 hours, with more than 100 views during that period alone. It was also my most popular post by far, reaching 10 “+1s” within a couple of hours. On Twitter and Google+ too it was received well, which suggested that I had picked a good topic. Not only that, but on Google+ it also lead to a conversation that made me append an update to the original post.

And then three of the original +1s were revoked, still leaving a respectable seven but clearly signaling disagreement with the update’s content. After a day of trying to work out what might have lead to someone changing their mind (and if you are one of the three who did, I’d love to hear from you), I have decided to expand on what I said, with the hope of being more explicit than the update’s 100 or so words allowed.

While the initial post attempted a summary of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and arrived at the conclusion that his position is one of unacknowledged belief, for the explicit variant of which he chides those who hold religious ones. At the end of the post I then admitted that, while I respect agnostic positions and hold a Christian one, I fail to see the honesty of atheism. After an enriching exchange on Google+ I then returned to the post and added an update in which I quote one of my atheist friends as saying that their atheism is a belief in there being nothing else out there beyond what we experience. Since this was the first time I have encountered atheism as a creed (my post’s title originally having been intended as a dig at Dawkins), I was surprised and felt like I needed to take a fresh look at it.

I suspect, although I am not sure (and, please, do correct me if I am wrong), that the following may have been the root of the discontent with the post’s update: “the nature of [religious or atheist] belief and [their] relation to evidence and rationality are, to my mind, equivalent.” While the original post was decidedly negative about atheism, the update may have looked like I have softened my stance and like I may even have devalued my own Christian beliefs. Let me therefore be more explicit about these two possible interpretations.

First, everything I have said in the post before the update still stands as is. The atheism presented by Dawkins, and many other militant, aggressive atheists like him, is to my mind rationally feeble and delusional. It claims to be a purely rational, evidence-derived position, while it cannot possibly be. This lack of honesty about the nature of such atheism is fundamentally harmful to those who hold it, since it endows them with an illusory sense of superiority that dramatically (and demonstrably) inhibits their capacity for dialogue.

Why do I claim that their position cannot be evidence derived? For a more detailed answer see this previous post, but in a nutshell it is this: All empirical evidence that I can ever have is in the form of my own experiences and not directly of entities beyond myself. I experience images, sounds, sensations of texture, pressure, temperature, etc. but in all of this I am only conscious of aspects of myself. When I have the experience of seeing an apple, my evidence is not of some external entity - the “apple” as separate from events in my stream of consciousness - but of an image formed in my consciousness. No amount of reference to others, method, measurement or anything else can possibly result in anything other than events that I can with certainty place anywhere other than my own consciousness. This is the nature of experience that has been well understood by philosophers for some centuries now (very clearly by Hume and Locke and to different extents also by many others in preceding centuries).

The only exclusively empirical position is to restrict oneself to making statements only about oneself. Anything else requires belief. A belief in a physical world that causes the experiences we have access to, or even a belief that there is nothing beyond oneself (or some of the more esoteric beliefs typically posited for the sake of exploring the nature of knowledge, like the idea that we are all brains in vats, being fed signals that give rise to the experience we have). A belief that the physical world is all there is or that there is something or someone else beyond it. Beliefs about what it is that lies beyond the physical world. All of these beliefs have the same relationship to empirical evidence - i.e., none! Empirical evidence can contribute to greater or lesser confidence being attributed to one theory or another that explains it, but its scope is only that of the empirical. Evidence cannot point one way or another when it comes to what is beyond it - whether it be nothing or something.

It is with this in mind that I said, and repeat, that an atheist creed has the same empirical and rational status as a religious creed (including my Christian one). The position that is rationally inferior is an atheism that considers itself to be derived from evidence and devoid of the necessity of forming beliefs beyond its scope.

Finally, let me also emphasize that this position is fully compatible with how Christianity understands its own beliefs - as a gift from God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §153-154):
“Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed are contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason. Even in human relations it is not contrary to our dignity to believe what other persons tell us […] or to trust their promises […] to share a communion of life with one another.”
My belief in God is empirically and rationally equivalent to another’s belief that there is nothing beyond the physical world and I look forward to learning from my atheist friends what it is like to hold the beliefs they do. Open, honest and charitable dialogue can only be enriching to all who partake in it and I am pleased that I can now count some atheists among those who appreciate it as much as I do.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

An atheist creed

Ancient evidence by california artist nancy eckels abstract contemporary modern art painting 3ab3ad12d3d6cababf2ad2ad61347a7f

I have finally read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and I highly recommend it: if, like me, you consider “faith and reason [to be the] wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” then this book will give you an (albeit laboriously gleaned) insight into Dawkins' views and the insults directed there at you will be good practice for charity and compassion. If, on the other hand, you are among those religious fanatics whom Dawkins most vehemently attacks, then you are unlikely to be reading this anyway and anything I say will have about as much effect as Dawkins' words themselves. The category of reader for whom Dawkins' book is probably of least value are those who are genuinely seeking to understand the questions he addresses, as they will find far more chaff here than wheat.

While I have heard Richard Dawkins speak on several occasions and have also read various articles of his, I have always come away with a feeling of not knowing what his position is as opposed to what he attacks (the latter having always come across crystal-clear). “The God Delusion” has certainly helped me here and I will try to share my understanding of it next. If you are thinking of reading the book yourself (and I do encourage you to) - just a word of advice: gloss over his attacks on religion and focus instead on those sparse passages where he exposes his own views.

I believe Dawkins’ philosophy is most succinctly expressed by the following needle of a quote from his book:
“An atheist […] is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world [… and i]f there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural.”
In other words: a belief in nothing existing beyond the physical and a hope for an understanding that vindicates such a belief. As an ontological position this is vanilla-flavor materialism and not worthy of further comment. What is more interesting though is not the ontology of this view, but its being posited in terms of “belief” and “hope.” Dawkins (implicitly) acknowledges that atheism is a position that (like all other ontological positions, including religious ones) cannot be held on purely epistemological grounds. Whether there is or isn't something beyond the physical, sensible is by definition of what counts as evidence beyond its scope (since no sensory, empirical data will ever derive from it). Holding beliefs about nonexistence is more complicated still, thanks to the challenges of evidencing absence,1 which Cowper puts beautifully by saying that “absence of proof is not proof of absence.”2 The presence of hope is also noteworthy since it suggests that this ontological position is not held dispassionately, but that Dawkins cares about its truth value. While not being a religious position by any means, it nonetheless exhibits two of the three key aspects of Christianity: faith and hope, with love also being of clear importance to Dawkins. This is in no way a “gotcha,” but simply a realization that Dawkins’ atheist beliefs share features with my Christian ones and I don't begrudge him this.

While Dawkins’ hope for and belief in only the physical existing are not derived from evidence (there being no evidence for the absence of non-physical existence), he happily challenges those who hold religious beliefs for making assertions “for which they neither have, nor could have, any evidence.” In fact, he goes even further by mounting an argument for a particular entity not existing in this non-physical void: God.3 Here Dawkins' argument against God's existence is the following:
“The argument from improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance.”

“However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.”
It is ironic to see what Dawkins does here. He takes a weak cosmological argument for the existence of God (that many have torn to shreds) and “leverages” it for his own ends, while inheriting (even amplifying) its weaknesses. In essence this argument - a favorite among Creationists - is that the world is so complex that it couldn't have come about by chance or from simpler entities and that a designer or creator had to be its source. Dawkins then comes along and thinks he is trumping them by adding that the presumed creator must be more complex still and therefore even less likely. Far be it from me to defend the original cosmological argument, but it is disappointing to see Dawkins attempt its use as an argument for the almost-non-existence of God. The irony is greater still since it is Dawkins' own scientific work that has contributed to illuminating how it is that greater complexity comes about from simpler origins …

My final takeaway is a deflated “oh …” in the face of the naïveté of Dawkins' position. First, for his schoolboy materialist creed and, second, for his clumsy attempt at offering an argument for the statistical non-existence of God. Is this the best that atheism has to offer intellectually? Before writing this piece I have tried to think about whether I could offer a better atheist position, but I have to admit that I have failed. Atheism just does not make any sense since it is at its core an oxymoron: the belief in an entity's non-existence. Agnosticism is another matter altogether. It is a position I don't hold, but one that I have great respect for and that I have seen stated convincingly and with a great sense of honesty.

UPDATE (19 December 2012): I have just read the following, illuminating comment on this post on Google+:
"I could very elegantly be an agnostic, which is the rational stance, and save myself some problems. But I actually have this belief inside, my gut bets that there is NOTHING else out there. So I have to be honest about that."
This is the kind of atheist position I was trying to (but failing to) intuit before writing the post. It is an atheism that to me sounds ultimately honest and is very much like my own Christianity: it holds a belief about what there is beyond the empirical. There is a clear difference in what that belief contains, but the nature of the belief and its relation to evidence and rationality are, to my mind, equivalent. I now feel that I need to look at atheism in a new way and I hope to learn more about it.

UPDATE (9 January 2013): This post is fast becoming one of the most popular on this blog and it has certainly triggered a lot of discussion both on- and off-line. For coverage of some of its aftermath see the following post.

1 For a very well presented analysis of this point, and with reference to Dawkins, see Brian Garvey's paper.
2 This dictum is not without challenge and I hope to return to it in a future post.
3 Dawkins goes to great lengths to be clear that he doesn't mean an “Einsteinian God” or a God of the laws of physics, but a personal God like that of the Abrahamic religions. From my perspective this only amounts to a display of a profound misunderstanding of how Christianity sees God (displayed with particular virtuosity when discussing the Trinity).

Monday, 17 December 2012

Lumen Gentium: On Hierarchical Structure


Following the coverage of chapters one and two of Lumen Gentium, let me now take a look at chapter three, which deals with the Church’s hierarchy, before then turning to the laity in chapter four. As before, if you are not a Catholic, I’d like to encourage you to read paragraph two of my post on Dei Verbum, the first of the sixteen Vatican II documents I would like to try and read during this Year of Faith.

So, after chapter one sketched out what the purpose of the Church is and chapter two covered how the “priestly community” that is the Church lives and relates to the rest of humanity, we now proceed to consider the Church’s hierarchy.

The starting point here (as everywhere else in Lumen Gentium) is Jesus who “sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church,” the purpose of their pastoral function being to “serve their brethren, so that [… they] may arrive at salvation[, ...] freely and in an orderly way.” To ensure that the bishops themselves, who serve the rest of the People of God, are “one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion.”

In the Early Church, “the apostles, by preaching the Gospel everywhere, and it being accepted by their hearers under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gather together the universal Church.” Since the Gospel that the apostles taught is meant for all time, their mission too needs to persist, which is why the apostles appointed successors. “They passed on to [them …], as it were, in the form of a testament, the duty of confirming and finishing the work begun by themselves” and called them to appoint their successors in turn. “Through those who were appointed bishops by the apostles, and through their successors down in our own time, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved.”

“Bishops, therefore, with their helpers, the priests and deacons, […] presid[e] in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing. […] In the bishops, therefore, for whom priests are assistants, [… Jesus], is present in the midst of those who believe.” The “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” that the apostles received from Jesus was “passed on […] to their helpers by the imposition of hands, and it has been transmitted down to us in Episcopal consecration.” In addition to sanctifying, episcopal consecration “also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which […] can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.” This to my mind is an important point as it underlines the centrality of communion among the members of the hierarchy of the Church (as among all of its members). While episcopal consecration is a gift to the consecrated individual, the powers it confers in terms of teaching and governing are contingent on the entire hierarchy of the Church and don’t ultimately reside with the single bishop. This is again very much modeled on how the Early Church operated: the apostles weren’t just an association of individuals, but a united body of Jesus’ followers, with Jesus in their midst. Lumen Gentium calls them a “college,” which already etymologically points to collaboration, since it derives from collega: “one chosen to work with another.”

“St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together.” Hence, “issues [are to be] settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered.” Nonetheless, “the college […] of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.” The college of bishops, “insofar as it is composed of many, expresses the variety and universality of the People of God, but insofar as it is assembled under one head, it expresses the unity of the flock of Christ.” To my mind, the balance presented here between collegiality on the one hand and singular, individual authority on the other, and between variety and unity, are all modeled on the Trinity itself, where unity and distinction coexist and where there is a life that needs to be participated in rather than rules for mindless execution.

One of the main roles of bishops is preaching the Gospel, from which they bring forth “new things and old,[see Matthew 13:52] making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock.” When “teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, [they] are to be respected by all as […] speak[ing] in the name of Christ.”

In this context, Lumen Gentium underlines the doctrine of papal infallibility, by again starting from Jesus, who “willed His Church to be endowed [with infallibility] in defining doctrine of faith and morals.” The pope’s infallibility manifests itself when he, “the head of the college of bishops, […] as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act […] proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.” The resulting proclamations “of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are […] irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment.” Seen within the above presentation of the Church’s hierarchy, there is nothing jarring or surprising about infallibility being attributed to the above proclamations. Furthermore the weight of responsibility they carry has meant a tremendously sparing use since this teaching first became dogmatically binding in Vatican I (see Pastor Aeternus).

Another of a bishop’s key roles is his being the steward of priesthood in the local church that he serves, “especially in the Eucharist, which he offers or causes to be offered.” “Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop, […] administering it in accordance with the Lord’s commandments and the Church’s laws, as further defined by his particular judgment for his diocese.” Bishops are therefore there to transmit Jesus’ holiness: “By the ministry of the word […] and through the sacraments, the regular and fruitful distribution of which they regulate by their authority, they sanctify the faithful. [… B]y the example of their way of life they must be an influence for good to those over whom they preside, refraining from all evil and, as far as they are able with God’s help, exchanging evil for good, so that together with the flock committed to their care they may arrive at eternal life.” In all this they need to “remember that he who is greater should become as the lesser and he who is the chief become as the servant” (cf. Luke 22:26-27).

The above “job description” is brought together by emphasizing the Good Shepherd as the role model for bishops, “who came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to lay down his life for his sheep” (cf. John 10:11). Bishops are then reminded that they too are “beset with weakness” and that this ought to lead them “to hav[ing] compassion on the ignorant and erring.” A bishop is “not [to] refuse to listen to his subjects” and needs to “take care of [his flock] by his prayer, preaching, and all the works of charity, and not only of them but also of those who are not yet of the one flock.” The faithful in turn “must cling to their bishop, as the Church does to Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father, so that all may be of one mind through unity.”

Having presented the role of the bishop, Lumen Gentium proceeds to introduce priests and deacons, to whom a bishop “hand[s] on […] various degrees of participation in [his] ministry.” Priests, who “are dependent on the bishops in the exercise of their power[, …] are consecrated to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful and to celebrate divine worship.” “They exercise their sacred function especially in the Eucharistic worship or the celebration of the Mass[, …] acting in the person of Christ.” Priests “believ[e] what they have read and meditated upon in the law of God, teach what they have believed, and put in practice in their own lives what they have taught.” Finally, priests are also called to “wipe out every kind of separateness, so that the whole human race may be brought into the unity of the family of God.”

Chapter three then ends with a presentation of how deacons figure in the Church’s hierarchy. “[S]trengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and […] priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God.” The list of a deacon’s duties then is to “administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services.” In other words, this looks to me like almost everything that a priest is ordained to do, expect for celebrating the Eucharist. Lumen Gentium then states that “[t]he diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy [… and] be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state.” Raising the diaconate to a permanent state (as opposed to a transitory one that those preparing for the priesthood received towards the end of their studies) and opening it to married men was a big deal and something contemplated for the future during Vatican II. Today, fifty years later, it is great to see that - at least in some countries - this vision has become reality.

The end of the third chapter brings us to the point where the Church, initially presented as the link between God and humanity and then fleshed out in terms of how it operates, has had its hierarchy presented in greater detail. Like in its previous chapters, here too there is a constant balancing act (that was also present in Dei Verbum), which attempts to present the transcendent, divine and perfect, incarnate in the weak, human and limited. Instead of being a cause for frustration and disappointment, humanity is lifted up and called to participate in the life of the Trinity, while remaining conscious of its limitations. Instead of being obstacles, these limitations are opportunities for compassion and for the overcoming of separateness. To my mind this chapter too is a source of joy and I look forward to reading about the laity next in chapter four.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Saints, Our Friends: a children's book

John of the cross

My besties PM and JM are launching their book entitled "The Saints, Our Friends," from which we have already had a preview here some time ago. The book contains short stories from the lives of 19 Saints, Blesseds or Servants of God and is aimed at children around the age of 8-9 that can be enjoyed by younger kids too (4-5 probably being the youngest I'd read it to). Since tomorrow is the feast of St. John of the Cross, who is one of the 19 in the book, here is his story:
“Saint John of the Cross, who lived around five hundred years ago and was a friend of Saint Teresa of Ávila, was one of the greatest poets ever and is still famous for having written some of the most beautiful verses in the Spanish language. Listen to the following lines from his poem, The Dark Night of the Soul:

All in the dark went right,
Down secret steps, disguised in other clothes,
(O coming of delight!)
In dark when no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose.

And in the luck of night
In secret places where no other spied
I went without my sight
Without a light to guide
Except the heart that lit me from inside.

It guided me and shone
Surer than noonday sunlight over me,
And lead me to the one
Whom only I could see
Deep in a place where only we could be.

How did you like that? Who do you think he was talking about at the end there? Yes, it was Jesus, who is in your heart too and who calls you to follow him and to love everyone you meet.

Do you think St. John wrote this poem while sitting on a beach or while walking through a calm forest? No, he wrote it in prison - a prison that his fellow monks put him in because they didn’t like what he was doing. All St. John wanted was to live simply and spend his life talking to Jesus in prayer and loving the people around him. The other monks found that too hard and because they didn’t want to give up their comforts, they turned on St. John.

Do you think he gave up? No, he stayed faithful to Jesus all his life and that is why he is a Saint.”
The book is available from in print and from iTunes as an iBook. Printable coloring pages can be downloaded from and I wholeheartedly recommend it :)

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Does the word “infinity” make you uncomfortable?

The Dominoes Are Falling

I learned a lesson today: never read the parish newsletter before the start of mass. This morning I did and it just lead to regret as I spent the vast majority of mass being distracted1 by it and trying to reconstruct in my mind the reasons against an argument put forward in it. What is even worse is that this wasn’t just the regular newsletter that our parish priest prepares (and that has as yet lead neither to disappointment, nor elation), but a newsletter – “Our Faith on Sunday” – prepared by the company who provides the weekly mass sheets and who ought to know better.

The argument in question is that of Aristotle’s unmoved mover (or first cause), which is a form of the cosmological argument. The basic idea is the following: since all change (motion, temperature variation, …) is the result of a previous change, there are two possibilities: either a causal chain stretching back into an infinite past or a first, “unmoved mover” that triggered a finite chain of causal links leading to the present. The possibility of infinite regress is dismissed as ridiculous, ergo there had to be a first mover. So far Aristotle’s argument from over 2300 years ago, which at that time was unarguably brilliant and which has survived without chinks into the 18th century (this by itself being pretty impressive too!). So, Aristotle comes out pretty well from this incident. The same cannot be said about the nameless author, who not only sticks it into a parish newsletter in 2012 without attribution, but who - to add insult to injury - finishes the piece with saying that the “unmoved mover” is God.

No it ain’t! And that is just the start of a litany of complaints that flooded my mind this morning, with the following being the 800 pound gorillas:
  1. In this context, the gravest mistake is clearly to present a piece of philosophy (however good it may be) and to equate it with God. Not just to say: “Well, this concept gives us hints about some aspects of what God may be like,” but to say “Unmoved mover = God.” Not only is this entirely divorced from Christian theology (giving a false sense of being able to grasp God in His fullness, etc.) but it is positively counterproductive. In essence the argument postulates a God who is relegated to a distant past, who is far removed from us and who just plays the role of a snooker player, hitting the first ball that leads to a vast sequence of knock-ons - a true God of Gaps. This is not the God of Christianity. It is not the loving Father who sent his Son to become one of us and the Holy Spirit to guide us. It is not the God who’s three persons love one another to the point of being one and who invites us to partake in His innermost life. The “unmoved mover” is a cheap imitation and one that is rightly and thankfully the butt of atheist jokes.

  2. Next, taking a philosophical argument made over two thousand years ago and (presumably, hopefully!) not checking whether there have been any significant challenges made against it is pretty sloppy too. And an excuse of obscurity cannot be used here either as the cosmological argument (whose one variant this is) has been debated to death! Furthermore, its critics have included such giants of philosophy as David Hume, who challenged the notion of causation itself (arguing that our senses simply don’t have access to the necessary connection between supposed cause A and supposed effect B - instead, all we have are repeated experiences of event B following event A). With causation undermined, there is clearly no necessity for a “first cause.” Does that mean a disproof of God? No - just of the grotesque God of Gaps of the cosmological argument, and not a disproof as such (those live exclusively in the realm of mathematics or other formal systems - and even there are limited by incompleteness) but a counterargument instead.

  3. Finally, and this is a criticism that I cannot fairly level at the authors of the newsletter, there is also that recurring misunderstanding of infinity that hampers many a philosophical argument from centuries past. Before Georg Cantor’s groundbreaking work on set theory and the concept of cardinality and the subsequent advances in our understanding of infinite sets and their properties (with contributions by pioneers like David Hilbert), an arm-waving approach to infinity and blanket statements about its unintelligibility or impossibility (e.g., by Thomas Aquinas2) were all we could manage. Today these are just not good enough anymore. E.g., a good example of how the impossibility of an infinite sequence of causes can be refuted can be found in Peter Clark’s paper: “Consider the set of events with no first member but a last member: {… an … a4, a3, a2, a1, a0} [where] for every j (aj-1 causes aj). There is no logical contradiction in this supposition whatsoever. […] Every event in the above sequence is finitely accessible from each and every event preceding it.” What this means is that an infinite sequence stretching back in time does not imply the necessity for a member that is infinitely far in the past. No matter how far you go back in the sequence (i.e., an) - and remember that you can’t go back to the beginning, which does not exist - there is a finite number of steps that bring you to the present (i.e., a0). All the infinity of the sequence means is that there is no first member, without necessarily entailing members that are infinitely removed in the past. This may sounds counterintuitive, but presents no logical contradiction.3

So: lesson learned. Next time, I’ll defer reading the newsletter until after mass and especially its “Faith and Reason” section, where, ironically, Aristotle's argument was plagiarized.

1 I almost missed this gem of a line from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value” (1:9-10), again pointing to an induction of orthodoxy from orthopraxy.
2 “The existence of an actual infinite multitude is impossible. For any set of things one considers must be a specific set. And sets of things are specified by the number of things in them. Now no number is infinite, for number results from counting through a set of units. So no set of things can actually be inherently unlimited, nor can it happen to be unlimited.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1, Question 7, Article 4).
3 I realize this paragraph barely scratches the topic of infinity, to which I hope to return in the future ... Also, please, note that I am not advocating an argument for the universe having existed infinitely - I am merely pointing to the objection to an infinite causal chain being outdated.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Lumen Gentium: On the People of God

Fish family

[Just a quick apology before you proceed - this post has turned out to be rather longer than I hoped for, but there was just so much of interest in this chapter of Lumen Gentium that I couldn’t be any more succinct. You may prefer to read it in parts rather than all in one go ...]

To have any chance of reading the full set of 16 Vatican II documents during this Year of Faith, I need to press on and take a look at the second chapter of Lumen Gentium, the council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church. In the first chapter, we got a view of who the Church is, as seen from God’s perspective - i.e., what the ultimate end of the Church is, while here, in chapter two, the focus is more on a view from the trenches: the People of God.

If you are reading this as an agnostic or a non-Catholic, let me first point you to the caveat in my post on Dei Verbum (paragraph 2), and re-iterate how this particular document does not use the most accessible language (e.g., with sentences like “Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.”). While I would feel quite at ease recommending a direct reading of Dei Verbum to anyone interested in how the Church understands Scripture, I’d hesitate when it comes to Lumen Gentium. Nonetheless, if you consider Lumen Gentium to be like a patent is to a scientific paper and take the time to peel away its particular form, the substance it carries is well worth the effort.

The starting point of Chapter 2 is Jesus’ New Testament, which forms a new people (the People of God) by means not of genetics (as was the case in the Old Testament, where the Israelites are already called the “Church of God”) but of the Spirit. All who believe in Jesus, become members of His people through baptism and the actions of the Holy Spirit. “The state of this people is that of the dignity and freedom of the sons of God, in whose hearts the Holy Spirit dwells as in His temple. Its law is the new commandment to love as Christ loved us.” A clearer distinction is made here between those who are members of the People of God and those who are not than in the first chapter. The Church is presented as the salt or yeast from which the whole world can benefit: “although it does not actually include all men, and at times may look like a small flock, [the Church] is nonetheless a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.” Looking back at chapter one and at Dei Verbum, this should not be taken as an indication of superiority, but simply as an attempt at specificity. Clearly not all of humanity believes that Jesus is God, who came to show us the way to Himself, and Lumen Gentium here strives to spell out what it is that those who hold this belief are like and how they live as a community. This positioning of the Church is particularly clear from the following: “Established by Christ as a communion of life, charity and truth, [the Church] is also used by Him as an instrument for the redemption of all.”

The role of the People of God is to “bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.” This is done by all members of the Church by participating in the priesthood of Jesus, who is its head. Those consecrated to the “ministerial priesthood” “teach and rule the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, making present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offering it to God in the name of all the people.” The laity too participate in Jesus’ (“royal”) priesthood, which they exercise “in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity.” The whole church therefore is a “priestly community.”

It is a community that operates through the “sacraments and the exercise of the virtues,” where members are “[i]ncorporated in the Church through baptism” (incorporated since the Church is the Body of Christ, as chapter one sets out). This membership is further perfected by confirmation, when “the Holy Spirit endows them with special strength so that they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith, both by word and by deed.” The Eucharist, which is “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” strengthens them and “manifest[s] in a concrete way [the] unity of the people of God.” Through the sacrament of Penance, they “obtain pardon from […] God for the offence committed against Him and are […] reconciled with the Church.” Through the anointing of the sick, the People of God “associat[e] themselves freely with the passion and death of Christ.” Those who are consecrated by “Holy Orders[,] are appointed to feed the Church in Christ’s name with the word and the grace of God,” while those who receive the sacrament of Matrimony, “partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church, help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children.” “From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church.” What is crystal clear from the above is that the sacraments (shown in bold) are the “means of salvation,” helping the members of the Church to “bear witness to Christ.”

So far, so good, but what comes next in §12 is to me the most interesting part of Chapter 2 (as the preceding paragraphs were edifying, but had a sense of the taxonomical about them):
“The entire body of the faithful […] cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.”
This is strong stuff, both as it states that the entire body of the faithful “cannot err” when it comes to faith and morals and as it calls for careful thought being applied to these beliefs and for their ever more perfect putting into practice. To my mind the key takeaway here is that infallibility here is attributed to the “entire body of the faithful” - i.e., the Mystical Body of Christ that has Jesus as its head. If truly all the faithful hold a certain belief then I can well subscribe to that belief having to be taken seriously and having to be attributed to the Holy Spirit. What this view does is to place the whole of the Church in a position of tremendous importance and responsibility, far from the usual caricature where the hierarchy is seen as dictating to a flock that follows it blindly and unthinkingly. The flip side of such status is the responsibility we carry for disagreements and disunity within the Church, which prevents us from accessing the unerring insights that the Holy Spirit has prepared for us when we are united.1

Two aspects of the above strike me as relevant: first, that this is not a new idea, but instead a centuries-old idea that has had new light shed on it and second, that it again points to the continuing action of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the first aspect, the basic idea can be seen already in the Latin proverb: “Vox populi, vox Dei” (“The voice of the people is the voice of God”) which has been quoted as a proverb already in the 8th century AD. The second aspect then is particlarly clearly illuminated by what Pope Benedict XVI in fact said just today:
“This gift, the sensus fidei, constitutes in the believer a kind of supernatural instinct that has a connatural life with the same object of faith. It is a criterion for discerning whether or not a truth belongs to the deposit of the living apostolic tradition. It also has a propositional value because the Holy Spirit does not cease to speak to the Churches and lead them to the whole truth.”
To underline the profound vocation of every single member of the People of God, Lumen Gentium points to the Holy Spirit’s gifts being bestowed on anyone whom He chooses: “[T]he Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, “allotting his gifts to everyone according as He wills.” He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts He makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church.” This acknowledges very clearly that it is not the hierarchy of the church alone who have a role of leadership in the Church, but that the Holy Spirit can choose anyone to contribute to its renewal, “but judgment as to their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church, to whose special competence it belongs, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good.” A very careful balance is presented here between the hierarchical and the “charismatic” aspect of the Church, which underlines again the fact that the Church are all the People of God.

Paragraph 13 then focuses on there being only one People of God, “which takes its citizens from every race, making them citizens of a kingdom which is of a heavenly rather than of an earthly nature.” This “takes nothing away from the temporal welfare of any people. On the contrary it fosters and takes to itself, insofar as they are good, the ability, riches and customs in which the genius of each people expresses itself.” All the diversity in the Church then has as its goal the fulfillment of St. Peter’s words: “According to the gift that each has received, administer it to one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10).

In paragraph 14 we turn to the role of the Church in the context of salvation and we start with a warning: “Whosoever, […] knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” Membership in the Church requires acceptance of “her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and [being] united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops.” Even membership (for those who know that it is necessary for salvation) is not sufficient though: “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.”” And it gets even worse! Those who “fail […] to respond to [the grace of Christ] in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.” Reading Chapter two very much gives you a sense of growing wonder as you proceed towards the end of §13, only to be followed by a cold shower and stark warnings!

So, what does §15 hold? First, it starts by acknowledging that there are Christians outside the Catholic Church:
“They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God. They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power.”
The key to me here is not only the extensive list of similarities that the Catholic Church sees in other “churches and ecclesiastical communities” but also the warmth of the language used (“lovingly believe,” “consecrated by baptism,” “rejoice in the episcopate,” “cultivate devotion,” “joined with us in the Holy Spirit”). There is a real yearning and well-wishing here and a desire to “pray, hope and work” towards being “peacefully united.”

Paragraph 16 then talks about where the Catholic Church sees non-Christians in this picture and there is again a sense of openness, warmth and yearning here. First come the Jews, “from whom Christ was born according to the flesh”: “this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.” Next, come the Muslims “who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” Then there are all others who seek God: “Nor is God far distant from [them], for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.” Finally, all those of good will are in the picture too: “Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.” The message is very clear: all are called to salvation and each has to take advantage of all the means they are offered for reaching it, according to their conscience and understanding.

Finally, Chapter 2 closes with a reminder of Jesus’ words: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world” (Mathew 28:19). All members of the Church have an “obligation of spreading the faith” so that “whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also cleansed, raised up and perfected unto the glory of God.” All this is done so that “the entire world may become the People of God,” which instead of being an attempt to conquer or colonize is one of striving for unity in diversity.

1 I would just like to tip my hat to my bestie PM, who has essentially arrived at this point without having read Lumen Gentium!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

In search of joy


As I haven’t managed to write a post here for over a week, I would just like to take the opportunity now to tie together a couple of the strands of the last seven days, which happen to have a shared theme of joy.

First, there is a talk by Pope Benedict XVI that I have been wanting to read for a while and that I finally got to last night. It is the first sermon he gave after the start of the Year of Faith, where he sets out to - what else - talk about the nature of faith. Amongst other things (and I encourage you to read the original in full), he says that “[f]aith is a gift of God, but it is also a deeply human and free act” and he asks himself how we can get “that openness of heart and mind […] to believe in the God.” The answer Benedict puts forward comes from Dei Verbum (§5): “To make this act of faith, the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist, moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind and giving “joy and ease to everyone in assenting to the truth and believing it” (Second Council of Orange, Canon 7, 529 AD).” And this makes him conclude: “To believe is to trust freely and joyfully in God’s providential plan” and saying “yes” to God “transforms life, opens the way towards fullness of meaning, thus making it new, full of joy and of reliable hope.”

Second, this joy and freedom of choice (also supported by the ultimate emphasis placed on the freedom of conscience in the Catechism (§1790)) then lead to lives like those of the saints, whom Benedict considers to be “the greatest apologetic for our faith,” alongside art. The accessibility and attractiveness of the joy that another person has, was then one of the topics that I spoke about with my bestie JMGR - a (in my opinion accurately) self-proclaimed “born-again agnostic” :). While our beliefs and views cannot be transferred to another and can remain the subject of doubt and suspicion, the joy and goodness of another’s life is accessible to us regardless of what we think about their beliefs. We can recognize the goodness of the fruit and as a result be more receptive to listening to the tree. A related theme that came up during our chat was also the role of uncertainty in the context of building personal relationships. Acknowledging the fundamental limitations of knowledge (which make it impossible to go beyond one’s self epistemologically) can lead not to indifference or nihilism (which is exhausting) but instead to openness and a greater readiness to hear out those who hold other beliefs.

Third, preceding these explicit instances of thinking about joy as the primary focus, was my reflecting on the activities of aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins and realizing that I should be grateful for them! On this blog alone, I have confronted their claims repeatedly (about goodness, rationality, science, cosmology) and have always come away from the process enriched both because I read up on the relevant science or philosophy and because I have discovered that the views held by the Church (through the Catechism, the teaching of the Popes or the insights of the Saints) are eminently rational, warmheartedly open and very much my own. There is also no denying the fact that the Church’s teaching has become what it is today also in response to attacks from militant atheists, which have meant that it had to think more carefully about how faith and reason relate and to clean itself from some aberrations that have crept in over the centuries.

Fourth, a very good friend of mine – MK – has been a constant source of joy to me over the last months, during which he has been battling with a serious, life-threatening disease. Throughout this time he has been sharing his experiences on Facebook and on a blog, where he chronicles his battling with the disease, while firmly keeping his sight set on God and on loving his neighbors. His blog is such a source of light for me that I could pick a paragraph at random and share it with you here. In fact, I am just going to share the beginning of what he wrote today:
“I am a child of God not by merit but by a gift of love from Him. Not only that, everybody else is a child of God and if God is our father, we are brothers and sisters, equal! Sounds obvious, but from my, our behaviour, we don’t treat each other as equal. How many times do I put me before loving God in my neighbour. I have all the experience in this and that, I know best, because I have done it before, I have a talent from God! More and more I discover that all these things are given into my hand to make his love visible! When I and my talents, inspirations and gifts from God get in the way of taking time to love my neighbour, it is always me. Where there is me there God can’t be! Here is the challenge: To love the way Jesus loved when he was on the cross, giving everything, becoming nothing out of love!”
True joy is rich, rewarding and all-encompassing. It is not a matter of only the good, easy times, but an insight and gift that transforms challenge, difficulty and suffering. My bestie Margaret once wrote the following to another bestie of ours - DF - and me: “Hope all is very very well (I mean, of course all manner of things are always well because we are loved immensely, so maybe I should wish that you are in the state where you are able to see that it is).” That too is joy and I couldn’t put it any better myself.