Monday, 29 April 2013

Joy and humility, instead of rules and political correctness

Francis cast

What would it be like if the Pope were just a simple parish priest, saying daily morning masses in a small side-chapel and addressing a few simple words to his small flock. Well, that is precisely what has been going on since around a month ago in the Domus Sanctae Marthae - the Vatican guest house, where Pope Francis choses to reside and where he says daily morning mass. He invites various small groups of Vatican employees and addresses short sermons to them that are always rooted in the mass readings of the day and that have an immediately accessible style. Reading excerpts from these short homilies has been a daily joy for me over these last weeks and I would here like to share my favorite bits with you. If you’d like to follow these very short sermons yourself, the quickest way is to look at the Vatican Radio website, where they get published a couple of hours after their delivery.

Instead of trying to be in any way comprehensive, let me just pick out a few gems and leave you to follow up on their context if you wish. First, here are a couple of excerpts that show Francis’ take on what it means to be a Christian:
  1. Wonder and joy: “Wonder is a great grace, the grace that God gives us in our encounter with Jesus Christ. It is something that draws us outside of ourselves with joy … it is not a mere enthusiasm like that of sports fans when their favorite team wins, but it’s something deeper. Of course we cannot live forever in a state of wonder, but it is the beginning which leads to spiritual consolation. It is the consolation of those who have encountered Jesus Christ.”

  2. God spray: “Faith is not an impalpable presence, like an essence of mist that spreads around without really knowing what it is. God is a concrete ‘Person,’ and therefore faith in Him comes from a living encounter, which we experience as tangible. We believe in God who is Father, who is the Son, who is the Holy Spirit. We believe in people, and when we talk to God we talk to People: I speak with the Father, with the Son or with the Holy Spirit. And this is the faith. But faith is a gift, the Father gives it. This faith that makes us strong, it makes us joyful, this faith that always begins with the encounter with Jesus.”

  3. Facing difficulties: “When there are difficulties, we need to look closely at them, and confront them and speak about them. But never hide them. We must not be afraid of problems: Jesus himself said to his disciples: ‘It is I. Do not be afraid’. In life’s difficulties, with problems, with new things that we must face: the Lord is always with us. We may make mistakes, certainly, but he is always with us and says: ‘You made a mistake, now get back on the right path.’ Masquerading life, disguising life, is not a very good way to behave: no no. Life is what it is, that’s the reality. It’s exactly as God wants it to be, or as God allows it to be, it is what it is, and we have to accept it as it is.”

  4. Gossip: “When we prefer to gossip, gossip about others, criticize others - these are everyday things that happen to everyone, including me – these are the temptations of the evil one who does not want the Spirit to come to us and bring about peace and meekness in the Christian community. These struggles always exist in the parish, in the family, in the neighborhood, among friends. Instead, keep quiet and if you have something to say, say it to the interested parties, to those who can remedy the situation, but not to the entire neighborhood.”

  5. Love instead of rules: “The Lord saves us by His love: not with a letter, nor with a decree, but with his love, a love so great that it led him to send his Son, who, became one of us, walked with us, and this saves us. We are worthy, we are men and women of hope: this is what it means to be saved by love. The problem is that sometimes we want to save ourselves, and we believe we can do it, for example basing our security on money - and we think: ‘I have money, I am secure, I have it all, there are no worries, I have dignity: the dignity of a rich person.’ This is not enough. Think of the parable of the Gospel, of the man who had the full granary, who said, ‘I’ll make another to get more, and then I’ll sleep soundly,’ and the Lord says, ‘You fool! This evening you will die.’ That salvation is wrong, it is a temporary salvation, it is also only apparent salvation.”

  6. Normality, not magic: “God does not act like a fairy with a magic wand. Rather, he gives grace and says, as he said to all those he healed, ‘Go, walk.’ He says the same to us: ‘Move forward in your life, witness to everything the Lord does with us.’ Triumphalism is not of the Lord. The Lord came to Earth humbly; he lived his life for 30 years; he grew up like a normal child; he experienced the trial of work and the trial of the Cross. Then, in the end, he rose from the dead. The life of the Christian consists of a normality that is lived daily with Christ.”

  7. Forgiveness: “St. Paul said that his glory was Christ crucified in his sins. Why? Because he, in his sins, found Christ crucified who forgave him. In the middle of the ‘night,’ the many ‘nights,’ the many sins that we commit, because we are sinners, there is always the embrace of the Lord that helps us say: ‘This is my glory. I am a poor sinner, but You are my Savior.’ We think of how nice it is to be saints, but also how nice it is to be forgiven.”

  8. Peace: “Even in the most painful tests, a Christian never loses the peace and presence of Jesus. With a little courage we can pray: ‘Lord, grant me this grace which is the hallmark of our encounter with you: spiritual consolation and peace.’ A peace that we cannot lose because it is ours, it is the Lord’s true peace that cannot be bought or sold. It is a gift from God.”

Francis also presents are very beautiful view of the Church, both by pointing to its treasures and by warning against its pitfalls:
  1. Taming the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit upsets us because it moves us, it makes us walk, it pushes the Church forward. We wish to calm down the Holy Spirit, we want to tame it and this is wrong. The Holy Spirit gives us the strength to go forward but many find this upsetting and prefer the comfort of the familiar. Nowadays everybody seems happy about the presence of the Holy Spirit, but it’s not really the case and there is still that temptation to resist it. The Second Vatican council was a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit. But 50 years later, have we done everything the Holy Spirit was asking us to do during the Council? The answer is ‘No.’ We celebrate this anniversary, we put up a monument but we don’t want it to upset us. We don’t want to change and what’s more there are those who wish to turn the clock back. This is called stubbornness and wanting to tame the Holy Spirit. The same thing happens in our personal life. The Spirit pushes us to take a more evangelical path but we resist this.”

  2. Saints v. ideologues: “The Word of Jesus goes to the heart because it is the Word of love, it is a beautiful word and brings love, makes us to love. But, ideologues cut off the road of love, and also that of beauty. And when ideology enters into the Church, when ideology enters into our understanding of the Gospel, no authentic comprehension is possible. And these ideologues, on the road of duty, load everything on the shoulders of the faithful. The ideologues falsify the gospel. Every ideological interpretation, wherever it comes from - is a falsification of the Gospel. And these ideologues – as we have seen in the history of the Church – end up being intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness – and let us not so much as mention beauty, of which they understand nothing. Rather, the path of love, the way of the Gospel, is simple: it is the road that the Saints understood. The saints are those who lead the Church forward! The road of conversion, the way of humility, of love, of the heart, the way of beauty …”

  3. The Church dormant: “The early Christians had nothing but the power of baptism that gave them their apostolic courage, the strength of the Spirit. I think of us, the baptized: do we really have this strength – and I wonder – do we really believe in this? Is Baptism enough? Is it sufficient for evangelization? Or do we rather ‘hope’ that the priest should speak, that the bishop might speak ... and what of us? Then, the grace of baptism is somewhat closed, and we are locked in our thoughts, in our concerns. Or do we sometimes think: ‘No, we are Christians, I was baptized, I made Confirmation, First Communion ... I have my identity card alright. And now, go to sleep quietly, you are a Christian.’ But where is this power of the Spirit that carries us forward? We need to be faithful to the Spirit, to proclaim Jesus with our lives, through our witness and our words. When we do this, the Church becomes a mother church that produces children and more children, because we, the children of the Church, we carry that. But when we do not, the Church is not the mother, but the babysitter, that takes care of the baby – to put the baby to sleep. It is a Church dormant. Let us reflect on our Baptism, on the responsibility of our Baptism.”

  4. Mother, not domestic administrator: “We, the women and men of the Church, we are in the middle of a love story: each of us is a link in this chain of love. And if we do not understand this, we have understood nothing of what the Church is. The Church does not grow by human strength. Some Christians have gone wrong for historical reasons, they have taken the wrong path, they have raised armies, they have waged wars of religion: that is another story, that is not the story of love. Yet we learn, with our mistakes, how the story of love goes. But how does it increase? Jesus said simply: like the mustard seed, it grows like yeast in the flour, without noise. The Church is not just another organization: she is Mother. How would you feel if someone said: she’s a domestic administrator? ‘No, I am the mother!’ And the Church is Mother. And we are in the middle of a love story that continues thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit. All of us together are a family in the Church, who is our Mother.”

  5. Humility, not conquest: “The style of evangelical preaching should have this attitude: humility, service, charity, brotherly love. ‘But … Lord, we must conquer the world!’ That word, conquer, doesn’t work. We must preach in the world. The Christian must not be like soldiers who when they win the battle make a clean sweep of everything. The Christian proclaims the Gospel with his witness, rather than with words. As St. Thomas Aquinas says: "A great soul that is not afraid of great things, that moves forward towards infinite horizons, and the humility to take into account the small things.” This is divine, it is like a tension between the great and the small. The triumph of the Church is the Resurrection of Jesus. But there is first the Cross. Today we ask the Lord to become missionaries in the Church, apostles in the Church but in this spirit: a great magnanimity and also a great humility. So be it.”

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Synthetic life: out of bounds or cause for optimism?

Synthetic dna s

Take bottles of the chemicals that constitute living organisms and by following a process that does not involve re-using parts of living beings arrive at a new, living creature. That would the the synthetic creation of life from scratch.1

The pioneer of this strand of scientific endeavor is the biologist Dr. J. Craig Venter, who was among the first to sequence the human genome, and who is now seemingly nearing the first synthetic creation of life from fully non-living components. A prequel to this upcoming breakthrough has been the 2010 insertion of synthetic, man-made DNA into a bacteria, which resulted in the first living organism with an entirely artificial genome. While this had elements of being synthetic life, it was only partially so and Dr. Venter’s team is continuing in their quest. Last year they then passed the landmark of the first software simulation of an entire organism, and only last month Dr. Venter announced that his team is close to creating a living being from scratch. Their initial aim is to use the process for positive ends by creating artificial life that can “eat pollution and generate energy.”

While the scientific achievement of synthesizing life would unquestionably be a huge success (and the steps taken by Dr. Venter’s team already are!), there are also important ethical questions to consider, with multiple experts offering their assessments, from among which I would just like to offer two perspectives, at first introduced only anonymously:
Statement A: “All available evidence goes to show that there is no unmediated passage from non-life to life. [… A]ll living beings receive their life from a principle outside themselves, which is itself capable of infusing life; this we call God.”

Statement B: “If it is used to promote the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive[. …] If it turns out not to be [used] to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgment would change. [… Dr Venter’s work is a] further sign of intelligence, God’s gift to understand creation and be able to better govern it.”
The first statement is a classic “God of Gaps” stance, infused both with a lack of scientific understanding (i.e., missing the importance of the steps already made towards synthetic life and underestimating the likelihood of their ultimate success) and with a mistaking of a purely philosophical construct for the personal God of Abraham, Jesus and the Church. Statement A’s god is banished into ever-narrower, farther-removed spheres and serves a strictly soulless, utilitarian end. This god is now a workaround for the specter of infinite causal chains and now for the magical-seeming wafer-thin sliver wedged between not-life and life. If you have read this blog, you will know where Statement A comes from, and if not then I just apologize that I will not revealed its source, which I have already afforded more than its fair share of publicity. All I will say is that it is taken from a “catholic” newsletter that is broadly distributed in the UK.

I believe the best way to show how un-Christian the above is, is to contrast it with what Pope Francis said during the sermon of last Thursday’s morning mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he is staying and where he has been inviting various groups working at the Vatican to celebrate mass with him:2
“But who is this God you believe in? An ‘all over the place - god’, a ‘god-spray’ so to speak, who is a little bit everywhere but who no-one really knows anything about? We believe in God who is Father, who is Son, who is Holy Spirit. We believe in Persons, and when we talk to God we talk to Persons: or I speak with the Father, or I speak with the Son, or I speak with the Holy Spirit. And this is the faith.”
You can just picture it: a storeroom somewhere, with a spray bottle with “life” written on it in black Sharpie, a box on another shelf with the “first mover” label beginning to peel, a pair of jars in the corner - one labelled “irresistible force,” the other “immovable object” - lids screwed tightly in place. All waiting to kick into action whenever necessary.

Let’s turn to Statement B, which directs its gaze to the good that synthetic life could do, while being conscious of its dangers, and which categorizes the intelligence that has lead to it as a good whose source is God. The source of this statement is a combination of what Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the then president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, had to say when Dr. Venter announced the incorporation of fully synthetic DNA in a bacteria in 2010. It is a statement that views scientific progress as a means for greater good, as a way of deepening our understanding of how the universe that God created and sustains in its entirety operates, and as a licit use of the gift of reason, which also springs from God. The possibility of man-made, synthetic life is placed wholly inside God and seen as having a clear potential for good when used responsibly.

1 Although not “from scratch” in the Carl Sagan sense: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
2 This time it was the turn of the Italian State Police who serve the Vatican area.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Bonhoeffer, Lubich, Teilhard: A world luminous from within

Bonhoeffer lubich teilhard s

Sixty eight years ago yesterday, in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred. His opposition to Nazi euthanasia and genocide directed against the Jewish people, born of his discipleship of Jesus, earned him the gallows. While I have long been an admirer of Bonhoeffer’s witness and theology, I have only now come across the following passage from his Letters and Papers from Prison, where he points particularly lucidly to the alternative to the God of Gaps caricature still popular today:
“How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”
This emphasis on the presence of God in what we know made me think of Chiara Lubich’s mystical experience that started during the summer of 1949.1 There, before the start of the actual “intellectual visions,” she recounts the following:
“[N]ature seemed to me to be enveloped totally by the sun; it already was physically, but it seemed to me that an even stronger sun enveloped it, saturated it, so that the whole of nature appeared to me as being “in love.” I saw things, rivers, plants, meadows, grass as linked to one another by a bond of love in which each one had a meaning of love with regard to the others. […] I had seemed to see the blossom of a horse chestnut tree alive with a higher life that sustained it from beneath so that it seemed to be coming out towards me.” (Paradise ’49)
How is it though that one comes to seeing God “in what we know,” as “sustain[ing everything] from beneath”? Here, in the paragraphs preceding the above quote, Lubich says that “[for about five years w]e had been trying with great intensity to live [… communion] with Jesus in the Eucharist, with our brother or sister, with the Word of God […] constantly in the present moment.” Her answer then is that this experience of God “enveloping” all has for her and her companions followed a putting of the Gospel into practice.

This in turn made me think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Divine Milieu,” where he sets out “a way of teaching how to see” and starts by posing a challenge:
“God is as pervasive and perceptible as the atmosphere in which we are bathed. He encompasses us on all sides, like the world itself. What prevents you, then, from enfolding him in your arms? Only one thing: your inability to see him.”
Reflecting on the above near the end of his life, Teilhard shares the following:
“Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost completely luminous from within. … Such has been my experience in contact with the earth — the diaphany of the Divine at the heart of the universe on fire … Christ; his heart; a fire: capable of penetrating everywhere and, gradually, spreading everywhere.”
Again the vision of God illuminating the world “from within” follows a life focused on seeking Him, as Teilhard says in “The Divine Milieu,” both in what we do and what happens to us - both the active and the passive, and therefore in life as a whole:
“It is the whole of human life, down to its most “natural” zones, which, the Church teaches, can be sanctified. […] “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31).”

1 For previous mentions of “Paradise ’49” see the following posts here and here.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013


French painter Georges Br 001

I hope you won’t cry “Apophenia!” or “Pareidolia!” once you read what I have written and that you will instead take it as my sharing a personal reflection.

It all started when I saw the photo at the top of this post, where Georges Braque, one of the fathers of Cubism, is seen looking at Vincent van Gogh’s self–portrait. The thought that came to me straight-away was that I too have seen that painting and that this, in some sense, places me beside Braque, albeit at a different time. You could think of it as asynchronous colocation and as a variant of Jung’s synchronicity, where it is not meaning (or causation) that provides the link but an object … I swiped to the next story in my Flipboard stream, but this thought of having more in common with Braque than I previously thought, and of us having - in some sense - shared an appreciation of van Gogh’s work stayed with me.

A couple of days later, during the Easter vigil’s Litany of the Saints I then felt a particular connection with some of the names as they were being called out. They were saints whose lives and thoughts I am familiar with and with whom I felt a particular connection - Peter, John, Gregory, Augustine, Martin, Francis and Teresa of Jesus being just some of the most prominent ones. I felt like their names alone were keys that enabled a connection - in some sense …

When the litany concluded, I thought back to the Exsultet, sung at the beginning of the Easter vigil, which spoke to me already when I first heard it, and I realized that a good few of the saints, whose names were so significant to me just then, must also have listened to it. In some sense I felt like I was standing beside them as we jointly listened to this profound hymn of praise. Not only did I feel a connection to these specific saints, but to all who since at least the 4th century AD have celebrated the resurrection to the tune of this hymn. When I returned home, and after my family has gone to sleep, I looked more closely both at the Exsultet’s content, which contains so many gems of synthesis (cf. “O happy fault”), and at its history, where St. Augustine is one of the earliest sources mentioning it and where St. John Damascene (another favorite of mine) is credited with being the author of the text used today.

Returning to the Easter vigil, it’s high-point came with the Eucharist, which tied this strand of reflection together for me. The Eucharist is Jesus, who is the head and heart of His mystical body. By receiving Him and thereby being received into Him, I am connected not only to Him but to all who ever have and ever will be connected to Him. Through Jesus-Eucharist I am in a real sense connected to all of humanity - past, present and future, since he is the finite-infinite, the atemporal now.1

The intuition of connections across time and space, via a proxy like the painting that Braque and I viewed, or via a hymn that the saints, my friends, and I listened to, helped me more fully appreciate their reality in the Eucharist on Saturday night.

1 To my delight, this topic came up again while talking to my überbestie MR last night.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Neither faith nor reason: ex nihilo butchered


Another Sunday, another “Faith and Reason” column in the “Our Faith on Sunday” newsletter, another spectacularly confused piece on an otherwise interesting topic, and this time - to add insult to injury - a complete disregard for the fact that it was Easter Sunday!

Instead of reflecting on something to do with the Easter triduum (e.g., the resurrection, Jesus’ descent into hell or his abandonment on the cross, or a myriad other aspects that could have been looked at from the faith-reason perspective), yesterday’s column was the following (with its first, superfluous sentence removed):
“[…] Creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) does not mean that, before matter was brought into existence, that there was absolute nothingness. If there had been absolutely nothing before creation, absolutely nothing could have come into existence. The nihil of ex nihilo refers to the nothing of material existence. Creation ex nihilo means that, before matter was called into being, there was no matter. God and the angels existed ‘before’ the creation of matter.”
Oh, man! Where to start? Before debunking the above hot mess, let me just put a couple of quotes from the Catechism on the table, so that the squirming irrationality of this week’s “Faith and Reason” column is counterbalanced by how the Church actually talks about God and creation:
“In [Jesus] “all things were created, in heaven and on earth... all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)” (§291)

“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”.” (§296)

“The world began when God’s word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history are rooted in this primordial event, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun. (cf. St. Augustine, De Genesi contra Manichaeos 1, 2, 4)” (§338)
Note how there is no arguing against the nothingness that preceded creation in the Catechism (neither in the passages quoted above nor anywhere else in its 2865 paragraphs) for it would be futile to do so. Even in the context of poetic (as distinct from philosophical, theological or scientific) language, both Genesis 1 (“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth”) and John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.”) steer well clear of attempting to talk about what happened before “the beginning” in which God created the universe (i.e., space-time).

Why is that? Again we find the Church’s position in the Catechism as follows:
“Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.”(§40)

“God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” — with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God. Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude”; and that “concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.””(§42-43)
To me the key here is: “we can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point,” which you could transpose into Wittgensteinese as “we can only use the rules of games we have played.” In other words - the meanings of our language (using which we can “name” God) derive from our own, direct experiences, which take place firmly within the context of the universe and which therefore have a scope constrained to it. Instead of strictly following Wittgenstein’s “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” Christianity still talks about God and about what has been revealed to it about realities beyond the universe, but does so with great caution and with lots of “in some sense.”

To take the “ex nihilo” of God’s creative act and start qualifying it in the belief that it would otherwise preclude a pre-existence of God is jut confused, since before the “beginning” in which space-time were created, there is no before (which requires time) and to consider creation to be only of matter (and not of time as well - as the column’s author does) not only flies in the face of contemporary physics but also of St. Augustine’s insights, arrived at around 389 AD.

The crowning glory of yesterday’s column though is its assertion that “If there had been absolutely nothing before creation, absolutely nothing could have come into existence,” which is a direct denial of God’s ex nihilo bringing about of the universe (and of contemporary physics pointing to the same) and stands proudly alongside the same column barefacedly denying the incarnation the previous Sunday.

The most charitable interpretation of yesterday’s mental contortions is that they were a misguided attempt at trying to resolve a fictitious contradiction or a mistimed April Fools prank …

1 Previous ones having protested against the denial of the incarnation, the allegedly separate “orders of knowledge” of science and religion, the abuse of “cf.,” the perversion of philosophy and a plagiaristic ignorance of infinity.