Things to Read and Hear

 I’ve been listening to some terrific podcasts by Fr Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox scholar and parish priest. It is a series on the clergy of the Christian Church through the ages and begins in the Apostolic Age, working its way slowly through the centuries. For anyone who loves ancient Christianity, and who desires to live the Orthodox Christian faith today as closely as possible to its original form in ancient times, this set of talks is a veritable treasure chest! Keep in mind when you listen that Fr Thomas is from the Eastern Orthodox family and thus views the Council of Chalcedon from that perspective. (While the Oriental Orthodox Churches like the Coptic Church reject that Council, most other Christian Churches accept it).

 But his account of the first two centuries is engrossing and makes sense of so many things in our history that we generally hear in isolation and out of context. For example, one can gain a valuable insight into the true spirit of ancient Christian leadership when one learns that the titles for the leaders of the ancient Church were actually taken from the titles of slaves! The Episkopos (over-seer) was the household slave in charge of overseeing the affairs of the household on behalf of his master, and for the welfare and benefit of the master and his family. Episkopos is the title the early Christians adopted for their bishops. The Economos was in charge making sure the ‘economy’ of the house ran smoothly, and thus would look to the day to day details of household provisions and accounts and so on. His role was to preovide the resources that everyone else needed to live their lives happily and safely. Again, the early Christians adopted this name for those among the Elders (‘presbyteros’ ) who were entrusted with caring for the day to day affairs of the household of God, and ‘economos’ has evolved into the modern title, ‘hegomen’.

But note that both these positions were those of slaves. Applied to the Christian roles, what this meant is that the bishop and the hegomen were both ‘slaves’ of the Master of the household, God, and their role was to care for His children. As slaves, they were not to boss the children around or exert authority over them so much as to serve them and provide faithfully for all their needs. And this is of course in keeping with the command of Christ:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45 

It also intriguing to hear about the developments in the years after Chalcedon, a period of history in which we Copts were not involved for the most part – being more occupied with things like survival in a hostile environment of Melkites and later Muslims. Here, this account explains so much of why both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are what they are today. Continue reading “Things to Read and Hear”

Why Christianity?

Why Christianity Poster 2011 IMPORTANT – CHANGE OF VENUE:
“Why Christianity?” will not be held at St Joseph’s
Instead it will be held at
St Abanoub Youth Centre
49 Fourth Ave, Blacktown
All other details remain the same.

You’re only a Christian because you were born a Christian. If you were born a Muslim, you’d be a Muslim today. So why should you think your faith is the right one? It’s purely a matter of chance.

I have discussed that challenge with many people over the years. On the face of it, it sounds pretty convincing. But that’s only on the face of it. When we dig a little deeper, you might be surprised at just how strong the case for Christianity against that of all other religions.

Now there are some who will say that we shouldn’t even be considering a question like this, that it is dangerous and might weaken the faith of some, or that it is disrespectful or blasphemous to even think about such things. But I follow the principle that if Christianity is true, then you should be able to throw anything at it, absolutely anything at all, and it should be able to stand up to it. If it can’t, then I want to know, by gum! That is, if I really care about Truth; and Truth is the very thing that Jesus not only promised would set us free, but even used as His own title (“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”).

But it turns out that those who worry need not do so. Christianity is unique in so many ways that it really does stand alone among all the religions of the world. I know that’s a politically incorrect thing to say nowadays, but I believe it is true.

Next Saturday, we hope to explore this topic in some depth. St Abanoub’s Church, Archangel Michael Church and the Coptic Apologetics Group are organising a day where we will examine the question: “Given that God exists, why should we believe that Christianity is the right faith in contrast with all the other faiths in the world?” Last year we had an Atheism Day where we looked at the arguments for and against the existence of God. The ‘Why Christianity’ Day is the logical follow up to that.

Just to whet your appetite, here are some of the reasons why I find Christianity to be quite worthy of the title, “The True Faith”. Continue reading “Why Christianity?”

What Drives Atheists Batty.


Do you know what it is like to be a bat? 

I have been doing some reading on the tantalising question of what human consciousness is, and it has led me to some very strong arguments for the limitations of scientific explanations.

 The natural enemy of the Christian faith today is no longer paganism as it was in the Apostolic age, but naturalism: the idea that nothing exists except that which is physical, made of matter and energy. The naturalist therefore only accepts that which you can examine scientifically and objectively. Anything outside this definition is considered not to exist or be real. Thus of course, the very idea of a supernatural God is unacceptable to the naturalist.

 But human consciousness seems to pose an insoluble problem for the naturalist. In 1974 Serbian-American philosopher Thomas Nagel published a paper titled “What is it Like to be a Bat?” In it, he pointed out that no amount of objective, scientific knowledge can tell us what it feels like to be a bat. OK, maybe we can imagine flying like a bat, since we have our own similar experiences of flying in airplanes or floating under parachutes. But whereas we humans mostly experience the outside world through our sense of sight, bats mostly experience the outside world through a sense we do not possess: echolocation. They emit high pitched sound waves that bounce off their surroundings and they have specialised, highly sensitive sensors for picking up the reflected waves and creating a mental picture of the world around them. It’s a kind of natural sonar system. Continue reading “What Drives Atheists Batty.”

Complexity and Simplicity – Part 1

Entitled "Ice Cream from Neptune", this beautifully complex structure emerges out of deceptively simple geometrical instructions. So also, God's simple universal rules can produce rather complex applications.
Entitled "Ice Cream from Neptune", this beautifully complex structure emerges out of deceptively simple geometrical instructions. So also, God's simple universal rules can produce rather complex applications.

 Is it better to see life in complex or simple terms? Should I delve deeply into things, seeking hidden meanings, or should I just accept things at face value?

 Today, the argument for complexity; although I reserve the right to respond later with another blog on the argument for simplicity.

If our study of nature has taught us anything, it is that nature is richly complex in its structure and function. Even the simplest of seeds can give birth to the most complex of fruits.

 Take for example an incredible mathematical concept called the Mandlebrot fractal. In basic terms, a very simple set of rules produces the most incredible patterns in two dimensions. Taken to three dimensions, the results are nothing short of breathtaking (see picture). You can find more at

A mandlebulb is just an inanimate shape, but add life, and the complexity skyrockets. Anyone who has studied even basic Biology cannot fail to be impressed by the wealth of chemical and physical processes that constitute even the simplest of living creatures. Their interactions with each other produce a symphony of life – an intricate, movingly subtle interplay between a multitude of parts that virtually cries out the majestic wisdom of God their Creator. No wonder we sing “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” in Psalm 150.

Should our faith, then, be simple or complex? I suspect it really depends on who you are and where you are in your journey of spiritual and intellectual maturity. It would be ridiculous to expound the detailed intricacies of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity to a Sunday School class of five year olds. But by the same token, to limit your explanation of the Holy Trinity to nothing more than “three petals on a flower” to a group of advanced Theology students would be equally ridiculous.

There is a time and place for complexity. If God has created complexity, and if He has given us brains that can understand it, then surely we have a responsibility to do so if we are capable.

Why does this matter? It matters because I have noticed a growing trend among those members of our Church who have been brought up in the western system of education to be deeply dissatisfied with simplistic explanations of our faith. Their minds have been taught to probe and question and doubt in order to get to the truth, and the neat, simple answers of their childhood no longer satisfy them. Sometimes, they are made to feel guilty for even asking the questions, and in the worst cases, the result is that they lose their faith altogether.

I think this is very wrong. Our God is a God of Truth, and surely, the closer we approach Truth, the closer we come to God. I will even dare to say this: if the God I believe in cannot stand up to a genuine search for the Truth, then I should not believe in Him. If God is who we think He is, then a properly conducted and sincere search for the Truth cannot help but lead to Him – we have nothing to fear; there is no line of investigation that does not lead to Him in the end.

If this search for Truth about God and the universe He has created means that sometimes we have to ditch old and simplistic understandings for newer, more complex ones, then so be it. So it is in every aspect of our lives. If the Truth be complex, then so must our understanding of it.

Perhaps a concrete example will help illustrate this rather abstract topic. How are we to understand the Bible? The simplistic approach of our childhood says “We must obey every word the Bible says.” That’s beautiful, and in essence, it is absolutely true. We must indeed follow the instruction of the Bible as faithfully as we possibly can. But what does “obey every word” actually mean? If you delve into it, you will find it is not so simple as it sounds…

“I urge you, brethren – you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints – that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labours with us.” 1Corinthians 16:15,16

If we were to literally obey these words, then we would have to seek out descendents of the household of Stephanas, somehow, after twenty centuries, and then lay ourselves in submission to them. Clearly, that is far too simplistic an interpretation. Most sensible Christians would understand that the thing we need to obey is not the specific instruction given here by St Paul to a specific readership in a specific time and place. It is the underlying universal principle that we should follow. It is not the person of Stephanas we must obey, but those who are faithful in serving the Lord, those who follow Christ faithfully as St Paul did, in any time and place.

But you see, already, we have left the path of simplicity and entered the path of complexity. Another example:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” Matthew 5:29

If we were to follow this command in its most simple interpretation, we would have an awful lot of one eyed Christians. But we don’t. And that’s not through lack of faith or courage: by and large, Christians understand that it is the underlying principle we are required to obey here, rather than the simple and straightforward sense of the command. We take in to account the flowery nature of speech in Middle Eastern society – we as Copts know it very well, for it lives on in Arabic today! We easily see that if there are other ways of avoiding the sin of adultery of the eyes that don’t involve drastic measures, these are preferable. (Of course, there have been exceptions such as St Simeon the Tanner and Origen, but these were specific cases with their own unique circumstances).

Again, we have left the path of simplicity and entered that of complexity. But the danger that most Christians fear once we embark upon the path of complexity is that we might get it wrong. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, who is to say that one interpretation is better than another? What’s to stop anyone and everyone from interpreting it according to their own pre-assumptions and agendas?

And in fact, this happens on a regular basis, anywhere from the cult that sees in the Bible alien civilisations on other planets, to the ever-growing multitude of varieties of Protestantism, to that old favourite Bible verse quoted by many Copts in Arabic that roughly translates to: “There is a time for your God and a time for your own enjoyment” (don’t waste your time – it’s not actually in the Bible).

The Orthodox Church resolves this dilemma by appealing not only to the Bible, but also to Holy Tradition: the ancient guidelines worked out by the earliest Christians. Tradition is not a dead museum exhibit, but a living, growing thing, and in these times of change, the Church, guided in humility by the Holy Spirit, seeks to properly apply those timeless universal laws of the Bible to an ever-changing world that is constantly throwing up new challenges and new questions to be answered.

The danger to be avoided is that of bowing to the letter of the law, when it is always the spirit of the law that we must embrace. And that often requires complexity.

Fr Ant

The Art of Uncertainty



“It is better to be silent and be suspected of being a fool,

than to speak, and remove any doubt.”


I don’t remember where I came across that little gem, but it carries a useful message. How often have you been involved in a discussion with someone who is absolutely certain about something, and you are equally certain that they’re wrong? You try to convince them. You call upon logic; you appeal to evidence; you cite witnesses; you plead for common sense, but nothing seems able to shake that rock solid (mistaken) confidence. Arghhhh!!!!

 There are situations in life where it can be quite dangerous to be certain and wrong at the same time, and then there are situations where it hardly matters anyway. Does it really matter if my friend is convinced that George Washington was the first Prime Minister of Australia? It may be frustrating; it may betray a certain lack of patriotism, but in the big scheme of the universe, it makes very little difference to anyone.

 Then again, a doctor learns very quickly how dangerous being overconfident in your opinion can be. To continue to believe in a diagnosis that is wrong could harm a patient, or in extreme cases, kill them. That is why doctors (the good ones, anyway) work very hard to train themselves in the art of uncertainty.

 A gifted doctor will be able to tell you at any stage of the diagnostic process just how certain s/he is. They may not be able to put a figure on it – “I am 75.492% certain that we are dealing with melanoma here” – but they can usually tell you if they are definitely certain; quite certain with a little room for doubt; leaning towards one diagnosis rather than the other, or quite frankly flummoxed. Knowing one’s degree of certainty influences the therapeutic decisions one takes. Medication may sometimes be given on speculation, such as a case of suspected bacterial meningitis (infection around the brain) where administering antibiotics quickly is crucial and delay could cost lives. In such a situation, one need not wait for test results to improve the degree of certainty. On the other hand, if you’re thinking of administering powerful anti-cancer drugs that are going to cause horrible side effects, you’d better be pretty darn sure you’ve got the diagnosis right!

 Now, there have been those who have tried to tame uncertainty using the whip of mathematics. There are mathematical strategies for putting a number on uncertainty that at least allows you to compare uncertainties, but to use these strategies as if they were completely accurate and infallible would be a mistake. The real world is just far too complicated and involves too many variables for any mathematical model to be more than a mere indication.

 So the art of uncertainty is just that – an art. It is learned through experience: through observation and analysis of one’s mistakes, and the gradual accumulation of this data over many years. It often depends on a degree of informed intuition, rather than being a totally logical process. But I believe it is a very useful tool to have in one’s toolbox of life. Skill in this art will inform all your life decisions and increase your wisdom factor, which usually makes life more comfortable, successful and enjoyable. If nothing else, being skilful in the art of uncertainty will at least limit the number of people whose blood pressure you raise by arguing confidently for that which is false!

 Fr Ant

Christmas for Overactive Minds

 There are people in this world who are blessed with the gift of simple faith. They are the ones who see the truth in what they believe and are happy to accept it wholeheartedly and without reservation, much like a young child.

 Then there are those whose minds just won’t stop thinking. These are the ones who must examine and delve and pull apart and understand things. For better or worse, God made me one of the latter. So for those readers who share my affliction, here are some thoughts on the incredible miracle of the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ…

 Did Jesus have to be conceived within a virgin? Why couldn’t He have just been born normally and then filled or ‘soaked’ with divinity afterwards?

 In many ways this would have made the story of His life easier for people to accept. Today, there are theologians and clergy in the Churches of the West who cannot accept the concept of the Virgin birth of Christ, because it isn’t natural. They will point to examples of pre-Christian faiths that include virgin births, such as the Egyptian gods Isis and Horus, to show that the Christian one is just one example of a common phenomenon in religions.

 I see this as being a faulty argument. The existence of fakes in no way means that there cannot be a genuine article somewhere. Imagine if someone told you that all the so called Rolex watches sold at the markets are fake, and that therefore there IS no such thing as a genuine Rolex watch. You show him your watch, bought from a reputable jeweller complete with documentation, but he refuses to accept it. Nope, he’s seen too many fakes, so this one can’t be real – why, it looks just the same as all the other fakes!

 The Virgin birth wasn’t just a trick to show off God’s power. There are reasons for the Incarnation to have occurred from a Virgin birth rather than a normal one. Had Jesus been born to a normal couple, we would be missing one of the most important pieces of evidence that He really was God Incarnate rather than just a very holy prophet.

 And that’s not just because He was born miraculously. There are numerous miraculous births recorded in the Bible. Isaac was born miraculously to Abraham and Sarah, many decades beyond childbearing age. Similarly, St John the Baptist was born to an elderly couple after a miraculous announcement by the Archangel Gabriel. It is no surprise that the birth of God Incarnate should also be in miraculous circumstances, but the added extra here is the nature of the miracle itself.

 A virgin mother can only contribute half the DNA necessary for the conception of a new human being. Normally, the other half must be contributed by the father. Where there is no human father, God must have created that DNA miraculously in order for St Mary to conceive.

 Now amongst the bewildering variety of life on earth, you will find examples of “parthenogenesis”, the making of a new individual without this mingling of DNA from two separate parents. But the conception of Christ could not have been a natural event, since His mother did not possess a Y chromosome. All humans possess two sex chromosomes, named, imaginatively, X and Y. Females have two X chromosomes, whereas males have an X and a Y. Each parent contributes one of their sex chromosomes to the child. If both parents contribute an X chromosome to their child, they have a girl. If the father contributes his Y instead of his X, then they have a boy. St Mary had no Y to contribute, so where did the Y that made Jesus male come from?

 It must have been a miraculous creation, and the source must have been the Holy Spirit that overshadowed her and caused the conception to occur in her womb. In this way the Virgin birth points, by its very nature, to an inescapable conclusion: the male child born of St Mary was, in a very real way, truly, the Son of God. He owed His very genes to two parents, one human, the other divine. The mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos, God becoming a true man, is embodied in the event we call the Virgin birth.

 Beautiful, isn’t it? But of course, all that analysis is not what Christmas is really about (and no, it’s not chocolates and presents either). Having exercised an overactive mind sufficiently, one is freed to approach Christmas the way it should be approached: with the love and simplicity of a child…

 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

 Wishing all readers a happy and holy Christmas and a blessed 2010.


Fr Ant

Hitchens’ Twisted Mind

What kind of God asks you to kill your son?

Christopher Hitchens, one of the “New Athiests”, posed this question in a lecture I heard recently. With great eloquence, Hitchens put God under the microscope and found Him wanting. How could God have asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac on Mount Moriah? What would we think of any human leader who asked us to kill our children to prove our loyalty and obedience? Surely, we would call such a leader a megalomaniacal despot, an egotistical maniac? That was the gist of his argument against God. It is Hitchens, after all, who wrote a booked entitled: “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”.

A sincere Christian cannot leave such a challenge unanswered…

The Unique Nature of God

If a human being were to demand this act of another human being, one would certainly have to question his motives and his character. No human has the right to take the life of another. We are all on the same level, so none of us has the right to practice the power of life and death over another, or even over himself. That is why the consistent Christian is opposed to both abortion and euthanasia.

And yet, we do not mind killing lesser creatures for good reasons. I have no doubt that even Hitchens occasionally sits down to enjoy a nice meal of roast lamb chops. I wonder, this make him a megalomaniacal despot and an egotistical maniac? How dare he participate in the brutal slaughter of a poor and innocent fluffy little lamb, merely to satisfy his selfish desire for protein?!

Now it is true that there are vegetarians in this world who for conscience’ sake refuse to eat the meat of living creatures. But they still eat vegetables and fruits and nuts, which once were also alive in their own way. They too grew and flourished, only to be cut down ruthlessly in their prime merely to please the palate of the human eater. It may seem a silly comparison, but if God is who we think He is, then the difference between a celery and a human is nothing compared to the difference between a human and God. If the human is justified in eating a celery because it is so far inferior to him as to be considered expendable, then God must certainly be justified in sacrificing a human, because a human is far, far more inferior when compared to God. What is more, humans eat fruits they have not created. They merely plant and water them, but no human makes a plant grow out of his own power. Yet God is the One who made each of us out of nothing. Without Him we would not exist. Does not the Giver of life have the right to take it away if He so chooses?

The Sublimity of Surrender

The above looks at the matter from the perspective of God, but looked at from the perspective of Abraham or even of Isaac, Hitchens’ argument is equally unacceptable. Hitchens is guilty of a mistake that is common in modern Western society: the destruction of the good name of Submission.
For the modern thinker, surrender is the ultimate evil. If we look at relationships as a power struggle, then indeed to submit to another is a defeat. In many areas in this world, the strong defeats the weak and forces him to submit. Moreover, this submission is often designed in such a way as to humiliate the loser, to cruelly rub their face in the dirt.

But for a God of Love, submission is not a power struggle, but an indication of strength: the invincible strength, in fact, of true, divine, aghape love. Think of a father carrying his small daughter, perhaps two years old. This father allows his child to play with his nose, to grab it and pull it painfully, and then laugh at her achievement. He is submitting to his daughter. She is the victor, he the vanquished. But this is not a power struggle. This is a relationship of love, and the father’s willing submission is an expression of that love. He would in fact give anything for his daughter, perhaps, his own life in order to save hers. That is his free choice, a choice he makes because it is the nature of love to give without expecting anything in return. This is the beauty and the nobility of love.

This is the love shown by Abraham. God never forced Abraham to sacrifice his son. He did not threaten him with punishments if he refused. He merely asked him to do it, and the choice was completely up to Abraham whether to obey or not. In the same way, young Isaac must have willingly submitted to his father’s wishes. There is no sense of a struggle in the story. It is true that the Bible tells us that Abraham bound Isaac with thongs upon the altar, but there is no mention of resistance from Isaac. Very likely, he trusted his father as implicitly as his father trusted in God.

Abraham was willing to give back to God the most precious thing he had in his life: his one and only son. After a lifetime of Abraham and Sarah longing for a son in vain, after finally receiving the son of their prayers in old age, what an incredible sacrifice it must have been for Abraham to give that son back to God, and to do so with his own hands. It is an action that bespeaks tremendous faith and trust in God, and submission; freely chosen submission that came from love, not from weakness. He could easily have said ‘no’.

Thus does the human father test his daughter by asking if she would give up her favourite toy for him to play with. He does not need the toy and it is not the toy he is interested in. He is interested in his daughter’s reaction, whether she will love and trust him enough to give up her toy to him, whether her heart is selfish or generous. With such gentle tests, the father teaches his daughter what it means to love and to give. And when she gives him her toy, he immediately gives it back to her, together with so many hugs and kisses of genuine affection for his gracious little dear. This is what the incident of Moriah is all about.

The Historical Context

In this test of faith and love, God also gave Abraham an important message. Many tribes of Abraham’s time, with whom Abraham would no doubt have come into contact, practiced the cruel sacrifice of their children to their gods. These tribes actually did kill their own children in a bloody frenzy of madness and misguided devotion to false gods. We cannot even begin to imagine the horrors that must have played out in these people’s minds over the years.
Abraham was susceptible to following the example of these tribes. But on Moriah, God showed him that such a thing was unnecessary. It was as if He was saying to Abraham: “I know that you are willing to go even as far as killing your son for Me. Your devotion is at least as fervent as that of the pagans. But it is more than theirs, just as I am more a true God than their gods. Do not follow in their footsteps and do not imitate them, for you see, I have no need of their kind of sacrifice. I will bless you for what is in your heart, and not for your external actions only.”

So much of the pagan religions of ancient times seems to have been external. Yet here was God pointing out to Abraham that it is his willingness to obey and to submit that really matters, not the killing of his son. God is not interested in having children sacrificed to Him. He is interested in kind of heart His children have. This approach to worship must have been absolutely revolutionary for Abraham’s time and environment. It is easy to see how it fits in with the teaching of Jesus and prepares us for it.

A Base and Narrow Mind

Finally, I cannot help wondering at the kind of mind that can only see such horror in something so beautiful. If anything, I think Hitchens’ comments reveal far more about Hitchens that they do about God. He and his fellow critics of religion look upon the astounding sacrifice of love of the Cross of Christ and see only vileness. Richard Dawkins describes the Cross as “sado-masochistic” in The God Delusion. Somehow, he manages to keep himself completely blind to the love that the Cross represents, the supreme act of humility, of noble giving of oneself, of total and utter devotion to the beloved. Instead, he can only view the Cross from the point of view of selfishness. Upon the Cross, if Dawkins is to be believed, we see only God satisfying a base aberration of the human mind: the Father being sadistic to the Son; the Son enjoying the suffering in a fit of twisted masochism. “Religion poisons everything” says Hitchens. Who is doing the poisoning now?

What kind of mind can reduce noble love to animal violence? What’s next, I wonder? Nursing mothers only care for their child because they have a perverted desire to fatten them up and eat them? This is perhaps one of the most repugnant aspects of the New Atheists. They really seem not have thought things through to their logical conclusion. They seem unaware that their philosophy leads eventually to everything we hold dear in life losing its value, and in the end, to a sort of nihilistic fatalism where nothing matters anymore.

But that’s a topic for another day.

Fr Ant

The Greatest Challenge (I Think)

A little while ago I posed the question:

“In the next 20 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge faced by the Coptic Orthodox Church?”

Your comments have been most interesting, as have your votes on the poll (still open at: )

Well, here’s my 2 cents’ worth…

I have little doubt that each of those issues I mentioned in the blog will pose a challenge that will need to be met by the Church in coming decades. Some will be more dangerous than others, but the most serious one to my mind; the one that threatens to destroy the very fabric and meaning of the Church is the challenge of Atheism.

For the last 1,700 years, the Christian Church of Alexandria has lived in a society that believed in God in some form or other. From the Edict of Milan in 313AD, when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal and brought an end to the persecution of Christians by pagans; through the post-Chalcedonian period (451-642AD) when Chalcedonian Christians ruled Egypt; and into the Islamic period where the Muslim rulers and eventually the majority Muslim population still worshipped the Muslim Allah, we have always lived in a society that has taken deity for granted.

At the dawn of the 21st century, however, we face a situation that presents unique challenges. What is new is that the whole mindset of Western society is changing. I have written before on WHY atheism is irrational, but here I would like to focus on the subtle effects that the spread of atheism is beginning to have on the society around us.

Firstly, there is no fear of God, nor love of God to impose limits to human behaviour. If there is no objective moral law, no Lawgiver to obey, then life becomes a free-for-all. Societies without faith will obey the law of the land, but only through self-interest; so long as it is good for them or for those close to them. But what stops the rogue individual from “playing the system”? Why not cheat or steal for personal gain, even if it means that others lose? It makes perfect logical sense in an atheistic society to steal $10 from a 100,000 people. Each of the victims suffers little harm but I become a millionaire! Of course, if everybody thought like that society would collapse, but there is no MORAL reason not to do it. The question only becomes “can I get away with it?” not “Is this right?”

Selfishness is attractive. Even today we continue to fight against materialism among our Church flock. And yet deep down, I think most Christians acknowledge that the Christian faith is, in the words of its Founder, “not of this world”. Thus do we fast and keep vigil and give away our hard earned money to those less fortunate than we are. Thus do we share our blessings with one another and contribute to the community both within and without Church. But then you always have that little devil whispering in your ear … enjoy yourself … forget about anyone else … you are not responsible … The day that selfishness infiltrates the Church it will become a terminal case, for love is the heart of the Church, but selfishness is love’s cardiac arrest.

Where there is no God, selfishness becomes the rule. Those who adhere to an atheistic evolutionary origin of humanity state this clearly. “Survival of the Fittest” is guiding principle of evolutionary theory. Each individual lives in order to survive and reproduce copies of itself – that is the driving force behind life. An interesting scientific concept, but what if it becomes a philosophy of moral life? Although some have questioned it, it seems to me that this was very much the philosophy underlying the greatest human catastrophes of modern history.

Adolf Hitler’s genocide of the Jews was publicly backed by the propaganda of the superior Aryan race: the fittest deserve to survive, the unfit should die. Today, rational western minds fight for the right to kill the disabled foetus (abortion) and the sick adult (euthanasia). These are a burden on society, so why should they drag the species down and consume resources that fitter individuals must give up? Why should we waste our time on them? We seem to be heading for what the Catholic Pope John Paul II aptly called the “Culture of Death”.

Can you see how different this mindset is to that of Christ? For the Christian, life is not about survival, it is about sacrifice; not selfishness, but selflessness; not utility, but love. Can Christians maintain the Christian mindset while engaging in a secular society that is moving farther and farther away from that way of thinking?

For the moment, the gap is not so great, for western societies like Australia were founded on deeply ingrained Christian ideals. Today’s critics of Christianity usually fail to acknowledge this debt. But that is slowly changing. If Christian faith is thrown out, how long will Christian ideals and values hold on without the faith to sustain them?

Having said all of that, if history has taught us anything it is that tomorrow is always full of surprises. Who would have predicted the incredible changes that computers have wrought in our lives a hundred years ago? Perhaps there is some other challenge lying undetected and waiting to jump out and change the rules.

And so, with even our best efforts to be prepared, we find that in the end, we have no other course but to continue to throw ourselves upon the mercy and care of our loving Lord from day to day.

Fr Ant

How Not To See.

The ability of the human being to see reality in a biased way never ceases to amaze me.

An extreme modern example of this is the outspoken evangelist of atheism, Professor Richard Dawkins. In his recent book, “The God Delusion”, he not only attributes all forms of religion to mental illness, but he also describes that tender special process of parents passing on their cherished faith to their children as ‘child abuse’. Not content with that, he goes so far as to criticise the God of Christianity for exhibiting ‘sadomasochism’ in the Crucifixion of Christ, thus reducing the most precious and intimate act of love in the history of world to the level of an unnatural human fetish.

The easy reaction to such words would be anger and indignation. If he doesn’t believe, at least he should respect the beliefs of others! That may be the easy response, but I don’t think it is the right one. After all, we too (Christians I mean) have our own history of seeing things in quite a biased way. We are human too.

The Dawkins example I gave above illustrates bias combined with belligerence, but there are also nice ways of being biased. One example of this ‘nice’ bias that springs to mind is that of the late Fr Bishoy Kamel, the Coptic priest who served in Alexandria and Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 70’s. If my reading of the limited English translations of his many writings is accurate, Fr Bishoy was every bit as biased as Dawkins, but in quite a different way. Rather than reading evil into the good of others, he was most adept at reading good into the evil of others.

Among his favourite books of the Bible was the Song of Solomon, a relatively explicit love poem that many modern preachers keep away from, so stark is its language of love. But Fr Bishoy saw in the love between a man and a woman a holy icon of the love between Christ and the human soul. Of course, this was not an original discovery by Fr Bishoy. St Paul wrote of this living metaphor two thousand years ago in his letter to the Ephesians. But what makes Fr Bishoy’s approach stand out is that he lived it.

To read this celibate’s description of how he cries out to Jesus as he goes to sleep in his bed, to come and embrace him, to place His gentle hand behind his head and hold him close; only a man who has risen above the earthliness of physical intimacy could write so freely and honestly of spiritual intimacy. In this married celibate’s words I find a better description of the purity of celibacy than one can find from most monks and nuns! He did not fear intimacy and flee from it, he sanctified it! For Fr Bishoy, the spirit purifies the body completely; good triumphs over evil – it is as simple as that, and there is just no question about it. That’s pretty opinionated!

And yet, I believe that this is indeed the true spirit of Christianity, indeed, of Christ Himself. Was it not He who sought out the outcasts of society and broke so many taboos in the name of divine love? Was it not His positive attitude towards sinners, seeing the potential good in them rather than their evil past, that saved so many from destruction? Which makes me wonder: what would happen if an opinionated and biased atheist like Professor Dawkins were to one day meet Jesus? The following is of course a fiction, and I hesitate to guess what Jesus would say (I have no special insight) or what Dawkins would say, but it is interesting to contemplate…

* * * * *

Professor Richard Dawkins was turning in for the night. It had been a long and hard day. Three media engagements, a book signing and then that debate at the university. But it has been a satisfying day. His opponent in the debate had been a little underprepared which had allowed him to take him apart, much to the pleasure of a largely sympathetic audience of noisy university students. Ahh… this had been a good day.
Suddenly, the bedroom filled with light. Wondering if a car had pulled up and shone its high beam at his window, he walked over to draw the curtains and perhaps see who this was who so impertinently and thoughtlessly had disturbed his repose. Could someone be visiting him at this time of night? But there was no car outside; in fact it was quite dark. A gentle rustle behind him made him twirl around suddenly and shout in fright, “Who the devil are you? And how in blazes did you get into my house?”

The shining man with the beard smiled at the professor and the glow that seemed to emanate from His face slowly faded away until He was left standing on the carpet like any other man, except perhaps for His long flowing robes and the wounds in His hands and feet.
“No, actually, I am not the devil. Quite the opposite.” A small smile played on His lips. “Never mind how I come to be in your house. I have come to ask you a question. Why do you hate me?”
“Who are you? Where did you come from? I don’t know you, and if you don’t leave immediately I shall call the police!”
“I think you know who I am, Richard. Do you not recognise Me?”
“Oh tosh, man! Do you think you are Christ? Come now, which mental hospital have you escaped from?”
“Ah, so you do recognise Me. But My question remains unanswered: Why do you hate Me?”
“Firstly, I do not for one moment accept that you are Jesus Christ: let’s get that clear. But for the sake of argument, I will answer your question. I don’t hate you; I simply don’t believe in you.”
“Why is that Richard?”
“Where have you been living for the past thirty years? My arguments are all over the media and they fill the bookshops. Someone who knows where I live must surely have at least read some of my books.”
“Why do you not believe in me, Richard?”
“OK, I’ll humour you. One: because all religion simply evolved to meet natural needs for human survival. Two: because sacred texts are full of contradictions and inaccuracies. Three: because modern science has eliminated the need for a “God of the gaps” to explain things that we couldn’t understand. Is that enough for you?”
“What do you say to the millions of devout and highly intelligent and educated Christians who see things differently?”
“Huh, that’s easy. WAKE UP! Open your eyes! Stop being deluded! The evidence is there and it’s black and white, so stop fooling yourself and come into the twenty first century for God’s sake!” The little smile played upon the lips of the Bearded Man once more.
“You cannot imagine seeing in that same evidence any other interpretation than yours, then?”
“Oh, there may be many different interpretations of the evidence, but there’s only one CORRECT interpretation, and it just happens to be mine.”
“And what would it take to convince you otherwise? What would it take to convince you that God exists, that I am real?”
“Well, if God is really there, why doesn’t He just show Himself to everyone? Why doesn’t He just appear and say, ‘Here I am everyone. You can stop doubting Me now’.”
“Well, Richard, here I am. You can stop doubting Me now.”
The professor paused for a moment as though considering the proposal put to him by this strange man. He certainly had an honest face, something in it told him intuitively that whatever this man might be, he was not a liar. He must be a manic depressive who really believed he was Christ. And yet, he seemed so calm, so in control, so sane.
“Well if you want to make a claim like that, I’m afraid you’re going to have to back it up. Prove to me that you are the real Christ. Go on then.”
“Was the light that filled the room and my sudden appearance out of nowhere not convincing for you?”
“You probably have a torch hidden up that big sleeve of yours. Well, you can do anything with electronics these days. And I didn’t see you come in. You could have come in through the door.”
“Did you hear your door squeak as it always does?” How the blazes did he know that my bedroom door squeaks, thought the professor to himself. But of course: he just walked through it a few minutes ago.
“I was distracted by the light. A common conjuror’s trick: distract your audience’s attention with one thing so you can get away with the illusion. I can show you some articles on it if you like.”
“Then what would it take to convince you Richard?”
“You’d have to do something genuinely supernatural, here in the open where I can see it, where I can measure it and observe it scientifically.”
“Alright then, if that’s what you’d like. You see that cup of water over there? You filled it up yourself from the tap just a few moments ago, didn’t you?” The professor nodded. “Would you like to pick it up and taste it?” The professor did so. “It is tap water, is it not?” Another nod. “Then kindly taste it again for Me.” The professor held his nerve well. He needed to, for when he looked at the glass, its contents were no longer clear but a rich burgundy hue. He smelled it and gingerly tasted it. A rich red wine. He turned back to the Bearded Man.
“Oh very clever young man, very clever. Turning water into wine, hey? OK, you’ve read your gospels, and I’ll admit that was a very clever trick. How did you do it? Slip a tablet in when I wasn’t looking? Sorry, but that’s no proof. I’ve seen better illusionists than you.”
“But isn’t that what you asked for?”
“Sorry, but you’ll have to do better than that, my friend.” This he said in a tone that suggested anything but friendliness.
“Then what would you have Me do to convince you, Richard?”
“Look, if God exists and wants us to believe in Him, He can appear as a towering giant floating above London and blocking out the sunlight. He can rain thunderbolts on anyone who doesn’t accept him as an example to others. If He really wanted to, He could put the matter beyond all doubt. So why doesn’t He? I’ll tell you why, my friend. Because He doesn’t exist, that’s why. He’s just a figment of people’s imagination that was perpetuated by corrupt clergymen for their own personal benefit. And eventually, people came to believe the lie. That’s all there is to it.”
“And if I were to remove all doubt, would you love Me?”
“Oh, yes: prove yourself to me and I’ll believe in you. I am a scientist, you know. I do have an open mind.” Again, the little smile.
“But I did not ask if you would believe in Me. I asked if you would love Me. I love you, you know.”
“Oh, tosh! Not this ‘love’ thing again. Look, there is no such thing really as love. All there is just hormones and chemical messages in the brain. Love is nothing more than an electrochemical phenomenon.”
“Again, you have evaded My question. Again, I ask it. Would you love Me?”
“Oh, look: if God were to prove beyond all doubt that He really does exist, then, yes, I suppose I would do what He says. I’m not stupid, you know. But see, that’s why religion is such a fake. It’s all about guilt and making atonement and hoping to please this big Judge in the Sky so He doesn’t cast you into everlasting fires of damnation. No, sorry: God just can’t be real. I won’t accept that.”
“You don’t think you may have misunderstood what God is really all about?”
“No, I haven’t. It’s all there to read in black and white, you know. It’s all in the Bible, the fire and brimstone and the everlasting flames of hell.”
“Perhaps you are reading only what you want to read and ignoring the rest if it does not fit in to your preferred interpretation?”
“I told you before, man. I am a scientist. Scientists are objective. They gather evidence and draw theories out of that evidence. Then they test them and thus prove or discard them. Why don’t you listen?”
“So from what you say, it seems that I cannot win. If I show you My power, you will attribute it to illusion or epilepsy or aliens. If I prove Myself to you beyond doubt, you still will not love Me, but only seek to gain personal advantage from the situation. It would seem that whatever I do, you have already made up your mind. You have made your choice and nothing will change it.”
“Absolute rubbish! I have an open mind. Go on then, prove to me that you are really God, or Christ, or whichever deity you wish to masquerade as this week. Go on then, I’m all ears.” The Bearded Man gently shook His head and muttered, “There are none so blind as them that will not see.” Aloud, He said:
“I will leave you now Richard. I know there is good inside you still. But you have become so encrusted in the shell of your own confidence and pride that you have lost the very thing you first set out to achieve: Truth. I will visit you again, for I do not lose hope that one day you may be healed. But I will not visit you again like this. You have closed that door to Me and locked it. Goodbye.” And with that, He was gone. He did not leave by the door or jump through the window. He did not ascend through the ceiling; He was just … gone.
For a moment, the professor stood like a statue, gaping at the spot where the Bearded Man had stood just seconds ago. Then he shook his head and turned around to go and brush his teeth. “Damn magician of a mental patient! I really must speak to the Minister of Health about the lax security these days. One of these days, someone is going to get hurt!”

Fr Ant

God and Time

What is time?

An introductory note of warning: some readers may find this blog a bit too theoretical and a waste of ‘time’.

We feel we know with some certainty what most things in our lives are. Things made of matter, of atoms and molecules, we can deal with comfortably, for they are solid and easy to experience with our senses. Even things like light and heat present no great confusion for us, once we understand the nature of electromagnetic radiation. We can even live with the duality in the nature of light, its being both a particle and a wave at the same time (a nice metaphor for the Divinity and Humanity of Christ perhaps?)

But when it comes to time, it is different. We do not really experience time with our senses in the normal sense. We experience the effects of time: things like movement and change. But what about time itself? What exactly is it?

Well if you’re now hoping I will go on to explain what time is, you will be disappointed. As far as I can ascertain, no one has ever been able to come even remotely close to explaining what time is. Oh sure, we fit time nicely into a whole lot of the laws and equations of physics, and we speak of time being the fourth dimension, together with the three dimensions of space forming the beautifully phrased “Time-Space Continuum”. We manipulate the idea of time to solve all sorts of practical problems and we use the time we read off our watches to organise our lives. But none of this even begins to tell us just what time actually is.

Normally, we understand things best by comparison with something already familiar to us. “A chihuahua is like a poodle,” I might explain to someone who has never seen one, “only a lot smaller, and usually with a lot more attitude.” But what can we compare time to? It seems to exist (does it exist?) in a category all its own.

The only thing we can compare it to sensibly is a dimension of space. Thus, we usually represent time using the classic representation of a spatial dimension: the number line. We think of time as being like a line that extends in one dimension, with forwards being the future, backwards being the past, and some point upon the line being the present, where we are now. Then we extend this analogy to have our point of the present slowly (???) moving along that line of time at a constant speed, never being able to stop, or go backwards, or speed up. This is a useful enough analogy for most of our practical needs, and it opens doors for the imagination of science fiction writers to explore by playing with our movement along this line. But is that really what time is?

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps most famous for being extremely hard to understand, proposed the solution that we are wrong to try to define time in words. Perhaps, he says, or at least as well as I can understand him, the problem is our language. Perhaps there are some things in our world that simply cannot be properly defined using the human lnaguage which is all we know. Perhaps if we could think in some other way, some totally alien way that we cannot now imagine, the nature of time would be obvious, as obvious as the nature of matter. Of course, St Paul preceded him by some 1900 years when he told us about the things in Heaven that “no words can express”. So maybe time is one of those creations of God. Maybe it belongs to the category of creations incomprehensible to the limited mind of man.

And where does God fit in all this? What is the relationship of God to time? I had thought this must have been obvious to most Christians, until I did a bit of research and dicsovered what a marvellous variety of theories Christians have held on this topic! Here are a couple (that I don’t like, by the way):

1. God exists within time Himself, just as we do.

2. God exists outside of our time, but within His own time, a sort of “meta-time”.

I don’t like these explanations, because being your typical Eastern Christian, any explanation that limits God in any way is unacceptable to me. The best explanation I have found so far is that God created time and exists outside of time in some mode that we can never imagine, being prisoners of time ourselves. All time is ‘present’ before Him, or is known to Him. But you see, even in trying to relay that last concept, I had to use a word that implies He is in time, “present”, whereas, He isn’t.

Perhaps that’s enough boggling of the mind for now (another ‘time’ word).