IVF and Cloning Part 1


 One of the major issues challenging our ethics in the 21st century is the issue of human cloning. There are compelling parallels to the rise of nuclear energy 60 years ago. Whilst nuclear energy has given us a relatively clean source of incredible amounts of energy, and is even used in medicine to save lives, it also brought with it the ability to destroy the world as we know it. Would we have been better off if the power within the atom had never been unleashed?

Cloning today provides a stunningly similar set of ethical questions. Most people are happy with the idea of cloning plants or even animals if it will provide some benefit to humanity, but when it comes to considering cloning a human being, we run into a minefield of questions, for most of which we have yet to find satisfactory answers.

Nor is it a hypothetical question any more. At this very moment, Continue reading “IVF and Cloning Part 1”

Complexity and Simplicity – Part 2

Albert Einstein, like many scientists, trusted a result more if it looked simple: something many Mathematics students will relate to!
Albert Einstein, like many scientists, trusted a result more if it looked simple: something many Mathematics students will relate to!



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?

 In my last post I looked at the argument in favour of complexity. Today, a look at the other side…


Simplicity plays a crucial role in the life of the true Christian. When our Lord gives us simple, direct commands, there is not a lot of wiggle room, nor should we be clever and try to find it. An example of this might be the central law of love in Christianity. We are enjoined to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbours, and even our enemies and those who persecute us: in simple terms, to love every human being in this world.

 You can get pretty complicated in addressing the question of how to apply this command, but basically, it boils down to something pretty straightforward: put away your ego, your fear, your dignity and your pride. See how God loves the unlovable, and strive to do the same. When the man asked Jesus “who is my neighbour?”, he was possibly trying to find a way out of loving someone he didn’t want to love by changing the definitions. This is resorting to complexity where it does not belong. This is why attackers of Christianity accuse Christians of being hypocritical. Richard Dawkins is convinced that when Christians say “love thy neighbour”, they mean only the neighbour who belongs to my tribe, my faith, my nationality. From where does he get this ridiculous concept? From Christians who play with the words for their own selfish ends.

 Simplicity makes life so much easier, so much more peaceful when we employ it in our dealings with one another. Consider the person who constantly doubts the motives of others, constantly taking offence at others’ words and actions, seeing insults where none are intended or snobbishness where none exists. This person lives in constant anxiety and discontentment. Compare him to one who takes the words and actions of others simply. When someone says, “I didn’t mean it”, he takes them at their word and thinks no more about it. If someone seems to ignore him, he takes no offence but rather anticipates that there is some other unknown reason for the apparent snub (he was tired, he was distracted, he has a tooth ache…) This person lives a life of peace and contentment. He is happy with others because he is happy within himself. A simple heart produces a simple eye, and a simple eye produces a simple heart.

 Last time we considered mandlebulbs where simple instructions produced incredibly complex and beautiful forms. But the opposite may be true as well. Sometimes very complicated beginnings boil down to a very simple ending. Consider the famous Theory of Relativity discovered by the famous Albert Einstein, a man who himself was in love with simplicity. Some pretty heavy maths takes a long and circuitous path to boil down to a stunningly simple equation in the end: e = mc2.

 In his personal life, Einstein sought simplicity in ways that many would consider eccentric at best, downright insane at worst. For example, he drove his poor wife crazy by insisting upon taking up the scissors and cutting off the cuffs of his shirtsleeves. What purpose do the darn things serve? All they do is get dirty and force you to wash the whole shirt before the rest of it is in need of washing! For similar reasons, he apparently often dispensed with socks. To his mind, unnecessary distractions prevented him from focusing his time and energy on his real goals, his mathematical and physical investigations, so he took the logical course and simplified his life.

 Personally, I find much to admire in this approach. Gone are the days when I used to spend ages trying to match up my socks. Of course, they’re all black, but there is black and there is black. There are thicker winter materials and lighter summer ones. There are long, medium and short ones, with elastic and without, and then of course, there are all the stages of fading. You can tell I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. But one day it dawned upon me that this is such a waste of time. Black socks are black socks in the end, and who pays attention to your socks? Matching socks never got anyone into heaven, not so far as I know, anyway. So now I just take any two socks out of the washing basket and slip them on. Simplicity! It feels like being set free from prison! The prison was my own unnecessary perfectionism, vanity and small mindedness. Just don’t look too closely at my feet, next time we meet…

  So where does all that leave us? Should we be simple or complex in our approach to life? The answer, I think, is both. There is a time and place for complexity and another for simplicity. There are even times when we should use them together, as we use a hammer and nail together. To know which is to be applied requires wisdom and discernment: gifts that generally are won through hard experience, many mistakes and an open mind.

 “Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves”, said our Lord. And yes, it is possible to have both in the same person. I hope these modest reflections may have shed a little light on how this is possible.

 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

Which Truth Is True?

There are many interesting contrasts to be found in history. By putting two personalities side by side and comparing their lives, one often gains valuable insights and lessons. Consider two famous reformers whose lives overlapped; Mohandas Ghandi (1869-1948) and American Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957).

For those who may not be aware of their stories, Mohandas Ghandi was an Indian lawyer who fought for civil rights for Indians in South Africa and then later was one of the leaders of the movement to achieve the independence of India from British rule.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was also a lawyer who became a Republican senator in the USA from 1947-1957, the post-war period when communist Russia was growing in power and spreading its influence around the world. Many in the USA felt as threatened by communism as they do today by Muslim extremists and terrorists. This led to the “Cold War”, in which no actual fighting took place between Russia and America, but a tense state of rivalry existed continuously. McCarthy was at the forefront of the movement to keep communism out of America.

These two men tried to change their societies for the better, or at least what they each saw as being better. Ghandi saw the injustice of South African racism and fought to create fairness and equality between whites, blacks and Indians. He saw how Imperial Britain was plundering his native land India for its own selfish purposes and fought for the freedom of his people. McCarthy saw a great threat from Communism in America and fought to stop its ideas spreading in the nation built upon democracy, individual ambition and the free market.

But where Ghandi often looked for the good in others and within himself, McCarthy saw evil where it did not exist. While Ghandi had a very strong grip on reality, McCarthy believed and acted upon falsehoods. For Ghandi, truth was paramount. He refused to take advantage from anything that was false, no matter how much it might benefit his cause and advance his goals. He went so far as to identify God with Truth, a very Christian concept! With this attitude, it is no wonder that he was brutally truthful with himself, weeding out his own failings and inconsistencies constantly and thus treating others with a deep and genuine humility. Perhaps it was because he set such a high standard of truth for his own inner life that he was able to tell the difference between truth and falsehood so easily in his external life.

McCarthy on the other hand took the opposite view. In order to achieve his goals, he was willing to arrogantly throw unsubstantiated accusations at people left right and centre, thus stirring up mass hysteria. While some of his allegations turned out to be true, time has shown that most of them were exaggerated or totally false. He was in fact, a skilled exponent of the “Conspiracy Theory”. This is a well known phenomenon in modern society (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory). Its common features include allegations of secret plots, usually carried out by shady characters who appear innocent but have great hidden power or influence. The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are very hard to discredit. When anyone points out the obvious mistakes in them, they are immediately painted as being part of the conspiracy! McCarthy accused even many of his fellow politicians as being closet communists, which no doubt contributed to his own eventual self-destruction.

Another stark difference is evident in the tactics and ethics of the two reformers. On one occasion, as Ghandi was a leading a major protest against the British, he insisted that the protest be halted over the Christmas break. He would not take the Christian police and security guards away from their families on a day he knew to be very precious and special for them, even though he himself was Hindu and not Christian.
On the other hand, we find McCarthy willing to bully and threaten, abusing his position as a senator throwing wild allegations around that tarnished the name of many good people and organisations unnecessarily. He seems to have felt no compassion for the many lives he damaged, for the innocent wives and children of those he wrongly accused of being communist.

Both Ghandi and McCarthy had enemies who opposed them and did their best to discredit them. But again, it is interesting to note the character of their respective enemies. Ghandi’s enemies used smear and innuendo together with unjust imperial power to try to stop him. McCarthy’s enemies were not opposed to his goals, but rather to his tactics, and used the legitimate power of the senate and common sense arguments to censure him and stop his irrational witch hunt.

Both men suffered for their efforts. Ghandi spent a number of years in jail throughout his campaigns, a situation he accepted with calmness and dignity. Nor did he allow this painful experience to weaken his commitment to his noble goals, nor to embitter his feelings. In a most Christ-like display of forgiveness, he held nothing against his enemies and treated them always with dignity and respect. Through this patient and confident strength, he overcame his enemies. He was an example to his countrymen, an example that was probably the biggest factor in the fact that independence came to India peacefully, rather than with a bloody war of independence. In the end, he was assassinated: the man who fought for peace and non-violence all his life died by violence. But his legacy lives on until today. India celebrates his birthday as a public holiday, and it is also International Day of Non-Violence.

With time, the rational majority in the USA began to feel uncomfortable with McCarthy’s fanaticism and his conspiracy theories. Courageous senators began to stand up against him and openly challenge his tactics, thus running the risk of being accused of being communists or communist sympathisers themselves. But in the end, sanity prevailed, and in 1954 the American Senate censured McCarthy; a rare dishonour. This broke his power and effectively put an end to his policies. From that time on, he was shunned by other senators who would leave the chamber when he spoke, or blatantly turn their backs to him and ignore him. His public popularity waned, and he died three years later, most likely from alcohol-induced liver failure.

One would imagine that Ghandi died with a sense of peace, having maintained his integrity all his life, and having lived and died for the principles he believed in so strongly. McCarthy on the other hand, appears to have fallen into alcoholism during his later years and died a broken man.

Perhaps this contrast can teach us much about life. It is not enough to have noble goals. The way we go about achieving our goals is often just as important as the goals themselves. “The end does not justify the means”, the famous proverb says, and McCarthy’s life is an ample illustration of the truth of that saying.

Devotion to Truth is another of the major lessons I see here. Ghandi’s insistence upon truth and his unwillingness to accept or use innuendo, allegations or gossip to his own advantage raised him above his enemies and many of his fellow reformers. McCarthy’s crass self-serving methods discredited him and lost him the respect of his fellow Americans, so that “McCarthysim” has passed into the English language as a most derogatory term. Sadly, he might have been a hero of history had he used more ethical methods. The difference was Truth. Both of them claimed to be telling the truth, but only one of them really was.

For a brief summary of their lives, the interested reader will find Wikipedia useful:


I have not yet read a good biography of Joe McCarthy, but I can highly recommend Ghandi’s autobiography; “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”.

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

Next to Nothing

There are times when you can’t help thinking that our lives are very much like a little puff of smoke, existing briefly and easily dispersed by the wind.

You realise this in a hospital’s Emergency Department, when you are confronted with shattered human bodies … how fragile we little creatures are! How easily do our lives end! Even the greatest of men can be brought low by the tiniest virus or torn apart by the simplest of weapons. The Psalmists understood this…

Psalm 103:14 For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more.

Psalm 39:4 “Lord, make me to know my end,
And what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am.
5 Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths,
And my age is as nothing before You;
Certainly every man at his best state is but vapour.
6 Surely every man walks about like a shadow;
Surely they busy themselves in vain;
He heaps up riches,
And does not know who will gather them.
7 “And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You.

The metaphor of vapour is particularly apt. Smoke looks big and solid, yet it is made mostly of nothing. You try to grasp it in your hand, but you can’t. God has built this lesson into the cosmos. I find it intriguing that universe has within it such messages of the nothingness of humanity: built into it, but hidden, so that only the most intelligent can discover them. It is as though the Maker built in a safety system: “If you are clever enough to discover how the universe works, then know that in reality, you are nothing”.

For example, the same knowledge that has given us nuclear power (and nuclear weapons of mass destruction) has taught us that we, and the whole physical universe, are made of mostly nothing. The atom which seems so solid is actually like a little solar system: a tiny little nucleus, some shells of whizzing electrons orbiting it, and in between, the huge majority of its volume is emptiness. Nothing. We are 99.999% Nothing.
This fact is not only revealed to the faithful, but to all humanity. For those who discover it, yet lack the support of faith, the realisation is devastating. If man is nothing so much as Nothing, then what is the point? How does living differ from dying, when both seem so empty, so meaningless?

Psalm 90:9 For all our days have passed away in Your wrath;
We finish our years like a sigh.
10 The days of our lives are seventy years;
And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,
Yet their boast is only labour and sorrow;
For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
11 Who knows the power of Your anger?
For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath.
12 So teach us to number our days,
That we may gain a heart of wisdom.

For the Christian, the realisation of our nothingness leads not to despair, then, but to wisdom; and wisdom in turn leads to humility and purpose. In a universe made by God, to know you are nothing is not to lose meaning, but to find it: it is the understanding of our true state in relation to God. He IS, we are NOT. He is Existence, we are very nearly Non-existence, and it is only His Existence that lends to us any existence of our own. To know what we are in relation to Him, and to know the vast gulf between the Maker and the Made, is to know why we exist…

We do not exist in order to labour for the goals of this world: for money or power, for success or popularity or physical beauty. All those things are made of the emptiness that is this world. They are Nothing. No, rather we are put in this world of Nothing to realise that there is Something, the reality of God, that is worth labouring for. Meaning can never come into our lives effectively through the things that only seem to be Something, but are in reality, Nothing. Meaning can only be found in the things that seem to be nothing, and yet they are Something. Can you hold Love in your hand? Can you fill a bottle with Mercy, or warm yourself with a blanket of Justice? These are things that do not even pretend to have a solid existence, yet it is in them that we hope to give substance to our lives.

We are next to nothing.

Know this, and you will find that He who IS is He who makes you Something.

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).

The Enigma of what comes After Death

I’ve recently been reading an old classic that had hitherto eluded my reading list. It’s called Reflections on Life after Life by Dr Raymond Moody. It’s actually the sequel to his original book simply called Life After Life, but I couldn’t find that one in the library. They were both written around the 1970s and they spawned a whole new genre that many others have since taken up with enthusiasm (though not always with good sense).

The basic premise is this: Dr Moody is a medical doctor who has been involved in a large number of resuscitations – people who are clinically dead, and are then brought back to life. Usually this happens within that brief window of opportunity before permanent brain damage sets in, somewhere around 5 minutes. There have been rare cases that broke that record and still came out perfectly normal. Medicine is like that; the moment you take something for granted a patient comes along to demolish it!

But the thing his books focus on is the weird experience that some of these patients (probably a minority) are able to recall after they have been brought back to life. In the first book (apparently) he outlines a number of general characteristics of these experiences that seem to be common among these patients. These include things that have now become a standard part of our culture and even our language. The tunnel, the light at the end, the beautiful place, the meeting with dead relatives, the shining person who emanates peace and joy, the command to return to life on earth, the reluctant return. In the second book he outlines some additional features that are by no means as common as those in the first book, but which are pretty interesting, such as the confused and lost looking souls and the sense of having ‘all knowledge’ suddenly become available to you (wouldn’t that be great?!) He also addresses some very interesting and important methodological issues in his research (which should set to rest many of the criticisms sceptics have raised, for he is quite thorough in his methodology) and most interestingly, speculates as to where this kind of research might lead in the future.

It makes for absolutely intriguing reading, but I wonder what these experiences mean. It would be all too easy to simply say “Of course these are just confirmation of what the Bible has been saying all along”, but the indomitable sceptic within me cannot help but ask questions:

Most of Dr Moody’s patients were Caucasian Christians. Would these experiences be any different in India? Or Tibet?

What research has been done to examine the possibility of these visions being hallucinations resulting from the trauma of illness or side effects of medications used, quite often in high doses in operations and resuscitations?

The list could go on. I recently came across a much more recent study that seemed to promise a definite answer as to the nature of these experiences. In some cases, patients have described going through a feeling that they somehow left their bodies. They rose up in the air and could look down on themselves, surrounded by medical staff frantically trying to save their lives. Some of these patients describe the scene with exquisite detail, including things that by all the laws of logic they could not know. For example, one case in another book on the subject, Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings, has the patient describing the colour of the tie worn by a doctor who came into the room after he had become unconscious, and left the room before he regained consciousness. How could he do that???

Well, Professor Bruce Greyson in the USA thought up a brilliant experiment to try to settle the question. He set up a laptop computer on the top of a tall cabinet in a room where patients who are having pacemakers inserted have their hearts stopped temporarily as part of the procedure. On this laptop, a programme was installed that displays a random picture on the screen. There is absolutely no way for anyone to know which picture is going to be displayed beforehand, and afterwards, the laptop is removed without any of the medical staff or the patients seeing the picture. The idea was that if a patient had a near death experience and felt themselves rising up and looking down on the scene, they would see the top of the cabinet, and identify the picture on the laptop screen. If they correctly identified that picture, that would indicate that the experience was undoubtedly genuine and not just a hallucination or drug side effect.

But even the best laid plans of mice and men …

Unfortunately, I discovered that the research did not answer the question. Why? Because in the whole series of patients in the study’s time frame, not one single one of them happened to have a near death experience! Drats! Those doctors are obviously too good to be any good for such an experiment! Oh well; at least it illustrates the kind of experiment that might one day truly tell us whether these experiences are genuine or not. I for one will be waiting with bated breath, but I won’t be holding my breath long enough to pass out and have a near death experience.

You can check out Dr Moody’s work at http://www.lifeafterlife.com/

Fr Ant

Is Genesis Myth?

Thankyou to Tony for his comment on my last post in which he brings up the approach taught by most Catholic Schools in Australia to the first 11 chapters of Genesis. I have come across these ideas before, and I think they are becoming so widespread in the Catholic Church they deserve some attention. In some circles, this approach is called the New Theology and basically jettisons any claim that any of the events in the first 11 chapters of Genesis ever actually happened. That’s everything up to and including the Tower of Babel, so for them, the real history begins with Abraham, and all that came before is called a ‘myth’, which, as Tony points out, may not necessarily mean what you think it means!

The concept of a myth is a very fluid one it seems. CS Lewis has much to say on the subject of ‘true myths’ in some of his essays (can’t remember exactly which ones) in which he more or less concludes that the purpose of a ‘myth’ is the moral or message, and that whether the myth actually happened or not, or whether it happened a little differenty is really of no great importance. I suppose you can think of the parables of Jesus which clearly were fiction, but intended to convey a lesson. Lewis of course was talking generally, but I think that the Catholics are applying a similar approach to the first 11 chapters of Genesis.

I think there are problems with this sort of approach. Once you start categorising bits of the Bible as possibly not having an historic basis, where might this not lead you? I wonder if an extension of this kind of thinking is responsible for people like Episcopalian retired Bishop John Shelby Spong rejecting any historical miracles of Jesus, together with the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and Ascension and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum you have stubborn fundamentalists who insist that every word of the Bible must be taken as absolute literal truth (LITERAL being the crucial word here) and thus, for example, deny any possibility that the universe is older than about 6,000 years, in contradiction to lots of pretty solid evidence and to the fact that the language of Genesis in no way insists upon this kind of interpretation.

We have to learn from the mistakes of the past. The medieval Church in the West had no business decreeing that the earth was the centre of the universe – what right did they have to do that? The Church is responsible for spiritual knowledge and teachings. The people look to the Church for guidance and wisdom about far more than just spiritual life, but the Church must always resist the temptation that such respect brings and never go outside its limits of competency. On a smaller scale, a parish priest is often asked whether to take this job or that, or to invest in this project, or send the kids to this school. He has a responsibility to make it clear to those who ask for such advice that any advice given is that of a friend, not that of a mouthpiece of God … unless, of course, God has told him otherwise 😉

Sure, one can draw inferences from the Bible about the laws of nature, but they will always be nothing more than guesses, and we must beware of giving them the status of Infallible Truths or putting them on a par with the doctrine and dogma of the Church. Science is always changing. If we as a Church throw our lot in with evolution, or the Big Bang, or even quantum physics, there is bound to come a time perhaps centuries later when these things will be superceded and the Church will be left with egg on its face, much as happened in the great crisis over Gallileo and Copernicus. There is no need for this, especially given that the Bible does not seem terribly interested in giving humanity the natural secrets of the cosmos – rather, it is occupied with the spiritual secrets of truth and love and holiness. We must accept that just because we are a Church, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to know everything and have the answer to every question! There are times when the only honest thing to do is to admit we don’t know. Which brings to mind a nice proverb: “He is wisest who knows himself for a fool”.

So, yes, my favoured approach would be to say simply something along these lines:

“The science, as far as it goes, can be comfortably accomodated within the Bible’s framework. But that’s all we can say. Whether the science of today describes reality fully and accurately is not a question for the Church to answer – it is for time to answer.”

Fr Ant