IVF and Cloning Part 3


We have seen that cloning raises some incredibly difficult ethical and moral questions. But before we attempt to address them, it may be helpful to look at things from the perspective of the infertile parent, and also to survey various religious positions on the matter.

 It is important to appreciate that these are not just hypothetical questions that people in ivory towers can enjoy discussing over a nice cup of tea. They are questions that influence the lives of many people, real living people. I have encountered couples dealing with infertility, and I can assure you, it is no small matter. Until you have gone through the experience yourself, I don’t think you can really understand what it means to be denied the chance of having your own children. Continue reading “IVF and Cloning Part 3”

IVF and Cloning Part 2


 If you think the ethical questions raised by IVF are tough, you’ll be totally flummoxed by those raised by human cloning. Claims of human cloning have occurred sporadically since the turn of the 21st century, yet none of them has been substantiated – with one exception. Dr Panayiotis Zavos, a Greek Cypriot immigrant to the USA, may soon go down in history as the person responsible for the first ever successful human clone. He has so far made a number of unsuccessful attempts, but with each one, the knowledge gained is bringing him and his team a little closer to success. I have included some links at the end of this blog for those who wish to learn more about him and his very controversial work.

Dr Zavos is an enigmatic figure who proves yet again just how much truth is stranger than fiction. He is a practicing Greek Orthodox Christian, and he puts forward arguments based on Bible verses in support of his work, even though most Christians would disagree with both the work and his interpretation of the Bible. Having been blocked by the laws of Western countries, he moved his work to Beirut in Lebanon where there are no laws to prevent human cloning, and he even met with the spiritual leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon to get his ‘blessing’ on the work of human cloning. Continue reading “IVF and Cloning Part 2”

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”

What’s Wrong With Alcohol?

"Drinker" by Paul Cezanne. In today's world, drinking is seen as a normal part of life. As Copts, we go against this trend and often suffer ridicule for doing so. Why do we take this narrow path?


What’s wrong with having the occasional alcoholic drink? Why does the Coptic Church make such a big fuss over this issue?

The Coptic Orthodox Church strongly recommends that alcohol not be a part of its member’s lives, apart from Holy Communion of course. Today, I’d like to take a look at both sides of the story.

Critics of this policy attack it on the following grounds:

– The Bible never condemns the drinking of alcohol, only drunkenness

– Jesus Himself changed the water into wine.

– Most other Christian Churches allow social drinking of alcohol. Even their clergy drink.

– The Coptic Church bans alcohol only because it exists within a Muslim society where alcohol is banned by Islam.

– Alcohol is not evil in itself. What counts is how you use it. People are responsible enough to use it wisely, so there is no need for it to be banned.

I will address these points below. On the other side of the debate, the following points need to be made: Continue reading “What’s Wrong With Alcohol?”

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

Behind Copenhagen

As I write, the leaders of the world are gathered at Copenhagen to discuss what is to be done about the threat of global warming.

There remains a significant minority of climate change ‘sceptics’ in the world. The debate over the reality of global warming is a fascinating illustration of the human ability to ‘manufacture’ a preferred reality. At the one extreme you have environmentalists who have clamouring about the damage humans are doing to planet earth since the 1960s, and who now feel they have enough solid evidence to say a rather big “I told you so!” At the other extreme you have the vested commercial interests for whom saving the planet is just going to cost too much money, and who find it more convenient to believe that global warming is just a big conspiracy.

Both these extremes exhibit all the classic features of self-deception: picking and choosing the evidence that supports their case and ignoring the evidence that doesn’t; setting up ‘straw man’ arguments for their opponents and demolishing them; attacking the character of those on the other side; and so on. Their positions may be complete opposites, but sometimes it’s amazing how similar their tactics are! And none of those tactics are very likely to lead them to know the truth of the matter.

In the middle, of course, lies the real and objective science. As I understand the current state of play, the debate is able to continue because the evidence is not yet conclusive either way. It is simply not possible to say with certainty yet that man-made global warming is a perilous reality or to rule it out with confidence.

So the game becomes one of risk management. Sometimes, even if the risk of something bad happening is small, you may still want to invest a lot in avoiding it, because if it did happen, it would be disastrous. We do this every time we hop into a car. Your seat belt will be useless and inconvenient 99.9% of the time you are in the car. Yet you put up with that because that 0.1% of the time when you need it, when you are involved in an accident, it can save your life. The seriousness of the danger makes all that inconvenience worthwhile. That seems to be the argument of the more sensible and objective climate change believers at the moment, and I must confess it makes a lot of sense to me.

It also bears a startling resemblance to the argument about believing in God. Even if you believe it highly unlikely that God exists, the danger of being an unbeliever if God is real is so great that it actually makes sense to believe in God just in case. I suppose this is another variation on Blaise Pascal’s famous wager (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_Wager).

Following the risk minimisation logic through, you will find some rather unexpected personalities on either side of the global warming debate. For example, while the Greens’ Senator Bob Brown is an avowed atheist, he sees the sense in taking the safe path on the environment. On the other hand, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell is a climate change sceptic!

That’s not to say that all Christians should be global warming believers. As I said before, the evidence remains inconclusive at this point. But it is interesting to see how people can change their standards for accepting things so drastically according to what they want to believe.

The gathering is interesting from another side as well. Nations have historically found it almost impossible to collaborate effectively on anything without selfishly seeking what’s best for themselves. Even friendly nations often will not help each other without getting something out of it, or at least safeguarding their own interests. The Americans have been the world champions at this game for some time now, although China seems to be challenging for the crown through its business ventures in Africa. But now, faced with a potential crisis that threatens the very existence of nations, and one that threatens the whole world without exception, will this selfish approach be continued? Or will the nations finally feel that they must put aside individual agendas and come together to save humanity from destruction?

I think it would be naive to expect that any real change in attitude is likely to occur, at least not until things get really, really bad. And perhaps not even then. And yet, it will be interesting to observe just how much change does occur, and how much of it is genuine rather than grandstanding on the world stage.

Meanwhile, think green! Hey, it’s a nicer lifestyle anyway.

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

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

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

When does life begin?

Sure, it’s not one of your more pressing questions in life, but sooner or later, you’re likely to need an answer. The answer to this question will decide many other questions that for some people are crucial. Like…

Is it OK to have an abortion?
If we’re infertile, is it OK to use IVF (test tube babies)?
Should we allow stem cell research?

And there are many more. These may sound like matters far removed from our daily lives, but in fact, like climate change, they threaten to creep up on us slowly and change the whole nature of our existence. A bit far fetched, you say? Consider the following scenario (by the way, I have nothing at all against Bill Gates – he just springs to mind so easily as the prototypical rich person).


The year is 2030. At an isolated ranch in the desert of California, a man in a white coat unlocks a heavily armoured door. Balancing a tray stacked with basic foods, he pushes his way into the sparse room and nudges the door closed again behind him. Not that it really matters, for the six inhabitants of this room have never left it in their whole lives. They came here as soon as they were able to walk, and here they have stayed for the last 15 years. Their skin is very pale, in spite of the special lamps designed to mimic the radiation of natural sunlight. Apart from that, you wouldn’t think twice if you passed them on the street. They look perfectly normal as they sit / lie on the ground / stand around the room. But the moment they spot the man in the white coat with the tray, they spring into action. There is no aggression in their behaviour, just hunger. Like so many pigs shoving each other to the trough, they descend upon the man until the tray is empty, then they retire with satisfied grunts to their corners to enjoy thier meal. They do not talk. They do not acknowledge the man. They do not thank him, or cry out to him to save them from their prison. To them, this room is the world – all the world they have ever known. And now finally, it suddenly dawns upon you what’s really wrong with this scene. All six of these boys look exactly the same. Not just similar … exactly the same. Exactly the same, in fact, as a young Bill Gates…


It is now possible to clone human beings. In the near future, a wealthy person may be able to clone himself, produce half dozen replicas, and just keep them alive. No education, no affection, no life – just keep them alive. Why? So that when he grows old and sick, he has a sure supply of compatible donor organs and blood at his service. The sort of health insurance you can’t buy – until now.

It’s a horrific scenario, but the scary thing is that it is possible, today. Scientists have already cloned a variety of creatures, starting with the celebrity Dolly the sheep. So far the only publicly announced clones, such as those claimed by South Korean Hwang Woo-Suk, have truned out to be frauds. But the day is near when the real thing will stare us in the face.

And our lives will change. For example, would it be wrong to clone a person in order to save their life by thus producing an essential organ? What if we clone a person and let the zygote grow to only three weeks old when it is just a bundle of cells, and then we skim off some cells for research every week so that the zygote never grows beyond the three week stage? Would that be alright?

These technical advances need a response, for they are changing the way we think about what it means to be a human being. In our rationalistic society, already many see a human being as nothing more than an advanced animal, merely a complicated biological machine. The soul, they say, is an illusion, it does not exist. Our ‘personhood’ is nothing more than the result of brain cells firing in a certain pattern. With this attitude, there’s nothing wrong with the scenarios I described above. What we do to animals we have the right ot do to human animals.

It is already among us. People who are pro-abortion by and large do not consider a human foetus as being a human being. That’s why they claim the right of the mother to kill it. What can we say about a society that pulls so many of its children apart, ripping them from their mothers’ wombs in little pieces?

This is disturbing stuff, but sooner or later, we are going to have make up our minds. And we as Christians will need to be ready to speak up.

Fr Ant