Thursday, December 08, 2016

Sex and the Immaculate Conception

Today is the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. If we think on this for a moment, we are actually celebrating the day on which St Joachim and St Anne had sex. My readers will no doubt be shocked by what I have just said and, to tell you the truth, I feel rather uncomfortable even writing that. But why? Because sex is dirty, unclean, and ungodly? Or is it rather because even to consider that fact is a forensic intrusion upon the private relationship between two people.

Here is the fact that we must accept: our parents had sex. If anyone has children then, unless God has some kind of new miracle He wants to show us, then they have had sex. It's a fact we either don't like to speak of primarily because it has absolutely nothing to do with any other person than the husband and wife. It is not polite to discuss such matters.

There may be some of my readers who are scandalised by my juxtaposition of the Conception of Our Lady with the whole topic of sex. Our Lady is a virgin perpetually and held to be a pillar of Christianity. Most female saints are consecrated virgins: there are more married male saints than female. In the breviary, married women seem to be an afterthought. There is something terribly wrong with this. Parenthood is a quintessential role in any community, especially the Christian Church. BOTH parents are needed, BOTH have a role and a responsibility, and BOTH should be valued highly. We know that child-rearing is a gift from God as much as consecration to the Religious life. For St Elizabeth and St Zacharias, as well as St Anne and St Joachim, to be married and not to have children is painful and tragic. Except for Our Lady, childbirth involves sex and God's blessing on that act of conjugal union. It is far from being sinful and wrong, but rather as a means of God's grace to the married couple and to the world. A child is a gift to a community, not just to the parents. We need to cherish children, not view their production as something vile.

Yet, we must be careful. Sex is only meant for married couples and the mutual commitment that surrounds them. Our Lady's conception does indeed bring us to consider facts that intrude upon the relationship of two saints, but we must learn to stop and pull back out of respect for their intimacy. We can become too curious to be respectful of others. It suffices us to know that Our Lady was conceived by a mother and a father who desired her existence and blessed God with great joy when she was born.

It suffices to know that the Angel called Mary full of grace when he met her, implying that she was already so before the annunciation. It can only really be true if she always was full of grace. The Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers recognize that she was indeed sinless. If one subscribes to the doctrine of Original Sin, then this does provide evidence for the Immaculate Conception. If one does not subscribe to the doctrine of Original Sin, then one can still accept that the Blessed Virgin was unique in humanity to have been saved from sin by her yet unborn son without compromising her free-will. The fact that she was a virgin when she conceived the Lord is not to do with any concerns about the sinfulness of sex, but rather because the Lord was the Son of God, not the son of Joseph - at least not biologically.

King David laments "I was shapen in wickedness and in sin hath my mother conceived me." Is he being literal here? Or does he recognize the depth of sin in his life, how the world around him has affected him as he has grown, and how the sins of his parents have affected his view on life? This may be an argument for the weakness of the human will and its need for redemption but not, I think, evidence for sex as means of carrying the infection of sin.

The Conception of Our Lady shows that we all need to have a much more healthy and thus godly view of sex. We need to affirm that it happens, and not be prurient about it. We cannot afford to regard it as sinful but rejoice in it as the means of creating loving, stable, and happy families. However, we must give it the respect that it is due and preserve it as part of the intimacy of marriage rather than vulgarizing it with seedy and unseemly media, and cheapening it as some kind of sordid recreational activity. Our viewpoint must always be to look for the good of children and to remember that each child is an instance of the miraculous. To be a parent is a high calling and a privilege of hard work. That is what sex is for.

Of course, today, this does lead us to pray for all childless couples and those who are trying hard to have babies, and support them appropriately in our communities. The cheapening of sex trivializes their plight, and this is deeply unfair. As Christians, It is our duty to weep with the childless, and to bring them hope. We need to pray hard that God will help the childless and the barren in ways that will transform their lives into fulfillment, joy and love. May they indeed have fruitful lives, and may each child conceived receive the blessing of the love of good people!


Again, I have been very heartened by the scholarly debate about the Other Place, given that it is such an emotive topic. I am gratified to have enjoyed talking about this and listening to the wisdom of Archbishop Lloyd and Fr Chadwick and Fr Wassen who writes here.

I think I first need to address a point that Fr Wassen makes about my argument about Matthew xxv:46 in which I compare  κόλασιν αἰώνιον and ζωὴν αἰώνιον (zOen) and say that the senses of αἰώνιον must be the same. The good question that Fr Wassen raises is the nature of κόλασις that it has the idea of activity. How can an activity which is time-bound therefore be Eternal? I've thought about this below as a mathematical activity, and cannot say that my thoughts are completely coherent. The trouble is that of Time and Time seems to be something that, with St Augustine of Hippo, we know but can't say much about.

Yet, this word κόλασις is a noun, and not a participle. It has the sense of pruning, but also that of mutilation. It is related to κολαφίζω (kolaphIzo) which means "I buffet" or "I strike" and is directly linked to punishment. Pruning involves cutting off, and perhaps we see precisely what Our Lord is saying in His words in this verse if we translate κόλασις as a cutting off, a separation, a pruning from the True Vine. This makes sense in Our Lord's further references to Hell being a separation, a gulf, outer darkness. It is we who cut ourselves off!

However, I do stress that, in the light of the Primitive Church, the whole business of the Eternity of Hell is not cut and dried (no κόλασις here!). It is in Western thought with those who follow St Augustine and the Scholastics, but not in the Primitive Church. Origen, St Gregory Nazianzus, and St Gregory of Nyssa all share the belief that Hell is not an absolute. In this case, it seems they equate Hell with Purgatory. There is something comforting about that, but the only trouble is what happens to the Devil and the Fallen Ones? Will even they be reconciled with God?

It is for this reason, that I do respect Fr Wassen and Fr Chadwick in their holding of a different opinion from me. As Fr Chadwick says, I am rooted in mathematics, logic, scholasticism, and largely Western ways of thinking. I am not a Romantic, but more of an Idealist. Yet all of us Christians live in the hope for union with Christ rather than separation. That is without question. I still believe that Holy Scripture and the Fathers support the idea of Eternal Damnation: those who side with the Devil must expect to receive the same punishment as he. However, perhaps the debate on Hell must be set aside here in favour of thoughts on the nature of Eternity itself.

We might not be able to fathom Eternity, but is there anything we can say about it?

Tuesday, December 06, 2016


Wow! What a set of fascinating discussions I have with some people whose opinions I truly value. I am grateful to Fr Gregory Wassen and Archbishop Jerome Lloyd  for their comments on my earlier post, and to Fr Chadwick for his own thoughts which he has published here.

Archbishop Jerome focussed on the fact that Love requires reciprocity. We all receive the love of God, yet, if we reject that then we reject Him. He has always been prepared to suffer for us, and thus He suffers us to reject Him. This rejection forces us to suffer the logical consequences of that rejection. We human beings have no excuse for our sins. St Paul says,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:(Romans i.18-20)
This is galling to say the least. We are also minded of those who say "Lord, Lord!" and yet the Lord will say, "in truth, I never knew you!"

From my thoughts on this, the fear that the Christian should have is not a fear of Hell in itself, but the fear of losing God which logically leads to Hell. Yet how sweet it is for us to hear that God say to us, "be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest." We tremble before Almighty God in sheer awe. I find it odd how human beings of the present age have lost the ability to feel awe, yet surely we must have awe for this mighty Being of Beings whose command of existence is so absolute and yet will strip Himself of that command in order to be with us in Humanity that we might share in His Divinity.

Fr Wassen asks a different question and draws on the theology of Origen and St Isaac the Syrian. The discussion he draws on centres around two Greek words αἰώνιος and ἀίδιος (a-Idios) which are both used to describe the notion of eternity. We've already seen the word αἰώνιος used in the context of "eternal" life and "eternal" punishment. The word ἀίδιος is used above in Romans i.20 in discussing God's eternal power. In Jude 6, we read:
ἀγγέλους τε τοὺς μὴ τηρήσαντας τὴν ἑαυτῶν ἀρχὴν ἀλλὰ ἀπολιπόντας τὸ ἴδιον οἰκητήριον εἰς κρίσιν μεγάλης ἡμέρας δεσμοῖς ἀϊδίοις ὑπὸ ζόφον τετήρηκεν:

And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.
Again we see ἀίδιος describing the "everlasting" chains of the fallen angels. And Wisdom herself "is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness." (Wisdom vii.26)  Again, the word ἀίδιος used to describe the everlasting light. One might imagine the angels, being pure spirit, being subject to different bonds to human beings but we know that both the fallen angels and the unrepentant end up in the same Abyss. In the biblical sense, are αἰώνιος and ἀίδιος synonyms? Etymologically not: αἰώνιος can be translated as age, whence we have the wonderful phrase of "unto the age of ages" in Orthodox liturgies where we in the West would say "and ever shall be world without end". The Eon is a passage of finite time. Yet it does possess a notion of permanence. The Latin is "saecula saeculorum" and we understand that as "everlasting".

What is also important is that, in the parable of Dives and Lazarus (St Luke xvi), between the blessed and the damned "there is a great gulf fixed : so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot * ; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence." The terms are absolute, and not relative. It would seem that there is something wrong in Origen's thought and with St Isaac the Syrian too. But let us not be hasty: do we stretch the parable too far?

On an apparently unrelated note (bear with me) it is interesting that Black Holes evaporate into radiation. Mathematically speaking, the Black Hole possesses a singularity where the laws of space and time break down. This is represented in mathematics as an infinity. An object which goes over the Event Horizon will be seen to be sen to be slowing down to a halt to an observer outside the black hole. We also have Zeno's paradox of motion in which in order to cross a room, we first need to cross half the distance, then a quarter, then an eighth, then... et c. Thus we never seem to be able to cross the room. We have mathematical ideas of limits. An eternal pruning is mathematically possible and thus, although it be an activity, it can still happen eternally and thus in a limitless fashion. The juxtaposition that the Lord gives in Matthew xxv.46 between κόλασιν αἰώνιον and ζωὴν αἰώνιον seems ample evidence that the two senses mean the same. Yet, nonetheless, is it possible that Hell itself, being the blackest of black holes might evaporate? Milton suggests that Hell is coldest at its heart.

Outside of Time, it is difficult to say. We lack the eyes to say so. We can test for black holes by observing their effects on the objects around them. Likewise, we can observe the presence of Evil by its effect on our world. In the presence of God, we cannot have the presence of Evil and to an extent it becomes unobservable because we cannot bridge this gulf. My instinct is to understand αἰώνιος in the sense of Eternity because of God's Eternity. I may be wrong, but my prayers and efforts are the all humanity should be able to get on the right side of Eternity.

I need to think more on what Eternity means. Perhaps the dialogue needs to continue further.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Eternity of the Other Place

A recent conversation with my confrere Fr Chadwick has made me think on the nature of Hell. Clearly, this is a difficult topic for Christians as it does touch on the whole Problem of Evil. Readers of this little blogling will know that I don't believe that there can be an intellectual solution to the great Problem of Evil, but the solution itself can only be found in the inexpressible Love of God. Let us look at the primary teaching on the nature of Hell. We look at the words of Our Lord Himself.
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred , and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in : Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying , Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty , and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed , into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred , and ye gave me no meat : I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst , or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (St Matthew xxv:31-46)
Perhaps we need to look at the last verse in the Greek.

καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 

What do we see here? Ought the King James text use the same adjective to translate "αἰώνιον" (aiŌnion)? Is everlasting the same as eternal? We do have to be careful here because we can find ourselves getting rooted too much in a particular philosophy. Platonism would regard Eternity as some timeless existence. St Thomas Aquinas uses this idea of Eternity to prove that God is changeless. If God is perfect then there is can be no change, for any change would either be to a more perfect state which cannot be, or to a less perfect state, which would contradict the existence of God. If Time is a measure of how things change, then we cannot ascribe temporality to God. Except Our Lord makes a mockery of this argument as He comes to exist with us in Time.

What do we know? Well, we do know that God created all things, which must include Time's passage. Thus God is beyond Time and has an existence that cannot be ruled by Time. Clearly the Mystery of the Incarnation shows that God can submit Himself personally to the passage of Time, but as an unfolding revelation of His perfection. Christ was not perfect in the sense that His life was not complete until His last moments upon the Cross. Presumably, His Divine Nature possessed the perfection that was communicated to His Human nature in the unfolding of the Divine Revelation by the Incarnation. In Christ, we do have this union of the time-bound human being with the Eternity of God. It is clearly possible though we don't know how. Entering into this mystery involves speculation that goes beyond Faith. The child that believes this is clearly on the road to greater Divinity than the one who rejects it because "it doesn't make sense."

Yet, Our Lord is clear, the timelessness or duration of the punishment is of the same nature as the timelessness or duration of the life offered by Salvation.

Horrible, isn't it?

I can fully see why folk like Origen balked at the idea and taught that eventually even the Devil would come to Salvation. Others will wonder how it is possible for a finite human being to deserve an infinite punishment. As a consequence, they will see God as a monster for creating this place called Hell and throwing people into it. The Medieval and Renaissance artists are very good at conjuring up pictures of the tortures of the Damned.

Yet, one really has to look at the urgency with Our Lord urges us to avoid Hell. This does not seem to be a place where, once you've paid your debt, you get out. He is clear that He wants to save His children at all costs, even to the Death on the Cross. Hell is not something God wants for us. Clearly eternal means eternal. But punishment?

The word used is "κόλασις" (kŎlasis) which has the sense of pruning. One would "punish" a tree by correcting its growth through pruning. This punishment, then, is meant for correction which might lead us to hope that such an ordeal might not last forever, but then Our Lord qualifies it with "eternal".

We know that we cast ourselves into Hell by rejecting God and refusing to repent of Sin. The existence of God is a direct privation of Evil and sin. Where Sin is, God is not. Where God is, there can be no evil. This limitation that God has effected on Himself is of Love whereby He does not insist on His own way but bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things for the object of His Love which is His Creation. It is clear that He predestined us for Eternity and somehow all that we are has the potential for Eternity. We may need to be pruned for it, and thus repentance allows that pruning to have an effect for us eternally, else why does Our Lord begin His ministry with the word, "repent"?

Yet to refuse to repent must also have an effect on our eternity. Evil deeds are the fruit of this lack of desire to repent, to receive correction. If we all possess some eternity in our nature through bearing the image of God, then who we are on earth affects who we are in Eternity. Accepting the pruning now or in some form of Purgatory fits us for Heaven to dwell with God. Refusing the pruning leads to an existence of utter separation from God, yet still bearing His image which must surely drive the denizens of Hell insane as they possess the very existence of the One Whom they hate and have eternally rejected. Perhaps Charles Dickens' view of Hell as being doomed to carry the weight of one's sins like chains is a good analogy. Only through Christ do we get the bolt cutters that will free us.

Hell must terrify Christians. We must be afraid of Hell, not just for ourselves, but for all human beings. Christ wants all folk to be saved and brought to Him for Eternity. It will scandalise us but it must do so because we still cannot understand the problem Evil poses us. The call is for Faith. We need to trust God, not just that He exists, but that He is fully good despite the image that the opposing forces would want us to believe. The Church must work for the salvation of the whole world. It is possible that Hell may be empty save for the few that the Lord mentions. We must never despair of the love and mercy of God. However, we must work for His righteousness ensuring that every human being knows that they are loved and can be saved from the fate that they can make for themselves. We do bear each other that responsibility.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Training for the evil of Murmuring?

Another long train journey home, and I hear the announcement that, due to a "lack of train staff" my train has been terminated a few stops short of its destination. I have to get off the nice, warm train and onto a cold station to await a train whose arrival no-one knows, including the train staff.

I wanted to find out if there was another train due, but when I arrived at the information desk, I was met with a lone girl whose job wasn't to man (or in this case, woman) the information desk facing a group of men who were making loud complaint about being thrown off the train because "someone couldn't be bothered to do their job." I had a certain sympathy for their complaint: it seemed strange to me why the current driver of our train was not going to end his shift at the terminus, which would have been more logical.

For once, I was only mildly irritated. At a different time, I too would have been livid at the inconvenience. In a few months, I might find myself livid at the inconvenience. Today, however, I was not that bothered. This was not the same for the blokes who were shouting at this woman. I was trying to ascertain what they were trying to achieve. They were clearly angry. They had been working hard, and they wanted to go home and have their dinner. As the result of someone "not doing their job properly", they would be late home.

Yet, what could the poor girl do? She couldn't magic up a new driver who may or may not have been delayed on another train. She couldn't give any information about the next train out because, first, she did not possess a radio and, second, the decision had not yet been made by the powers-that-be. She was there trying to help, trying to co-ordinate a difficult situation. She didn't want to cancel the train.Instead she seemed to be the one accused of cutting the budget to pay staff overtime so that they could continue the journey. I have to give her her due, she did not let this misplaced angst get to her. She dealt with it really well, and the British Transport Police managed to calm the situation.

For me, it was a fascinating study in the power of murmuring. St Benedict very clearly describes this as a vice, and it was instances like this that show his wisdom and the presence of God in his thinking. What was initially irritation worked up into a frenzy of anger as the murmurs against the situation grew and became more and more irrational.

I will admit to being a very bad Benedictine. I complain A LOT! It's something that I need to work on and, with the grace of God I shall. Sometimes, it's just a need to voice some form of dissatisfaction. Other times, as I saw today, this complaint simply doesn't do any good at all. It achieved nothing and made people feel awkward. Sometimes, we just have to accept things the way they are.

In our line of work, there are people who can really make work difficult with unreasonable demands or ill-thought through requirements, or through not doing the work they are supposed to do. There are people who are unpleasant in the way they deal with things, there are systems that seem arcane and produce more trouble than support. There are always obstacles which scupper the most reasonable of plans. We can complain and murmur, but that can't achieve much.

The trouble is that this murmuring can lead us into very dark water.

In the U.K., I voted to remain in the EU. Brexit won and yet there were complaints that this was not sufficiently democratic. Perhaps it should have required a two-thirds majority. Perhaps, now that Parliament has been given the right to vote on when Article 50 is triggered, the MPs will vote it down. Blame Boris Johnson! Blame Nigel Farage! Treachery! Treachery! What this country needs is a revolution.

And in the U.S. "Trump is not my president!" "Abolish the Electoral College!" "Democracy isn't working!" "Secede from the Union!"

No. The point is that we are all in this together. We need to get some perspective, and what murmuring fails to do is to give that whole perspective. Murmuring focusses the attention on one tiny little aspect of life that causes us wrath so that we fail to take into account the bigger picture. When we are angry, our opinions suddenly become facts with which we seek to beat to death the cause of our irritation.

The news that broke my heart this week was that a premature baby was left to die in a sluice room in a hospital. We can play the blame game, but whatever caused this tragedy doesn't undo this tragedy. Out there are two parents in the greatest pain, requiring support, seeking answers but nothing can be done. Of course, I am angry about this. It grieves me dearly. May I be angry at God for this?

The trouble is that we just cannot get the bigger picture. We can't see th system as a whole. There are probably very strict rules about how many hours a train driver can drive a train and this is for our safety as passengers. It seems daft that the driver isn't allowed to drive for another 10 minutes to reach the terminus,m but this is probably due to a coincidence of difficult scenarios and rules which work against each other. Democracy is the same, the system isn't perfect and may seem to work against us. We cannot see the bigger picture and so perhaps we should just accept that things are difficult for other people other than ourselves. Rather than tear each other apart, we need even more to pull together, to accept that the system is flawed and all of us, ALL of us, seek to do the best we can for the sake of our society and our community. That's why St Benedict hates murmuring - it does more harm than good. Far from being an outlet of one's anger and frustration, it rips the community to pieces in a welter of accusation and bitterness.

Should we be angry at God for all the Evil in the world? God is certainly big enough to cope with our tears of sheer grief and misery at the horrible situations in which human beings find themselves. The trouble is that we don't have the capacity to see the whole picture - we CAN'T have the capacity to see the whole picture. Our tears are precious to God: He does put them in a bottle presumably to take stock of how much we truly care for others. If there is any answer to the problem of the presence of Evil in the world, then that answer must be cross-shaped. The Mystery of Our Lord's Life, Death and Resurrection is to give an answer to Evil, but to understand it requires us to experience its power before we can know what true salvation is. There is no answer that we can understand, nor can the answer save us from Evil; only Our Lord can save us. His answer to Evil  is "No! These are my children!"

Sometimes, it is all we can do just to pull ourselves back from complaining. Sometimes, all we can do is just sit there open-mouthed, with wet eyes and aching hearts and pray to God, "even so, come Lord Jesus!"

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

100W Advent

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the First Sunday in Advent 2016

As you flick the switch there is a pop, a brief flash of light, and then darkness. Yes, the bulb has gone. After a few minutes of trying to find the light-switch in the other room, sorting out any trips in the fuse box, and working steadily through that box of bulbs to find one that is a screw-in and not a pin bulb, you finally replace the bulb in the socket. And the light comes on!

Of course, you’ve managed to get the wrong power bulb. It’s a 100W bulb, not the 60W bulb you were expecting. And what happens?



Bright lights do hurt eyes that have got used to the darkness. You also get those annoying after-images which obscure your vision for a little while afterwards. It takes a little while to get used to the bright light, but when you do, in all the brightness, you realise that the room isn’t as clean as you thought, there’s more dust than you thought, and the cat seems to have shed more hair than its body-weight under the front of the sofa.

Bright lights hurt, and then they show things up. Why don’t we stick to the 60W light bulb?


And yet we pray for God to “give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light”. Surely we are aware that God’s light is more powerful, more searching than any 100W light bulb. God says, “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” This doesn’t sound very comfortable, does it?


The trouble is that we Christians are destined to walk in the light while the world walks in darkness, and yet our eyes all too easily acclimatise to the dark and not the light. When the light comes on, it’s painful and uncomfortable and we see ourselves for what we are. St Paul warns us, ”The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.” We need the light to show us where we are living in the darkness, the times when we are walking away from God and not towards Him.

If we love God, then we will allow Him to shine His light on us. It will hurt, but not for long if we allow our eyes through His grace to get used to His light. We will also get after-images, shadows of our past life of sin sent by the Devil to try and tempt us to shut out the light so we can’t see them. We must allow them to pass by confessing our sin and yet turning ever more fully to the light.

This Advent, let us ask God to shed His light on us and help us turn to Him more closely. Let us remember that Advent is as much a time for self-examination as Lent so that we may receive Christ anew into our hearts. That way, the lights of Christmas will shine more brightly for us as we have the Eternal Light blazing away in our lives.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Quantum Christianity and Category Error

I alluded to the findings of Quantum Mechanics in my last post. I am not as well versed in the theory of Quantum Mechanics as I'd like to be. When I have a bit more time on my hands, I'll perhaps try and get it up-to-scratch, but then I'm a (former) mathematician, not a physicist. There is a difference.

My line of work has always been in the abstract which is a lot more interesting, because in mathematics, as I said earlier, we can play with the rules and see what the outcome is. We get some beautiful ideas which we can use to solve problems. Personally, I am a bit of a mathematical Platonist in that I believe that mathematics is discovered, not invented; that numbers exist, but not as material objects. Interestingly, each branch of mathematics seems to find some physical application. Even complex numbers, and hyper-complex numbers (the quaternions) are being used in your computer right now, yet you won't be able to count apples with them.

As far as I see it, Quantum Mechanics is a remarkable theory which can predict the motions of subatomic particles with an alarming degree of accuracy. Indeed, it even gives a limit to how accurately we can ever make measurements. The idea is that energy is not a completely continuous quantity but comes in packets called quanta. Albert Einstein then demonstrates that there is an equivalence between matter and energy, and so we have a direct impact of quantum mechanics on our material world. We no longer can measure where a particle is, but only where it probably is. Thus, the Quantum Mechanic combines the certainty of classical Newtonian Mechanics with probability and statistics to formulate her theory.

There are startling conclusions to this, which prove to be troubling (I state them in their popular versions, rather than the mathematical formalism):

1) (Heisenberg uncertainty principle) We cannot simultaneously know where a particle is and where it is going. If we know one for sure, then we cannot be sure about the other.

2) It is entirely possible that while a particle is probably right in front of you, it might actually be on the Moon.

3) Our observations of a particle actually affect the motion or state of that particle.

4) (Schroedinger's Cat) "a cat imagined as being enclosed in a box with a radioactive source and a poison that will be released when the source (unpredictably) emits radiation, the cat being considered (according to quantum mechanics) to be simultaneously both dead and alive until the box is opened and the cat observed."

5) (Wave-Particle Duality and The double slit experiment) A single particle of light, when directed at an obstacle with two apertures through which it may pass, passes through both of them. Consequently light can be considered both as a wave and as a particle.

I cite the popular versions precisely because these are the versions that have filtered down into popular thinking. The calculations that this theory makes, as I said above, are supremely accurate and make it a good scientific description of the way things work. However, Quantum Mechanics seems to break down as soon as we introduce gravity, and further, breaks down when we try and reconcile it with another supremely accurate theory - General Relativity. The theory we have for the very small does not match up with the theory we have for the very large.

The five facts that I have stated above do not marry with our experiences of life, and it is how we exaggerate these ideas that perhaps makes more mockery of the beauty of Quantum Mechanics, and our experiences of reality precisely because we misinterpret them.

1) If the Uncertainty Principle could be scaled up to our level, then we would never be able to catch a ball, let alone land a man on the moon.

2) It would take a length of time longer than the lifespan of the Universe for all the particles in your body to transport you suddenly to Mars.

3) If this were scaled up, then football matches would be a hoot!

4) Bishop George Berkeley's philosophy of things existing because we observe them would make a bit of a resurgence. Perhaps this is a proof of God's existence?

5) Bilocation would not be reserved to certain saints.

The trouble is that these mathematical results have entered into our understanding of the macroscopic world in which Quantum Mechanics becomes unwieldy. Keeping track of the the billions of individual particles in your body would become very difficult, and yet we seem to be beginning to say that our common sense is wrong, because Quantum Mechanics says that it's wrong.

We now use something like the Schroedinger's cat argument in order to be comfortable saying that we are something that we are not. That's not how the argument goes. The mathematics is far more complicated and involves adding things together. There is no physical way of adding a dead cat to an alive cat: there is no way that you can be a Christian and refuse to believe in the existence of God. Many people use Schroedinger's Cat exactly for this purpose to hold together two opposite points of view, cry out that all truth is relative, and then explain away the resulting cognitive dissonance as the world "getting at them." An atheistic Christian is not the sum of a theist and an atheist - human beings aren't numbers nor quantum wave functions, so we cannot mathematically add them, nor perform a wave superposition with them. It seems that some people are labouring under a particularly insidious category error.

God either exists or He doesn't: there can't be a middle ground, though His existence is not beyond doubt - even St Thomas Aquinas grants that. There is no probability that He exists for the simple reason that if He does, He will not possess a quantum wave function describing His state. If God exists in one universe of the famous multiverse then, by the very attributes that He possesses, He must exist in every universe in the multiverse. It's also a good point to make that the existence of the multiverse is just as much a physical speculation as the existence of God. Evidence that supports the existence of the multiverse can also be explained by other things, such as the possibility that the energy is nor conserved. (How does one even prove that the total energy in the universe remains constant in the first place?) Probability requires a background framework from which values and measurements can be deduced. There can be no background framework to measure the probability of the existence of God.

It is the popular misconception of scientific method and result that gives rise to forms of pseudo-science which give justification to claims that are not only ridiculous but damaging to the framework and stability of Society. It also prevents real science from being done. Paul Feyerabend insists that Science must be a proper anarchy if it is to make inroads into the truth.

Many people now think that the truth must be relative. Mathematics refutes that. Mathematical truth is indeed truth. If one accepts the axioms and the methods of inference, then one is bound to accept the conclusion. Yet mathematics is not necessarily the only access to truth, though it needs to be proved that truth exists beyond the physical world. Physics can't prove that, so it uses Occam's razor to deny that there is anything outside physics. Mathematicians can be tempted to do the same. If we reject the idea of objective truth, then on what basis? Perhaps one needs to reject traditional logic and thus ways of engaging in communicating with other people.

Yet, in all this philosophising and discourse, we often forget something important. Human beings exist, and are not abstract. Our Lord bids us to value them because, if God exists, He wanted to create Human Beings. That's some value. In our dealings with others, we are not allowed to forget their intrinsic value and needs which trounce any theorising and abstract discovery. Love needs to be promulgated, and that's the truth.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Unity in a post-truth world

I note with a degree of agreement Fr Anthony's rather pessimistic view of the Church. I do agree that the Catholic Church is indeed in a mess and that this mess needs to be sorted out somehow for the sake of the coherence of the Catholic Faith. Fr Anthony might say that perhaps we should forget about coherence, and rather resign ourselves to the mess until the Lord comes again and sorts it out. I think he has a very good point but perhaps I'm more naïve than he. My prayer is that the mess will be sorted out, and I fully expect God to do the impossible. Obviously, He will do it on His own terms and in His inimitable fashion, but I dare to believe that it can and will be sorted somehow.

The problem lies in the fact that we live in this bizarre "Post-truth" society where biological truths such as male and female are doubted and people say that they are one thing despite living the opposite.

The interesting thing is that this is not new. There have even been attempts to force the number pi to be 3.2.

This is the way that some human minds work as an exercise of will over what is true. Some people try to use quantum mechanics to justify holding contradictory opinions. "If Schroedinger's Cat can be both alive and dead, then I can be both a Christian and not believe in God." Yet, modern physics is not conclusive, and there are big questions that still need to be answered, despite eminent physicists claiming that philosophy is dead and its truths subsumed into physics. They maintain that there is no truth other than physical truth. How do they know that that's true? How can it be proved to be true?

The way that the Church can come together is by a concerted effort to discover the Truth. There are too many ecclesial bodies which make extraordinary claims about their identity.

I believe myself, and the jurisdiction I belong, to be properly Catholic in the sense of the Primitive Church. I am not a Roman Catholic, though I love the Roman Church very dearly and have much respect for her values. I long to be in communion with her, but I cannot assent to the idea that communion with the Holy Father defines Catholicism. Neither do the Orthodox Churches. I am an Anglican Catholic, but I am not an Anglican. If I were, then I would have to take a much more dogmatic stance on the theology of the prayer-book. I would also have to be a much more committed Augustinian in my theology.

What I do not do is pretend that I am a Roman Catholic, nor an Anglican, even though trying to explain what an Anglican Catholic is takes a bit of doing. There are groups that do revel in pretense. I notice one group that parades itself as an outfit of bishops identifying itself with Rome. Rome, however, has declared that group as being schismatic and not part of their jurisdiction. Their leader has even blagged his way around various events in the Vatican. That smacks of sheer dishonesty in its intention, indeed in its very foundation. I also notice that they excommunicate each other with an alarming frequency. In short, they make a mockery of the very thing they are claiming to hold. Their grandiose titles, claims of regularity, enormous mitres, and writs of excommunication show them up for what they are.

Another group claims to be Anglican Catholic, has even borrowed our wording from our literature (except the bits they don't agree with) and claims to be "more traditional" than us. Given that this group consists of two clergy, one of whom is female, there is still a dishonesty there. By their fruits shall they be known. If they bring folk to Christ, if they promulgate the generous blessing of God to the World, if they seek to promote true Christian Love, then they will indeed be doing something wonderful. Every Christian group needs to be doing this, but we need to be honest about where we've come from. If we're not part of the Anglican Catholic Church, then at least we should have the honesty to say that.

There are lots of Catholic jurisdictions in existence. I am pleased to be on good terms with lots of these jurisdictions and I value their warmth, goodwill, kindness, generosity, and prayer. They don't pretend to be what they are not. Our different histories mean that we walk apart for the moment, but we do walk parallel. That's just fine for now, but I pray for a more organic unity for the very reason that we are all intending from the bottom of our hearts, with every fibre of our beings, to seek first the Kingdom of God. We all have the same cross in front of us, and we are firm in our intention to simply do His will in true humility.

What is the fundamental flaw in modern thinking is that there is no such thing as objective truth. Mathematics is all about objective truths, and yet even that is being eroded by woolly thinking and opinion. There are those who would say that if you add up every possible whole number, you get the answer of a negative twelfth. That only works if one bends the rules of adding an infinite number of things, but these folk don't tell you that they are bending or changing the rules! Changing the rules is absolutely fine in Mathematics - that's where we get different theories and different structures. Incorporate a number whose square is negative one into your number system and you get something rich. Incorporate two more numbers whose square is negative one, and you get yet a richer number system, but it will be markedly different. One is not more true than the other: they are different systems. However, we have to recognise that they are different systems and not pretend that they are the same.

With fake news on social media, corrupt politicians, and excommunication-happy ecclesiarchs, it's easy to see why people cannot see the truth in the world. Opinions are presented as facts and because no-one checks, these "facts" become true by consensus rather than by objectivity. This presents us with a bit of a problem. Either we trust no-one and spend our waking hours trying to verify a truth using sources we don't actually trust, or we learn to trust something. For the Christian of any stripe, this is easy: we trust God.

We trust God to reveal Himself to us, and therefore we must trust the testimony of the Bible. But we must also trust the Church that collated this Holy Library. We can only trust so far as all Churches accepted the same doctrine, so we have good reason to trust the Oecumenical Councils which put forward that doctrine. Of course, only the first seven were truly Oecumenical. So you see that I have just described the Catholic Faith which consists of the unaltered faith of the Primitive Church. This is where Anglican Catholicism comes from as well as a whole host of good Catholic groups such as the Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholics, the Anglican Catholics, the Holy Catholics, and the Old Roman Catholics, to name but a few. If we all assent to the same thing, then we should be together, and it's my sincerest prayer that we would be. Because I make my prayer in full expectation of a miracle, I sit and wait in hope for God to do something brilliant!

The future will be bright because God will answer my prayer which is the prayer of so many others. He'll do it in His own way, and I worship Him for it!

Come soon, Lord Jesus!