Telling stories

How much of scripture is true? That question can only be answered by respecting the difference between pre- and post-scientific understandings of truth. Thus we avoid The New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture’s stricture of “bad science and bad exegesis”. Since the Enlightenment we have sought knowledge through factual evidence, but our forefathers used stories to explain phenomena. Such stories may often have a proximate or remote origin in history, or perhaps a deduction from human observation and experience.

A prominent example is the six days of creation. Faced with the existing world, the ancients developed a story which explained it in terms of the immediate action of God. No doubt they believed it to be factual, but it went beyond observable fact, while conveying the underlying truth. The scientist, by contrast, explores the procedure of creation through observable fact, and throws light on everything except the underlying truth.

The story of the Tower of Babel may well have been based on a historical incident. Ziggurats, or great towers, were common in Babylonian cities – and we can easily imagine the quarrels between the different teams of builders (were there trade unions then?) leading to abandonment of a project. But the author is inspired to present us with the conflicts that arise when men go beyond their brief and attempt to make progress without reference to God. If you want to check the underlying truth of this warning, watch the news on television tonight.

Where Noah’s flood is concerned there is an embarras des richesses. There are 10 separate Babylonian sources for this fable – including the Gilgamesh epic, which shares the same Mesopotamian tradition and is uncannily similar to Genesis. There is no archaeological record of a flood as extensive as Noah’s, but we may assume that memories of widespread disasters were the basis. Again the writer conveys the lesson: where the other sources refer to the gods acting out of pique, we are presented in Genesis with God as saviour, and a foreshadowing of his covenant with Israel. There are several other elements significant in the history of salvation.

These stories share a common feature. Ultimately, the accuracy of the account matters less than the underlying truth being proclaimed. I do not need to see the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as a literal account for my focus to be on the faith, obedience and prefiguring of the Incarnation which the account presents.

Since the dawn of our species was about 200,000 years ago, and may well have been preceded by strains which are now extinct, the Fall of Man can only be inferred as a possible historical incident because we are all related through common ancestry. So here we must reconstruct the evidence provided through the inspired writer’s experience of human nature. He would have recognised the tension between our created spiritual nature and our inherited animal nature. He knew our aspiration to the good and our failure to achieve it. It should not surprise us if he presented this graphically by a story in which our parents initially live a kind of ideal human life, governed by right reason and directed towards God. The Fall illustrates dramatically how, in rejecting God’s call, we inevitably – as if by gravity – fall back into our native sin.

In the absence of evidence we cannot exclude the literal account in Genesis, but to recognise it as a story, and not history, does not threaten the essence of the course of salvation. Original sin is built into our human nature, and so is universal. In essence, it is not personal guilt; it becomes so when we embrace it. Our aspiration to the good finds its source in the goodness of God; we call it grace. And this gift comes to us through redemption, whose effect is not bounded by time. We do not have to accept the original story as history in order to grasp its meaning.

In this context our native tendency to lapse into sin is displayed by Christ’s temptations in the desert. If he were not attracted to power, represented through Lucifer’s suggestions, it would not have been temptation – because attraction is what temptation means. But his rejection is complete. The process is more explicit in the Agony in the Garden. Here his human fear leads him momentarily to pray to be spared. But the grace from his Father enables him to accept the divine will. He is like us in all things except sin.

Nevertheless, we must always be cautious in judging between story and history. The Incarnation and the events that brought about our redemption are incidents in history, and so is the broad account of the Old Covenant. There may be argument about detail – but we must heed expert authority.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Scripture, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , | 67 Comments

Am I indifferent?

Last week, when we were discussing faith schools, a contributor suggested that we might be looking at ways in which we could work together with the C of E. It would be a fruit of ecumenism. I find the idea immediately attractive. Apart from the economies of scale, the two denominations seem to have excellent relationships nowadays and, in the face of a hostile secular world, sharing schools would give great witness to the fruits of Christian cooperation. But then I pause.

The Church has put much effort over the centuries in the battle with indifferentism (I take this to mean that, providing we are Christian, different denominations are more a matter of choice than a big issue). For example, the CDF issued in 2007 “Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church”. Following Vatican II’s more generous statements with regard to other denominations, this made clear that, while the Oriental churches could be properly so called – since they had apostolic succession, the communities born of the Reformation could not be called churches in the proper sense – since they had not (link below). And I recall from a standard moral theology of the 20th century a passage in which the actions of a nurse, when a dying, Protestant, patient asked to see his Minister, were strongly circumscribed lest the scandal of indifferentism might be caused. The most she could do was to prepare a suitable table, and, of course, she could not join in the Minister’s prayers.

While we might feel this view to be harsh, I think the fundamental position has not changed. That is, we can work in many ways with other denominations, and we can recognise their virtues and even benefit from their insights, but we must avoid giving any impression that we relinquish our firm view that the Catholic Church, and none other, is the Church which Christ founded.

It would follow that any cooperation with the C of E over schools could not extend so far that it appeared to admit that a general Christian education would suffice. A Catholic education is unique, and differs in substance from any other variety. Were this to be known to all parties and accepted, it might perhaps be possible to cooperate in other, practical, ways.

I am not here attempting to extend our discussion on faith schools, but I use this example of indifferentism to ask whether or not contributors agree with the way we approach the general question of our relations with other denominations. There may well be some who think our reluctance to cooperate more fully with our fellow Christians is, in itself, a cause of scandal. They might argue that our attitudes counter Christ’s wish that we should all be one. Others would hold that any compromise flies in the face of the truth we hold – and would ultimately end up with a polite mish-mash of beliefs which would impress no one. In effect the claim that Christ founded one Church within which we may be saved would be abandoned.

So what do you think?


Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries, Spirituality | 93 Comments

On the other side of the fence

Josephine looked over the fence and, shaking a letter in her hand, she called out to Betsy “We’ve got it, we’ve got it! Dominic has been offered a place at St Bede’s – next term”

But Betsy didn’t smile. “Good for Dominic, but my Bob won’t be going there. We’re not Catholics like you. So he’ll be at the Lawn Primary. It’s a bit of a journey and they have some rough kids there. Sorry Jo, but I think its unfair. After all we both pay our taxes, so why shouldn’t Bob have just the same chance as Dominic to go to the nearest school – he’s a bright boy.

“I do sympathise” said Josephine “but we have Catholic schools to provide a Catholic education. So it’s inevitable that Catholic children have the best chance of a place.”

“That’s just what I mean. After all, the school system is public and it’s paid for with public money. I don’t think they should have denominations. If Catholics want their own schools then they should pay for them directly, so should the Muslims or Jews. I don’t see why I should subsidise Catholic schools when I’m not a Catholic.”

“You know” said Josephine “you’re not having to spend any extra – in fact, a little bit less because we have to contribute to the capital costs of our schools. Sometimes I think people are jealous because Catholic schools seem to do rather better than most academically.”

“There’s another thing” Betsy added “it can’t be right for Catholic children to be shielded from mixing in ordinary society. After all, we have to live together so why start off by keeping Catholics separate from everyone else. In two ticks your Dominic is going to have Catholic friends – he’s going to have a shock when he gets out into society. Wouldn’t it be better if he got used to all sorts of people from the word go?”

And so the conversation carried on. We may hope that Jo and Betsy remained friends, and that Dominic and Bob remained friends too. But are you a supporter of Catholic schools or do you think that it would be better to have secular schools, and separate arrangements for studying Catholic doctrine? There are certainly points on both sides which Jo and Betsy haven’t made. So this is an opportunity to put this right.

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries | Tagged | 43 Comments

Science, faith and resurrection

What is this Science and Faith column all about? It has now passed its fifth anniversary, and we have welcomed new readers, so it is time for a review. 2009 was the Year of Darwin, and we thought we should focus on the meeting point between our faith and the wonderful achievements of science. The relationship between the theory of evolution and our belief in God’s creation was a fitting point to start.

In over 130 columns we have looked at a great number of topics – from pre-human ancestors to psychopathic world leaders, from temptation to righteous anger, from marriage to meditation, from mitochondria transfer to Liverpool Care, from justice to disgust — a broad waterfront. One recurrent theme has been the direct effect the brain has on our choices. Another has been our exploration of DNA, with its thriving, brother — epigenetics.

The interface between faith and science is where the column focuses. Take, as one example, the question of altruism. A scientist will explain just how altruism serves human societies and so can be regarded as an outcome of evolution. But we would want to say that love of neighbour is at the heart of our calling to which we respond through the grace of God. In another example, a scientist may tell us that our decisions are in fact determined by a myriad of antecedent causes: we reply that our freedom of will is a characteristic reflecting the image of God. Science and faith are not opposed, like the body and the soul, they complement.

In a recent television drama a pathologist was asked if she believed in the existence of souls. She said: “Yes. When I am working on a body I know that the person who inhabited that body is no longer there.” Her simple recognition that living human beings are both physical and spiritual reminds us that, although we may separate the two for our mundane explanations, the soul is the form of the body and principle of its living unity. When a person dies, that unity disintegrates. But, we believe, not forever. While the Catechism wisely avoids specifics, it firmly teaches the resurrection of the body within a redeemed universe. The glorified body of Christ, who eats fish with his apostles, is the pledge of our ultimate salvation.

But do we believe it? Do we in fact only think of ourselves as souls trapped, fortunately temporarily, in rather unsatisfactory bodies – looking forward to the day when our liberated spirits swoop up to the Almighty? If so, we approach heresy. We are not here to save our souls but to save ourselves, body and soul. We are not angels. Time does not pass between death and resurrection.

Paul tells us (in Romans) that we and all creation groan in travail together awaiting our resurrection. This expectation should spur us on as we inherit Adam’s vocation to care for the earth which will one day be transformed into our fitting home. When we first try to come to terms with this doctrine it may seem to us to approach fantasy. Getting our imagination around it is not hard; it is impossible. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered the heart of man what things God has prepared for those who love him.” Words failed St Paul, and they fail us.

We all know that, as a result of the Fall, we struggle to bring the human body, with all its passions and infirmities, under the control of right reason. To do that we must try to understand it better in both its psychological and physical elements. Similarly, we need to understand material creation to which we must bring order. The work of science is not mere utility, it is an element of salvation, foreshadowing promised transformation.

When I first undertook the column I realised that I needed to be literate in theology, science and philosophy. But I am no polymath. My long term memory has migrated to jumbo hard disks, my shelves bulge with books and periodicals. And the biggest thief of my time is research. Often the essence of a column comes to me when, in those precious moments before I sleep, ideas from several, hitherto unrelated, disciplines, come together.

Nor must I forget , where the columns appear on line. Thankfully there are many comments, often exceeding three figures. I am frequently, and usefully, taken to task, or my ideas constructively extended. We even have one contributor who undertakes the function of disputing all things Catholic. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he is extremely well read – and keeps us on our toes. No surprise that his nom de blog is Advocatus Diaboli. It is only, said John Stuart Mill, when our propositions have survived every objection that can be raised against them, that we have good title to hold them.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality | Tagged , , | 74 Comments

People like us

I imagine that most of us in our youth were taught that we should keep in good company. The reason was clear: good company would influence us towards virtue, bad company would do the opposite.

But the company we keep is not restricted to our family or our immediate circle, we also live in society – and society may or may not be good company for us. We can test the influence of society by thinking about the ways in which our moral values have changed during our lives. Take some possible values: the rights of women, what constitutes racism, conscientious objection, the gravity of paedophilia, social class privilege, prudent family size, attitudes towards homosexuals, the acceptance of abortion. These are areas where our society has developed its views – sometime for good, sometimes for ill. But have they changed our own thinking?

We should expect it to be so. For societies to flourish there is a broad need for conformity. (The claim at the moment is that we should conform to ‘British values’ – whatever those might be, while Libya, for example, is currently a failed society because conformity has broken down.) The tendency to conformity is an outcome of evolution. Not surprisingly, we have an error-monitoring activity in our brains which warns us when we are out of line with ‘people like us’. So we would expect the influence of society to have its effects on us too. A minority of people are able to resist this warning: some may be naturally anti-social, while others may become the leaders and pioneers. But the majority conform.

Religion is another instrument of conformity. Some anthropologists argue that its origin lay in its power to impose conformity on the public and private behaviour of its members. We can see historically how religions can promote good and bad behaviour or attitudes among their members.

So it would be interesting to examine how this affects us. We might start by thinking of the moral values we held, say, a generation or two ago. Have any of these altered or at least been modified since then? What has influenced such changes? Of course causes may be multiple, but can we put any down to the influence of secular society? I think we can assume that anyone whose moral views have never changed, at least to some degree, must have either have had very quiet lives or rejoice in a limited self-awareness.

Posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 78 Comments

On your knees

When was your last Confession? We are all aware that the habit of regular Confession has much reduced over the last forty years or so. At one time it was common for active Catholics to go to Confession frequently. Like a motorcar, we did not wait until the engine clattered to a halt, we carried out our service schedule regularly.

We may remember that individual, private, confession was not a feature of the Church in the first millennium. There was of course public Confession for serious public sins, followed by stiff penances – which would often have to be completed before absolution. And, although private sins could be confessed privately, the regular habit which most of us were taught in our youth belongs to a later date.

So do we think that this decrease in Confessions is a good or bad thing? And, if we think it to be bad, what do we do about it? As a starting point, I list a few possible reasons for reduction in regular Confession. You may like to disagree, or add reasons of your own.

Shortage of priests leads to fewer opportunities, and often inconvenient times.

If we are not in mortal sin, it is not really necessary.

I know I have a besetting sin, and I feel a hypocrite confessing it again and again. My firm purpose of amendment is hollow.

I commit acts which the Church regards as sinful, but which I don’t.

I am a shy person. Confessing to a priest is agonisingly embarrassing for me.

I am afraid that the priest will interrogate me.

Hard as I try, I find Confession is too automatic. I’d rather repent to God on my own.

I don’t find the priest helpful. He either doesn’t give me advice, or tries to do so like an amateur psychologist with insufficient information.

Posted in Quentin queries | 92 Comments

Rhyme or Reason

“Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.” said Lord Macaulay. He was right. The sound mind is concerned with common-sense, logic, empirical facts and calculated probabilities. It has no truck with wandering imagination, insights, feelings and the perception of truths which are glimpsed but not captured. The essential quality of poetry is to take us through the physical into the metaphysical by the use of the word.

We might make the same claim mutatis mutandis of all the arts – which are often the only contact with the spiritual that the modern man can bear. But poetry is the most immediate and the most accessible; it does not need an orchestra or an easel – a scrap of paper and a pencil stub will do.

Ultimately poetry has no rules. It stretches the use of language to its limits. Rhyme, half rhyme, rhythm and metre, neologism; alliteration, onomatopoeia, and line shape can all play their part. Of course there are fads. Some will claim that blank verse, often seen today, is not poetry, but both Milton and Dryden cursed the “modern bondage of rhyming” which interfered with purity of expression. In the end the test lies in the effect. Arguably, only the poet can judge how perfectly his poem expresses his meaning.

We do indeed look for patterns in a poem if only because our poor brains need pattern for understanding, completeness and memorability. But the forms of pattern can be achieved in manifold ways. And there are conventional verse forms, such as sonnet, haiku or villanelle (“Do not go gentle into that good night”, Dylan Thomas) which a poet may choose as a framework for his expression, finding that this discipline forces him to explore his thoughts more widely and deeply.

Three powerful characteristics stand out: metre, simile and metaphor. Metre reminds us that poetry and song are cousins. It can establish the whole thrust of the poem. Compare “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.” (Swinburne) with “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” (Tennyson), and with “Do you remember an inn, Miranda?/Do you remember an inn? (Belloc). And if some contemporary poetry eschews obvious metre, it can often be found in another balance, like this little poem about the Bible:

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute, words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

The Highwayman (Noyes) presents us with metaphor and simile within a line: “His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay “. The simile is vivid, but it is the metaphor which carries the power. No eye is actually a hollow of madness, but the phrase leads beyond itself. And we must travel alone to find our understanding. We should be accustomed to metaphor because much of Scripture is extended metaphor, and so is theology – though often stifled by the cold hand of use. What does time in Purgatory mean where time does not exist and the conditions in Purgatory mere speculation?

Shakespeare gives us a powerful example: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.” Two strong metaphors there – and the whole is wrapped in metaphor for the speaker himself is a “poor player” and a metaphor for Macbeth. Most of us know those lines by heart, and have thought upon them.

Which brings me to the memorable line. Poetry can get away with words which would be pretentious in prose. We each have our favourites, but surely all lists must include “A rose red city half as old as time”. John Burgon’s poem about Petra is indifferent, but that line won him the Newdigate Prize and put him among the immortals. I shall resist the temptation to give a longer list – you will know them all.

I say that confidently because a philosophy group I attend on a fortnightly basis finishes the term with a meeting in which each member reads a piece of poetry, and then tells us why. It is a great treat, and it often leads to the best discussions of the term. We are very ordinary people from different backgrounds, and yet all have poetry which has accompanied us through life. And important enough that, for some, reading their choice can move them too deeply to continue.

All of us who have poetry threaded into our lives share Macaulay’s unsound mind. And why not? We believe in a God whose name is a metaphor for his nature and a son who offers himself as a metaphor for his father. Before the altar we are all poets.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 79 Comments