The Tragedy of Dawkins 28 vi 13
We live in an age of moral pygmies. Bishops mumble. Bankers have given greed new meanings. Far from rhetoric to stir us, in Parliament we get playground exchanges that would make infants blush. But we have one great man of high moral concern. Richard Dawkins is great not because he is a fine scientist or an inspiring teacher or a wonderful writer, although he is all of these, but because he thirsts for truth. It is a tragedy for us all, therefore, that his aperture of understanding is so narrowly Darwinian that, however true in its own sphere Darwinism might be, he has become almost incapable of recognizing that there might be other ways of seeking truth. He is always accusing religious believers of laziness, but intellectually lazy is exactly what he is. His only interest in the Bible is tracking down examples of God behaving badly. You would have thought that Dawkins, of all people, would have appreciated that the Bible is about the evolution of moral consciousness, but not he. What about the universal vision of Isaiah, the grandeur of Job, or the erotic passion of the Song of Songs? No mention. He thinks the redemption means God allowing his own son to be tortured to death to appease this divine monster’s anger. This is absolutely not what theologians think. The redemption was, to use the technical theological term, a transitus, Christ taking the whole of material being, every last atom and electron, with him into the higher unity of God. Can we take it that Dawkins is not a regular subscriber to Revue Biblique or Vetus Testamentum?
The God he not surprisingly rejects is Father Christmas in the sky, but this is not how any of the great religions understand God. ‘God does not exist, he is existence’ says Aquinas. ‘God will be everything’ says St Paul, adding even more mysteriously ‘to everybody’. Ultimate reality is advaita, nonduality, discovered the Hindu rishis. Dawkins’ idea of God is naïve beyond belief – or a little intelligent enquiry. He thinks that religious believers believe that prayer is asking a little man in your head to stop it raining on the day of the Church garden party. Has he ever read St John of the Cross or Eckhart or the Upanishads? He has completely misunderstood Aquinas. Aquinas’s five ways were not trying to prove the existence of God at all – as Dawkins redundantly points out, they don’t – but showing that acceptance of the atheist Aristotle’s First Mover was not incompatible with Christian belief (how, incidentally, Aquinas would have loved Darwin).
He so takes it for granted that organisms are no more than biological mechanisms he comes to the conclusion, not surprisingly, that they are no more than biological mechanisms. Philosophies suggesting that this is not the case are not so much refuted as ignored. He attributes powers of agency to genes that they could not possible have. How can tiny scraps of matter behave so apparently purposefully? No problem, says Dawkins. We simply define purposeful to mean purposeless, and write intention as ‘intention’. Next question please. Aquinas’s much better answer is not even considered. The unintelligent arrow seeks its target intelligently, says Aquinas, because it has been moved to do so by an intelligence. Since science’s remit is not to find a cosmic intelligence, but to discover cosmic intelligibility, Dawkins’ ‘science hasn’t found God’ argument misses its own target completely.
He thinks, on the one hand, that we are simply survival machines for our genes, but on the other that only we can escape the tyranny of the selfish genes. But if we were solely designed by our genes, how does it happen that we have been able to escape them? Answer to this question in his works find I none. (Daniel Dennett’s wonderfully interesting book Freedom Evolves doesn’t answer the question either, in my view.)
If Dawkins’ idea of genes is intellectually perverse, his invention of memes is ludicrous. Saturated, perhaps unconsciously, in the philosophy of Hume, he takes it for granted that there is no subjective self that cannot be reduced to biological explanation. For Dawkins the mind is a kind of neutral space in which ideas compete for dominance. The meme for religious belief (needless to say a thoroughly lowdown cad) teams up with the fear of hell meme to cow the wretched believer into submission. What a lucky thing that the Darwin meme teamed up with Nice Liberal to colonize Dawkins’ own mind. Ultramontanist? Tory Bigot? Morris Dancer? Imagine. He is always saying we have to look for evidence. Has anybody ever seen memes doing what he says they do? The meme fantasy is comically ludicrous. Fairies do spring to mind.
Aquinas’s argument from design is not ‘ How can we explain the complexity of things? God must have designed them’. He would have agreed totally with Dawkins’ much better argument that complexity is a result of natural selection. His proposition is ‘Can’t you see the glory of God shining through the complexity of natural things?’. When you read the wonderful chapters on the eye and spiders and the fig wasp in Climbing Mount Improbable, you realize how much Aquinas would have loved Dawkins in spite of all his theological blindnesses, just as I do. Was there ever such a noble lover of nature? It is such a pity he knows so little about religion.
Is the Pope a Catholic? Good Question
19 ix 12. The Church is a politically unique institution. It is not a democracy nor a monarchy nor a republic. It is a body in which its head is in communion with its members. The outstanding feature of a body is that it is made up of its parts: no parts no body. But equally its parts are meaningless outside the body to which they belong. A little toe cut off from a foot is merely a lump of decaying flesh. Each member of the body, however humble, has a unique function to fulfill. The head cannot do what the little toe does. Equally the toe cannot do what the head does. A body is a sweet belonging of parts to whole and whole to parts.
For Protestants the foundation of faith is the Bible. A church is the congregation of those who have had individual experiences of salvation through encountering Christ in the Scriptures, and the Church therefore is the creation of the Bible. This is not how Catholics see it. For them the Bible is the creation of the Church. It is a compendium of the meditations of the earliest Christians on the mystery of redemption in which they found themselves participating. The Church is what it is because, just as all its living members are in communion with each other spatially, so they are in communion temporally with all those past members stretching right back to the beginning, of the continuing and developing body to which they all belong. Just as the first Christians meditated on the mystery of salvation, in thoughts which crystallized into the New Testament, so the Church continues to see ever more deeply into the mystery that is continually still creating it. The fruits of this ongoing meditation by the whole Church – those little old ladies scuttling to Mass in black mantillas as well as the theologians – on what was up to now only implicit in the Scriptures are finally declared by the Head of the Church – for only heads speak – to be as worthy of faith and respect as the Bible itself. The Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are examples.
This seeing more deeply is something the whole Church does. In a recent TV programme Marcus de Sautoy introduced us to a computer so vast it took up several rooms. It could number crunch on such a huge scale it could solve problems that would have taken a mathematician like Marcus himself years to work out. But it was stupid. When it came to lateral thinking, creativity, jokes and intuitions it was helpless. He then showed us the latest generation of robots. Only when the artificial brains of these machines were connected up to limbs and organs mimicking those of humans, albeit these were steel and plastic, could these ferocious number crunchers even begin to do what humans can do. The neurologist Antonio Damasio makes much the same point in Descartes’ Error. Brain science is now revealing that even when we are thinking our most abstract and ethereal thoughts the whole brain is involved, even the reptilian brain which we inherited from animals living eons before ourselves. We don’t just think with the brain. We think with the whole body and thought is inseparable from feeling.
This is also true of the Church. When it thinks the whole body thinks, even though it is only the head that can articulate its thoughts. How does – or should – this happen? Contraception and gay marriage are good examples. How do these relate to the Biblical teachings on sex and marriage? Every Catholic should meditate on these questions in so far as he or she is able. There is something too that theologians call the sensus fidelium. The feeling, the intuitive insight that Damasio tells us is the doppelganger of logical thought, this too is important. These meditations should fructify each other at parish level. Representatives of the parishes should take the feelings of the Catholics in the pews to diocesan level. It is a Catholic teaching that each person must follow his or her conscience even if what they think right is at odds with the official teaching of the Church. But equally they have a grave obligation to inform their consciences, especially by paying careful attention to what the Church is telling them. So it is at the next level of consideration. Each bishop must make up his own mind, but only in light of what his diocese is telling him. According to Catholic doctrine, the teaching authority of the Church is the Pope in communion with the bishops, and it is at this level that such questions will now be debated, sometimes but not necessarily in ecumenical councils. Finally the Pope must make up his mind in the light of all this. Only the brain articulates thoughts , but, Damasio tells us, it can only do so if it is in communion with the little toe.
Is this what is happening? No it is not. Instead the Pope and the Vatican insist on arrogating these questions to themselves and issuing directives which Catholics, as if they were mindless slaves, are expected to obey without demur. It is as if the head had become severed from the body and the brain is like a brain in a vat, mechanically repeating the instructions that past brains have fed into it. It is in this sense that the Pope doesn’t want to be a Catholic in the full sense, an authoritarian ruler rather than the head of a living body. Worse still, he’s stopping all of us being Catholics in the full sense too.
3 ix 12. Original sin, as the term suggests, is to do with origins. What were those origins? Biology can tell us. Less than six million years ago, in a fraction of evolutionary time, we began to evolve from a chimpanzee-like creature ancestral to both us and the chimpanzees themselves. When Jane Goodall first went to Gombe she found extraordinarily gentle and peaceful animals who, in 1973, suddenly turned overnight into genocidal killers. How like this is to what has happened so many times in human society, where, in Jugoslavia, Cambodia, Rwanda and so many other places, neighbours who had lived peaceably with each other for years suddenly started killing each other with appalling savagery. Does not biology suggest that when humans do this they are reverting to chimpanzee-like behaviours, living in accordance with genetic impulses which have been inherited from creatures ancestral to themselves? All through organic life creatures act as efficiently as they do because they behave in accordance with genetic algorithms. Only the chimpanzees to some extent, and ourselves to a far greater extent, have escaped algorithms and become free. But when we revert to behaviours which truly belong to the creatures from which we evolved, but whose genes are still within us and still motivate us so much, we cease to behave like free human beings and sink back into the behavioral patterns of the algorithmically driven organisms we still so nearly are. This is why when the SS put Jews into gas chambers and Chinese students beat their teachers to death in the cultural revolution, their actions are so compulsive. Even when they were losing the war and desperately short of materials of every kind the Nazis were still pouring resources into destroying the Jews of Hungary. In The Pity of War Niall Ferguson reached the conclusion, after reading thousands of letters and diaries written by combatants in the First World War, that the war lasted so long because those engaged in it wanted it to go on. It seems incredible. But once we realise that in war algorithmic behaviour takes over very easily indeed it becomes explicable. War is compulsive. This is what original sin is. It is behaving not like free humans beings but like the algorithmically driven creatures biology tells us we originally were, and still to a large extent are.
Hawking and the Bible 12 xii 11
Happy Christmas Guardian Readers 23 xii 11
Original Sin 29 ii 12
Poet's Corner 3 iii 11
Humanitas 18iii 12
Gay and Married Already 31 iii 12
Wittgenstein's Birthday 26 iv 12
The Tragedy of Dawkins 29 iv 12
Baptism 8 v 12
Hawking and the Bible 12 XII 12
Already reeling from the blow dealt them by Darwin, Paley and his watch have finally been consigned to their well deserved grave by Stephen Hawking’s cosmology. Quantum physics, it turns out, can explain how something can arise out of nothing. Bubbles of quantum uncertainty in the undifferentiated energy of the first microseconds after the big bang eventually evolved into the differentiated material universe we know. God does not exist because there is no need for him to exist.
Yet curiously, when we turn to the Biblical account of the creation it is far more like Hawking than Paley. Something existed, Genesis tells us, before God ever started making things. That something was nothing, Genesis’s term for it is tohu wa bohu. an undifferentiated empty chaos. Its word for create is bara. It is used in Isaiah to mean fashioning a pot out of clay. The same thought occurs in the New Testament. ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and was God.’ John’s Greek term for Word is logos. It is a philosophical concept that comes from Heraclitus and it means the rationality underlying the universe. You could almost translate it ‘In the beginning was Stephen Hawking’s mathematics. It was so much God’s best friend it actually was God’
The first chapter of Genesis is modelled on a Babylonian creation myth called the Enuma Elish. In the Babylonian myth Marduk murders his mother Tiamat, the watery chaos, by blowing a mighty wind into her stomach. From her dead body he made heaven and earth. In the Biblical version the spirit of God hovered over the waters. Its word for the wind, ruach, also means spirit or breath, its word for hovered is used in Deuteronomy for an eagle hovering watchfully over its young, and tehom, the watery waste, is closely related etymologically to Tiamat. You could almost translate it ‘God created the world by breathing lovingly over his mother’. Now there’s a challenging theological thought.
Aquinas defines God simply as existence, the totality of everything that is. That is a long way from Paley’s divine watchmaker. What can we make of it? It is a basic fact of science that lower entities combine together to form higher unities. Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, but water is more than hydrogen plus oxygen. Yet on their own level hydrogen and oxygen remain hydrogen and oxygen. God is the higher unity of all higher unities. Yet on their own level the creatures that compose him remain themselves.
At the heart of contemporary cosmology are two radical quantum ideas. One is that things only exist because they are the most probable outcome of an infinity of other possibilities. There could be, indeed must be, other universes with different histories and even different basic physical laws. The other is that mind and matter are deeply interconnected. Darwin’s greatest insight was that human consciousness has not been parachuted in from some metaphysical empyrean but has sprung from the earth. We are, as it were, the earth become conscious. Quantum physics has taken this thought further. According to Bohr’s Copenhagen doctrine the experimenter not only decides which aspect of a subatomic entity he will examine, he calls either a wave or a particle into existence by measuring it. ‘We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us’ writes Stephen Hawking.
Aquinas’s ‘existence itself ’ not only means every stick, stone, atom and electron that has ever existed in our universe, but also all those other universes that exist (in whatever sense) in an infinity of universes. In a sense they didn’t exist because their probability of existing was too low. But in another sense they do, for here we are thinking about them. At the quantum level absolute Newtonian space and time do not apply. Effects can cause causes, time can go backwards and entangled particles instantaneously communicate with each other even though they are on opposite sides of the universe.
We all have a quantum shadow, as it were, that is outside space and time. It is as if the universe has called intelligent beings into existence so that they could call it itself into existence. We have created our own history by observing it. But we only called our own universe into existence. What about all those others? Perhaps quantum theory would suggest that it needs an infinite mind to call an infinity of universes into existence. And this all men call God, as Aquinas (who had not met Dawkins) puts it. But this infinite mind could only exist because it was the product of an infinity of universes that it had itself called into existence. God breathed lovingly over his mother and so called her into existence so she could give him existence. How the Bible gets it right.
Happy Christmas Guardian Readers 23 xii 11
Dear Guardian readers who are worried to death by six degrees of climate change and the end of the world (I do so wish God was still around, though Father Christmas would be better than nothing) I thought I'd fire off a few volleys of seasonal good cheer in your direction. But big six or no big six the great machine of Christmas must roll on. The Archangel Gabriel has already appeared to the meek maiden ('Thou wilt conceive and call his name Immanuel' 'OK yeah but when do I get in my Christmas shopping?'), there are no carol singers coming round any more as in Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree but at least you can still hear carols in the shops ('Hark the herald angels sing In Oxford Street the cash tills ring' 'As I am a rich man And work for Goldman Sachs I have an offshore bank account And thus avoid my tax') but as I am a poor man I have nothing to offer the holy bambino but a lamb, but then a lamb cooked with herbs and a Greek jou according to a Jamie Oliver recipe (by the way guys make sure you get the lamb from Sainsbury's and free offer of six mince pies with every turkey sold) but then would a few hours old bambino want mince pies (well never mind maybe his mum will eat them for him, she can munch them – mmmmdelicious – while watching all her favourite films on video or her I-phone if they didn't have a DVD player in the stable), the TV chefs are all rising to the occasion (this is my old mum's recipe for Christmas pudding guys) and already smelling the delicious aromas of book sales arising from their confections (I want to share with you a fantastic new Christmas dish from Samoa, don't be frightened guys, you can find the recipe in my book. mmmmhhhmmmm delicious), a hundred thousand six-year-old already fashionable new atheists are performing nativity plays (all I got to play was an effing shepherd, that's really going to get my modelling career into lift-off) the Christmas cards are flying in like flocks of cheerfully cheeping birds, most especially those arousing avians the round robins (I have taken up cake making and Richard is doing a course in fancy icing, Amanda has achieved Grade 6 in the flute) actually this Christmas promises to be a bit different because last week we had deep snow and were all tuning up to sing See amid the winter's snow Born for us on earth below See the lamb of God appears (don't forget to get that lamb from Sainsbury's guys) when the weather forecasters changed their minds and have now brought the good news to all men (hey Archangel, what about women? Half the human race if you hadn't noticed, the personal is political if you hadn't noticed, it's Three Wise Women in my book sister) that by Christmas day we shall be having near Australian temperatures (a quiet Christmas actually mate, just a few beers and a barbie in the back garden) but not to worry because if climate change reaches six degrees it will to all intents and purposes be the end of the human race anyway so just enjoy Christmas while it lasts and get the two-for -one plus 5p off your next litre of petrol special offer from Tesco of a him and her duvet you can pull right over your head and hide till the whole thing's over because every little helps, which all brings me round to saying that Melanie and I intend to spend a quiet Christmas writing our various writings, in Melanie's case her articles on intersex which she doesn't get time to write in what the liturgy calls ordinary time (the Archangel Gabriel a particularly interesting example). After Christmas (so love it, always have done since was a child, the holly and the ivy and Father Christmas coming down the chimney but then God and Father Christmas have gotta go in the fast-moving world of today but you can't help feeling a bit sorry because they were jolly old fellows so we still have the traditional turkey (don't forget all the come with the oven ready bird free offer trimmings guys) and plum pudding just like it was Dickens and anyway always low prices) will get prone with anxiety about climate again (but won’t actually do anything about it of course). Anyway Guardian readers all the very best of luck with the big six (would say prayers but think intercessory prayer very harmful as we are free beings and can't expect God, that jolly old fellow, or even Father Christmas to do everything for us) and will be thinking of you very very specially this year so lots of love and seasonal good cheer.
Original Sin 29 ii 12
If there is any Christian doctrine that upsets atheists it is original sin. You mean that this innocent little baby is born evil? So inherent a wickedness which has been handed on from the transgression of Adam and Eve is handed on, needless to say, through sex. What more iconic an example of mumbo jumbo could we find than the idea that pouring some water over the baby’s head removes this foul stain from its (thankfully non-existent) soul? Could anything transgress more blatantly against the values of the Enlightenment? According to Richard Dawkins, yes. In The God Delusion he waxes hot over the Christian doctrine of the Redemption. God is horrible and cruel enough to allow his only son to be tortured to death in the most horrible way in order to atone for this non-existent original sin. The terrible thing is that this is no caricature. It is what many Christians actually believe. But it is a profound misunderstanding of Christian doctrine.
Original sin is, as the term implies, to do with origins, and if there is any doctrine that Christianity has got right this is it. What were those origins? Science can tell us. According to evolutionary biology the human and chimpanzee lineages separated from a common ancestor only six million years ago. We are very, very closely related genetically to chimpanzees, in fact we share nearly 99% of our genome with them. When Jane Goodall first went to study chimpanzees in the wild in Africa in 1962 she was delighted by the gentle and peaceable characters she found. But about 1973 all this suddenly changed. Almost overnight her chimpanzees turned into creatures who had suddenly become aggressive and violent genocidal killers. The community split into two, and the northern Kasakela group picked off the male members of the smaller southern Kahale colony one by one, and killed them, often by slow torture, in horrible ways.
It is surely obvious that human beings are capable of behaving very similarly. People who had lived as peaceful neighbours for decades, often centuries, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and so many other places, turned into genocidal killers almost overnight. In Cambodia people were murdered just because they wore spectacles. In China Maoist students beat their former teachers to death. In Chile people were tortured in the most horrible ways in the name of the Lamb of God. Why? It is because on one level we are so very chimpanzee-like, still so very like them that we easily turn from the species we truly are back into the beasts from whom we evolved. This is original sin, behaving not like a human being but like the brutes we originally were.
Poets' Corner 3 iii 12
I'd like to be buried, when I die, in Westminster Abbey
In poets's corner perhaps. That would be nice
'I wonder who he was' people will say
As they pass by, not looking twice.
!8 iii 12
I have just been watching a TV programme about artificial intelligence presented by Marcus du Sautoy. To begin with Marcus (how could one refer to such a fascinatingly engaging enthusiast as Professor?) showed us a computer so big it occupied several rooms. In an hour it could solve problems that even a mathematician like Marcus himself would take a lifetime to solve. In a game of chess it would have annihilated Spassky or Fisher in seconds. But when it came to jokes, lateral thinking or imaginative creativity it was helpless. Marcus then told us how the AI people have realized that, even to begin to simulate what humans can do, computer brains need to be embodied. Brains without bodies make no sense. Robots with steel limbs and plastic tendons begin, as yet in the tiniest way, to practise that cognitive flexibility characteristic of humans. More fascinatingly still, robots are beginning to evolve along their own unpredictable adaptive paths, just as humans did. We were shown ones (irresistibly calling forth the pronoun he, though nobody tried she I noticed) teaching each other words that they themselves had invented. If words, then perhaps eventually language. Watching this, who could be sure that one day they will not do everything humans can do?
Yet if they did, would they still be computers? Words and events mean because they belong to logical contexts. Avoir is meaningful because it’s French. Out of context they become meaningless. But not always. Sometimes they are not just meaningless but funny, for that very reason. When the guest complains about the view from his window and Basil Fawlty replies ‘What do you want? Herds of wildebeest?’ we find it funny because we know that there are no wildebeests in Torquay. But you can’t explain why it’s funny. I once said to a man ‘He’s as black as your hat’ . ‘But I haven’t got a hat’ he replied, puzzled. Humour is humorous because in it we find an extraordinary, illogical meaning beyond meaning. We find this meaning beyond meaning in tragedy too. Agamemnon is murdered in his bath. Oedipus finds he has married his mother. Pentheus’s mother and her gang of wild maenads tear her own son to pieces. Yet the Greek tragedies also present us with what they call anagnorisis. Precisely because of these terrible events, the protagonists discover a sense of profound peace, a greatness of soul, an experience of union with being. You would never have guessed. In defiance of all Darwinian logic we admire the man who loses his life trying to save someone else’s child. (As an example of contextual inappropriateness, I find Dawkins’ explanation that the man’s genes mistook the child for a close neighbour in the Pleistocene who might one day reciprocate favours totally hilarious. Surely I must have misunderstood him. Perhaps it’s the way he tells them.) The strange thing is that it is these meanings beyond meaning, these unexplainables, that we recognize to be the very things that make us human persons rather than biological machines.
The intoxicatingly exciting thing about science today is that it too is beginning to penetrate into this realm of meaning beyond meaning. Nonlocality, eleven dimensions, wave/particle duality, backwards causation, an infinity of universes, all of these are baffling to our everyday logic. Yet illogical as they may be, they must rationally belong to a realm of logical reason, for they underpin the reasonable world that we know. We are beginning to find that this beyond-world of logic beyond logic and reason beyond reason and meaning beyond meaning, about which religion has always talked, does indeed exist. Actually, come to think of it, Basil Fawlty had told us that already. If it is access to this mysterious trans-logical realm that makes us human persons and not computerized super-robots, it suggests perhaps, too, that this is also the kingdom of the personal. So maybe Christianity has got it right. The mind of the universe, or whatever it is that makes reason reasonable, or being itself, if any of these is what this beyond-logic realm is, is a person. Perhaps we should look forward not to fearing the robots but welcoming them into the human community, their jokes then so funny we’ll be begging them to stop and go back to being computers, although, perhaps fortunately for me, I guess it won’t be in my lifetime.
Gay and Married Already 31 iii 12
By Thomas Jackson and Melanie Newbould
Unlike Archbishop O’Brien’s intemperate broadside, the English Archbishops’ letter on gay marriage has given rise to much reasoned and interesting debate. But it is profoundly misconceived. The three points it makes are (1) same-sex unions will destabilize marriage for everybody (2) marriage must be open to the creation of children, and (3) God created marriage as a union between male and female. The first point is patently open to debate. Abraham Lincoln, of all people, thought that whites should be legally prevented from marrying blacks for this very reason. Remarkably, the archbishops do not even mention Christ’s teaching on the subject. To understand that, we have to appreciate its context, which was Jewish marital law based in its turn on the Mesopotamian code of Hammurabi. In Hammurabi, the sole purpose of marriage is to provide the husband with male heirs. Women are little more than traded breeding machines. A married man can have as many women as he likes, whereas if a woman commits adultery she is to have nose and ears cut off. If she deliberately aborts her child she is to be impaled or drowned.
Jesus raises all this onto a completely new plane. Marriage is a union of male and female in one flesh. In some subtle, and most arresting sense, they become one thing. This does not follow, he says, from being a Christian. It belongs to human nature because it was established by God in the beginning. What he meant is richly explicable in terms of catholic theology. In the catholic view, the things around us are not, or not just, genetic and molecular machines. They are sacraments. Each in its own unique way expresses in fleeting material form the eternal unchanging being of God. The transience of earthly things is rooted in transcendence, and the seven sacraments are only particularly significant examples. It is because marriage is a union of transcendental beings, who are expressing their love for each other in the fleshly forms of this earth, that marriage is indissoluble. When they say “I will love you for ever”, even if they don’t, lovers get it right.
On the animal plane sex is about the transmission of genes. Promiscuity, therefore, makes sense. By finding new mates females can get better genetic material for their future offspring, and by abandoning one female for another males spread their genes. Yet we now know from biology that even amongst animals sex is about more than procreation. Bonobos, for example, use sex to confirm alliances, promote friendships and to forgive each other. Females lovingly caress each others’ genitals, what primatologists call g-g rubbing. In its context Christ’s whole point is that marriage is essentially not about producing children. He doesn’t even mention them. It is a new thing, the transcendental union of two embodied souls.
Christ’s words become both fascinatingly complexified and perhaps even confirmed by biology. The human genome project has destroyed the idea that one gene codes for one trait, and recent studies of intersex persons (females showing various degrees of anatomical male sex characteristics and vice versa) have underlined this point exceptionally vividly. The simple idea that females are females because they possess xx chromosomes and males male because of xy, is now quite inadmissible. Sexual differentiation is the result of statistically variable interactions between dozens of genes, many of which are not even on the x or y chromosome. (See Vernon A. Rosario Lesbian and Gay Studies vol.15, 2009). Similarly, the idea that there is ‘a homosexual gene’ is quite naïve. It becomes ever more feasible, if not imperative, to regard homosexual and intersex persons not as disordered (the Victorian ‘inverts’), but simply as different, although not so numerous, expressions of these vastly complex chromosomal interactions. There is no simple genetic or chromosomal test which can be applied to determine sexual difference. Both English law and the Olympic committee have entirely failed to define it, and in both cases have fallen back on pragmatic distinctions.
If biology cannot find any material element, a super regulator gene, ordering this vast complexity, is it something immaterial? One is tempted to say that biologically speaking Christ may have got it right. Because humans are both material and spiritual they can be two people, yet also in a higher unity of being on the transcendental level to which they also belong. Human sex is not essentially about producing children, although it often might be, but about the transcendental union of two sexed persons. According to Catholic theology the sacrament does not make the spouses, the spouses make the sacrament. The church is only a witness. It is not: should homosexuals be allowed to marry? Transcendental temporarily enfleshed beings, if they love and commit each other to each other for ever, because they are both sexed and human they are already married.
Thomas Jackson is a former Benedictine monk but still a passionately committed catholic and author of Rehumanizing Sex: the Poets and Your Love Life. Information at www.thomj.co.uk
Melanie Newbould is a medical doctor currently studying for a Ph.D. in Bio-ethics and Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Manchester.
Wittgenstein's Birthday 26 iv 12
April 26th. Today is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s birthday. I can’t say that taking them as a job lot I go very much for the great philosophers. Some of them were truly great men of course. But some of them seem to have been, to me anyway, a teeny weeny bit off piste, and others downright funny (in the sense we use funny in Lancashire that is, as in “Next door’s a funny bugger. Reads Times Literary Supplement ever week”). Still, they’re what we’ve got so we’d better make the best of them. St Augustine thought that having erections was disgusting and it was an act worthy of damnation to steal a few pears. Aquinas taught that it will be part of the heavenly pleasures experienced by the just to witness the eternal tortures of the damned. John Locke invented the concept of universal human rights, but this didn’t prevent him from becoming President of the Board of Trade with responsibility for overseeing slavery in the West Indies nor from making some profitable investments in slave plantations himself. Hume thought that you couldn’t see causality at work in the world. You see the cue striking the ball and then see the ball moving but you can’t actually see the cue causing the ball to move. This didn’t stop him from playing billiards but, funnily enough, lack of direct evidence for causality did stop him believing in religion. The Vienna Circle made it a big principle that nothing can be taken to be true unless it can be verified in the external world. And how do you verify the principle itself, pray? Nietzsche, great prophet of orgiastic Dionysian frenzy, spent much of his life in bed in a boarding house, bemoaning his unhappy lot and writing lists of his ailments down in a diary. You want to say, for God’s sake do something. Get laid or do some shop-lifting. Sadly, he obliged by mistaking himself for the god Dionysos and commanding the head of the classics faculty in Basel University to come round to his lodgings and worship him. Don’t you get the feeling that here was a chap somewhat out of contact with reality – whatever that is.
Jeremy Bentham was frightfully keen on doing useful things which would result in the greatest happiness of the greatest number. If everybody started living usefully in this way there would be great quantities of happiness around. He thought it would be a particularly useful thing if he got himself stuffed after his death. Mind you, in this particular case it may have been just as well that the idea didn’t catch on even if it would have made us all incredibly happy. By this time every household in Britain would have about fifty stuffed ancestors. Imagine the palaver getting them all sitting down at meal times. Actually he proved to be right about getting yourself stuffed increasing the amount of happiness in the world. He now resides in the foyer of University College, London, where his auto-icon has brought immeasurable happiness to generations of rival college rugby fifteens, who have stolen him as part of the rituals attending intercollegiate cup competitions. Hegel thought that the Absolute was the thing to keep your eye on. In the late nineteenth century the arrowhead of inevitable dialectical progress towards it was going through Germany and especially through Prussia which was top German state at the time. The most absolutely important people in Prussia were the civil servants who were guiding its dialectical progress. The most absolutely absolutely important part of the civil service was the department of philosophy in Berlin University. I am sure I will not need to tell you who the most absolutely absolutely absolutely important chap in the Dep. Phil. was.
Some of the twentieth century ones have been really frightful. Bertrand Russell was formidably bright as a mathematician and a logician. But he seems to have been proportionately lacking in what you might call moral or feeling intelligence. This great apostle of pacifism and universal love behaved less than lovingly towards his own family. That’s par for the course, of course (no pun intended) for prophets. But in Russell’s case you get the feeling from the biographies that he didn’t even notice. Actually that’s a bit unfair. If you’re that pre-occupied with stopping humanity destroying itself with the H bomb maybe you can be forgiven for forgetting a few birthdays. Heidegger got into bed with the Nazis. And nobody’s going to tell me that all that stuff about freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre’s writing isn’t really at bottom just a spoilt child having its own way. When Sartre was a little boy he had beautiful golden curls which were much admired by everybody. One day his mother said “Jean-Paul you’re growing up now, I’m going to cut them off”. Little Sartre looked in the mirror and was horrified to find he had a squint. Funny how he spent the rest of his life finding everything and everybody else disgusting. The patron’s braces? Ugh! The root of that chestnut tree? Errgh! And as for people who get out of bed in the morning and get to work on time! Unspeakable! But this sense of disgust doesn’t seem to have extended to pretty women. Both A.J. Ayer and Sartre ran pretty briskly between the wickets. . .
None of this can be said about Wittgenstein. Here was a man who came from the richest family in Europe and really did give all his money away. He really did join the Austrian army as a private in the first world war so as not to escape supping of life’s horrors and to try to be brave. He was tortured for the rest of his life by self-reproaches that once he hadn’t ventured far enough out beyond the barbed wire to succour a dying comrade in no-man’s land. He really was a world famous writer who in the second war became a porter at Guy’s Hospital. Mind you he must have been hell to live with. Having given away all his money he then had to borrow bus fares from Russell. Russell’s never failing kindness to Wittgenstein is one of the redeeming features of his character. As a young man in Vienna Wittgenstein was so affected by the anti-semitism all around him, he thought that if you were a Jew you were so loathsome it was your duty to commit suicide. Unless, that is, you could show that you were a genius with something of irreplaceable value to offer to the human race. That was why he went to Cambridge to study under Russell, to prove to himself that he was a genius. For Wittgenstein it was a matter of life and death. When he arrived at Cambridge he asked Russell to set him a few philosophical problems. “Oh, prove that there’s not a hippopotamus hiding under the table without looking” said Russell. Bertie, speeding down King’s parade to an appointment with his current mistress, must have found it decidedly irritating to be pursued by a very very serious and heavily accented Austrian shouting “But you CANNOT prove there is no hippopotamus hiding under the table”. At one stage Wittgenstein became so convinced that the only truth and goodness in the world are to be found in the minds of children he threw up his post at Cambridge and went back to Austria to teach in a primary school. It was a disaster. He was so maddened by the stupidity and naughtiness of the children he was accused of physical assault and was lucky to escape a gaol sentence. Well we all have our little ways. He must have been the only philosophy lecturer in the whole of history who actually tried to stop people coming to his lectures. Needless to say they poured in to listen to this wonderful man, not just lecturing about but creating philosophy before their very eyes. In spite of this, he thought philosophy was a kind of sickness and that people would be much better off making things in factories. He said you always knew you were back in Cambridge because as soon as you stepped off the train you could hear people saying “Oh really”. He didn’t think much to women either, except his fellow philosopher Miss Anscombe to whom he was devoted. He honoured her by regularly addressing her as old chap.
Yet everybody who met him agrees on one thing. Truth and integrity shone out of him. You only have to look at that beautiful profile to know that this must have been true. It is said that to be in his presence was spell-binding. People were dazzled and enchanted by him. Here was a good and a truthful and a noble man. If you can’t believe in Jesus at least believe in Wittgenstein. If there are not a hundred or fifty or even ten just men in the city of Sodom, can we produce even just one? Yes. Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Baptism. 8 -v- 12
To imagine that a baby is born with a stain of sin already on its soul is an example monstrous enough of magical religious thinking, many atheists passionately feel. To think that pouring a trickle of water over the baby’s head removes this supposed foul stain is surely mumbo jumbo at its worst. To think like this is to misunderstand theology. Original sin, as the term suggests, is to do with origins. It is to behave like the chimpanzee-like creatures from whom we evolved so recently rather than as human beings. We have a vivid example in Jane Goodall’s account of events at Gombe to see how this even applies to chimpanzees themselves. They too can behave in primitive ways quite inappropriate to the noble creatures that they are. The more that primatology has discovered about chimpanzees the more like human beings they turn out to be. They make choices, behave altruistically, make personal relationships, even seem sometimes to worship the elements of nature. But they too can collapse back into compulsive algorithmic behaviours.
For this is the central characteristic of original sin, it is algorithmic. For evolutionary reasons we share so many of our genes with creatures that are nothing but algorithmic, it is hardly surprising that we so easily become so too. Examples of such deterministically driven aberrations abound. Christopher Browning shows us in shocking detail, in his book Reserve Police Unit 101, how easily perfectly ordinary citizens of Hamburg degenerated into genocidal killers at the drop of an SS cap in Russia in 1943. In The Pity of War Niall Ferguson uses evidence from combatants’ letters and diaries to show us that the First World War lasted so long because, among other reasons, those fighting it unbelievably wanted it, at least in a sense, to continue. They couldn’t stop, they couldn’t wean themselves from its immense stress and excitement. In 1944 the Nazis were still pouring resources into destroying the Jews of Hungary, even though by this stage they were chronically short of every material of war. In war, particularly, characteristically free human behaviours break down, freedom becomes subordinate to algorithms, people lose their capacity to get off the treadmill they are on. If every other form of organic nature except ourselves works on algorithms, and we too so easily become dominated by them, how does it come about, then, that we can even enjoy the possibility of behaving otherwise?
It is because we can manipulate symbols, we have language. Once you have language you can start articulating your own thoughts to yourself, you can start imagining yourself behaving in ways other than those that the algorithms dictate. You can start reporting how you feel to other people, and they in turn can start imagining how they would feel if they were you. We begin to feel sympathy for each other. The more intensive symbolism of art can go even further. Mozart can tell you, just a little bit anyway, what it feels like being Mozart. Symbol-using creatures move from domination by compulsive algorithms into shared subjectivity, and this is what I mean by freedom.
Baptism is the first of the sacraments, and like all of them it is a Christianization of impulses already deeply rooted in nature. It is not only a sign in the ordinary sense, but a sign of the importance of signing in enabling human beings to escape the algorithmic prisons of pre-human nature – by sharing not only their external circumstances but their inner humanity with each other. But it signifies still more than this. The water trickling over the initiate’s head is a symbol of total immersion and total immersion a symbol in its turn of the deep sea journey through the unconscious. Why is the unconscius so important? It is because a human body is a kind of microchip. Bound into each body’s corporal memory is an account of the whole of universal evolution from the first microseconds of the Big Bang. But we are not aware of it. All that cosmic memory that we carry round every day has become unconscious. This is where Darwin becomes so important for theology. All life forms are deeply connected to each other. Everything shares the same atoms and elements. The human mind, he shows us, was not parachuted in from some supernatural empyrean, it arose from the earth. We are the unconscious earth become conscious. Not only do we join the human community of shared subjectivity enabled by signs, we take the whole of creation with us. But how can this be?
When the baby is baptized lions and tigers remain just as much the algorithmically programmed lions and tigers as ever they were. It is because baptism has a further dimension still. It signifies the essential religious belief, that there is another dimension of reality in which everything, every last atom and electron, will no longer be separated by its material circumstances but will be one, or the Body of Christ as theology knows it. Again science helps us. Every electron is not only a visible particle in a particular time and place, but also an invisible wave that is everywhere and nowhere. Scientists have now discovered that this extraordinary truth applies not only to electrons but to things far bigger than electrons. The biggest thing they have experimentally discovered to which it applies to so far, so far as I know, is a fullerene molecule, a ring of anything between sixty and five hundred carbon atoms, which in relation to an electron is about as big as Yorkshire compared to you and me. Surely this implies that everything in the world, including ourselves, must have this everywhere and nowhere dimension, as well as this packet of here and nowness in which we walk about and live our lives. In the Big Bang everything was one and, we may surmise, to something pretty much like the Big Bang will everything return. Science is in no way a substitution for theology, or a proof of any of its propositions. But it sure gives us some good ideas. Baptism is the gateway to the transformed universe, the beginning of the journey to find the universal ‘everything’ creatures that we all truly are, but are not aware that we are. How could you pass the opportunity up?