Approaching Easter

In schools we need to be aware of the big ideas that underpin all that we do. At our intellectual core is a discussion about the relationship between knowledge and belief.

It is wonderful that the word ‘hope’ exists – that it is extant. The fact that it is extant itself is, I believe, significant. ‘Hope’ suggests that there is a link between our lived experiences and meaning and purpose in our lives. As educators, we wish to build purpose in students. We often have it quite strongly in ourselves.

As Easter approaches I note a few words about Nihilism: the notion that all academic work leads inevitably towards an absolute loss of meaning and hope.

I write it because I suspect that Nihilism plays a bigger part in our society that is presented popularly. In my office I speak with parents who have lost some hope after a messy divorce, or who have just received bad news from the doctor or who are impacted by suicide or a personal tragedy. You no doubt have contact with people in similar circumstances. There are temptations to despair. Nihilistic thoughts run through our culture. Intellectual frameworks that state that we are ultimately nothing support this despair.

There was a call this weak from a Queensland Rationalist that schools should focus only on ‘the rational’, being his definition of what is rational. Religion should be removed from education.

I note that the rationality of Nihilism is quite strong: if we are simply an evolved species with no Transcendent Being or Entity, no God, no ‘Other’ behind and beyond the Universe, then there is no reason to expect that anything we do is necessarily in line with what we might call the truth about the Universe. Just as we would not expect a blind worm or a fly with an arthropod eye to be able to form a theory of the Universe that is accurate (their senses and cognivity have not evolved to a degree whereby they could be considered to have formed a view of the Universe that corresponds to its complexities), we cannot also validly argue that our senses have reached the point where we can validly perceive all that is, to describe the truth. It is a conceit to think that our evolution of senses is complete. We have no externally reliable means of knowing the extent to which our senses detect all that is. Like the blind worm, we might not be able to sense important data. Further, because there are feasibly improved creatures in the future that could have evolved senses that identify things that we can’t currently identify, we can’t reasonably declare ourselves to have reached the evolutionary state where there are not more senses to develop. A physicalist evolutionary framework assumes we could develop further senses. This leads some philosophers (e.g., Vardy) to write about having views of truth that are coherent rather than correspondent: he thinks we can only work out a theory that coheres with elements of reality, not one that corresponds with reality.

Aristotle divided thinking into ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’ and, despite the work of Barthes and Derrida, the popular frameworks of our western civilisations still rest on these categorical distinctives. The thought described in the paragraph above indicates everything may in fact be belief – that we can’t rely on empiricism to determine knowledge. Knowledge, by this reading, is a tentative thing. Why? Because we can’t guarantee that we have the capacities required to enact the empiricism accurately. Kuhn has outlined his theory of paradigms based on this. We develop a paradigm about how to establish the truth until we realise that our current theory is inadequate (thus we have moved from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein and beyond).

Dawkins’ picture of religious belief is that belief in God is a means of filling in the gaps. Knowledge is ever increasing and ultimately we will fill in the spaces and no longer need religion. Yet Dawkins could be critiqued as not taking into account adequately the problem of knowledge. There is no way to externally measure what is not known because we don’t have the capacity to ascertain the things that we can’t perceive. Yet what we don’t know could be critical: we now count Einstein’s contributions as critical whereas characters in the Newtonian world weren’t even aware of them. Knowledge might indeed be tiny slithers and the gaps could be enormous.

It is at this point that the Progress Myth becomes very important to those who call themselves Rationalists. If we accept that our knowledge is partial, but have complete faith in empiricism as the superior methodology for uncovering knowledge, we will believe in progress. According to this view, knowledge grows like a pyramid of stones. Each new validated theory trumps that which is prior. It seems reasonable that Einstein trumps Newton who trumps Aristotle.

In taking this route we assume that our theoretical frameworks themselves are valid. Yet it would appear that our lines of thought aren’t as clear as we might have hoped. Einstein still leaves us with unanswered questions, and to answer them we might divert from some of his theories one day. We often return to theories that were once discarded and reexamine them. Anselm was once held in esteem, then dismissed. Yet there are academics who are again exploring his philosophy. Similarly Kierkegaard and Hegel and …

For example, Benjamin Libet once argued that science has disproven free will. Yet, in line with Wittgenstein’s claim that ‘in science there are conceptual methods and philosophical confusion’, Mele argues in his book ‘Free’ that the experiments which claim to refute free will don’t do so at all.

The problem with the popular conception of progress is that it assumes that debates get settled, that knowledge is formed unequivocally such that it becomes the bedrock for further knowledge.

And those who wish to import that knowledge into schools in the category of uncontested fact are actually anti-education. The contested nature of ‘knowledge’ and its connection to ‘belief’ becomes a very important aspect of education. Students need to engage with this uncertainty and recognise the role that faith plays in developing understanding.

STEM, for example, is a very important aspect of education. As the principal of a school that had students finish first last year out of all NSW schools (public, selective, independent, Catholic) in student research awards in Biology, Physics and Chemistry; a school that employs specialist science and technology teachers in our Junior School and a Mathematician-in-Residence in our senior school; a school that had a student come first in Chemistry in the NSW Higher School Certificate in 2014, I wish to note also the importance of theology and philosophy and the arts to ‘knowledge’ in science. Reliance on science alone to determine truth is reliant on ‘a science of the fragments’. Our experience of such a science would be of a constant shifting in trends (to refer to a recent news article: at one time our ‘knowledge’ is that we use paracetamol to reduce fever in children; at another point it is that we don’t). Empiricism is an important ‘subset epistemology’ in knowledge formation: it doesn’t provide a bulwark of established knowledge but a series of apparent collations of knowledge in different disciplines – often contradictory of one another.

This is fine by me. And saying this doesn’t, in my view, diminish the importance of the scientific method. It just means that it should not be elevated to be the only way to establish knowledge.

The father of Analytical Philosophy, Wittgenstein, changed his position over the course of his life. Whereas early on he said: ‘About that which we do not know we should be silent’ (thus supporting only an empirical framework and perhaps warning against religious knowledge), in the second part of his life he moved more and more into consideration of the role of language in creating meaning and he began to reconsider religious ideas.

In life we can’t sit back and wait to gather all knowledge before we make a decision about what is. ‘No net is large enough to catch the world’ said Judith Wright. We live with a deep interaction between the personal and the so-called objective. We live between the transcendent and the immanent.

It was Augustine who flipped Aristotelian ideas. Aristotle supported the notion that we should believe things based on our knowledge: Gradual accrual before commitment. Augustine said: ‘I believe that I might understand.’ It was an Augustine who developed the role of faith in knowledge formation. Many centuries later Soren Kierkegaard based his theology/philosophy on this idea that an individual’s understanding of the Universe is grounded in faith. Faith is indispensable to knowledge. More recently Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief and knowledge can come together around the idea of ‘warrant’.

Final ‘knowledge’ about all things is not possible. Doubt is an indispensable tool but alone it leads to despair. Faith is actually impossible to avoid and is essential to the development of the person as someone who considers the role of integrity and love and hope in life. We should not be afraid of the consideration of theological questions. And we should not be so conceited as to think that we can dismiss them.

Interestingly Plantinga argues that one can believe a finding about physics because the evidence and what we understand about ourselves as investigators warrants it. And one can have religious faith because the evidence and what we understand about ourselves as investigators warrants it.

Some readers will feel nervous about these two sentences being included in one paragraph with the same grammatical structure – as if they are two sentences carrying equal epistemological weight. Basing knowledge on scientific process appears to give a greater chance of security than does faith. Or are they both necessary? We have faith that we as humans are sufficiently ‘formed’ (have adequate senses) to be able to reach some sort of conclusion about knowledge – and we have faith that our assumptions in undertaking the investigation are valid. In short, we each have presuppositions that often rely on religious views of the significance of the human being and their purposes in being.

What is this to do with Easter? Easter could be viewed as a claim that in science there are conceptual methods but theological confusion. I teach a Theology and Philosophy class that covers the history of Western thought (and some Eastern) to middle years high school students. We cover Athens (e.g., Thales and Parmenides and Plato and Aristotle) and Jerusalem (e.g., Moses and David and Jesus). We cover Augustine and Kant and Hegel and Kierkegaard.In the course we don’t exclude someone because, in our conceit, we believe we have ‘progressed’ beyond his or her theory. We believe that Faith and Science have actually interacted through history. We don’t fall for the propaganda generated by one side or the other that indicates that to be religious is to be bigoted and dogmatic, or to be irreligious is to be immoral. Christianity, for example, has always held that our knowledge is partial. It was St Paul who said ‘we see but through a glass darkly’.

None of us stands on the top of the Tower of Babel and sees the world aright from the point of view of all languages combined. None of us have ever seen God, says the apostle John (1:18). Yet it is also valid that the Gospels hold a claim, because of their basis in a belief in a sovereign God, that one day ‘we shall see face to face’. This claim is worthy of consideration in an education. Why should it not be?

Easter is a claim that the human being is of eternal value: our persons, our hopes, our inclinations, our thinking, our relations, and our search for knowledge. Just like the view the vast majority of us form about the babes in our arms when we have children. Isaac Newton based his inquiries into Mathematics on the foundation that he was searching after knowledge that rested ultimately in God.

The Christian hope at Easter underpins learning – it is a basis for believing that knowledge is possible. And it is also, I add as a coda, a statement that there are more lasting things than surety about matter and anti-matter: ‘and now these three things remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.’ 1 Corinthians 13:13

Whilst reading ‘The Secret Chord’

When I think about why I am enjoying Geraldine Brooks’ ‘The Secret Chord’ I sense that it is because it is an honest attempt to understand a story that is powerful in Jewish and Christian traditions. Much o it resonates with me.

I have decided to write this response whilst only a third of the way through the book. Reading is a responsive activity: I find that I am both alert to a text’s narrative and ideas at the same time as I am evaluating it, synthesizing it into my understanding of reality or leaving it aside. And even the things I ‘leave aside’ impact me. Thus, the process of responding whilst I read is critical in the formation of how the book affects me. I find it to be an iterative process.

‘The Secret Chord’ appears to try to capture both the visceral and the exalted nature of David and his People – and to ask the reader to consider the violence, the hubris and the humility of this community. I enjoy it also because of the respect for elements of faith: the inability of the believer to utter God’s name, the notion of fidelity to God and People, and the credibility she gives early in the book to ‘Natan’ as a prophet. The narrative of Goliath and David carries both the notions that God is so exalted as to be beyond the power of humans, as well as that humans are fragile and flawed. And it appears an act of honesty to see in print the troubling aspects of the story: for example, the brutal suppression of weaker village populations, and the self-deceit of David when it involves lust for power over women. Is God’s will done when violence or lust are in attendance?

It is interesting for me to ask myself as a Christian which are the aspects of the story that I don’t want to confront. I enjoy the challenge she gives me. It is good for my soul. It is a re-editing of scripture – something that is not required. And yet, the revisions have a point. I abhor, for example, the idea that God would in any form sanction brutal killing, especially of ‘innocents’- and Brooks seems to share what I understand to be the Christian (and Jewish – perhaps for her it is in some unstated form universal) value of human life. Both the notion that every human is made in God’s image, and the opposing idea that humans reference a god as their own powerful totem to justify their actions, appear in the text. She seems to foster faith and doubt simultaneously. This is central to my understanding of the book’s power.

I hear also the feminine voices being amplified in a manner that is not obvious in the Chronicles. These are voices I think many of us long to here.

There is a line in another book I read this Summer, John Ortberg’s book ‘Soul Keeping’, that has had me thinking deeply. He writes about the way that he has found it regretfully easy over the course of his marriage to hurt his wife: “My face and the tone of my voice could create the effect on her that I ‘wanted’ without ever being totally open about the deeper recesses of my mind and will.” He writes that his actions could be therefore feasible as acts against her but still ‘deniable’.

I think Ortberg works hard in his book to be honest about himself. And this particular sentence highlights how he has the capacity to deceive himself with his acts of hurt. I think he makes a powerful point – I want to present myself as noble but sometimes I am acting quite ignobly as I pretend to be righteous.

As in private, so in public. Even in he writing of great literature one can use guile – and perhaps not even be aware of it. Brooks’ David, indeed the biblical David, deceives himself. Ortberg notes that even in marriage we can conceal ourselves from the ones we love the most. Are writers immune? Is the editing process a fire that burns away pretense?

Brooks appears to be pursuing an honest approach to the synthesis of her faith and her politics. Her writing is reflective and non-polemical. Why do I then remain suspicious when I read ‘The Secret Chord’? Does she have a dogma that guides the text? Is it not so much an exploration as a beautiful apology?

So I look for signs of doubt – places where she challenges all of her readers. In this case the secular as well as the religious.

I can see many places where she might unsettle the religious reader.

Good.

The book in this way does my faith a great service.

I am yet to find in the text an exploration of ideas that might make her secular readership uncomfortable. Where does she make uncomfortable the person who regards themselves as an ‘enlightened’ reader?

It is likewise powerful in the same style of story-casting that she can provide a homoerotic theme between David and Jonathan. I don’t know if the etymology of the Hebrew variation of ‘love’ in the Old Testament verse ‘Jonathon loved David’ gives enough surety that it means friendship, not ‘amour’. I note though that this is a theme that has been undertaken by others. It is a good example of an area that I would have liked her to challenge not only the religious reader but other presuppositions. It easy for her to play to a strong current theme in literature. The story of Jonathan and David is one of a limited number of well-attested tales in history that could also be read as a close and abiding friendship between brutal men. This also deserves exploration – perhaps she will pick up on the theme of friendship between brutal men later in the book.

At present it appears that she is following a predictable plot – that aspects of David’s life are best understood not because of his faith, but because of his love for Jonathon.

If I am allowed to ask anything of a leading author it would be this. I accept the challenging questions you ask of me. Can you write a book also in which you challenge not only your religious but also your secular self? Can you disrupt not only the presuppositions of religious thinkers but the readers who wish to reimagine faith stories only as having material or social causes? If you can you will convince me that your story is a genuine inquiry and not just a beautifully crafted carrier of the themes of your age.

I hope to comment again when I have finished reading the whole book.

Is she a prophet like Natan?

From Soren Kierkegaard

“The despairer thinks that he himself is this evidence (of his own despair). And it is this that he wants to be; this is the reason he wants to be himself, to be himself in his agony, so as to protest with this agony against all existence. As the weak despairer will hear nothing about what comfort eternity has in store for him, so too for this despairer, but for a different reason: the comfort would be his undoing – as an objection to the whole of his existence. It is, to describe it figuratively, as if the writer were to make a slip of the pen, and the error became conscious of itself as such – perhaps it wasn’t a mistake but from a much higher point of view an essential ingredient in the whole presentation – and as if the error wanted now to rebel against its author, out of hatred for him forbid him to correct it, and in manic defiance say to him: ‘No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against you, a witness to the fact you are a second-rate author.'”

In the letters of Paul we read of spiritual warfare. Such a phrase has been the symbolic basis for The Crusades – that those who are ‘the good’ should ‘banish evil’ in a physical warfare; and it has been the basis of the Pietist movement – that we must banish the moral evil within ourselves. Here Kierkegaard frames spiritual warfare existentially. It is at the heart of our very existence. The Christian, for him, is the opposite of Dylan Thomas who ‘rages’ against the night. The Christian receives the hope that is in Christ. Receives it humbly. Accepts in faith that Love exists because it is existentially extant.

And it is an antidote to despair.

And, quite strangely but astutely, Kierkegaard notes how we are adept at holding onto our own despair. That we grip it quite firmly almost as an anger against the God who would allow such things to exist in our hearts.

Herein may be a window of understanding of what it is to ‘convert’, to fall, like Saul on the road to Damascus and ‘have hope’. To not cling to pain. To have faith.

So everybody laughed at Earl’s funeral

My wife and daughter returned from octogenarian Earl’s funeral with lots of stories:

How he kept a diary every day. Recorded everything. Added his own comments on life for himself: the awards earned by his grandchildren, of their friends. The odd collectables of life.

The time he sought to time entering the garage in his Honda Civic when the wooden doors were blowing in the wind. Three attempts it took, with the doors bumping on the car. No worries. He just backed up and tried again. And the bumps? “That’s what bumper bars are for.”

How he and Shirl rode a tandem bike to church when they first moved to Gymea Bay.

How he and his mates went weekly to garage sales and constructed elaborate gifts out of other people’s throw-aways.

The fact that every day he and his sons placed their tooth brushes in the number one slot in the tooth brush rack, returning the tooth brushes of Earl to the lesser slot – yet no one ever said anything about it. Not once. Not ever.

The fact that each evening Earl set out his breakfast for the next day, including placing sultanas in a glass of water to ‘plump them up’. When his family played a practical joke on him by putting absolutely everything in the cupboards on the benches, he put everything back but said nothing. This mutual silence was a mark of great respect and quiet joy.

And the night that his musical family completed an accomplished performance only for tone deaf Earl to come out at the end, aping seriousness, by himself, and nod a bow. How everyone laughed.

‘Glory be to God for dappled things”.

All of this laughter, all of this joy, was at a funeral of a man whose humour was understated and familial. The happy self-forgetfulness of a man who loved.

Moving Life

Last night Susan and I watched the film Still Life.

This morning our daughter is in the struggles and joys of childbirth.

The heroism in the film is the commitment of the man John May to his vocation. The film is beautiful in its quietness. May is persistent. Steadfast. Quietly but sincerely concerned with people -people who are invisible to the rest of the world. He sees his work as his joy.

The film doesn’t rely on socially established categories to communicate. It is not a pastiche about race or gender. If it is about class, it is first and foremost the story of an individual. It is about persons. Everyone in the film – though disconnected by choice or circumstance from others, though there are reasons to reject them, though they are squalid, though they are isolates – matters. May is the hero because he recognises this. He is the hero because he doesn’t give up on giving these people dignity even when others don’t afford him the same.

Today a little baby boy is coming into a family that loves him. Like thousands of others born today around the world he will have a family that loves him and wants to teach him to afford others respect and kindness.

His mother is loving him now, in her pain. And we are all loving her. Dr Gray is looking after her, affording our daughter dignity. He is confident for her.

There, where she is, no doubt there is a lot of noise. Movement. Action.

Here, where we wait, it is quiet. We are believing people now. I am astonished that birth happens this way. We wait and pray, thankful that a person with knowledge sees her as made in God’s image..

 

Thinking about Scep

At Sydney Technical High School in the 1970s there was a group of boys who were particularly ascerbic when it came to matters of faith.

Well before I came to my own Christian conviction, a now deceased friend with the surprising name of Ian Leake (think of the potential – I.Leake) taught me a few things about scepticism. His nickname was ‘Scep’. He was clearly a Christian, but was known to all by his capacity to make insightful comments and jokes about all aspects of life. Tellingly, he was sceptical about the ways that sceptics were sceptical.

This morning I listened to two members of the Sceptics Association speak on the ABC and I remembered Ian with great warmth.

Scepticism from the official group is now quite an art form. The two scientists today made a number of very reasonable statements. All educators would say ‘Hear! hear!’ They said that we need to be critical thinkers, that we need to know our methodology in our search for truth, that we need to ask questions. We need to differentiate between fact and belief.

But then came the subtle rhetoric. They created a clear dichotomy between two types of thinking: thinking based on beliefs and thinking based on Reason. And they positioned sceptics as in the minority, fighting nobly against all of the odd-ball thinking generated by religiosity and conspiracy theorists in the USA. Theirs is the good fight. Religious faith is on the dark side.

It was the questions that they didn’t ask that caused me difficulty. I note one.

Is it possible to hold a theory about the Universe that doesn’t rely upon beliefs?

Rightly or wrongly, I have reached the conclusion that it is impossible to comprehend the universe without an element of faith. And I am still to hear a person who relies only on Reason. I hold the position that a valid understanding of the universe must be able to describe both the observed universe and the qualities of the person doing the observing. The observer is ‘in the system’ so the theory that is purported has to have an explanation of how s/he came to be able to make her/his observations. This means that there must be a theory of Mind as well as a theory about the universe’s origins or sustenance or make-up. Philosophy and/or Theology must inform the debate – not just Science.

If I take the view that is most regularly presented by the Sceptics Association- that one should preclude from the outset that the Universe was caused by an Intending Being (or God) – I am left with an entirely physical universe. These ‘words’ are therefore the result of electrical impulses. Personal pronouns I use to describe myself emanate from the eternal chain of cause and effect. There is no teleology. My ‘me-ness’ is just a characteristic like the colour of a butterfly’s wing, or the size of a shark’s tooth. Therefore there is no reason to believe that what my eyes perceive, or ears hear, or mind reads, corresponds to actual reality. This is why some theorists speak of holding a cohesive, rather than a correspondent, view of truth.

Professor Karl this morning was black and white. He is on a pathway to a correspondent view of truth. Therefore, he must have snuck in the back of his mind somewhere an element of faith. For reasons that he hasn’t outlined, he believes the universe is fundamentally intelligible. He has faith that his brain’s electrical pathways, and there connectedness to his senses, can deliver truth to him. Even though the process that created each an every element of his genetics was constructed randomly.

One could say that scientific evidence builds collectively to give us assurance of truth. But Science changes in its sureties. Before Einstein we were confident in Newton. Before the Big Bang Theory many held to an Aristotelian universe without beginning.

Do not misunderstand my intent. The onward search and investigation of science is critical. I am pleased that materialist scientists challenge philosophers and theologians. But myriads of people, including theistic scientists, Platonic philosophers, post-structuralists and other will offer a reasoned and logical reply that has different categories to those on the ABC. They are not precluded from being logical or reasoned because they don’t share the Sceptics’ Association’s epistemology. Like my friend Scep what I object to is the lack of reference to the problematic nature of knowledge in statements like the one on the ABC today.

Scientism, whilst drawing on much excellent science, is a faith position.

Suddenly

I went to work this morning.

And so today began in its ordinary way.

Wrote a email.

Briefed the staff.

Held a meeting. Met the students with birthdays. Conducted an interview.

Felt a little unwell and told my P.A. I would drop in at the doctor.

Six hours later I have just woken up from an operation. All is good. It was quite a mechanical thing really: eminently fixable. No ongoing concerns. But it is still quite a surprise that I began the day with an email and ended it in a hospital bed.

It makes me think. The people on the news expect ordinary days. Then their sister goes missing. Or their son is in a car accident. Or they receive news from a distant capital city of a freak storm or a plane crash or a crazed gunman – and everything is radically altered. All of the best science, the most powerful rhetoric, the most ardent political activism won’t bring their loved one home. Won’t change the news.

On the way out of school today I passed on a message to a colleague. And I told her of my speedy exit to ready myself for tonight’s operation. She told me that she is looking after her elderly parents: cleaning their vomit; negotiating their tired verbal attempts to understand what happens next for them. She used the word ‘raw’ to describe her experiences.

It is her love that makes it raw.

There is a strange comfort in peeling away the pretence.

Once, when I lost control of a vehicle, and had to attempt at 80km/hr to undertake a hand brake 180 degree turn to stop the car – with no previous experience – with only the memory of watching the Holden stunt team do it at the Bathurst race track – I felt this strange peace. For a moment I saw death’s cold eyes. I remember saying to God that if this was it, then that was OK. I had young children and a fabulous wife, and I desperately didn’t want to go yet, but what could I do? Death be not proud. But I could not be proud either.

As I lay in the ante-chamber to the operating theatre tonight I knew that my daughters’ phone calls of best wishes each all had that slightly panicked tone – What happens if someone makes an error and my dad is not OK tonight? Of course I am part of the enormous statistical majority and am now sitting up comfortably in my bed. Death was not proud tonight. But, even in my trust in God and western medicine, I could not be proud either. I had no control.

When I stood beside my languishing father in Tweed Heads Hospital in December 1994, and held his hand whilst he breathed deeply, then paused for ninety agonising seconds before breathing again, I felt the suddenness. The loss of all control. This was a day that had begun ordinarily, before it brought out its nasty little surprise. My mother woke me that morning to tell me Dad had a headache. Could I drop down some tablets? Four exhausting hours later, after holding him on his bed whilst he lunged and pawed, gasped and jerked, I stood beside him whilst he breathed and then stopped breathing. It was raw.

Yet it was what it was. The truth.

The only thing that keeps me being human in the rawness of life is love. And much as I appreciate the study doctors have undertaken to fix me tonight, love is not explained by the science. The science only goes so far. The doctors who operate, love. Holding your convulsing father on a bed is an act of love. Cleaning his vomit is an act of love. Regretting the loss of a distant sister is an act of love. And God, not the sordid mechanical universe, is love.

 

 

But I really love being married…comments on ‘Gone Girl’

‘Gone Girl’ is a gripping film. Quite the farce. Its duplicitous characters act out their attraction and pain in a community that bases its raw emotional responses on the fickle and self-serving concerns of the media.

Yet when I exited the film I wanted to say to the other cinema goers ‘But I love being married’, as an act of affirmation of the trust I feel towards my wife even though the characters in the film generalise their agony to all those who are married. I wanted to rebel against its ‘farcical realism’.

The film could be seen as a parable on the dangers of trust.

Perhaps Ben Afflick plays both an ironic Christ and a deceitful Hamlet. It was Harold Bloom who claimed that Hamlet is the new Christ of literature. The West has replaced, in some of its literature, the man who acts out of sacrifice and love with the man who ponders his own fraught circumstance and then acts with equivocation and occasional senseless violence.

It is questionable if Afflick ever really ever loved his wife. Love itself is questioned as even being possible. There is lust, and insecurity and obsession. But does anyone love? Perhaps the twins do. Perhaps the policewoman. Any ultimate devotion Afflick has to his wife is proof that he has no virtue, no moral courage. It is in this that he is an ironic Christ. All he can do is ponder moral questions, and make vain and soul-sapping attempts at resolutions. It is in this that he is a deceitful Hamlet

And Rosamund Pike’s character leaves no justice, or even vengeance, to God. The pain she feels, she inflicts. She is victim and perpetrator, victim and perpetrator.

And as I watched the film, and found its narrative strength drawing me into it, enjoying its twists and moral pain, I found that I could not conclude that it was just a sophisticated narrative of the sins of the world. Yes, it delves deep into the ‘heart of darkness’ in both genders. It evangelises a misogyny and misandry at the centre of the human heart.  It smears away any pretense that the viewers might have that they can act with love of their own accord. It is a mirror to our own equivocation.

Is there therefore no redemption?

I note that if there was no artistic memory of the Christ that Afflick’s character is not, or no sense that love is possible (possible even in the sad milieu of their lives), then it loses its dramatic tension as a film.

Love remains extant.

And there is hope that the director thinks so too. I think again about the sister and the policewoman. Even the Defense Attorney. The policewoman is true to her vocation. The sister is true to her brother. The Attorney, whilst ostensibly chasing the dollar, believes in uncovering the truth. These are acts invoking justice and altruism.

Ironically, even in the heart of darkness, the idea that ‘God is love’ can’t be undone. It is out of the bottle.

And yes, despite my desire to rebel as I exited, I enjoyed the film.

Acts of Violence

I don’t know quite how we should approach the violence of ISIS.

ISIS feeds on violence.

Members are horribly violent to people who are identified as being against them: Sunni Muslims, Christians, Yazidi, Westerners…

We all know that there have been and are other such groups that act with terrible violence: Baader Meinhof in Europe, The Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa, FARC in Latin America…

I read quite a bit of literature that seeks to tie a belief in violence to faith, or to non-faith, or to some noun somewhere. If I can just call them fundamentalists or rightists or leftists I will know they are not like me. And when I listen to people who commit acts of violence on behalf of an ideology I hear them using their belief system, or rage against a belief-system, to justify their actions.

Yet I am sure that within each group there are some who are not as committed to violence as their leaders and other members.  They are culpable, as Albert Speer was culpable. They are ideologically linked by their use of symbolic black flags or by their silence whilst atrocities are committed, but one day there might be a book or film like The Railway Man that helps us see them as human because it tells their story rather than the story of their movement.

This leads me to think that it is the act that we must find abhorrent. The act of massacring a group of people is abhorrent. Cutting off a person’s head is abhorrent. Lining people up against a wall and shooting them is abhorrent. We call them ‘crimes against humanity’. We call them ‘sin’ or ‘acts of evil’. The permission a person gives their conscience to initiate violence is an act against God and society.

They are choices.  It could be the rape of a young woman. It could be a Mafia revenge act. It could be a Mexican drug execution. It could be a bomb dropped on a neighbourhood.

There must be many people in places where violence rules who are not making this choice. There must be peacemakers, who, like some of the citizens of Missouri, go out onto the streets to try to tell the police and the violent protesters not to fight. We need to honour them and give them the headlines.

Yet I don’t think this helps us with ISIS. Whatever is wrong with Missouri, acts of violence are still seen as shameful by both sides. ISIS, in contrast, glorifies the pain of others, makes it into a grotesque form of public relations.

ISIS has really declared war on us all. Told us all we must become like them or perish.

We therefore must do all we can to stop ISIS and to support the Assyrian Christians, ordinary Muslims and Yazidi people. They are us, but they are stuck where ISIS thrives.

Visit of Simon Conway Morris

Professor Conway-Morris visited PLC Sydney this week.

He described the evolutionary process: natural selection, survival of the fittest…

And he described convergence: the theory that the same characteristics have evolved again and again in species. Thus, the octopus and the human both have have camera eyes, though one is not the predecessor of the other.

The range of options is narrower than those who promote the randomness as the basis of everything suggest. Predictable.

And he said that the mind is not explained by the chemistry or actions of the brain. In one of his books he calls the brain an antenna: a link to The Other. Science, he states, cannot prove God. But there are hints that there is an underlying order and intent behind the curtain: Fibonacci numbers in the organic world, for example, in the shell of the Nautilus.

He actually gave our students permission to wonder. To have faith and reason. To see that reason does not emerge from Nothing. There was a spark ignited in the playground.

Rather than the dull oppression that results from reading Dawkins, there was a real spirit of enquiry. A hegemony was dispelled.

It helped that his science is superb. Rigorous. Exemplified with numerous cases and telling images. Challenging to my interpretation of my faith. Challenging to all of us.

Yet he helped us see that science needs theology and philosophy. No discipline is an island, so to speak.

He showed an image of a man bending over and dragging up a curtain-like visage of the landscape in front of him. In quite a Platonic fashion there was another landscape underneath. ‘God,’ said Les Murray, ‘is the poetry caught in religion. Caught. Not imprisoned.’ ‘Christ,’ said the apostle Paul, ‘is the sum of all spiritual things.’

He will travel to a remote site soon to find fossils. And will seek to further develop the taxonomy of the history of life.

Yet our students will be left with an understanding that the taxonomy has value – that, to use a title of the professor’s, evolution in some strange way might sing the song of creation.

He spoke of a time in the future when there might be a different metaphysics to the study of evolution. One not so tied to the old doctrine that God is dead, but one that seeks God again.

It made me realise that so many materialist answers describe extant human qualities inadequately. Forgiveness, grace, kindness, generosity and altruism are all extant qualities. Describing them only as the result of blind forces connected to survival alters them beyond recognition. The explanations alter these things utterly in order to explain them using a materialist paradigm.

I hope this short comment does justice to the professor.