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Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

July 26th, 2016

Bomb-Shelter Theology

I think some readers may enjoy this whimsical piece of self-indulgence that I wrote for the Brandsma Review many years ago. In case you are wondering what I can possibly mean by “bomb-shelter theology”, I pinched the phrase, and the following parable,  from part of a deep and very lengthy but entertaining article by an Australian priest, Fr Brian Harrison, in Living Tradition, organ of the Roman Theological Forum (May 1994).

Once upon a time, on a planet just like our own but many light years away, the dominant religion included the dogma that on the dark side of the moon there are large craters full of salt water.

The people advanced in scientific and technological expertise, to the stage when they were able to send up rockets, which photographed the moon from all angles, including the dark side. Believers were cast into a crisis of faith by the news that, while the photographs indeed showed plenty of craters, all of them were bone-dry.

At first, the hierarchy assured the faithful that the photographs were all faked, as part of a Satanic plot. But then some astronauts of hitherto unquestioned orthodoxy flew round the moon and saw for themselves the faith-shattering emptiness of these great craters.

Many people left the Church in disillusionment; but progressive theologians soon came up with a solution which satisfied well-educated, sophisticated believers. It can be set out in the form of a syllogism.

Major: It is revealed truth that there are salt-water craters on the dark side of the moon.

Minor: Science has demonstrated that no water of any sort is observed on the dark side of the moon.

Conclusion.: Therefore there is invisible salt water in the craters on the dark side of the moon.

The progressive theologians insisted that their solution was logical, orthodox, and perfectly in line with the latest scientific knowledge.

Fr Harrison uses the expression bomb-shelter theology to describe the subterfuge of those modern theologians and exegetes who discard or “reinterpret” definitively-taught doctrines from our Catholic heritage that they feel might become vulnerable to scientific bombardment. The difference is that our theologians, unlike those of the imaginary planet, don’t have any real justification for indulging in it. They are suffering from a loss of nerve, if not of faith.

Fr Harrison points out that the Church has definitively borne witness during its 2,000-year history not only to transcendent mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Real Presence—which are beyond the reach of human science or reason—but also to truths involving physical matter existing on this earth in time and space. For instance, the Church has definitively proclaimed that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, and that His mortal remains were raised to life in His Resurrection.

These modern theologians, however, believe we should sort through our inherited doctrinal baggage and classify its contents according to subject matter:

Those which make statements (especially controversial ones) involving historical and physical realities (e.g. dead bodies or the conception of babies) can now be discarded as excess baggage. We are to leave them lying above ground, as it were,  where they will be exposed to possible bombing raids on the part of the historical or physical sciences. If they never actually get hit, well and good. But if they do, it doesn’t matter. They are expendable, negotiable. Meanwhile, we will gather up the remaining doctrines—the purely transcendent or supernatural ones we have received from our Catholic heritage—and scurry off with this “survival kit” to an underground bunker with a sign saying “revealed truth”. Here, in our theological bomb-shelter, our faith will be utterly impregnable from all possible scientific explosions.

The problem is, of course, that not only reactionaries like the editor of the Brandsma Review but virtually all non-believers think that such conduct makes your entire religion indefensible. As Fr Harrison puts it:

The new theology, designed especially to make faith more credible for modern man, seems to hold little attraction for him. The churches keep on emptying, as a greater consensus grows outside the Church that there is, quite simply, no water of any sort on the dark side of the moon.

One of the leaders of the worker-priest movement in France after World War II, Abbé Michonneau, originally believed that the workers had become alienated from Christianity because they thought the Church was on the side of capitalist exploiters. He later revised his opinion, admitting that when he began talking to real workers, a much more common reason given for unbelief was the conviction that Christianity had been demolished by modern science.

Of course, we will never be able to offer “proof” of such doctrines as the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. If we could, faith would have no reason for existence. But it is becoming equally clear that atheists and agnostics are no closer today to destroying the bases of belief. Which is why bomb-shelter theology, quite apart from being unconvincing, is also unnecessary.

It is a great morale booster when we find an atheist like the biologist Richard Dawkins of The Blind Watchmaker fame so unsure of his ground that he declines a television debate with the biochemist Michael Behe, who convincingly rejects the Darwinian theory of evolution.

It is also encouraging when we find strong evidence being unearthed for the authenticity of artefacts connected with the faith. Leaving aside the question of the Holy Shroud (the evidence for which I still find very strong) I was most impressed by a book published around the year 2000—The Quest for the True Cross by Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D’Ancona.

Thiede—not a Catholic—is Professor of New Testament History in Basel and an expert on papyri. He is also a historian, and finds time to be Officiating Chaplain to British forces in Germany. D’Ancona is Deputy Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, with a First in Modern History at Oxford. In a previous book, The Jesus Papyrus, they argued that two fragments of the Gospels—one from St Matthew and the other from St Mark—could be dated to the early Sixties A.D. and perhaps even earlier.

Their researches on the True Cross concentrated on a fragment of wood in the reliquary of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome. This is the Titulus Crucis, alleged to be part of the headboard affixed by Pilate to the Cross on which Our Lord died.

Thiede and D’Ancona rightly describe their book as a radical work of revisionism. Its heroine is St Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who at the age of over 70 travelled to the Holy Land and unearthed what she believed to be the True Cross. The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon sneered that she “appears to have united the credulity of age with the warm feelings of a recent conversion.” The authors argue that “much contemporary scholarship is guilty of a different kind of credulity, a zealous readiness to dismiss ancient tradition as rubbish, as if the only purpose of legend were to distort and conceal the truth”.

They demolish the idea that the Cross became a significant Christian symbol only after Constantine and Helena:

We suggest that the centrality of the Cross to the life of the Church goes back to its earliest days and that its image was widely venerated by Christians in Palestine much earlier than has been acknowledged. We suggest that this cult had an unabashedly physical dimension and that the earliest worshippers flocked to the site of the crucifixion even when it was covered over by a pagan temple. When Helena came to Jerusalem in A.D 326, she was responding to a local tradition as well as founding an imperial one. She was not the first pilgrim to seek the True Cross, only the most important.

Thiede and D’Ancona provide many cogent pieces of evidence for their assertion that the site of the Crucifixion was venerated by Christian pilgrims from the West from earliest times. Perhaps the most impressive is a wall drawing of a boat with the Latin inscription, Domine ivimus, “Lord, we have arrived!”, which can be dated to before the visit of the Empress. Helena would have known just where to start her men digging.

The inscription ordered by Pilate to be fixed over Our Lord’s head was “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Interestingly, the fragments of Greek and Latin on the Santa Croce Titulus are written from right to left, which is powerful evidence against the assumption that it must be a forgery. This would have been a natural way for someone whose first language was Hebrew or Aramaic to write, but not what one would expect from anyone trying to pass off a fake as genuine. Only traces of the bottom of the Hebrew line can be made out, but they can be reconstructed to read Ha Nozrithe Nazarene.

The authors admit that they cannot prove the Titulus to be the headboard of Christ; but they have quite certainly demonstrated that it could be. And why should one automatically rule out such a possibility? In one chapter introduction the authors quote from Evelyn Waugh’s historical novel Helena (which I’d recommend to readers).The saint and empress says:

But how do you know He doesn’t want us to have it—the cross I mean? I bet He’s just waiting for one of us to go and find it—just at this moment when it’s most needed.

Maybe the research on the Titulus is intended to provide us with a little kindly light in our own even murkier days. As I said above, our faith does not depend on such things, but (contrary to the view of our bomb-shelter theologians) its links with the physical are not embarrassing encumbrances but essentials. In an earlier part of Waugh’s novel (which I am now recollecting from memory) the empress, sceptical about all the fantastic mystery religions followed by her husband Constantius Chlorus, consults the Christian writer Lactantius and asks him about his God. She is set on the path to belief when Lactantius is able to tell her exactly when and where Our Lord lived and died.

In their concluding paragraph Thiede and D’Ancona maintain that the True Cross speaks, above all, to the human desire to know:

 “I want knowledge,” says the knight Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, The Seventh Seal. “Not faith, not presumption. Knowledge.” It is an ancient human weakness and a forgivable one. For what else drove the Crusaders so many centuries ago and still drives the pilgrims who creep down the stairs at the Holy Sepulchre to Helena’s chapel today? It is the wish to match belief with experience, conscious that the leap is always hard and sometimes never achieved. But it is the hope that the leap is possible, now as before, which makes the quest worthwhile.

Back to our bomb-shelter theologians…

Larry the Lamb’s friend Dennis the Dachshund, hiding from a dragon which turned out not to be dangerous at all, inquired: “Safe is it to come out?”

Well, safer out than in, Fathers! You see, Fr Harrison’s “moonie” theologians’ conclusions were in some ways more respectable than your own. As he says, they still left their dogma exposed or vulnerable to further scientific scrutiny by leaving open the question of whether the moon-water (though demonstrably invisible) was at least tangible or not. That very exposure to scientific testing, which placed them in great danger of yet more ridicule, also left them with a slim chance of having their traditional religion triumphantly vindicated by science. Fr Harrison concludes his parable…

We can imagine a scenario in which, with the further advance of technology, space-ships can not only photograph, but also visit, the craters. But as the first landing craft approaches the crater-floor, disaster strikes! As it descends past the rim of the crater, still 400 feet above ground level, the craft is rocked by a resounding SPLASH! The crew feel first their boots, then their trousers and other clothes, soaked by a rising inundation of … water no human eye can see!

With the whole of planet earth watching in horror on television, the craft takes its passengers to an invisible watery grave; but the last words transmitted to earth by the doomed radio-man before his equipment sputters out remain forever engraved on the memory of the human race: “The water! It’s (gulp), it’s (glug)—SALTY!!”

February 15, 2016

Praying to be declared a ‘hate crime’

Some commentators in England are getting all hot and bothered about the appointment of sports commentator Dan Walker,  an evangelical Christian (what I would call a Low Church Protestant)  to the BBC Breakfast show. They think he may distort important new stories because of his faith. I think that is grotesquely bigoted, and I greatly enjoyed what the blogger Eccles has to say in his post today:

Following the news that the distinguished atheist Richard Dawkins has suffered a mild stroke (fear not, he will soon recover, and the only after-effects will be an inability to speak coherently, so no change there)… following this news, the Church of England, together with other organizations, has encouraged people to pray for Richard and his family (Romana, K9 the dog, and his hive of honey-bearing bees). The main argument from the Christian perspective is that Richard needs a bit more time to get his act together before going to meet his Maker, so let’s give it to him.

Justin Welby praying
The arch-troll of Canterbury, deliberately offending atheists.
However, supporters of Dawkins have accused such Christians of trolling, and it is clear that the only way this situation can be resolved is if praying for atheists is declared to be a “hate crime”. Police will be given the powers to raid private homes and confiscate laptops in the search for prayer lists and other evidence of “hate prayers”.
Already it is considered culturally insensitive to wish people “Happy Christmas”, rather than “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings”, and those of my readers who annually send Richard Dawkins a card saying “May you have a Holy and Blessed Christmas you silly old goat” should stop that sort of thing.
Personally, I welcome prayers from Christians. If people with less refined beliefs wish to pray to stone idols, sacred donkeys or Prince Philip, then I promise not to be offended.
Prince Philip worshippers
“O Prince Philip, bless thy servant Dawkins, we pray!”
In other news, it has been revealed that a genuine Christian, Dan Walker, has been appointed to host the BBC’s prestigious breakfast show Get off the Sofa, you Lazy Slob, and Go to Work.
This is a controversial appointment since not only is it virtually certain that Mr Walker is guilty of hate crime (praying) in his spare time, but also, since he is a Christian, he must believe that snakes can talk, that wine-making is done by pouring water into large pots, and that the blind can be cured by having mud rubbed into their eyes. No doubt also he believes in the great Sky Fairy, which no intelligent person has ever done – well, except for Shakespeare, Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven, Tolkien, … oh make your own list.Dan Walker
Clear off, Dan Walker ! We want someone impartial like Stephen Fry!

June 13, 2015

Papal Slaps for Stalin and the Flappers

We’re within the Octave of the Sacred Heart, so here’s a thought-provoking sermon on the subject by Fr John Hunwicke. He preached it before he was reconciled with the Catholic Church, while still vicar of the (very) Anglo-Catholic parish of  St Thomas the Martyr  in Oxford.

As I read the prayer Iesu dulcissime, prescribed by Pius XI in 1928 to be said in all parish churches, I wondered if my neighbour at St Ebbe’s* was remembering to do the same. That prayer is an act of Reparation ordered to be offered to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for all the insults and blasphemies against that Sacred Heart. Pius XI, you will remember, was the Pope who revised the propers for Mass and Office and endowed the Feast of the Sacred Heart with a (short-lived) Octave. And, in this Act of Reparation, one of the offences to be expiated is: immodest and unbecoming dress.

Immodest dress in 1928! I rather think that 1928 means we were moving towards the era of the Flappers; slinky dresses; jazz; cocktails; the Charleston. Pius XI was also the pope who ordered the feast of Christ the King to be observed, as a marker against the Age of the Great Dictators and of the overmighty state. What a combative pontiff Papa Ratti must have been, despite his dusty decades as Prefect in the Vatican Libraries. He was a veritable Pope of the Church Militant, with one hand swiping at the Dictators of Left and Right; with the other, administering a firm smack to the Flappers.

But is there really an equivalence between Stalin and the Flappers? The Flappers may have been a trifle naughty, but they surely weren’t murderous? They didn’t send you to gulags or contrive a genocidal famine in the Ukraine. Yet … I wonder. This age of ours, an age of sexual license, of which the Thirties were perhaps the first care-free dawn, has led to a new Holocaust: of the unborn. I don’t think you have to be over-imaginative to join up a line of dots between the flirty skirts of the Thirties and the era of the overmighty abortionists. Which may serve to remind us that it was Pius XI who also, in his Encyclical Casti Connubii, defended the principles of Christian Marriage.

I suspect one could draw conclusions about the prophetic role of the Papacy from all this. But today, in conclusion, I want simply to underline Pius XI’s promotion of the cult of the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart is an iconographical topos only too easy to ridicule. You remember how that acute liturgical commentator, Professor Richard Dawkins, not long ago, evoked a wonderful picture of the Church tumbling around Pope Benedict’s ears ‘amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch Sacred Hearts’: rhetoric almost worthy of the great Goebbels himself. Indeed. The World does not admire those who find refuge in the widely-opened Sacred Heart of Jesus; our idols, our ‘celebrities’, are only too often the shallow and the promiscuous and the foul-mouthed, not the quiet contemplative rapt in adoring and intercessory prayer before the pierced Heart of our Saviour. But God has chosen what the World calls Foolish to shame the Clevers; what the World calls weak, to confound the Macho; because in the opened Heart of Christ crucified, what the World calls foolishness and weakness is made to be the strength and the wisdom of God.

*Fr  Hunwicke was being a bit bold here. St Ebbe’s describes itself as a “large, friendly evangelical church” which of course means it is “low church”. It would  have no time for Catholic  devotions like the Sacred Heart, and would certainly not feel obliged to accede to the wishes of any Pope.