Exploring Science and Religion
Creator God Evolving World by Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod, Fortress Press, 168pp, £11.99, available via Amazon
Creator God Evolving World differs from your average “science vs religion” book in much the same way as a buffalo differs from a bison (as the joke goes, you can’t wash your hands in a buffalo). It’s a very different kind of animal. Many books have been written in defence of religious belief in the face of scientific challenges, but this is not one of them. It doesn’t set out to prove that God exists or to reconcile Scripture with Darwin. In contrast, this is a work of theology in which a unity of purpose between scientific understanding and religious truth is assumed. This is not to say that difficulties are ignored, far from it, but they are viewed more as opportunities to deepen and explore our theological understanding than as problems to be solved. The result is far more interesting, insightful and unified than the tired old “I will show you how this thing called science is not a problem for this thing called religion”.
For example, the book examines the problems encountered when one tries to reconcile statistical sciences, emergent probability and random chance with a God who is all-knowing. If God knows the outcome, is it random? If the universe changes, does God change? These questions lead on to interesting discussions about whether the universe has a built in “directionality” or is guided step by step by a God who is forever interfering to put things back on course; and about the meaning of time and the role of special relativity. In the absence of a need to “prove it” to sceptics, the authors are free to touch on many areas of interest that are normally excluded in books that seek to answer rather than explore. Another example is the paragraph on the role of free will in God’s plan. Human freedom is surely the antithesis of an all-powerful God, and yet God created us with free will.
There are parallels here with the role of evolution, which also appears to take creative power out of God’s hands and yet is a part of God’s creation. Just as evolution is oriented towards the creation of humanity, even when it created poisonous spiders that kill us, is free will oriented towards good even when it includes bad choices? These are not questions with fixed answers, and while I don’t agree with (or necessarily understand) all of the authors’ conclusions, it is a welcome chance to step outside the paths that have been well trodden by a multitude of “science vs religion” books.
Something I did find irritating, particularly in the earlier chapters, is the effort to make the text more accessible. The authors are clearly aware that the subject matter is complex and have tried to make this a book for “the ordinary person in the pew”, with simplified explanations and summaries at the end of each chapter. Unfortunately, I think the effort fails to make things easy enough for anybody not already familiar with the concepts and in some cases actually adds to the confusion. The result is a book that feels dragged out, that reads in slow motion. One gets the sense that the authors wanted to write an advanced book on cutting-edge theology but were leaned on by a publisher in need of a wider audience. In conclusion, it’s an interesting book, but it could have been better done.
Solidarity with the Unresponsive
John Paul II and the Apparently ‘Non-Acting’ Person by Pia Matthews, Gracewing, paperback, 286pp, £12.99p
This is a most useful and interesting book. It tackles the important question of how we should care for people who are gravely handicapped or ill, including those who are in a deep coma and apparently unresponsive to any ordinary form of stimulus. They are unable to feed themselves or give themselves water. Should they, then, be left to die of thirst and starvation?
Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, some years ago, published a philosophical work which was published in English with the rather awkward title The Acting Person. The book was not well known, and even after he became Pope it remained a somewhat obscure work. When mentioning the title of this present work to potential readers I have found that a typical reaction has been “How dare they say that John Paul was a non-acting person! He was a wonderful teacher and missionary – think of World Youth Day and all those great missionary journeys…”
Once this hurdle is over, the reader will find this an excellent book which explores, with great sensitivity and understanding, the question of what it means to be human, why each human person has great value and importance, and why the frail and gravely ill matter just as much as the rest of us.
Saint John Paul II taught the world about frailty and suffering, especially by his witness in the last years of his life, and through the teaching given in his encyclicals and preaching. The idea of suffering as a part of human reality, and of compassion – of “suffering with” – is explored in depth. The mystery of suffering, linked to the mystery of Christ’s passion, engages us: it is part of the mystery that is every human person. There are so many millions of us, but God’s love for each of us is personal, deep, and enduring. And, as Dr Matthews points out, “as a consequence of the transcendent vocation of every human being, this call to friendship with God, no human being can be considered redundant, inconvenient or unproductive”.
When John Paul spoke of vocation, of God’s call, he never assumed that a “call” meant a call to be busy with what the world sees as useful and productive things. Often, a great deal of busy-ness – meetings, conference calls, media hype, anger and frustration at airport delays or missed taxis – is unproductive, in the everyday sense anyway. And often, something that appears unproductive – a loving vigil at a bedside, a visit to a confused elderly person who seems not to recognise us – has a value which even the bleakest cynic can somehow perceive and honour.
Dr Matthews draws all this, and much more, together in a readable and indeed at times engrossing work which challenges the clichés of much of what passes for current medical ethics, and points us to a better way. To give water and food, if necessary by tube, to someone in a coma is an act of human solidarity that binds us together as human beings and recognises the true values without which civilisation must perish. The cruel decision to enforce suffering, by an insistence on a person’s ability to show some response, carries a viciousness within it which is fearsome.
This is a well-researched and important book and is a must-read for all involved with caring for the sick – which means most of us, at some stage in our lives. Decisions about whether “life has meaning” are presented all the time in our country’s hospitals and in residences for the elderly, the mentally impaired, and the gravely handicapped. We cannot duck this topic; and if we try to do so, we will in any case find that it forces itself on us one way or another, and probably in a way that impinges on our own lives.
John Paul called us to see a sick and suffering person as “an active and responsible participant in the work of evangelisation and salvation”. This is crucial. Together, at the foot of the Cross and in union with our suffering Lord, we can work for the good of souls.
I am grateful to Dr Pia Matthews for this book, and you will be too.
A Forgotten Cardinal
By the Thames Divided – Cardinal Bourne in Southwark and Westminster by Mark Vickers, Gracewing, 614pp, £25.00.
In this biography, Fr Mark Vickers – whose name will be familiar to readers of this journal – provides a study of a little-known yet important figure, and at the same time a glimpse of a little-known but important period in English Catholic history.
Francis Cardinal Bourne was Archbishop of Westminster from 1903 to 1935, his reign being the longest of any holder of that office. His priesthood and episcopacy coincided with perhaps the zenith of British imperial expansion and self-confidence, which was similarly a period of self-confidence for the English Catholic Church. No longer the persecuted remnant of recusant days, nor confined to caring for the huddled masses emigrating from famine in Ireland, the Church of this period had taken a settled place in society.
It was not, of course, as prominent as the Established Church of England, yet it was a respected force of which political leaders were obliged to take notice. New churches, schools and Catholic institutions were constantly being opened, and the Catholic community was a vibrant one, the small nucleus of “Old Catholics” having been augmented by Anglican converts and Irish emigrants – from which groups came Francis Bourne’s own family.
After a “very Victorian childhood”, the young Bourne discerned a priestly vocation and was formed at the famous seminary of St Sulpice in Paris, an experience which, as Fr Vickers notes, had a “profound impact on his intellectual development and theological outlook”.
Devout, zealous and academically able, Bourne spent only a short time as a curate, before taking charge of the Southwark diocesan seminary, at Wonersh near Guildford. St John’s Seminary became one of the great causes of his life, and his devotion to the institution and its students was reciprocated: “I don’t suppose that anywhere in England was there such hero-worship and such filial respect as we had for the rector,” wrote one of his students.
Bourne wished to live and die as rector of Wonersh (his heart is buried there), but higher office called him. He was first consecrated Bishop of Southwark, and then transferred to Westminster – his episcopacy being thus “by the Thames divided”, as this book’s title has it.
Bourne’s love for education, shown in his efforts at Wonersh, was soon put to wider application in defence of Catholic schools. In 1906 the newly elected Liberal government proposed an Education Bill which sought a dramatic reform of English schooling. Although chiefly aimed at reducing undue Anglican influence, the effects on Catholic schools would have been devastating. Bourne responded both with public rallies – a mass meeting at the Albert Hall attracted 12,000 ticketholders, with 40,000 other participants in overflow venues – and more subtle, backstage diplomacy. His efforts were successful. In Fr Vickers’ words, “the continued existence of Catholic schools today owes much to Bourne’s leadership”.
The education issue showed the important place Catholics now played in British society. When the First World War broke out, the Catholic community played its part in defending British interests. In the context of the current commemorations of that war, this book’s description of Bourne’s role during the conflict will be of interest to many readers. Fr Vickers demonstrates that Bourne was no jingoist, but he was a patriotic Briton and wanted his Catholic people to play an active part in what he perceived as a just war. He had little sympathy for pacifists – a rather splendid photograph in the book shows the Cardinal in full pontificals and a beaver hat on the foredeck of a battleship.
Pope Benedict XV’s “Peace Note” of 1917, calling for an immediate laying down of arms, was not welcome either. Though expressing loyalty to the Holy Father, Bourne made it clear that he did not see peace, as such, as the most desirable outcome: “No! We demand the triumph of right over wrong!” With the benefit of hindsight, we can only regret that the Pope’s call was not better heeded, that the war was not brought to an end without the bitterness and recrimination of 1918, and in particular that the Hapsburg Empire (which alone of the major powers welcomed the “Peace Note”) was not allowed to continue in some form its mission of keeping the peace among the fractured nations of middle Europe. But if Bourne’s martial fervour was in some respects regrettable, it certainly reflected the feelings of most of his fellow countrymen, Catholic or not.
Bourne supported the war effort, in part, because he wanted English Catholics to be seen as loyal and faithful subjects of the Crown. For similar reasons he was unsympathetic towards the General Strike of 1926 and to Irish Republicanism, particularly when it turned to violence – and so earned the sobriquet of “the Black and Tan Cardinal”. This was unfair, as this book shows. Indeed, Bourne was far from being a reactionary, either politically or in doctrinal matters. He supported the right of Catholics to be active in the newly founded Labour Party and was perhaps over-sympathetic towards the English Modernists – although Fr Vickers is clear that he remained personally orthodox throughout his life.
Above all, Francis Bourne always sought to be a loyal servant of Christ and his Church. He was initially favourable to the “Malines Conversations” – which sought to draw together Catholics and High Anglicans – but turned against them when he realised they were likely to undermine Catholic doctrine on papal infallibility and other teachings.
Do his achievements make the Cardinal a truly great man? In the end, one would have to answer no. Highly capable and devout, he was nevertheless fatally flawed in some respects, not least in his dealings with other people. Sometimes he seems to have come close to paranoia and allowed trifling upsets to rankle. His famous falling-out with Archbishop Amigo of Southwark – his handpicked successor – is just one instance of this. Throughout this unhappy episode, there were undoubtedly faults on both sides; but as Fr Vickers remarks, “Bourne must bear the greater and original part of the blame”. Yet for all his flaws, Bourne remains an admirable character, of simple faith and unwavering toil, and the period during which he dominated Church affairs is a fascinating one. In rescuing the Cardinal and his times from their relative obscurity, Fr Vickers has performed a great service to Catholic readers.
Robust Alternative Celebs
A Book of Saints and Heroes, by Joanna Bogle, Gracewing, 131pp, £9.99
A Book of Saints and Heroines, by Joanna Bogle, Gracewing, 100pp, £9.99
Standing in the supermarket checkout I never fail to be amazed by the number of magazines dedicated to gossip about the famous and infamous. Why are so many people interested in the lives of people they have never met and are never likely to, and what good does it do them to read about the private lives of celebrities? The occasional article may reveal a hidden depth or strength of personality to be admired, but headlines along the lines of “Is X seeing someone else? Y gives furious reaction” are hardly edifying. When looking for people to admire and emulate we have lost our way. We need saints not stars.
Joanna Bogle’s two books, A Book of Saints and Heroes and A Book of Saints and Heroines, are an excellent way of addressing this need. Both books have the same structure: a clear index and friendly introduction followed by 25 chapters dedicated to Christians who showed heroic virtue. There are only a few pages on each person or group, but that is sufficient to introduce us to these heroes and heroines of our Faith. The books are arranged more or less chronologically, starting with the beginnings of the Church and ending in modern times. This means that each book can be read through from the beginning or dipped into at will.
Many of the men and women are well known. Saints and Heroes begins with St Peter and ends with St John Paul II; and Saints and Heroines begins with Our Lady and ends with Mother Teresa, but others are far less famous outside their own communities. Not all are canonised, but all led lives of courage and devotion. I enjoyed revisiting the traditional stories: George, Andrew, David and Patrick, for example, from the men’s book; and Mary Magdalene, Clare and Joan of Arc from the women’s. And I was particularly interested to discover the stories behind some of the names I had heard mentioned but had never followed up, for example Emperor Karl von Habsburg and Bishop Count von Galen from the heroes and Kateri Tekakwitha and Josephine Bakhita from the heroines. For me, however, the best parts of the books were the chapters covering the new heroes and heroines, whose lives were an inspiration to all who knew them but whose stories are only just beginning to be told.
The stories of these men and women cover many different vocations and areas of witness. Mother Mary McKillop in the 19th century and Father John Hawes in the 20th worked to serve the Church in the Australian Outback. Fr Willie Doyle ministered to the troops in the trenches of the First World War; Natalia Tulasiewicz and Marcel Callo were victims of the Nazis in the Second. Marco was arrested for being “too Catholic”, and Natalia volunteered to go with a group of women rounded up for forced labour; both died in concentration camps. We are given an introduction to the Martyrs of Russia, Mexico and Drina (near Sarajevo). In the latter half of the 20th century Fr Christian de Chergé, Fr Jerzy Popieluszko and Fr Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi all worked for justice and were all murdered, Fr Christian by anti-Christian extremists in Algeria, Fr Jerzy by the Communist secret police in Poland and Fr Pino by the Mafia in Italy.
Both books are written in a clear, easy-to-read style and would be particularly good presents for a young person preparing for confirmation and trying to choose a patron saint. The shortness of the chapters makes them an easy way in to the lives of the saints for those who are short on time or unused to reading religious material. If I had to make one small criticism of the books it would be that I would have liked some end-of-chapter notes with recommended reading to follow up some of the stories, although I suppose there is always Google!
In writing these books Joanna Bogle has provided an entertaining and robust alternative to reading about celebrity culture. She has presented us with a vision of faith and courage and examples of true heroism.