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Saturday, December 31, 2005

From the Old to the New

New Wine Posted by Picasa

The civil New Year coincides with the Feasts of St. Basil the Great and the Circumcision of our Lord. There is a certain appropriateness here in respect of the Circumcision although coincidence of the dates is, of course, entirely accidental.

The Gospel of St. Luke (2:21) records that Christ was circumcised according to the Law of Moses on the 8th day. According to this rite, like all male Jewish children, Our Lord was joined to the Covenant relationship between God and His chosen people. In being made a part of this Covenant he received the traditions of Israel concerning God and the Tenakh, (Law, Prophecy and Wisdom) as his own. It was from within this Covenant and Tradition that our Lord subsequently worked to teach and to heal.

At first Jesus worked within the confines of Israel yet there was something new and authoritative about his teaching and healing that attracted the Gentiles as well. The Messianic fulfilment of Law, Prophecy and Wisdom in his Person and Work turned out to be much more than a restatement of Israel's faith but a deepening, enriching and extending of that faith and Kingdom life to all who would receive it, both Jew and Gentile alike. In this, our Lord was attacked by religious conservatives in Israel for not being faithful to Law, Prophecy and Wisdom. His teachings on the Sabbath, for example, provoked outrage ... as did his claim to forgive sins, a prerogative of God alone. Nonetheless in Him all the Messianic prophecies came true and more.

This was enough to convert Jews and the Gentiles were inexorably drawn to the universal appeal of his message of God's unconditional Love and impartial Justice. Even when he died an ignominious death on the Cross, a destiny not traditionally ascribed to the Messiah, many pragmatic Jewish rabbis such as Gamaliel counselled a "wait and see" approach. When he rose from the dead, scurrilous rumours were put about that the disciples had stolen his body. You can almost taste the salacious conspiratorial appeal of the Da Vinci Code back in those days as well! Nevertheless, this paschal triumph itself forged something entirely new in Israel, a mission to the Gentiles. And so the Church was born, the new Israel of God.

In all of this we see two undercurrents of keeping and breaking ... of keeping faithful to an Old Tradition and Covenant, hence circumcision, and the breaking of the mould that the new work of God might emerge thereby creating a New Covenant and Tradition, represented of course in the practice of baptism, as St. Paul calls it, a "circumcision made without hands." (Colossians 2:11f).

This revolutionary shift from the Old to New is not achieved without some conflict but neither does it represent some radical breaking with all of the old ways. Much of the subsequent Apostolic Tradition is taken up with what is to be retained as mandatory, what is to be permissible but not required and what is to be abandoned for something else. Our Lord did not settle all these Old to New issues in his own earthly work and ministry of course. That's why the Holy Spirit came, "to guide you into all truth." {John 16:13).

The Church worked through all these knotty problems in Council, the first being in Jerusalem of course to resolve the contentious matter of how the Mosaic law applied to Gentile believers. Since then, the Church has continued to meet and pray and discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit on disputed issues. There is nothing static or set in stone about Holy Tradition. As a New Covenant revelatory principle it is alive and dynamic under the sovereignty of God who often insists on "new wineskins for new wine."

That much ought to be a twofold warning for us. First, not to neglect the Tradition that we have received, but then not to traduce it by closing our minds and hearts to the new work that God is seeking to do in our own time and place. The balance between those two principles, faithful conservatism and creative advance is one not achieved without difficulty. If we are listening to God though and prepared to act together on his Word we shall not go amiss. Truly the Old is always the seedcorn of the New. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

All Our Humanity

Christ is Born. Glorify Him! Posted by Picasa

At this holy feast the Church rejoices with one voice:-
"Christ is born; Glorify Him."

Note that … "Christ IS born … " present tense.

The Nativity is a present reality for us Orthodox Christians. It’s not just that we celebrate a past event now; there’s more to it than that. Christ is eternally born for all generations in the same way that he is both referred to in the Scriptures as "slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8] and also eternally risen and alive in the Cosmos. He is slain so that we might know that he dies for us. He is risen so that we might taste the fruit of his victory over death. But, how is he born for us, for such is our confession on the feast of his Nativity?

St. Gregory of Nazianzen, one of the 4th century Cappadocian fathers and my patron wrote a letter to a certain priest Cledonius. In that letter we read these crucial words concerning the Incarnation …

"For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved."

And there we have it. He is born for us because our humanity … ALL our humanity must be saved, restored, healed. God took upon himself our WHOLE humanity, entire and complete from the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Theotokos in order to return it back to us WHOLE, in one piece, restored to its primal beauty … and more, glorified in the resurrection.

This means that there is NOTHING in our humanity that we cannot not now find in God; ALL is there, all our faculties, body, mind and spirit … all our relationships, all our fears, hopes, joys and dreads … ALL is present in the Christ and, today, this night the Eve of Christ – Mass, our childhood, that most precious thing that should endure until our death if we are to live fully and enter the Kingdom of God … as a child.

It is not necessary, indeed it is entirely wrong and dangerous, for us to lay aside anything of our humanity in receiving Christ, yet there are Christian traditions that demand precisely that. These hold that one must lay aside pleasure or art or laughter or sexuality or questionings or all manner of normal natural things to be spiritual. Such joyless, depressing damaging ideas take flight as Christmas time for now we affirm that God indeed has come in the flesh and made holy all that is human.

The question of what is not holy gets re-defined. It is a life lived unmindful of God, ungrateful and hateful … in short a denial of our very humanity. That is why the Incarnation is good news because for the very first time we hear the liberating message that God IS intimately concerned with our human condition and potential because He has taken this to Himself in the coming of our Lord and his birth, not only once for all in Bethlehem but also right here and now in our hearts. And so we close with words from a 17th century Christian mystic, not himself Orthodox but expressing himself in a very Orthodox manner, Angelus Silesius.

"Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, But not within thyself, thy soul shall be forlorn."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Jesus Who?

Nicholas Forgets Posted by Picasa

Sometimes on entering the ruin of a venerable old church it is possible to imagine ancient voices in prayer shimmering around the worn old stones. Listen very hard and you may catch something recognisable but long forgotten, a snippet of prayer perhaps, the invocation of a saint barely understood by the passing tourist. Such is Christianity and the Church now in this country. The echoes of this great Faith are adorned with baubles of consumerism and sentiment but they have lost their power to convert, to transform, to topple even Empires. There is nothing lacking in the words of course, their power; nothing lacking in God himself; but there is a great lack in our culture and it seems that I particularly feel it even more keenly as Christmas succeeds Christmas.

The Church I think, (and I mean the Orthodox Church and all those outside her who nonetheless share her faith), the Church needs to rediscover and enhance her presence and voice, not by compromise with the world in order to put a few more half-hearted Christians in the pews, (here today, gone tomorrow), but by living authentically and fully the Christian life. If that means that the Church numerically is smaller that matters not for the most needful thing is that her presence and voice is sure.

In respect of Christmas this means that Christians should simply observe and celebrate the festival on their own terms. We should neither sneer at the commercialism nor begrudge people their Winter Solstice festivities but we should certainly not confuse all of this with the birth of Christ. In many ways, perhaps, it becomes easier and easier to celebrate Christmas as it should … our society resembles, religiously and culturally, more and more like pagan Rome as year follows year. A bitter sweet message for Christmas then, but one doubtless that we all recognise in the echoing ruins of a former glory, an age long gone.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Balls of Wavy String

Albert Einstein Posted by Picasa

The recent Solvay Conference in Brussels is reported by the New Scientist as having some sombre news for those expecting great things from a Theory of Everything that will reconcile Relativity’s theory of gravity (courtesy of Einstein) with that of quantum mechanics. This elusive goal, the “holy grail” of contemporary physics and cosmology has eluded science for decades. It was hoped that string theory would do the job but the estimation of that cluster of theories is now much more modest. The problem is that conceiving of matter and energy as vibrating strings with frequencies matching observed (and un-observed but hypothesised) subatomic particles simply generates an embarrassingly large number of models with little way of sorting out which applies to our universe and why. Moreover, we have no real way as yet of testing these theories to destruction. The reason scientists are at an impasse is that few can yet see what might compete with such a theory that is long on promise but short on delivery. Many are calling for a real “out-of-the-box” idea that will move things along. Such intuitions some when least expected and in surprising places. The last time it happened, arguably, was to an amateur scientist, a self-taught Austrian patents clerk called Albert Einstein.

Now all of this, for all my interest, is way, way beyond me but one thing may be not. It concerns how scientists model reality. There have been many different ways of modelling matter … point-like particles, waves, strings (open and closed). What one notices about these are that they are concepts extrapolated from the macro world of snooker balls, ripples on a pond and vibrating rubber bands. Sometimes the models only work in combination. The quantised approach to electromagnetic radiation for example depends on a combination of the snooker ball and the pond ripple. At this level of complexity it is very difficult to visualise what is being represented; hence the title of this article. Herein though might lay a clue to future developments in the search for a true Theory of Everything, (assuming such a theory can be devised, which is itself disputed). I want to suggest that science can learn from theology. Some may now want to take a deep breath and sit down!

In theological modelling no single concept or analogy will suffice; the more the better. However, there is order in this accretion of models; certain integrating and governing principles – in Christianity for example the primary key of “God is love.” In and around that key, however, all sorts of analogous statements may be made, every bit as metaphorical as a model of matter constituency. God is Light, God is Good, God is a Rock etc. This is called cataphatic theology ... it says:- “God is like this.” However, this is not the whole story. Theology is also apophatic, by which I mean it proceeds by denying that such models bear any exact correlation to God-in-himself. So God is not a light bulb, male, an inaminate object etc. What if scientific modelling were to work in a similar way? Matter is constituted by vibrating strings but not as we see in a twanged rubber band. We would then move on to a host of other models, each qualified by the apophatic approach and each assembling into a holistic key … utterly unimaginable but which works to unlock observable and repeatable experimental results. In other words, the modelling has to get a lot more complicated before it gets a lot simpler and easier to handle. It may be that we shall have to wait for quantum computers to be developed, enormously increasing our present number crunching powers, before such really sophisticated modelling can be designed and tested against new experimental data coming out of CERN’s forthcoming new accelerator and orbital gravity wave detectors. In short, we need more imagination (not less) and more raw computing power. We certainly need a healing of the historic divorce between science and philosophy / theology without either discipline(s) being confused or applied inappropriately. Maybe it will then be possible to speak of “balls of wavy string” and more besides. It might even usher in a new and more creative dialogue between a more humble theology and a less dismissive science. I hope so anyway.

Monday, November 14, 2005

What's Right and What's Wrong with Secularism

Secularism Found Wanting? Posted by Picasa

There can be no doubt that aspects of secularism in western liberal democracies have proven their worth in the development of a civil society able to sustain various freedoms both personal and academic and to foster economic development. Other features of secularism have been less conducive to human flourishing and these touch on its relations with value bearing faith systems and cultures standing in antithesis to its most basic tenet ... that no ideology or faith shall command the attention of the public square.

Of course, secularism has tried to steer society by its own moral compass ... a loosely defined collection of various human rights. However, human rights, speak of entitlements, not ultimate meanings and daily responsibilities. Secularism cannot deliver such values and beliefs by its very nature. So, in places where secularism is pursued aggressively so as to relegate faith to the private and, therefore, marginal sphere, the reaction against such privation has caused protest and conflict. States can no longer afford to be amoral or to base ethical responses on populist appeal.

The riots in French cities (and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Europe) have been variously blamed on the social and cultural alienation, economic injustice, racism and the refusal of the French to track ethnic disadvantage on the grounds that all citizens are equal. Clearly some citizens are more equal than others. The Far Right of course has derived great political capital from all of this ... itself stoking the fires of racism and then blaming it on others. What seems to have slipped past most peoples' attention, however, is the rejection of secular western liberal democracy by faith groups who see the secularist ideology as creating and enforcing a godless society. There can be no compromise between an atheist who seeks to build such a society and the believer who seeks to dismantle it; which is why there must be another way of doing things that doesn't pit one group against its diametrical opposite.

Tolerance is good but not good enough. Tolerance is equivalent to saying that peace is merely the absence of war; whereas in fact, peace is a positive thing. Peace needs building; it requires action. Similarly, a civil society which accepts that it can receive and learn from faith groups whilst retaining its refusal to prefer one religious tradition to another must be the way forward. It's sad that in the UK it took the London bombings of 7th July 2005 to bring forward this agenda. Aggressive secularists and religious fundamentalists alike have not welcomed such pluralist rehabilitation of faith in the public domain. No matter; it must proceed if we are to avoid the excesses of violence which arise when people feel that deeply cherished beliefs and values are not being publicly received but rather relegated to the margins of society where they remain, essentially, ineffectual.

If such pluralist engagement is to be credible, however, one platform of secularism must surely be both right and respected. No individual religious tradition should receive preferential treatment from the State. The implications are clear. The Church of England must be disestablished and the monarchy must be allowed to embrace any faith, not exclusively the Anglican one. At one time an objection might be lodged that this would foster secularism and the decline of Christianity. The situation now, I believe has turned round 180 degrees. Only by such a move can religion receive the public respect it deserves, from any quarter. All faiths now need to come in "from the cold" before the temperature on the street gets too hot ... as we have seen in Paris and elsewhere this last month.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

No Fear

"Perfect Love Casts Out Fear" Posted by Picasa

Fundamentalism is on the march it seems. Whether it's Christian Zionism or creationism in the US, Hindu nationalism in Gujarat, Islamic extremism in the Middle East, corrosive repressive religion is rearing its ugly head again. Many put this down to a rejection of modernism, a reaction against the shallow amoral emptiness of secular liberalism or the hubris of scientism. Doubtless all these play their part but for my money, the real culprit is fear.

It is fear that brings out the atavistic response of the reptilian brain, only in humans there is the demonic complexity of the collective. When faced with an imminent threat (actual or imagined) humans bond together. A belief system can be key to this bonding. The ideology of the group, reinforced by opposition from the object of fear, (again, real or imagined and therefore, defended by paranoia), enforces irrational unthinking conformity from the group. Fundamentalism is born.

One thing is clear. Fundamentalism can never be undone by reason alone, (for reason is the classic enemy of the fundamentalist). Irrationality is the language of fundamentalism. You cannot confront irrationality with argument. If fundamentalism is driven by fear then it can only be undone by love, (for perfect love drives out fear - 1 John 4:18).

Of course, love rarely if ever finds its way onto the politician's agenda. Love rarely, if ever, is considered as an effective weapon against superstition and hatred. There is no "real politik" of love .... only bombs and propaganda.

Enter the Church. We DO have the resources to combat the ideological darkness of fundamentalism. The gospel is the power of the Crucified; the promise of the Risen One. But, who is up to the task? Could we dare to say:- "Here am I lord, send me." Befriend a hateful person today. See the power of Love to melt the most hardened of hearts. But do be prepared to die in the attempt for such is the character of a Love that loves even enemies. This kind of love can break the vicious circles of fear, the foul mother of all hatreds; but it is not for the faint hearted. Only faith will do. Only such a faith as this is truly rational.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Universe Doesn't Care!

Starry Starry Night! Posted by Picasa

Consider our sun, the celestial body without which there would be no life on earth. This is not simply because without the sun the earth would wander dark and cold through interstellar space but also by reason of another more fundamental aspect of life and even of physical existence itself.

The Sun is made up of an incandescent mix of, primarily, gas in plasma form. It is composed of about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium. About 0.1% consists of metals (made from hydrogen via nuclear fusion). This ratio is changing very slowly over time as the nuclear reactions continue, converting smaller atoms into more massive ones. Since the Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, it has used up about half of its initial hydrogen supply.

Our Sun is a second or third generation star. Second generation stars do not just burn hydrogen; they also burn heavier elements, like helium and metals (elements heavier than hydrogen and helium), and were formed from supernova explosions (the debris of exploded population II stars).

In other words, a significant percentage of our bodies and everything you see around you was forged in the heavy element fusion process of much more massive and hotter stars than our sun that exploded billions of years ago and bequeathed their products to the interstellar gas that eventually contracted under gravity to form our own star and planets. This is what I mean by saying that the sun is a second or third generation star.

When wags say that we are stardust; it is true. Even stranger is the fact that we are stardust from elsewhere in the galaxy!

Let's stop a bit and reflect.

Without the gargantuan energies powering supernovae explosions there would be no solid earth beneath our feet and no chemical life as we know it.

It gets curiouser! The subatomic processes that lead to nuclear fusion and life-capable matter are governed by quantum and sub atomic forces that are incredibly fine-tuned. If the laws governing these processes were nudged out of alignment ever so slightly, not only would life be impossible in the Universe but also the Universe as a long lasting physical reality would be seriously compromised. Some versions of these laws have the Universe collapsing back into nothingness almost as soon as it has been formed. Scientists call this the “anthropic principle” and it makes the unbelieving ones very twitchy and defensive. There are only two general possibilities:-

(1) "The Universe knew we were coming" as the physicist Freeman Dyson once said. The strong version of the anthropic principle is part of the Intelligent Design, fiercely resisted by such atheist scientists as Richard Dawkins. According to this account, for all the seeming indifference and brutality of the cosmos in which we find ourselves, we live in a Universe that is positively benign toward life and highly driven toward its emergence from "dust." (Echoes of Genesis of course). Lets us recall that in Genesis it says "let the EARTH bring forth ...." In other words, God not create without the agency of a physical process ... and it is that physical process that science investigates.

(2) Quantum Cosmology allows for the formation of countless eternal universes each generated by their own Big Bangs and budding off previous universes in a vast infinite ever-branching network. This is the weak anthropic principle and does not necessarily lead to belief in a Creator, (although it can do, albeit of the disinterested deist sort). Some of these Universes will be extremely short lived or dead. In some universes different laws will promote life, in others not. We just happen to live in one that does ... so no surprise there then on this account! Nonetheless, even the weak anthropic principle based on the "multiverse" model cannot answer the question:- "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

Some of these issues are spelt out a bit more hear by Dr. Michio Kaku ... a fine physicist and communicator. Read him on this subject here.

"What Happened Before the Big Bang?"

Here is his web site ...

Michio Kaku's Web Site

His latest book, "Parallel Universes" is brilliant! (Can I have my cheque in the post please Dr. Kaku? Thanks).

Another physicist called Steve Weinberg, is famous for this broody depressing comment from an old book of his "The First Three Minutes" ...

“It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built from the beginning . . . It is hard to realize that this all [i.e., life on Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more is also seems pointless.”

It all depends on one's perspective. Here is the paradox of faith .... it gives the right perspective in the face of evidence that depresses some (Weinberg) and inspires others (Polkinghorne).

For years, as a child, I would gaze up at the deep blackness of the 1950's north country sky and be moved almost to tears at the shear beauty of it all. I knew then that the Universe was an immense violent place, but to me it was just about the most convincing sign of a Creator that I could imagine. Some years later I came to know this Creator as my Saviour as well. You can imagine what this did to my spirit! Anyway, everyone's path is different albeit we can hint to others of different perspectives.

You might find this Roman Catholic's guy's answer to Weinberg's pessimism as enlightening. I like the bit about the Big Bang being the Big Bloom!

"The Meaning-Full Universe" by Benjamin D. Wiker

What though of suffering, of death and of evil?

As far as death in the Universe is concerned I think as Christians we have to say that death physically is natural but that eternal death, separation from God is not as it arises from the Fall. We all have to die and I don't know, qualitatively speaking, how you can compare an 80 year old with a long terminal illness and an 8 year old killed in Hurricane Katrina. All I know is that life is an enormous privilege and gift for as long as it lasts. I think that our lives are God's little experiment not only to get sentient beings knowing themselves and the world around them but also, of course, God himself. Our deaths then become a harvest of that intelligence, consciousness, wisdom into that Greater Mind which is God Himself lovingly bringing forth ever new creations to his own joy and the joy of his creatures .... maybe eternally and without limit. To be consciously aware of that if only for three score years and ten is an immense privilege. I look forward to the time when we shall truly know and see him as a friend might, face to face.

Keep Up To Date with developments in Astronomy, Astrobiology and Cosmology at The Worlds of David Darling

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

St. Aidan's Legacy

St. Aidan of Lindisfarne Posted by Picasa

The 31st August sees the celebration of the Feast of St. Aidan, the patron saint of our community in Manchester. The facts of St. Aidan’s life and work are well known but there are three aspects that often escape attention.

First, St. Aidan was not the first monk from Iona to land in the northeast. The first returned post haste with lurid stories of the barbarism of the inhabitants and their resistance to the gospel. St. Aidan was wisely sent as a successor on the grounds that he was able to distinguish capacity for “spiritual milk” rather than “spiritual meat.”

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” (Hebrews 5:12)

We do not know much more about this as a practical methodology but we do know of St. Aidan’s great humility and his commitment to education of the young, witness his establishment of a school for local youngsters on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne which later produced both saints and bishops of the Church. Perhaps we should say that the saint knew what to share with the condition and temperament of each person according to the local culture.

In the conditions of Church and Society today we must follow this same pattern. We must not simply expect those who know next to nothing about Christianity to embrace the fullness and richness of Orthodoxy “in one go.” Those who have barely tasted and known that “the Lord is good,” (1 Peter 2:2) can hardly be expected to understand the nuances of the “filioque” or the Orthodox sacramental theology … but they can be Orthodox Christians! Working out what that means is the Orthodox mission task for today.

St. Aidan did not do any of this alone though as, initially, he did not even know the local language … which brings me to my second point.

St. Aidan enlisted the help of others in his great task, no less than the king (later himself to be a saint, Oswald) who became his interpreter on his evangelistic journeys through the northeast. He also had the foresight to know that the Church had to be built through both sanctity and community … something, in a sense, that would be second nature to him as a monk of Iona.

Similarly today, our mission task is a collaborative effort, a community based initiative, enlisting gifts and skills, sometimes from the most unusual quarters. There exist a plethora of voluntary activities and organisations today for various charitable causes but the Church cannot nor should not simply compete with these. Our missionary rationale is quite different. We serve because He served, we lay down our lives because He lay down his life, we preach the words of life because we have been given life. Orthodox missionary work is wholly about God the Life-Giver and bringing others to know Him and the gift of the gospel, each according to his own capacity and need.

Finally, and curiously perhaps for our purpose here, the Lindisfarne monastic community did not survive St. Aidan for more than two centuries, which is a short time of course in the life of the Church. In 875 AD the monks hurriedly left as the Viking raids along the east coast became more persistent and dangerous. They fled with St. Cuthbert’s body, arguably, Lindisfarne’s greatest son. St. Aidan’s legacy, however, did not die with these terrible events. His witness is not limited to temporal constraints and human empires and therein lies his greatness and significance for the Church today.

Our churches may well not survive in their present form. Historically, they have been closed by Muslims, atheists, communists, fascists. They have been plundered by invading armies. Their people have been persecuted, killed, scattered across the globe … just like the scattered children of Lindisfarne although on a much, much bigger scale. Orthodox Christianity, however, is not quenched by such attacks, such impermanence in its earthly foundations. Our life is hid in Christ and no one can touch that. This is what has preserved St. Aidan’s witness to this day. Against this faith and life the gates of hell itself can never prevail. Be of good courage, therefore, Christ has overcome … and so shall we!

Friday, August 19, 2005

"I'll Find My Way Home"

"Seek and ye shall find ... " Posted by Picasa

Here I am sitting at my computer listening to a compilation album from Vangelis and exulting once more in a track ("I'll find my way home") from "The Friends of Mr. Cairo," an album Vangelis co-produced with Jon from those old (now) rockers from "Yes." It struck me once again just how Orthodox the lyrics are. Let's check them out ...

"You ask me where to begin
Am I so lost in my sin
You ask me where did I fall
I'll say I can't tell you when
But if my spirit is lost
How will I find what is near
Don't question I'm not alone
Somehow I'll find my way home

My sun shall rise in the east
So shall my heart be at peace
And if you're asking me when
I'll say it starts at the end
You know your will to be free
Is matched with love secretly
And talk will alter your prayer
Somehow you'll find you are there.

Your friend is close by your side
And speaks in far ancient tongue
A seasons wish will come true
All seasons begin with you
One world we all come from
One world we melt into one

Just hold my hand and we're there
Somehow we're going somewhere
Somehow we're going somewhere


You ask me where to begin
Am I so lost in my sin
You ask me where did I fall
I'll say I can't tell you when
But if my spirit is strong
I know it can't be long
No questions i'm not alone
Somehow I'll find my way home
Somehow I'll find my way home
Somehow I'll find my way home
Somehow I'll find my way home"

Do you hear what I hear?

Everything is in there .... grace, an Orthodox understanding of sin, the companionship of Christ, the presence of brothers and sisters on the journey (the Church) and the goal / home which is union with God.

Perhaps we should listen more to what is being said in the culture; the heartfelt cry of those who, with us, are seeking. May we all find our way home. Amen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Holy Russia

Holy Trinity Lavra, Sergei Possad, North of Moscow Posted by Picasa

My two weeks pilgrimage in Russia in from 25 July to 8 August 2005 came just ten years after my first visit to that great country shortly after my ordination. Ten years ago I had just one week available to me; this time I was blest with a two week stay. My "minder," guide and translator then as now was a good friend from the early days of St. Aidan's (when we worshipped in Stockport in rented rooms), Julia Kuznetsova. This time I was also ably assisted in Moscow by her sister Polina and her brother in law, Ilya. I also had opportunity this year to revisit some of the holy sites of Moscow, (Sergei Possad), new ones in Nizhniy Novgorod, Diveyevo for St. Seraphim of Sarov and the church in Nikolo Pogost where my hosts again were my friends Fr. Vladimir (Chegunov), his wife Galina and their lovely family. Many other new friendships were made on this trip of course, Fr. Nikolai and family, Arseniy, Mikhail, Dimitri, Yuri, Nina, Oksana ... too many too mention. Truly, Russia is a land of great spirit and hospitality.

Much has changed of course in Russia over the last 10 years since my first trip. This is most noticeable in the urban centres and especially Moscow where a certain commercial vitality has emerged. Although many have benefited from economic liberalisation, it has come at a price. Some of the more tawdry aspects of western capitalism (from this writer's point of view), such as profiteering taxi drivers, in-your-face advertising, individualism and consumerism are less welcome developments in Russian urban life. In the countryside I suspect that less has changed, aside from the collapse of statist centralism, which is no bad thing. A certain bureaucratic spirit and deference to authority remains, but I speak as a westerner of course and less inclined to stand in long queues and keep my "trap shut." It will get me into trouble one day I'm sure!

However, there is another older and (in my view) more authentic Russia, indicative of her "soul" and this is Christian Russia, Orthodox Christian Russia, a good deal MORE radical than any human ideology and which guides her still. The Kingdom of God is alive and well in Russia and it was my great privilege and blessing to witness at first hand once more the wonderful renewal of the Church in this land, this "holy Russia." This indeed was why I made my return trip ... to worship Christ in the services and to venerate him in his living images, the People of God ... so warm and accepting, as our Lord Himself.

Moscow afforded the first opportunity to behold the flowering of the Russian Church in the light of freedom, never having died in the Soviet period but awaiting her time to bloom again. From Trinity - St. Sergius Monastery in the north to the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (where I concelebrated the Liturgy on my last day) and indeed in the many churches and monasteries that are being restored both in the capital and across the country, one sees a great beacon of hope and strength for the Russian people in God. My stay in Sergei Possad (Holy Trinity Lavra) was astonishing in the contrast between 1995 and 2005. Today, most of the churches in the great monastery complex are repaired and functioning and thousands of pilgrims pass through all the time. Here there used to be the famous Andre Rublev icon of the Hospitality of Abraham / Holy Trinity which is now housed in the Tretyakov Gallery in the city. In respect of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, I should perhaps mention that Stalin raised it to the ground and built a swimming pool over its foundations. The Church today is an exact replica of the original. It's often said but true ... Stalin is dead. Christ is risen!

From Moscow I travelled overnight on a sleeper train to Nizhniy Novgorod (Gorky in Soviet times) which is the third largest city in Russia, nestling by the banks of the mighty Volga and home to the great St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, commemorating the great soldier saint who defended Russia against the Swedes and the Tartar horde. I stayed twice in the city, the first before going to Diveyevo in Julia's parents' flat and then at their dacha and then before returning to Moscow with Dimitri Kiryuhin and his mother graciously showing me round this historic city. Perhaps most memorable from my stay in Nizhniy Novgorod was my visit to the Cathedral where a magnificent spiritual labour of restoring the holy icons and iconostasis is under way. Dimitri, his family and the workers in the icon workshop made us most welcome and inspired us all. Here is their website (in Russian) with icon illustrations of their work.

From Nizhniy Novgorod I travelled by coach to Diveyevo, (history), the great convent cared for by St. Seraphim of Sarov. I arrived on 31st July in the afternoon prior to 1st August which is the feast of the uncovering of the saint's relics, (Julian Calendar). Diveyevo has grown enormously over the last 10 years ... it is now a little pilgrim town and the convent has over 500 nuns! Over the years there have been many saints in this monastic community. Signs of such growth are appearing again now.

The Vigil followed by the open air Liturgy on the feast day was one of the high spots of my visit to Russia, a wonderful spiritual experience. Thousands of believers were present of all ages and both genders, (I say this because the western stereotype of the Russian Church is babushkas in shawls. It would be a bit of an eye opener for a western Christian to see so many young men!) There were so many people present in the lavra square that soldiers had to maintain a cordon against the (orderly) crush. The worship was simply divine, a real presence of the Holy Spirit. The saint still walks the grounds. You can feel his presence .. but you can only appreciate that by being there. If you ever have an opportunity to visit Diveyevo, always accept without delay. You will never regret the decision; indeed it could change your life. Regrettably, I had to leave of course but more blessings awaited me in Nikolo Pogost after my second visit to Nizhniy Novgorod, transported there by Fr. Nikolai and briefly meeting his family before the onward journey by taxi and ferry.

The little rural church at Nikolo Pogost, dedicated to St. Nicholas, was closed by the communists in the 30's. 10 years ago I had the great privilege of witnessing the Church's restoration of this holy site and the coming together again of the local believers, served by Fr. Vladimir (Chegunov) with his wonderful family. My visit this time was a warm and blessed renewal of my own spiritual path and a reacquaintance with old friends ... and a much expanded family. I spent a happy two days in the countryside by the River Volga with the family, also visiting Gorodets and its wonderful folk and historical museums, before returning to Nizhniy Novgorod. After a final party with Julia's family in the flat, a time of enjoyment and a little sorrow at the time of our parting, I returned to Moscow for my final weekend.

In Moscow, Julia's sister Polina and brother-in-law Ilya looked after me again, showing me some of the sites and taking me to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for my final Sunday Liturgy in Russia. What a wonderful experience that was, concelebrating in the restored Church on the Sunday morning and an amazing yet brief tour of the Cathedral complex by a friendly guide, Sasha. It only remained me for to return to the airport for my journey home on Monday with Polina in her car. I looked back on Russia as my flight took off from the airport that day with a light heart and a grateful prayer. May it indeed be God's will for me one day to return to Holy Russia!

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No Return Visit for Qaradawi

A Sudden Change of Plan? Posted by Picasa

Youssef al Qaradawi, who is banned from entering the US, will not now speak at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall on 7th August. The controversial Muslim cleric was welcomed into the city of London early this year by the Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Although Qaradawi condemned both the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings his slate is far from clean. He has justified suicide bombings in Israel as "martyrdom in the name of God."

This is totally unacceptable. Why it should be acceptable to politically correct liberals in the west amongst whom Islam is always "misunderstood" to the point of exculpating this and any non-Christian tradition beggars belief. This craven attitude is all the more astonishing bearing in mind Qaradawi's anti-Semitic and homophobic utterances. These do not preclude him from visiting the UK. What does (and should) is his recognition of the legitimacy of suicide bombings in certain circumstances.

There are absolutely NO certain circumstances in which suicide bombings can ever be justified. Trading one atrocity against another is no way to do ethics or build a civilised and humane society. For all his alleged "moderate views" and the perceived need to "build bridges", this man is not welcome here.

Events have moved very rapidly this week. Charles Clarke has now proposed "behaviours" that would render someone "persona non grata." Amongst these are preaching terrorism to the point of incitement and writing articles and websites in that vein. Perhaps Qaradawi judged the wind to have changed. Let's hope so.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Church of England at the Crossroads

Church of England Women Bishops Soon Posted by Picasa

Well, the inevitable has happened. The Church of England at its General Synod Meeting in York has removed the legal obstacles to the consecration of women bishops. BBC Report

Of course, from the vantage point of Orthodox Catholic ecclesiology, women should have been consecrated first. This, of course, is because the primary minister in the Orthodox Catholic Church is the bishop, not the priest. The priest "stands in the place of the bishop" in each parish or community.

Be that as it may, what does this mean for the Church of England? Those opposed to the consecration of women bishops are a substantial minority and they will not give in meekly. Here is a link to the Forward in Faith document arguing for a Third Province, a sort of "church within a church." Reform, the evangelical equivalent is widely reported to be seeking alternative international structures to resist both this and homosexual clergy in relationships. The Church of England hierarchy understandably is trying to do everything it can to stop Anglicanism falling apart. What is the Orthodox reaction to all of this?

(Your correspondent himself writes as a former Anglican priest who left the Church of England in 1994 PARTLY over the decision to ordain women to the priesthood. My position, then as now, was that the Church of England lacked the necessary authority to make this change AND then claim to have a ministry shared by both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches).

Speaking as an Orthodox Christian who has enormous respect for the Anglican Church; after all it formed me in the Christian faith, I have to say that I am terribly saddened by this state of affairs in the Church of England. I am saddened not so much by the consecration of women bishops per se, which I have regarded as inevitable since 1992, but by the very real prospect of multiple schisms. The Christian world can really do without such further splits. Inevitably it will place yet further obstacles in ecumenical relationships between Rome, Orthodoxy and Canterbury.

Doubtless, thousands of women priests and their supporters will rejoice at the prospect of this new ministry opened up to women. What is less clear is what will happen to those thousands of Anglicans who will not be able to accept women bishops but who will be unable to do anything about it when women are in diocesan posts as ordainers of both male and female priests. I just don't see the Church of England allowing the existence of a "church within a church." The choice, likely as not will be clear. Accept and stay or reject and go.

Sometimes I am asked what the response of the Orthodox Church might be to such a situation if approached by priests and people leaving this or any other church? My response is the same as that given to me when I was in that position. Like Rome, we are not interested in "single issue" applicants. There is much, much more to being Orthodox (or Roman Catholic) than any particular position on any point of doctrine or practice. It's a whole deal; the whole package. Some will be ready for that; many will not. Whatever we do will be done with utmost respect for ALL parties involved. If someone follows their religious conscience, who could deny? Conversely, if someone wants a "port of convenience" who would not reject? These are going to be very difficult times for the Church of England and we have no desire to make things any worse. We can certainly pray for all our Anglican brothers and sisters and hold them before God in love.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Bloodied but Unbowed

Bus Carnage Posted by Picasa

Our love, prayers and practical support must now go out to all the victims of the bomb outrages in London today. The resilience and professionalism of the emergency services and the courage of all those caught up in these incidents is sobering and inspirational. Certainly many peoples' lives have been devastated by this mindless violence but we shall stand and prevail against the forces of evil. In so doing we shall relentessly persevere with our brothers and sisters in many affected nations who have their own battles to wage against the forces of terror.

Let's remember why terrorism happens ... to promote in those terrorised the following:-

(1) Confusion, chaos, economic destabilisation
(2) Fear, panic and dread
(3) Anger, lashing out, irrationality

The aim of course is to weaken the "enemy," to disorientate, to expose weak points for a later assault. This is a VERY long term game. If we don't smash the networks via intel as and when we find them (whoever they belong to or act on behalf of) and if we don't address their propaganda points, (Iraq, Palestine etc.) then they will proliferate and continue to push forward their agenda.

The best weapons we have against terror are normality and trust in God. Terror always fails when the fear is resisted and prayerful intelligent resilience confronts every horror with unflinching eye. Londoners have often proved in times past that they are made of "stern stuff" and that solidarity in affliction is unbeatable. This is the costly lesson that these despicable terrorists will now learn.

May God have mercy on us all. May he protect us under the shadow of his wings and in his unfailing love may we all abide. Amen.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Revenge of Malthus? Why Live8 is only Half the Story

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 - 1834) Posted by Picasa

This 18th / 19th century Anglican priest and economist spoke to his own age and only some of his insights are transferable to ours. His most devastating interpretation of observed human affairs in his Essay on Population (1798 / 1803) remains, arguably, as true today as it did then. Malthus contended that unchecked population growth was always self defeating. Beyond the level of economic sustainability, war and want would always cut back population size. His solution to this problem consisted of a blend of "moral restraint" (now superseded by contraception) and wealth creation, obviating the need for large and early start families.

His prophecies took hold largely in the west where we have indeed seen a stabilisation of the birth rate and a demographic skew toward the elderly. One could argue of course that such a transition has not occurred in the developing world because of a poor social infrastructure and the infancy of middle class aspiration. To some this sounds like special pleading for western bourgeois liberalism. What is of more enduring value in his thought though is the idea that sustainability has its own logic in a world of limited resource. It is in this logic that we see the Revenge of Malthus and the weakness of much of the political rhetoric about world development.

The simple truth (that Malthus would have understood so well) is that this world cannot sustain the lives of 6 billion humans (10 billion in 50 years) in the manner to which the rich north and west has become accustomed. Many people worry about America, Japan and Europe and the disproportionate impact on the global environment and development caused by these wealthy nations. However, soon we shall be shaking our heads at the prospect of India and China thirsting for fossil fuels, SUV's to consume them and carbon emissions in the Far East going through the roof. Maybe Africa will eventually join the party as well ... but nobody will truly be celebrating for long. The Malthusian limit is nearer perhaps than we think.

What Malthus couldn't have envisioned is a world where the limits to growth are as much environmental and ecological as they are economic; although these, of course, are all inextricably interdependent factors. It is this new situation that has wiped out his most favoured solution, making everyone middle class like himself ... small families, industrious, good housekeeping. Even if this was thought desirable it is now hardly possible. Middle class abstention is an indulgence of prosperity, and prosperity costs. Today prosperity costs the world itself, the ultimate sustainability limit.

So, what are the prospects, living as we do under the shadow of the Revenge of Malthus? Note that I am concerned with what I think WILL happen and how we can steer that more positively, not what SHOULD happen by dictat. What should happen is pretty much straightforward; mandatory birth limits, mandatory carbon emission limits ... a lot of other "mandatories." These don't sell well at elections though and in any case I am sufficient of a realist to recognise the dead hand of coercion and political repression lying dormant in such good intentions.

I don't see the developed or the developing world exercising self restraint. So long as we have nations and peoples' pursuing self interest based policies of growth and yet more growth we shall continue to global diminishing returns from an overstretched planet. The Americans and others think that there will be a technological fix for this ... the Holy Grail perhaps of nuclear fusion or genetic enhancement of crop production. What Malthus knew but what many politicians then and since choose wilfully to ignore is that the world itself sets limits on human growth no matter how smart we get at squeezing more juice out of the orange. There still only is one orange at the end of the day. I, therefore, see ahead two stark choices; adapt and down size or die in an environmental catastrophe.

The "adapt and down size" option presupposes a spiritual revolution in world humanity ... a shift to a way of living that embraces self restraint (rather than greed) as a virtue. As a Christian I am bound to say that this is both achievable and fruitful by the grace of God. However, such aspirations will only and can only apply to a subset of the world population. Christianity is a realistic faith and recognises the dangers inherent in such universal utopianism. Whenever humanity has entertained this notion its enablers have always eventually resorted to coercion and that is both unacceptable and unsustainable. Perhaps there is a third option though and one for which many will think this author crazy.

When we look to the natural world and its ecosystems we observe that expanding populations, when they reach their sustainability limit, either implode or seek out new food and land resources. The alternative for us, if we are to continue to grow, lies off planet. The earth just cannot support many more people than we have now. Already we are beginning to see the excitement of exploration moving off world and revealing huge potential in the solar system. The prize in terms of natural resources, outside any planetary gravity well and its energy deficit, lies in and with the asteroids. There are enough primary metals in the asteroid belt to serve humanity for millennia. Terraforming Mars as a human habitat is already seriously being looked at. Truly, the earth is not the end. We have only just begun. Malthus can be defeated ... but only if we think REALLY big.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Why we need a (safe) asteroid hit!

Duck! Posted by Hello

Humanity doesn't really seem to get going and prepare for disasters until the prospect of catastrophe is imminent or, less happily, after the actual experience of a similar event. What we really need, therefore, in order to be better prepared for a major impact is a smaller scale regional devastation from an asteroid that lands in the middle of a huge uninhabited area. This is not ours to command of course but bearing in mind the relative complacency of international governments in the face of an ongoing threat it might be the only thing that saves us from extinction in the longer term.

The NEO (Near Earth Object) asteroid 2004 MN4 will definitely not hit in 2029. Phew! But hang on. Glancing by at a mere 25,600 kilometres (16000 miles), with a diameter of 300 metres and a potential impact velocity of 12.6 kilometres (7.88 miles) per SECOND it's not the sort of object that leaves much room for manoeuvre. Statistics - NASA Moreover, its close shave with earth in 2029 will gravitationally alter its orbit ever so slightly but with a few metres deflection this could easily give a hit the next time round in 2035 or 2036. The truth is that we just won't know what the likelihood of that is until 2029 ... which leaves us just 6 years to try and do something about it.

An impact from 2004 MN4 would leave massive regional devastation but it is not a planet (or even a continent) killer. The best case scenario in the worst case event would be an impact is a deserted corner of the earth (not at sea as this would cause a tsunami). With an eastern hemisphere impact projection that narrows it down to central Australia and Siberia. Any land fall nearer any urban centre is certainly bad news.

With a ground zero, say, in Sydney imagine a crater 6.4 km (4 miles) wide and 500 metres (1625 feet) deep. 5 km (3 miles) out, please take cover from the 10 metres (30 feet) boulders raining down continuously. Expect total hearing loss, (the least of your problems). You won't escape metre sized ejecta until you flee to a distance of 20 km (12 miles). Even 80 km (50 miles) away, glass windows will be blown out. You get the picture. Basically, there would be nothing left of Sydney. Of a population of 4 million people, maybe only a million or even much fewer would survive; severely injured of course and taxing all efforts to locate and treat.

So, with the governments still not taking the dangers of asteroid impacts seriously enough perhaps the kindest thing to happen to humanity would be a hit in 2035 but not in an inhabited area. Perhaps then we might wake up and put more money into Near Earth Object detection and impact prevention.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

What Price Respect?

You can't be serious! Posted by Hello

My "other job" is that of a High School teacher (State School, 11-16). I used to teach full time when St. Aidan's started but as the Church has grown I have been able to step down my teaching commitments and now I do only agency work as and when I can and need to (financially).

Although I enjoy teaching, I can honestly say in that in my ten years since qualification as a mature entrant, the amount of teaching and learning I have achieved falls far short of what I initially envisaged. When I started teaching I fondly imagined that a teacher might teach most of the time. How wrong I was. The time spent on form filling, bureaucracy, pointless meetings; also in being a surrogate parent (teaching children things parents should be teaching them) and dealing with the disruptive behaviour of a minority of sociopathic youngsters who should not be in mainstream education has left me wondering whether I have imparted anything useful to the young in my care. I am sure I have but far less than I had hoped.

If asked to identify the single most draining and injurious factor in the compromise of education as a practitioner, I would identify the deterioration of student behaviour. In my opinion and experience this has been a discernible trend in ten years' practice. Of course, I could just be a poor teacher. Others would have to judge that. However, I do not base my observation on personal experience alone. It has long been acknowledged that student discipline is a serious concern in British Education today. Consider for example the fact that practical experimentation in Science has been abandoned in a growing number of schools for safety reasons. Juggling test tubes, bunsen burners and noxious substances isn't exactly easy when Johnny is running amok in the lab because he hasn't had his Ritalin today. Read this BBC Report.

The Government is mindful of this parlous state of affairs of course. Post election, Tony Blair's "respect" agenda has placed education fairly near the top of a long list of priorities to bring civility back to our national life. Read here. How precisely he intends to do this through that blunt instrument of parliament only he knows but he does not convince.

"Respect," it is oft times said is "earned, not mandated." That is only partly true. Respect of persons and the common good is not up for negotiation but, rather, it is the bed rock of any society. It is a "given." What poor behaviour in schools and loutish or violent behaviour on our streets proves, if anything, therefore, is that our society is increasingly dysfunctional. This simple observation begs huge questions that politicians do not always care to face, let alone answer.

The erosion of community life and common moral values is a spiritual issue and well beyond the reach of Westminster. The solution to our various social ills lies with us and God. Now there's a platform no secularist will stand on. The road back to "rude health" in education and on our streets will be a long hard battle against "principalities and powers." Knowing this, the churches must become much less mealy-mouthed about what is now needful to avoid losing yet another generation to neglect and hedonistic despair.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Cosmic Web

Cosmic Web Posted by Hello

The Cosmic Web that is our Universe has now been realised visually in a simulation styled "Millennium" ... a project in which Britain has played no small part (Hurrah!), sustained by the Virgo Consortium. Oodles and doodles of computer power have gone into this simulation ... or rather, these simulations. Visualising the growth and development of awe inspiring galactic immensities through cosmic time is quite beyond this lowly ape but not beyond his tools. The data and coherence of vision will keep astrophysicists and cosmologists busy for at least 5 years; until, that is, a future simulation improves on this.

We can now see clearly the Universe of a truly grand scale. The galaxy super clusters, containing at least 100 billion galaxies in total, are strung out in the Hubble volume as cosmic filaments, a web of such colossal creative power, it humbles the mind.

As a believer I am confirmed in my faith for such humility cannot be fruitful simply as a sense of being cowed before such immensities as an ant might feel before a mountain, (if only he could look up!"). Rather, my humility is before my Creator who has endowed the Cosmos ITSELF with such creative potential. Faith gives the perspective. Add knowledge and we have wisdom.

Perhaps this is the future of Europe ... to look up, not inward. She knew that once.

Max Planck Institute Pictures and Movies

(Shame on you Durham though for not updating your web site. If you want more science graduates get a better public profile!)

The Future of Europe?

The Future of Europe? Posted by Hello

So, the Dutch have voted a resounding "No!" to the new European Constitution. What is clear both from this and the French vote is that this is not simply about the Constitution nor is it (conveniently for some) a stick with which to beat unpopular national governments.

The "no" voters have talked in terms of national and cultural perspectives; in other words, what kind of a Europe is desirable rather than undesirable. Although the smell of fear and suspicion is clearly in the air, (the French nervous about a Anglo-Saxon Blairite capitalist agenda, the Dutch living with "liberal" unrease about Islam and possible Turkish membership), the failure of the neo-federalist project reveals just how undemocratic and out of touch Brussels is with both the mood and cultural diversity of the Continent. Some EU apparatchiks clearly have difficulty with the people exercising their democratic rights when the result displeases them. In this they are a little better than Mugabe or any old style Soviet party hack. The people have spoken, "causa finita est."

A gaping hole has now opened up under the floor of the Brussels plutocracy and the foundations of a closer (undemocratic) political union are just not there any more. So, what kind of a Europe do Europeans really want to see? A Europe in peace most certainly; a Europe without trade barriers and internal border rigidity of course. Is, or should there be, anything more to Europe than this though bearing in mind the cultural and linguistic diversity that exists on the Continent?

These questions are difficult to answer in the long term, but in the short term, probably not. History shows that political unity is either an organic process or one forged in and through the convulsions of conquest. The former route is usually secure, the latter unstable. Who knows what Europe's future is .... particularly in the light of the new ascendancies in the Far East. For now though, "No" means No. Deal with it.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Hype of the Clones

Cloning Hype Posted by Hello

In Newcastle, UK there are breathless announcements of human cloning, likewise in South Korea. Unwisely, this has stirred up all sorts of premature excitements about stem cell miracle cures for this, that and the other. The trouble is, of course, that researchers just can't resist the hype ... and neither can the press.

Cloning pioneers know full well that if they go on the offensive about the benefits of therapeutic cloning, this is what the media will publish first, thereby drowning out any ethical objections about the harvesting of tissue from terminated embryos (cloned or otherwise) which always then slip innocuously to the end of news bulletins.

The trouble is of course that, ethical objections aside for one moment, such miracle cures are not "just around the corner." For therapeutic cloning to be available as a medical intervention, there has to be a plentful supply of human ova. At the moment, researchers are using genetic material from IVF "discarded" embryos. These are "failed embryos" but even if the best of the crop were selected there is still the problem of dealing with gross defects in cloned organisms and the possibility of passing these on through stem cells along with such devastating conditions as human variant CJD.

Let's speculate for a moment though that all these severe difficulties have been ironed out (10 years?). Would therapeutic cloning still be ethical? Clearly, those who think that embryos are only genetic bits to be harvested and manipulated for whatever reason are going to have no problem with this. However, for those of us who believe that the human temple has been violated by such procedures with untold unforeseen spiritual and social costs in the years ahead, therapeutic cloning can never be justified, no matter what the much heralded benefits might be.

There are wider issues here of course to do with the manipulation of our own genetic destiny and the crafting of an upgrade to homo sapiens. How will homsap 2.0 deal with homsap 1.0? I can only shudder at these and other prospects. Merely being able to do something does not mean that it should be done.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Guest Contribution from Tony Rizk: "Immigration and Howard"

I am alarmed by the irresponsible stance adapted by the conservative party in the recent election campaign without any consideration to the lives of others in this country and to those of the British expatriate around the world. What disgusts me most, is that the ‘anti-immigrant’ campaign was endorsed by a leader who himself have roots outside the borders of this island and sure his parent may have been on the receiving end of this perilous emotional stirring.

I am a British citizen of a Lebanese origin and have lived in Britain for the last 20 years. Following the election, a colleague at work openly declared that although he didn’t vote conservative, he agrees with the Tory policies on immigration and that there are too many immigrants on the streets of the British cities who are taking jobs from British people. I would be foolish to assume that I didn’t expect such comments after the conservative persistent ‘anti-immigrant’ campaign. Considering the academic qualification at my work place, which is undoubtedly one of highest (vast majority hold either a PhD or an MSc), I dare not imagine the kind of harassment and abuse taking place at other organisations.

It is unlikely that this subject is going to disappear from the front pages of the right-wing media. However, I do hope that the end of the election will cool this issue and will allow a genuine and constructive discussion. I do also believe that the street is NOT the best place to sort out this issue and Mr. Howard should be aware not to cry ‘anti-Semitic’ when the fear culture he most eagerly fed is griping this nation. He should also remember not to blame the extreme right wing and Neo-Nazis when he is offering them ammunitions.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Christ is Risen!

"Many indeed are the miracles of that time: God crucified; the sun darkened and again rekindled; for it was fitting that the creatures should suffer with their Creator; the veil rent; the Blood and Water shed from His Side; the one as from a man, the other as above man; the rocks rent for the Rock's sake; the dead raised for a pledge of the final Resurrection of all men; the Signs at the Sepulchre and after the Sepulchre, which none can worthily celebrate; and yet none of these equal to the Miracle of my salvation. A few drops of Blood recreate the whole world, and become to all men what rennet is to milk, drawing us together and compressing us into unity."

St. Gregory the Theologian (patron saint of Fr. Gregory)

This extraordinary reference to Easter (this now being the season for the Orthodox) shows just how much the resurrection of Christ means to a Christian. It's the sheer regenerative power of the resurrection which drives this faith, ("a few drops of blood recreate the whole world.") It's not that the resurrection is some sort of way off hope for a believer but rather that the whole Cosmos now has potential for life having been liberated from corruption and death.

Some people can only see corruption and death in the world, (often the eyes do not lie). To be a Christian though is to see the world through God's eyes, not blind to its tragedy but seeing beyond its tragedy to something infinitely more powerful. This faith has sustained Orthodox Christians through incredible hardship and persecution over many centuries. It is a faith that billions have lived and died for. The reason? God in Christ makes all things new. Here is a freedom from corruption and decay that is forged out of Infinite Love ... the most powerful personal reality in the Cosmos. This is the "rennet" (clotting agent) that binds, heals, restores and brings all things into unity. It is life. Eternal life.

As St. Augustine declaimed:- "We are an Easter people and 'Alleluia' is our song!"

Monday, April 25, 2005

Christ the Bridegroom

This is Orthodox Great and Holy Week prior to Pascha (Easter). The Matins of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday have a general theme, watchfulness, preparedness to receive Christ the Bridegroom when he comes.

This allusion to Matthew 25:1-13 may seem strange. The plain meaning concerns the second coming and yet here we have the reference at the beginning of Great and Holy Week. The reason becomes clear when we consider that Pascha inagurates a New Creation which is the Kingdom of God.

Our watchfulness and preparedness in Great and Holy Week is designed to enable us to enter more deeply into the paschal mystery ... for here, in the death and resurrection of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ is the Genesis and End of all things. He is the Alpha and Omega of the Cosmos, the suffering King, the wounded Healer, the Bridegroom of this Icon.

It Will Be Sadly Missed

The Mother of All Parliaments announces with great regret the passing away this year of the Spirit of Democracy. All citizens are encouraged to mourn the loss of this much loved friend.

Reliable witnesses testify not to its natural death, but rather its slow strangulation and murder. A cast of Usual Suspects has been released:-

(1) The removal of any real choice between the parties as all try to keep us happy with such evident banalities as "success for your child," "an end to crime," "a prosperous country" and so forth.
(2) The manipulation of facts and image to present a saleable commodity. This has effectively removed all the party leaders from genuine and unpredictable encounters with the public.
(3) The abolition of policy making in favour of crowd pleasing.

No flowers, donations to Fat Cats of Westminster please.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Calling Cyc!

"Open the pod bay doors, HAL." A classic quote from Kubrick's "2001 - a Space Odyssey" sets in motion the disastrous train events on board an interplanetary probe when an AI (Artificial Intelligence) computer takes over from its human pilots. The computer, HAL, judges the mission to have been compromised by its human astronauts. Such is the stuff of SF "bad machine" scenarios over decades of inspired writing ... but soon we may regard it as prophecy and not just scarey fantasy. Enter Cyc.

Cyc (pronounced "psych") is a computer knowledge base with a startling difference. It learns by interactive aggregation and common sense ... just, some would say, like a human mind. Pre-loaded with over 3 million assertions that help it explore creatively and accurately, it can actually learn more easily as it becomes more proficient. In other words, it is an evolving system. When it goes online later this year and gets plugged into the Internet, it is expected to accelerate away from us in the fast lane. (Full article here in the New Scientist).

Will Cyc ever reach the supposed "singularity" state where smarter than human intelligence takes a machine beyond the reach of its human creators? Could it ever achieve consciousness, mind? Would pulling the plug be equivalent to murder ... putting the plug back in equivalent to resurrection? Would it take steps to defend itself? A little while ago such questions might have seemed fit only for such entertaining SF films as Kubrick's masterpiece. Now, with Cyc, the scenario seems so much closer. Should we be worried?

Well, yes, I think we should be concerned. The very idea that we should create something we cannot control is a very old theme in human literature but now, in this century, we have the power to create something that might one day destroy us completely rather than merely irritate us. My guess is that we should watch Cyc and Cyc's children very, very closely.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A New Benedict

Is the media extraordinary? First we have the making of a man's death into mawkish pseudo-reverential theatre, breathlessly accompanied by commentators many of whom couldn't give a fig for Christianity at other times; then the feeding at the buzz and the excitement of watching for the white smoke (far more entertaining than Council Tax) ... but now we have the "It's Ratzinger!" factor as these same hacks don the more traditional garb of pitting liberal against conservative and tut-tutting about condoms.

Don't get me wrong; AIDS in the developing world and the Vatican's deadly intransigence on birth control is no slight matter, but am I really supposed to take seriously the motives and accuracy of a press that will both praise and condemn in the one breath and not blink? Do the chattering classes really care about such things? Mostly not I suspect, but:- "Hey! No one puts on a show like Rome" ... and I would have to agree; but that's hardly the issue is it? The issue is how the papacy will fare and how the Roman Catholic Church will respond to its current crisis in the west.

Pope Benedict XVI seems to be saying that you hold the line and if the Church in any area shrinks; it shrinks. No one expects him to be a clone of his predecessor and such comparisons are odious but there is an admissible issue here. Pope John Paul II held the line but he had the common touch. He could reach out to people and constrain them to come in .. even if what he represented didn't appeal to all Roman Catholics and even if it didn't work in Europe. Pope Benedict XVI is not in this mould at all. There is a danger here that unless he adopts a more pastoral approach to the one he has presented so far he really will preside over the Church's final demise in this continent.

Is this God's will? How can it be? The Church perished in North Africa under the assault of Islam, not, I contend, because this was God's judgement for its sinfulness or lack or faith, but simply because human affairs prevailed against it. This is the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe today. Europe has left it behind with the Church clinging to a version of European Catholicism that many Catholics now find either deeply embarassing or irrelevant. Secularism has its roots in a wounded western Christianity, not in a faithless ideology as such. Still we find in Europe the deep but inchoate feeling that somehow Rome cannot be trusted. Even Eastern Europe is not immune. Reversing secularism will require more than "holding the line." It will require regaining Europe's trust and that will not easily be achieved.

Is Pope Benedict XVI up to the task? Well, with the caveat that even a Pope has limitations when leading a body of one billion people, we can only hope and pray that he is. Only time will tell. It is far too soon to tell and he certainly shouldn't be assessed on his existing track record alone. A man who defends a friend may behave differently to the one who now stands in his shoes. Let's hope so I say.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Fiction Becomes Reality in "The Village"

It's taken 6 years for fiction to become sick reality. The fictional character played by Jim Carrey in the 1998 film was to spend his life from cradle to grave on an enormous real time film set observed by millions. Now the Truman horror has become all too real in "The Village" a German "Big Brother" type show in which the filming (theoretically) never ends.

The voyeuristic appetite of celebrity obsessed western culture in which everyone craves fame has now reached its nadir. There is a deeper trend at work here I think, most accurately portrayed by the reported behaviour of the ostrich. Contemporary westerners don't want to engage with the world; they want an ersatz experience of a fake reality in which they become directors and their hapless victims dance to their pleasure. Meanwhile the real world of kings and dancers, (the one from which they are hiding,) subtly controls THEM through the bread and circuses of this mass anaesthesia. The final piece in this horror will be to hook the voyeurs themselves into this fake world by 24/7 technological immersion. You need never leave the set, never mind the participants. Meanwhile the real world is controlled by others who only wake you now and again to tell you that you should be scared, maybe of terrorism or asylum seekers or something, so that you can abdicate your political responsibility as citizens even more completely to The Protectors.

Over reacting? Well, I doubt whether I would have written this until I heard a commentator in Germany defending the show on the grounds that this is "real life" and a welcome alternative to politics. God help us!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Who will Educate the Educators?

Stop this abuse! Posted by Hello

Good for you Chef Jamie Oliver! You've caught our imagination and stirred our consciences concerning the garbage rammed down our childrens' throats through parental collusion and mass marketing. (See this BBC Report). Goodness, you've even got our well fed politicians to sit up and pay attention! (But this is election year after all. Let's see what the situation is like in 12 months time shall we?)

Sometimes our school children in the UK only get 37p (70c) spent on the preparation of a school meal. At this sort of price and after the deregulation and cafeteria approach to school meal "reform" our children are being abused daily with nutritionless, carbo-rich, fat inducing c***. I should know. I teach. Every day I'm in school I see brown and orange, brown and orange. A few more enlightened schools provide sandwiches and fruit but they are a minority taste amongst our young, so long has the junk food agenda been pushed.

My contribution here though is a poke and a prod to teachers and heads everywhere. Bearing in mind the degree of nutrition abuse which has now afflicted two generations and to which you have been party through inaction, will you clean up your act and do something about this? I would like to hope so but to be honest, I look at what some colleagues are themselves eating in the classroom and I doubt it. The worst offenders are male teachers. I wonder why that is?

Anyway, come on now, let's save our children from premature death from obesity related diseases otherwise anything you do in the classroom will be pretty pointless. And while you're at it, let's have new dining areas attached to these new schools and new kitchens so that we can return to the socially enhancing and healthy former practice of having everyone seated together, served together and talking together. Eating is a sacred, holy activity. Let school dinners become eucharistic again! The nation's health, spiritual and physical depends on it. Rant over!

The Universe in a Bottle

One of the most puzzling aspects of the search for sentient life in the Cosmos concerns its rarity. We may not be looking in the right place or those pesky aliens may be covering their tracks so that we primitive humans don't escape the nursery (the "quarantine" solution), but the depressing truth is that they appear to have left no trace. We should be seeing intelligent civilisations and their imprints everywhere bearing in mind how relatively easy it is for life to get going given a long enough period of time, but in fact we currently see and hear nothing. This is called the "Fermi Paradox."

I have another sobering solution for the paradoxical question:- "ET, where is he?" Suppose a civilisation such as ours right now eventually develops the ability to smash microscopic bits of the cosmos together at such stupendous energies that something unforseen happens and a rip in space-time unravels the whole Universe. Such a "phase transition" as it is called happened in extreme conditions at the beginning of creation. We do not fully understand such processes. What if it happens again, but this time, we pull the trigger? If we ever inadvertently did that, then a bubble of destruction expanding at the speed of light would collapse this universe into a new state of matter, essentially a new Cosmos. Perhaps this has happened many times before and that's why as soon as a civilisation gets to our stage of development it tends to reboot the whole Universe. There are no aliens because sooner or later some species opens Pandora's box just a little too wide for our own good.

There are actually three disaster scenarios connected with such experiments:-

A. Creation of a black hole that would "eat" ordinary matter.
B. Initiation of a transition to a new more stable universe.
C. Formation of a "strangelet" that would convert ordinary matter to a new form.

A synopsis of a report on such matters in connection with RHI Colider at Brookhaven available here discounts such fears but no less than the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees has considered the possibilities, LINK.

In 2007 a new much more powerful European Large Hadron Collider at CERN will come on line. The universe may just yet escape its bottle when this is cranked up in 2007 or we might end up only with a fried solar system ... or not, as the case might be. The thing is, how can we know for sure? The stakes are rather high after all. "Behold. I have become death, destroyer of worlds." (Robert Oppenheimer)

I am not at all suggesting that there should be a moratorium on such research. It would be nice though if someone could convince me that the people at CERN or Brookhaven RHIC really do know what they are doing and that there are no nasty surprises lurking in their magic rings. There can be absolutely no margin for error.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The World into a 100

Something to ponder ... Posted by Hello

The World into a 100

If we could shrink the earth's population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look something like the following:-

There would be:-

60 Asians
12 Europeans
15 from the Western Hemisphere, north and south
13 Africans

73 would be non-white
27 would be white

70 would be non-Christian
30 would be Christian

95 would be heterosexual
5 would be homosexual

6 people would possess 23% of the entire world's wealth,
and all 6 would be from the United States or Europe

33 would live in substandard housing
16 would be unable to read
33 would suffer from malnutrition

(Note: There is an earlier version of these statistics which is inaccurate and has been going around the internet for some time. This is a reasonably realistic revision in accordance with official UN and other data).

Clearly we need to see the world from "zoom out." The truth is that most of us are only inclined to see the world from "zoom in," that little bit of turf and context that makes up our own life. It's understandable that this should be so in one sense for our immediate responsibilities are close at hand but if we neglect the bigger picture we are not doing anyone any favours. We live in an increasingly interdependent world. We need to engage in those actions concerning poverty, education and disease that will benefit us all, not just those who so obviously need it the most.

St. John taught that he who claimed to love God but in fact hated his brother was a liar, (1 John 4:20). Surely our faith means that we cannot continue to neglect our neighbour in his need? To respond to that need is to show our true love for God.

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