Science into Oblivion

instellarMy movie selection over the past few months has been in the science fiction genre, which is often heavy on the ‘fiction’, and light on the ‘science’.  The recent, visually impressive Christopher Nolan-directed Interstellar attempts to balance that, telling the story of mankind’s search for a new habitable planet with some degree of scientific accuracy.  But how veridical can you be when most of the science in the film is unverified by experiment or experience?  According to Einsteinian Relativity, which pegs light as the absolute speed limit in the universe, interstellar travel for humans is impossible, or as close to ‘impossible’ as science is willing to go.  Even travelling at the speed of light (186, 000 miles per second, and we could only hope to reach a fraction of that), it would take four years to reach the closest star (appropriately named Proxima Centauri), one hundred thousand years to reach the edge of our galaxy. and billions of years to reach the putative edge of the universe, if such an edge even exists.

 

The film gets around this by positing a ‘wormhole’ near Saturn, a theoretical entity that is basically a bending of the spacetime continuum, so that one can travel great distances without actually covering the distance (sort of like traversing from one end of a piece of paper to the other by folding it in half).

 

I am not convinced that such wormholes exist or, if they do, we could just zip through them to the edge of the cosmos.  I am far less convinced that Matthew McConaughey (spoiler alerts!) could survive falling into a black hole (another somewhat theoretical construct, at least in the sense that many aspects of them are hypothetical and, of course, untested).  Black holes are formed by stars collapsing in on themselves, creating a region of such great density that not even light can escape their gravitational grip (hence, they are ‘black’, or invisible, from the outside, but blazing light and energy inside).  The current theory is that anyone (or anything) falling into a black hole would undergo ‘spaghettification’, with the half of them closer to the centre being pulled by gravitational tidal forces more than their upper parts a bit further away, such that they would be stretched out like a long Italian noodle, with inevitable death quickly ensuing.

 

Instead, McConaughey’s character finds within the black hole a region of multiple dimensions, and, pardon the pun, this is the core of the film, as well as what I find troubling about many movies today, particularly science fiction:   They will posit every hypothesis out there, the weirder the better, just so long as, at all costs, any notion of God is left out of the picture.  To paraphrase the early 19th century mathematician Laplace, they have no need of that hypothesis.

 

The same principle applies to the other two sci-fi movies, both curiously Tom Cruise vehicles:  Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow.  In all three films the inviolable and unarguable a priori premise is that there is no God, that Man therefore must perfect himself, and perfect himself in particular by technology.

 

In Interstellar, it is finding the secret to utilizing gravity as a force for space travel, itself done by accessing mankind’s future knowledge (in a cheesy sequence with McConaughey  floating inside the multidimensional interior of the black hole trying to communicate to the past version of his daughter back on earth).

 

edge of tomorrowEdge of Tomorrow presents Cruise’s character living the same day over and over again, dying each time (apparently, thousands of times), at the hands of invading aliens in an uber-violent version of Groundhog Day, until he learns the aliens’ secret and how to defeat them (of course, nearly single-handedly, for he is Tom Cruise).  Cruise is charismatically humorous, and Emily Blunt provides an attractive sidekick, who is, in the beginning at least, a far more able soldier than Cruise (and everyone else in the incompetent army, in what Blunt herself admitted was propaganda for feminist equality which, as I have discussed, does not work so well in what is (or was once, alas) a physically-demanding military).

 

Oblivion, has (again!) Cruise’s character sacrifice himself to smuggle a bomb onto the mothership of aliens who have taken over Earth.  However, his life (and marriage) continues, since the aliens cloned him, thousands of times; although the other clones die, apparently, in the oblivionexplosion, one clone is left to continue Cruise’s existence.  As Morgan Freeman’s character proclaims earlier in the film, the aliens took ‘humanity’s best’ to clone. (I bet that line stuck in Freeman’s craw, that Tom Cruise Mahpother’s middle-aged, whitebread, mildly-to-moderately insane, scientological five-foot-something human-ness was the best of our species.  Would the aliens not have chosen someone more along the lines of LeBron James, perhaps minus the tattoos?).

 

In all of these films, and in most of our media and educational establishments, technology is the key to ‘salvation’, considered only in temporal terms as the continued existence of humanity somewhere, somehow.

 

The problem is that the bizarre ‘technology’ posited requires more faith than faith itself.  Multiple universes?  Time loops?  Changing the past, and modifying the present from the future?  Black holes leading to multiple-dimension hypercubes?  Mind-reading and time-warping aliens?  Clones who share the same memories, even the same ‘souls’, as their original?

 

Fair enough in the imaginary world of movies, I suppose, and in fact one of the things I enjoy about science fiction are its limitless possibilities.  But people, and educated, intelligent people at that, actually believe this stuff.  Imagine my supercilious eyebrow-raising when I read the other day a statement by the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, that there are in fact an infinite number of universes, all branching off from each other, including one where Zayn Malik, the lead singer of One Direction, has not abandoned the boy-band.

 

I’m not sure whether to be more surprised by this hypothesis, or that Dr. Hawking knows who Zayn Malik and One Direction are.  One way or the other, his theory, along with the other central premises in these films, are not scientific, for they are not, and never will be, verifiable, and demonstrate more the limits of intelligence and science than their power.  In one of the most quoted lines of Chesterton, ‘when a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes anything’.

 

Ponder just the possibility of multiple universes:  If we ever get to investigate or travel to these universes, then, by definition, they are part of this universe, for they are connected.  If we can never investigate them, then they are not subject to science.

 

Why don’t Hawking and his colleagues just accept the perennial principles of metaphysics (and, ultimately, faith), which are much more rigorous intellectually, have stood the test of time, and are the foundations for our culture, and, yes, of science itself?  As the late Father Stanley Jaki argued convincingly, it was only in the realist, rational and linear vision of Christianity, which believed in an ordered, created universe undergirded by discoverable laws, that science as we know it could flourish.  As Einstein himself, not a man of faith in the ordinary sense of the word, declared, the ‘most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible’.

 

Every other society in history besides Christianity, in its metaphysical presuppositions, was either largely fatalistic (things happen simply by the will of some deity, deities, or cosmic force) or circular (what is, is what will be), or, often, both.  Neither fatalism nor circularity lead to comprehensibility, nor are they fitting metaphysical bases for science, which is why science never flourished in the ancient civilizations, until the advent of the Christian era.

 

I fear we are returning to such a pagan worldview, and a dissociation of faith from reason, with the result that not only will fiction become less science, but that science itself will become more fiction,to the detriment of both.

 

April 30, 2015

Saint Marie of the Incarnation

Pope Saint Pius V

Budget Woes

budgetI have always disliked governmental budgets.  Not because they are budgets, mind you, for it is a good thing to be careful with other people’s money, and ensure you spend it wisely, should they ever entrust with such a task.  No, the problem is that governments around our globe, and particularly here in Canada, use the budget to appear as though they are being generous to you for giving you back some of your own money and, what is worse, they use this largesse of cash to buy votes and keep themselves in power.

 

Budgets also give us a glimpse into the priorities of government, and the mindset of our political leaders.  I would recommend you take a few moments to glance over the two budgets tabled in the past few days, one for Canada, and the other for Ontario.

 

I will just mention a few here:  Now, I don’t want to be too cynical, but I cannot help but ask what guides our parliamentarians in their choice of what to throw money at?  At least the Federal Conservatives have some vague family policy, which does help:  Allowing more savings in TFSA’s (tax-free savings accounts), allowing caregivers to use EI to stay at home at care for sick relatives (although this does save on health costs) and, of course, their recent income-splitting initiative, which allows one parent (one hopes the mother) to stay at home, and declare a portion of the other spouse’s income, so the latter pays tax in a lower bracket.   The policy is not perfect (there are other ways to split income that may be more beneficial), but is a step in the right direction, to allow a parent to stay at home and raise the children, even home-school, should they so desire.  Any policy that supports the family unit should, in general, be praised.

 

However, what the government refuses to do is to think philosophically about any issue, to get at the root causes.  Perhaps this is because many of them are lawyers, businessmen, and life-long government bureaucrats without a metahphysical or religious basis, who think in terms of ‘results’ and ‘practical benefits’ with that annoying slogan ‘moving forward…’  To use an historical analogy, modern Cromwells (historically, a thuggish, materialistic, opportunistic brute who, not surprisingly, is being whitewashed in a popular series of books recently turned into a television miniseries).

 

Hence we have the usual insane and ill-advised boondoggle in both budgets, thinking that more money will solve problems that are not about money:  More cash thrown down the bottomless abyss of native reserves for education (‘$200 million over five years’) and ‘mental-wellness’ ($2 million per year), when the real problem is a state of welfare dependency and malaise caused by the whole notion of the ‘reserve system’ itself.  Adult human beings are not made nor meant to be ‘taken care of’ by a government agency, but to make their own way in the world, to be provident and independent.  No wonder the natives are restless and depressed, but no one wants to address the cause.  For who but a member of our poor benighted Senate would want to be taken care of by the government forever?

 

At the provincial level, we have this canard actually written by supposedly rational human beings in an official Provincial budget, that is, promulgated by our own government:

 

Confronting climate change and protecting our environment will help ensure Ontario continues to be a great place to live. These actions will also help ensure that we have a strong economy. The environmental, social and economic challenges of climate change are global issues. Ontario has been hit hard by the effects of climate change, including recent extreme weather events such as ice storms, severe thunderstorms and flash flooding. These events have caused unprecedented damage to the places Ontarians live, work and play, costing the government, businesses and families hundreds of millions of dollars. In the years to come, such damages and costs will likely be greater if current trends are left unchecked.

 

Does the government really predict that it can control the weather with a few tweaks in carbon emissions, easily offset by the burp of one volcano?  Do they really think that, until 2015, we did not have ‘extreme weather events’?  And the ice storm was a one-time occurrence that happened while I was living in Toronto in 1998.  That was 17 years ago.  We live in Canada.    There is ice.  In fact, we have whole lakes, rivers even glaciers of ice, and ice, yes, sometimes falls from the sky in what we call ‘pellets’ and covers things in ice.  Have people gone insane?

 

Kathleen Wynne; Charles SousaWhen the Finance Minister, Charles de Souza, who with his Premier Ms. Wynne are icons of much of what is wrong with modern Canada, mentioned in his speech that some people actually still dispute anthropogenic climate change (\I don’t think he did not use the big word, but you get the point); and there was Kathleen Wynne seated by his side, shaking her head, looking around wide-eyed and gasping in unbelief, ‘No, no’…say it ain’t so, Charlie.

 

So the Liberals are moving forward with an economically disastrous ‘cap and trade’ system for ‘carbon credits’, basically an economically punitive measure to stop us emitting so much carbon (that is, doing much of anything at all).  The only other two failed-states to promulgate this measure are Quebec and California, which gives you some idea of Ontario’s new level of insanity.    Here is a summary of the cap and trade, which gives you some inkling of how easily this will lead to totalitarian control and abuse:

 

It’s a system where the government caps the total amount of carbon emissions allowed. The government then issues permits to companies, specifying exactly how much carbon that company can burn. If a company wants to burn more than its share of carbon, it must buy extra permits from other companies that have burned less.

 

The laws of supply and demand govern exactly what the price of a carbon permit ends up being. Over time, the government gradually lowers the cap, cutting the number of permits it issues and driving up their price.

 

The idea is that some companies will cut their carbon emissions in order to make money by selling their extra permits, while other companies will cut emissions to avoid having to pay the price to buy more permits

 

Paying the government to emit carbon?  Really?  And this won’t be abused and add yet-more bureacracy to our behemothic government?

 

These are the people in charge of indoctrinating your children, most of whom with religious fervour believe this anti-science, and see nothing wrong with this level of governmental control.  And this is not the least of the indoctrination. They have a graphic flow chart of a mythical example student ‘Dylan’ (who in the image is apparently wearing a dress, but I suppose, prescinding from Bob Dylan, itself a pseudonym, it is a sort of ambiguous name), as he/she moves forward in her/his/its education basically from soon out of the womb until mid-adulthood.

 

I could go on, and probably will at some point once I digest more, for the problems do not end here, so please do peruse the budgets yourself, particularly the Ontario version, which is far the worse.  As I have written, Ontario is well over $300 billion in debt, half  of all of Canada, and this current imprudent financial plan, greeted with applause from the trained seals around the Ministers, only adds to that burden, and increases yet-again government’s intrusion into our lives.  We are not far from outright tyranny here in Canada, ‘our land glorious and free’, as we sing in our anthem.  Well, it is still a glorious land, but only free if we are willing to stand up and fight to keep it so.

 

April 24 2015

Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen

 

 

Who Guards Whom?

police guarding soldiersIrony is one of those literary devices, used for humour or for dramatic effect, when something truly unexpected occurs, or something contrary to what actually should happen, in a way that brings forth a wry smile, or perhaps, in the current case, a sigh…

 

In the recent federal budget (the Ontario version is expected out later today), the Conservatives have earmarked $10, 000, 000, yes, ten million dollars, for police to guard the guards at the War Memorial in Ottawa.  I know I have written before on the Greek proverb quis custodiet ipsos custodes, ‘who will guard the guardians’…., but I never expected this.  Here we have armed soldiers, presumably more trained in the art of warfare than our local constabulary, whose task is to quell unruly citizens, rather than bloodthirsty enemies at the gate, but our soldiers, with ceremonial dress and unloaded and uncocked rifles, stand by like impotent castrati, while the police look on with fully-automatic and fully-loaded weapons.

 

A sad metaphor of our time, but also an ominous one:  A society is on its way to trouble when the police become paramilitarized and, in our case, more militarized than the military.

 

That says nothing of the cost of this boondoggle.  I would estimate that is one dollar from every adult Canadian, probably more, given the ever-smaller percentage who actually pay tax, just to guard one memorial that we are already paying to be guarded (we may presume the cost of the soldiers is not included in this added bonanza to our insatiable ‘need’ for security).

 

There was a stabbing down the road in my town recently, where not much violent happens, apparently a domestic dispute.  The details are sketchy, but one would have thought we were on the set of Red Dawn with a phalanx of Commies dropping in from the sky in platoons, the way the police showed up, what seemed to be dozens of them in armored vehicles and battle fatigues, from the photos in the local paper.

 

I keep wondering:  Where do these guys hang out when the other 99% of the time nothing happens?

 

Oh, yeah, at the war memorial…

 

April 23, 2015

Saint George, Patron of England and purported slayer of dragons

The Limits of Mercy

Year of Mercy Francis

‘May the balm of mercy reach everyone’, says Francis as he proclaims Holy Year

On the Second Sunday of Easter, alternatively termed Divine Mercy Sunday since the canonization of Saint Faustina in 2000 by Pope Saint John Paul II, the current Holy Father Pope Francis issued Misericordiae Vultus, decreeing 2016 to be a year dedicated to the theme of ‘Mercy’.

 

God’s mercy is a hot topic amongst theological circles of late, especially with the recent Synod on the Family, to be concluded next October, and the question of ‘divorced and remarried Catholics’ receiving Communion, a category which may be broadened to include politicians who support abortion, those living together before marriage, those who miss Sunday Mass, those addicted to pornography and so on.

 

This debate is only partly about the Eucharist, for the underlying question is about the relation between the mercy of God, and the state of the souls of individuals who, as the Code of Canon Law states “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin”.  The argument is that we as a Church must be a symbol of this infinite mercy of God, which extends even to those who persist in might appear to us as ‘grave sin’, but may not be so to them.  Or, perhaps, they are not able to give up their sin, for whatever reasons that are outside their control.  After all, as many have quoted the Holy Father (out of context, as it turns out), ‘who am I to judge?’.

 

If we dig even deeper into this question, we find hazily in the background the theological opinion of the early Church Father Origen of Alexandria (+253/4), termed apokatastasis, (an opinion later decreed heretical), which proposed that every rational and intellectual being will in the end be saved.  We will all meet merrily in heaven, slap each other on the back, tussle in a big group hug, and laugh over all those ‘misunderstandings’ that a mediaeval Church and a misunderstood God once called ‘damnable sins’, offenses that ‘cry out to heaven for justice’.

 

Such a theory would make any sort of moral struggle in this life more or less futile, but it does raise the question of what and whither indeed is the mercy of God?  Mercy requires that there be some offense committed, and that one ask for pardon, or for a mitigated punishment, or at the very least be open to either of these.  The sinner who persists in his wrongdoing, who is contumacious, who refuses forgiveness and pardon, by definition cannot receive mercy.  Even if set free, he will punish himself by his very wrongdoing, for the very effects of sin are the punishment.  In Scriptural terms, like Pharaoh and others of his ilk, his ‘heart is hardened’, his conscience blinded.  As Christ warned, “if the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”.

 

I heard or read a story once of a zealous Christian who spray-painted on large rock-face by the side of the highway “Jesus saves”.  Someone less zealous later added below, “From what?”.  As I have quoted Pope Pius XII before, the greatest sin of our age is the loss of the sense of sin.

 

This is the only sin that God cannot forgive, the refusal to admit our sin, the resistance to His mercy, the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’.  These are the souls that Pope Benedict alluded to in his 2008 encyclical Spe Salvi:

 

“There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love within themselves.  This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history.  In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

 

In the mystery of His providence, God created beings in His image who could, and must, choose to love Him freely.  The primary intent of the mercy of God in this life is to prevent souls from choosing the fate of refusing love, so that they might turn back to the Lord, to goodness and truth, and repent of their sin.  Mercy is an act of love, of agape, of willing the good of the other.  Sometimes, God’s mercy can seem cruel and harsh, even ‘evil’ from our point of view.  But as Pope John Paul II made clear in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, the only definitive evil is the loss of heaven and beatitude, that is, to choose eternal separation from God.  It is from this evil that Christ came to save us, not from all the transitory ‘evils’ of this passing age, which in fact can produce great spiritual good.

 

It is in this context that we should interpret the Church’s law to withhold Communion from those who ‘persist in manifest grave sin’.  The Church is trying to prevent such individuals becoming hardened in their sin, closed not just to the mercy of the Church, but to the mercy of God Himself.  The Eucharist signifies, at its deepest reality, communion with God and His Church.  To offer such a sign of ‘mercy’ without repentance would, in effect, be a lie, told perhaps with good intent, but with potentially disastrous consequences.  At the very least, we must be aware of, have sorrow for, and confess  our ‘grave sins’, so that we can clear the path in our souls for God’s mercy and grace to work.

 

None of us knows our ultimate eternal destiny, nor even definitively our current state before God, which is why Pope Benedict says we must live in hope, but one that is well grounded in the infinite mercy of God (I, for one, with Saint Peter a self-confessed peccator, am relying much upon such hope and mercy!).  I am also hoping that we can all indeed meet merrily in heaven, but we can only do so if we open ourselves to the forgiveness of God.  Let us pray that many souls do so in the upcoming Year of Mercy and beyond.

 

April 17, 2015

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

 

Not So Subtle Subtility

doubting thomasChristus Resurrexit!  Dominus surrexit vere!  Alleluia!

 

So goeth the customary greeting between Christians in this Easter season.  We are in the middle of the Octave of Easter, which really is a week of Sundays, every day a solemnity, with full liturgical pomp, joy and splendour.  And, yes feasting after the fasting of Lent.

 

Of course, some readers of this column may not believe in the resurrection, which is rather sad.  Here is the thing about the future life of Man:

 

Either we die, and cease to exist, experiencing the same sort of awareness we did before we were conceived (if zygotes are ‘aware’, but you get the point…at some point in our life journey, we became aware of our existence, even if we no longer recall that point).

 

Or we will exist in some type of altered, ghost-like state, as disembodied souls, sort of akin to the Hebraic notion of Sheol, where the shades dwell.  In a variation on this theme, there are forms of transhumanism that consider the human personality (the soul?) to be analogous to a computer program, ‘uploaded’ to a body.  I just read an article on a movie director and author who thinks that mankind’s only hope of continued existence is to create artificial intelligence, for bodily Man is doomed.  Curious, but I don’t buy it.  As Kurt Goedel proved, algorithms cannot think and self-reflect, but I will have more on this later.

 

Or, as Christian revelation teaches, we will continue to live some kind of transcendent (and, we may presume, eternal) bodily existence after the dissolution of this body here.

 

Of course, it is not easy to believe in such a ‘resurrection'; Saint Paul himself was ridiculed when he mentioned it to the Athenians.  In Catholic doctrine, this belief requires supernatural faith in God, and the promises He has made.  “I give life to whom I will” , and “he who believes in me shall never die”.

 

As Saint Paul says, the resurrection is the basis of our hope:  If it is false, then we (Christians) are of all men most to be pitied.  But if it is true, how great a hope we have.  Let us not forget that pity is a two-way street.  We Christians ‘pity’ (in a good sense!) those who live without such hope; for then life indeed is Hobbesian, ‘nasty, brutish and short’, before the snuffing out of the candle.

 

Speaking of which, the Easter candle in our liturgy is a symbol of the eternal life that Christ offers, witnessed to by His own rising from the dead.  I am fascinated by the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, the concreteness of the eyewitness testimony, and, not least, the fact that Christ’s resurrected body could walk through walls and doors and appear as He willed.  Saint Thomas, following the patristic interpretation, describes this property as subtility, the adjectival form of what in English we term ‘subtle':  Christ was not limited by space, time and matter as we know them.

 

One may at first consider that Christ’s body was therefore ethereal, ghostly and less real than the physical things of this world, subtle, as in ‘easy to miss or not perceive’.  However, the opposite is far more likely, as C.S. Lewis alludes in his allegorical tale The Great Divorce:  The resurrected body, and the heavenly realm in general, is more real, more ‘there’ than this world, which are in fact ‘ethereal and ‘ghost-like’.

 

For scientific corroboration of the etherealness of matter, all of the ‘stuff’ we see around us (and of which we ourselves are made), think back to high school chemistry, and the nearly-unbelievable discovery of Ernest Rutherford in 1909.  Rutherford was trying to peer into the structure of the atom.  Things at that point were believed to be composed of large bundles of round bits of matter, ‘atoms’ jostling together (following J.J. Thomsom’s earlier model), sort of like those play-pens in amusement parks filled with plastic balls.  To test this theory, Rutherford fired high-energy alpha particles (basically a nucleus of helium, two protons stuck together) at a sheet of thinly-stretched of gold foil.

 

What he discovered was that  almost all of the alpha particles went through the foil as though nothing were there, no atoms, no gold. But not completely:  About 1/10,000 of the alpha particles rebounded at radical angles.

 

Hence, we have Rutherford’s model of the atom, still the basis of atomic theory:  The atom, and therefore all of matter, is more or less empty space, clouds of swirling electrons (which are so small and light that if they stopped moving, they would have no mass).   In the centre of this vacuous swirl of negative charge is an infinitesimally small nucleus, where all of the ‘mass’ of the atom is stored.  We, and all we see around us, are in one sense just bundles of static electricity.  What holds this all together?

 

I, at least, find it profitable to ponder this at Easter, and our hubris in thinking this is all there is, and the fullness of reality.  If so, then even science corroborates the scriptural warning that ‘the form of this world is already passing away’, our bodies wearing out, entropy, death and universal annihilation loom.  Yes, it does all seem rather hopeless and unreal, at least from this natural, earthly sense.

 

But not in a supernatural sense, which gives us hope that our true life, our ‘real’ life awaits, a life that hinges in some mysterious way upon the decisions we make here, upon what we do in our bodies.  Do we choose reality and truth, or falsity and lies, emptiness and despair?   For only the truth will set us free, and, to paraphrase a pop slogan, ‘make it real’.

 

Easter Tuesday, 2015

The Choice is Ours, for good or evil…

GermanwingsIn one of those curious mysteries of providence, two tragic events in the past two weeks killed about the same number of people.  Both were mass murders, the first at least strongly suspected of being so:  The deliberate downing of the Germanwings Flight 9525 , wherein a depressed and suicidal co-pilot locked himself in, and the captain out of, the cockpit, as he flew the plane right into the Alps with 144 passengers and 6 crew members on board.  The pilot pounded on the door and did what he could.  An understandable, but futile, endeavour, as the doors have been reinforced and locked securely since 9/11 to keep terrorists out, ironically.  Research on the security of these doors was recently found on the deceased co-pilot’s computer, evincing premeditation of the deed.  And just today the second black box was discovered, which records that he accelerated the plane in its fatal descent toward the mountain face.  The force of the impact sent the ‘debris’ over an area of 500 acres.

 

The second recent event, on Holy Thursday, occurred at Garissa University College in Kenya, where the Islamic radical group Al Shabab gunned down every Christian student they could find, coldly and mercilessly.  Total body count: 147, which I don’t think includes the shooters, who were also killed, and who I don’t think will be meeting their 72 virgins.

 

God rest all their souls in this holiest time of year.

 

On this Good Friday evening, or indeed whenever you are reading this, the notion of sin should hit us hard, as we commemorate the brutal sufferings that our very God took upon Himself to atone for our offenses.  Every sin warps the world, and ourselves, in some way, and it is these effects of sin that must be expiated, in some way.  We are forgetting this, to our own detriment, and Pius XII warned in a 1946 radio address (just after the Second World War no less), that the greatest tragedy of the modern world was the loss of the sense of sin.  Sometimes, tragic events like the two described bring that ‘sense of sin’ home in a way that is visceral.

 

Even the most die-hard materialistic atheist would likely describe both of these acts, objectively, as heinously ‘evil’.  Of course, we cannot judge the interior guilt of the perpetrators, known only to God, but the acts themselves remain condemnable, and we all join in the condemnation.

 

But the materialist, (a belief system which includes a large swath of our media, academia, psychiatric and medical fields), to be true to his principles, would have to refrain from blame, even if his own daughter were among the victims.  Humans, in the materialist’s limited intellectual horizon, have no spiritual dimension, and are nothing more than androids made of protein, fat and nerve fibre (to paraphrase Marvin Minsky’s description of the brain as a ‘computer made of meat’).   They could therefore do no more moral wrong than a photocopier (although, full disclosure, years ago in my more volatile younger days, I did once punch a photocopier that was ‘acting up’ as I rushed to complete an assignment).  Rather, like any machine, biological or not, humans may ‘malfunction’.  They may even become ‘radicalized’, or, perhaps, get ‘illnesses’, physical and mental, but never are they, at least not really, at the end of the day, ‘guilty’.

 

Cain and AbelNot true, of course.  Human beings are guilty, and we all know it and act upon it.  I think a strong case could be made for tracing much of our mental illness back in some way to unresolved guilt. We try to assuage our conscience with all the wrong means:  drugs, sex, media, or we try to ‘upload’ the guilt, by placing it on someone else (they, or it, made me do it).  But we are aware, especially in our self-examination, that every human being who has use of his reason has some kind of choice, regardless of upbringing or environment.  The Catechism declares that “no one is deemed ignorant of the principles of the moral law”, and at some level of our being, conscience, that self-referential judgement on the morality of our actions, is still operating, even in moments of great stress.  The Bible puts it in its own pithy, inimitable way, in God’s advice to Cain as he pondered murdering his own brother out of envy:  “Sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, and you must master it”.  Well, Cain did not ‘master it’, and we all know what followed:  Not just the blood of the just man Abel, but in some mysterious way, sin let loose upon the world.

 

Of course, illness, environment and other factors may mitigate our culpability for any given sin, but remove it altogether?  To deny that we have freedom of choice is to deny what makes us human, creatures made in God’s very image.  As such ‘spiritual animals’, we are body-soul composites.  What is done in the body, affects the soul, and what is done in the soul changes the body.  Even here, to avoid the spectre of Platonic-Cartesian dualism, it is more proper to say with Saint Thomas that it is the person, that near-inaccessible ‘I’, who acts through his soul and his body.

 

The Book of Sirach tells us that “God left us in the hand of our own counsel”.  With each and every free decision, we are creating ourselves, for good, with the help of grace, or for evil, if we reject the grace of God.  That is why what sin does to the agent himself is far worse than what his sin may do physically to those around him, and why, as I mentioned in a previous column, Pope John Paul declared in the very first paragraphs of Evangelium Vitae that grievous sins against life “do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury”.  The Pontiff himself had lived these words in the attempt made on his life in 1981.  Fortunately for his would-be assassin, the ill-fated Mehmet Ali Agca, he was captured alive (first tackled by a nun, no less), and could live to repent, at least so we hope.  We can also only hope against hope that the perpetrators in these recent ‘crimes against life’ had a brief moment of grace before their own tragic deaths, for it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, not least with so much blood on your hands.

 

One way or the other, like our ancestor Cain, the choice in life is ours, and our eternal destiny depends upon what choices we make.

 

Good Friday, 2015