Some good science and bad philosophy
Simon Conway Morris
CUP, 484pp, hbk
0 521 82704 3, [£18.99]
I may lead a sheltered life and live far from the centres of civilization, but I have not seen a single reference to this book anywhere in the media. Why? This is a hugely important work of science. It may take decades for the full import of his thesis to permeate the scientific community and then the wider reaches of society, but for anyone with any interest in religion, for or against, it has immense implications.
In 1998 Morris published The Crucible of Creation, a brilliant demolition of the Neo-Darwinian flagship book A Wonderful Life by the late Stephen Jay Gould. The writing was dense and the subject was the Burgess Shale, a collection of early animal fossils from 500 million years ago, but the force of his intellect was such that any subsequent work by him simply had to be read. This is that book. His style is now a little easier, but it remains a demanding work for the non-specialist.
Read it. You may not understand it all, but in fifty years time when it has become the new orthodoxy, you will be able to look back and remember you were there at the moment of change. It is exciting stuff. Is it possible to simplify the issue into a couple of paragraphs? No, but let me try.
Decades ago, the scientific, anti-religion key word was chance, and the image that summed it up was of an infinite number of monkeys before an infinite number of typewriters who would (in an infinite amount of time) come up with the works of Shakespeare. When we could not grasp the idea, we dutifully presumed it was because we were stupid, not that it was a load of nonsense.
By the Nineties, however, the argument had been sharpened up, and the key word was contingency. The key theme was ‘Re-run the tape of life, and it will turn out utterly differently; it would never come out the same.’ To the question ‘Why do we as humans exist?’ the answer Gould gave was ‘Because, by pure contingency [chance] the worm-like creature pikaia, ‘the world’s first known cordate’, survived the Burgess decimation, and so became the ancestor of all vertebrates.’ So, in answer to the question, ‘Why are we here?’, there is no answer except contingency, pure chance, ‘just history’
Morris works his careful way through possible solar systems, amino-acids, the origins of life, and so to all the levels of evolutionary organisms, and offers a different key word, convergence. As he shows, if you re-run the tape, it will not be exactly the same but it will come out very close; indeed, if you were to destroy some apparently key part (such as the primates) similar forms of evolution (in this case, of intelligence) would eventually emerge. Far from being governed by pure chance, evolution reveals an extraordinary capacity to follow the ‘best’ path, to discover different key elements (the eye, for example) more than once, to reveal in other words that killer-theme for the anti-religionists, ‘order’.
Most of his proof is large-scale biology – the means by which different animals come up with similar solutions although starting from different points. Some of it is small-scale – the way in which chemicals, such as haemoglobin, are used for a similar function, whether in human blood, plants or bacteria. Some of it is sheer numbers – there is simply not enough time nor enough atoms in the universe to have created all the raw material required by the contingency model. Chance just does not work well enough.
The wealth of ideas in his book is intoxicating, and well beyond the imagination of the ordinary reader; there is also a vast amount of work for scientists to do, to pin down the meaning and mechanisms of convergence and constraint; but what an exciting world opens up. I have not sketched the half of it.
The penultimate chapter is entitled ‘Towards a theology of evolution’. It is striking for the vitriolic attack on those whom he calls the ‘ultra-Darwinians’, more commonly known as Neo-Darwinians, such as Gould, and Dawkins of The Selfish Gene. When someone of the stature of Professor Morris lays into them, it is worth listening. The chapter also shows how much work there is to be done by theologians; I felt somehow that ‘we’ (theology graduates in general) should have been doing more work to provide the context or background for this revolutionary science.
As to the other side of the theme, why we may be alone in the universe, that is too complicated to explain. You must read it for yourself. But if don’t read the book, remember at least this simple idea – it is not contingency that brought us to where we are, but convergence.
Nicholas Turner has an O-level in biology.
THE SONG OF SONGS
Edited by Richard Norris
Eerdmans, 346pp, hbk
0 8028 2579 6, [£28.95]
This is the first of a new series of biblical commentaries, presenting (often long) excerpts from the commentaries of the Church Fathers, the last reference in this work coming from the late twelfth century. Origen and Bede are among the most rewarding, but the scholars and preachers cited all have something to say. Norris provides an accurate translation of both the Septuagint and the Vulgate, being the two versions principally used by the Eastern and Western teachers, and neither of which always corresponds to the Greek/Hebrew/modern English versions now in use.
An excellent idea well executed, this is a wonderful resource for all clergy and scholars who wish to be faithful to the sacred text of Scripture. One cannot deny the great successes of contemporary biblical scholarship, but nor should one ignore the work of the pre-historical, pre-Enlightenment critics, at least not when they are so readily available in a volume such as this. This largely forgotten part of the Christian tradition is richer than we imagine.
This is the first in a series. Its ready affinity for allegory makes it an obvious choice. Other biblical works will be more difficult and demanding, but also more rewarding; it will be very interesting to see what modern editors can do to make available this older material. These are commentaries to be watched. The church has wanted them for some time. AS
From Gregory the Great’s introduction to his commentary to the Song of Songs:
Hence it is that in the Song of Songs … words are set down that pertain to bodily love, so that the soul, wakened anew out of its listless state by language to which it is accustomed, may heat up and may by the language of a lesser love be aroused to a higher. For in this book kisses are mentioned, breasts are mentioned, cheeks are mentioned, the loins are mentioned; and the holy picture these words paint is not meant for mockery or laughter. Rather ought we to focus our minds upon the greater mercy of God. We must notice how marvellously and mercifully, in making mention of parts of the body and thus summoning us to love, he works with us; for he reaches down to the vocabulary of our sensual love in order to set our heart on fire, aiming to incite us to a holy loving. Indeed, by the act in which he lowers himself in words he also elevates our understanding; for from the words associated with this sensual love we learn how fiercely we are to burn with love for the divine.
KUHN vs POPPER
Icon, 230pp, hbk
1 84046 468 2, £9.99
When reading Richard Holloway’s new book last month, I was fascinated by the authority he accords to what was a hugely popular book of the Sixties, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. It is an inventive and unusual book, but by the time I studied the philosophy of science in the Seventies, while still regarded as an stimulating read, it had been all but entirely set aside by the more serious, solid philosophy of Karl Popper, whose Logic of Scientific Discovery had initiated a body of work refining the requirements of scientific empiricism.
So why was it that while philosophers had forgotten him, he gradually became the philosopher of science for sociology and the human sciences? Fuller gives a fascinating social history of this curious corner of the Anglo-Saxon intellectual world. This is the best explanation of why modern liberalism is so illiberal that I have encountered for some time.
In one sense, Kuhn was right. Paradigm shifts do occur in the world of academia: a traditional world view and set of shared values faces a crisis, is overthrown and replaced by a new orthodoxy, a new world order. Almost overnight, new paradigms, new ‘ethical a priori’s become established, and it is around these that all new scholarship and criticism is directed. Apart from these rare crises, there is an essential conservatism and conformity that keeps at arm’s length any serious criticism that might overthrow the prevailing assumptions.
By contrast, Popper urged constant criticism. For him there were only hypotheses that must over and over again be put to the test. The true scientist can never relax; her theory is only as good as her last experiment. This accords entirely with his more overtly political vision of the open society.
This may all sound rather abstruse, but Fuller offers an entertaining and fast-moving survey of the intellectual movements of the past few decades, and a perceptive understanding of the theological aspects of the debate. And, from a traditionalist point of view, it is heartening to see him come down so firmly and unequivocally in favour of the good guy (Popper), and against that curious authoritarian figure of the Cold War (Kuhn), the current hero of the liberal establishment and author of so many intellectual errors. NT
AIMING TO KILL
The ethics of suicide and euthanasia
DLT, 230pp, pbk
0 232 52406 8, £10.95
A most useful and helpful book, not to persuade people, but to help them through a complex and troubling debate. There is a sense in which Professor Biggar has tied one hand behind his back, so as to remain as scrupulously fair as it is possible to be, in order to present the arguments from either side as fully as possible, so that when we reach the end, we can feel that due care and attention has been given, that the ground has been properly covered, that no tricks or short cuts have been used.
It would have been more inspiring and passionate if he had put his whole heart and conviction into it, but that was not his purpose. The thoroughness of his approach, which is to raise all the objections to the arguments against the taking of life in these cases, and then carefully respond to them, is a little heavy-going at times, but this is not a book to be read straight through so much as a reference work to be studied section by section.
It is particularly helpful that he considers both suicide and euthanasia, for this places the focus very clearly on the objective taking of life, rather than the subjective (and often emotional) stress on intention. He gives the ‘basic terms’ at the beginning. Just to list them gives some idea of the precision and subtlety needed when discussing current issues and possible changes in legislation: euthanasia, voluntary euthanasia, non-voluntary euthanasia, involuntary euthanasia, suicide, assisted suicide, physician-assisted suicide. At the very least you, and the government, need a clear, precise grasp of each of these terms, and how they differ.
This is a very useful book for all who wish to hold firm to the Christian tradition, and to do so with an understanding of the wider philosophical implications that enables that tradition to speak to others of a different culture or faith, and furthermore to take a full part in the often sincere but confused debates surrounding proposed changes in the law. If you do not buy a copy, make sure your library does so. RW
DLT, 188pp, pbk
0 232 52561 7, £8.95
At a time when media interest in and reporting of church gay debates is rarely less than hysterical, and when church discipline threatens to crumble under the onslaught of new rights and rites, a book offering personal testimony from gay and lesbian Christians is an important and valuable resource. Yes, I know, ‘some of our best friends are gay,’ and so on and so on, but the tension has become so great, it is not always possible to rely simply on friends’ testimony. When even the definition of the word ‘gay’ is (and it is) a major theological debate, it is necessary to seek every occasion to hear the voices of those on the other side, to ‘walk in their moccasins’, to use the House of Bishops’ queer little phrase.
In other words, I wanted to read this book and I still want to commend it to others who seek to maintain traditional Christian ethical teaching while wanting to be tolerant, but I have also to confess that it was not the enlightening experience I had hoped for. It rates very high on the wrist-slashing stakes. The loneliness, the despair, the physical and mental illness, the utter wretchedness and gloom that emerges from these pages is at times heart-rending and at other times merely mind-numbing.
There are 25 testimonies, and there is certainly no lack of passion. In the end, I could not help feeling that they had to some extent been betrayed by their editor. One gains a clue to Ford’s intentions from the preface in which he launches into an absurdly intemperate attack upon the Vatican. He is entitled to his views, and his arguments are not without merit, but if his principal purpose is to peddle his own agenda, then he should not have interviewed a wide range of vulnerable individuals, in order to extract the evidence for his own ideas.
What can one say? There must indeed be great anger and bitterness against the church, heterosexuals, bishops, families, and anyone outside the gay community, and we should indeed be prepared to listen to that anger. But sadly I come away not so much chastened and humbled, as angry in my turn at the sheer unproductive waste of the whole debate; and that is most definitely not what I was looking for. This may say more about me than anything else, but I was still surprised to come away from a book about gay spirituality thinking, ‘There is no such thing as gay spirituality, only a lot of hurt people.’
There was one chapter of light relief. It begins ‘If the Diocese of New Hampshire had not elected Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, it might well have selected a lesbian priest instead.’ Dr Bonnie Ring, one of the candidates for that see, had been married ‘more than once’ before she became a priest and entered a lesbian relationship with another Episcopalian priest. The strangeness of this Californian non-parochial minister’s ‘wilderness pilgrimage’ was such that I wanted to be told more, for she was one of the few people in this book who seemed able to speak without bitterness. But for a classic piece of patronizing affirmation, one can hardly beat the following, where Ford writes:
One of the most wonderful encounters to come Bonnie’s way since the election of Gene Robinson was a visit from a psychotherapy client, a practising Buddhist, who told her that he and his teenage son had both decided that, if ever they chose to experience Christianity in the future, it would have to be through the Episcopal Church because they were so proud of the stance it had taken.
It says it all. AS
ON THE LOVE OF GOD
S Abhayananda / Thomas à Kempis
Duncan Baird, 150pp, pbk
1 84293 063 X, £7.99
There are fewer constraints when reviewing for New Directions than for many other more establishment journals, because if we do not like a book we are entirely free to say so. But this one has got me stumped. Good, bad, mad, inventive, a con trick? I cannot make up my mind.
In the fifteenth century, Thomas à Kempis wrote The Imitation of Christ, which was destined to become the most widely read book of Christian spirituality, with an extraordinarily wide influence. I can remember my own austere, evangelical youth, when anything ‘Catholic’ was anathema, and my much-read Penguin copy of The Imitation. Like Dürer’s praying hands or Leonardo’s Last Supper, it was, for reasons unknown, allowed into the closely patrolled Protestant realm, and being without rivals, had a huge influence on impressionable young men such as myself.
In 1966, a certain Stan Trout from Indiana had a religious experience, after which he changed his name to Swami Abhayananda, and began to teach a more inclusive concept of mystical spirituality. Recognizing the broad appeal of The Imitation, he set about making it broader still by removing every last Christian reference from the text so that it should become in his words ‘non-sectarian’. So this is what Thomas à Kempis might have written if he had never heard of Christ and lived five centuries later. Weird. NA
Edited by Norman Calder et al
Routledge, 286pp, pbk
0 415 24033 6, [£17.99]
This is an introductory level source book of Islamic Qur’anic scholarly texts. It answers, if you like, the question, ‘How should I study the Islamic tradition? How do I approach its texts?’ The short answer is ‘With difficulty.’ It is one thing to say that we are both People of the Book; it is quite another to get a hold on just how differently Muslims relate to their own holy scripture compared to Christians.
A useful resource for students of Islam, it offers, to those who will never make a study of it, a glimpse of the basic scholarly materials that would have to be read and understood. The first part of the book offers a selection of the source material, the Qur’an of course, but also the written sources of the life of the Prophet, the hadith and other religious history. The second and longer part offers examples of the different and developing layers of interpretation from the first six centuries or so of Islamic scriptural scholarship.
The closest parallels in the Christian tradition are probably the commentaries of the medieval period. A deep respect for the precise wording of the sacred text, an esteem for the work of earlier scholars, a humility (or lack of imagination) not found in contemporary studies. It is a different world, and one that we, whether Christian or Muslim, are no longer familiar with. SR
THE FIVE WOUNDS OF JESUS
Gracewing, 92pp, pbk
0 85244 620 9, [£6.99]
Most writers, if they wish to include autobiographical material in order to anchor their teaching or reflection, begin with their personal memories and from there move out into the world of generalities and the abstract. This author, quite bizarrely, does the reverse. It is quite evident that he has a deep devotion to the wounds of Christ, and wishes to share that understanding of the love of our Lord with others, but has not encountered a teacher or an editor who might have imposed some order on his chaotic enthusiasm.
That is not necessarily a fault, for it makes the book very unthreatening. Give it to a young, impressionable protestant, whose prejudices are liable to be aroused by too serious and complete a catholic exposition. He may be by turns both fascinated and horrified by the medieval examples of such devotion to the five wounds, and the extraordinarily simplistic representations of them – severed hands and feet arranged as on a plate. Which in turn might prepare him to see in a new light the powerful non-conformist hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries addressed to the heart of Jesus, and so begin to foster the beginnings of real devotion to the sufferings of Christ.
This book is like a bric-à-brac shop, full of second-hand objects collected together in no discernible order; you know there is going to be lots of worthless rubbish, but you still wander in and have a look round, for in such places, treasures can be found. DN
BLESSINGS OF THE TABLE
Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette
Gracewing, 190pp, pbk
0 85244 618 7, [£7.99]
A collection of graces for use before the daily meal (itself a fading institution) throughout the year. This is for those people, whether in a family or alone, who want more than just one simple, repeated prayer. It offers a reference for a biblical reading, a versicle and response and a prayer, for the seasons of the year, the saints days and a four-week cycle for ordinary time.
Patterned on the calendar of the breviary, and with a certain monkish bias, it sets the simple offering of prayer before a meal into the wider context of the Prayer of the Church. The provision of a changing response, to be said by ‘everyone present’, is hardly practical, but the simple pattern and the use of traditional material makes this a little volume well worth commending. AS
An Old English table prayer, for Thursday of Week 1, in Blessings of the Table:
O you who clothe the lilies of the field and feed the birds of the air, who leads the sheep to pasture and the hart to the water’s side, who has multiplied loaves and fishes and converted water to wine, do you come to our table as giver and guest to dine. Amen.
PRAYERS FROM THE EAST
Edited by Richard Marsh
SPCK, 156pp, pbk
0 281 05417 7, [£8.99]
This offers us a manageable collection of prayers from those ancient churches that have lived most of their life on the edge of Christendom, the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Christians. It shows us a range of worship and devotion that many may be unfamiliar with. I found the editing rather bitty; it did not seem quite sure whether it was giving us an introduction to the liturgies of the east or offering us the texts themselves.
There is also the interesting problem of translation. From churches and languages so distant to our own, there are no rhythms and no cadence that we are familiar with or might recognize. The prayers need to be repeated aloud, and more than once, before one can begin to feel them as prayers. Fr Marsh knows of what he speaks and offers a most sympathetic and trustworthy presentation. This is a valuable resource. AS
From the Armenian wedding service, in Prayers from the East:
Deacon: O Christ, look upon us and have mercy on us, for your compassion is plentiful. Christ, you are a father to orphans and a righteous judge to widows, for your compassion is plentiful. Christ, you are the crowner of saints, and you listen to them and to their prayers, for your compassion is plentiful.
Priest: Beloved children, by God’s ordinance and according to the canons of the holy patriarchs, you have come to this holy church to be crowned and lawfully wedded in holy matrimony. May God keep you in mutual love and in one accord. May he make you live to a ripe old age, and may you worthy of the unfading heavenly crown.
But you should realize that this world has all kinds of troubles. There is sickness; there is poverty; and there are other afflictions and trials. We pray that God will keep you away from all such troubles. Nevertheless, it is God’s commandment that you help one another until death.
A BASIC BIBLE DICTIONARY
Canterbury, 200pp, pbk
1 85311 475 8, £9.99
This is a simple, tightly-packed dictionary of the words and names and terms that occur in the Bible. Does it have too much information? ‘Palmer-worm – old translation for a development stage of the locust, Joel 1.4.’ I am not sure that our understanding of the verse is improved by this knowledge. In the AV, it reads, ‘That which the palmer worm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten, and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten.’ Unfair as it may seem, cankerworm is not given its own entry. To confuse things further, sixteenth-century references to the palmer worm which I looked up in the full Oxford English Dictionary suggest that it is a ‘destructive hairy caterpillar’, and moreover a separate creature from a locust, not a developmental stage.
Simple entries are fine, for names and objects, but what about vague themes such as ‘fornication’? A certain evangelical Marcionism is evident in this seemingly simple and uncontroversial student aid – in layman’s terms, he does not like the Old Testament. ‘Homosexual acts’ is an interesting entry. Citing the condemnation in Leviticus (20.13), he classifies them as ritual sins, and then refers to the Council of Jerusalem, ‘the Church declared that [these laws] do not apply to non-Jewish Christians.’ Furthermore, ‘faithful same-sex relationships like David’s with Jonathan are praised.’ So that’s all right then. Sadly, if the Bible were that simple, we would not need a dictionary to accompany it. DN
THE PRESENT STATE OF ECCLESIASTICAL ARCHITECTURE IN ENGLAND
Gracewing, 240pp, pbk
0 85244 626 8, [£12.99]
If you do not enjoy Pugin’s strictures on the correct principles of church architecture, you may nevertheless relish his furious and angry account of the work of the protestant reformers and their destruction of images. Never one to suffer from self-doubt, Pugin wrote this work, originally as two articles later combined, in 1842. The Romantic attempt to return to the glories of the pre-Reformation English Church never lacked energy, and its leading proponent is still well worth reading. AS
THE LORD’S PRAYER UNPLUGGED
BRF, 128pp, pbk
1 84101 262 9, £12.99
A teaching programme for 7 to 11 year olds, sharing the riches of the Lord’s Prayer in some ten sessions. There is a clear and simple purpose, to teach this central treasure of the Christian faith, phrase by phrase. There is plenty of material in each session, probably more than one could fit into the time available. It will need energy and commitment from the teachers, but for those whose problem is a lack of confidence in the teaching, this is a most valuable aid. NA