A Modest Amendment


The bills I discuss below were withdrawn on the 27th of February, 2017, because they faced almost certain defeat.  The issue of reform was referred to the Queensland Law Reform Commission.

Two related private member’s bills are currently before the Queensland Parliament. The Abortion Law Reform (Women’s Right To Choose Bill) 2016 removes abortion from the Queensland Criminal Code, lock stock and barrel. This is necessary, as the Explanatory Note makes clear, because “[t]he current law in Queensland is causing great hardship and personal suffering.” Further, according to Dr Carolyn De Costa, “This is the only health procedure that is dealt with like this in criminal legislation. It’s way, way out of date and belongs in the 19th century. We’re practising medicine in the 21st century.” The “Benefits of the Bill” include the following. “The Bill will repeal outdated laws that can criminalise women and doctors for a basic human right and a medical procedure…These archaic laws are dangerous and have no place in modern society where women should always have control over their own bodies. This Bill will protect vulnerable Queensland women and the doctors that are currently risking prosecution to assist them.”

In his speech introducing the bill, Mr Pyne (Cairns—Independent) made some trenchant comments.
“A Cairns District Court jury took less than an hour to find Tegan Simone Leach, 21, and her partner, Sergie Brennan, not guilty of charges of procuring an abortion…They admitted…that Ms Leach took the pills…because they were not ready to have a child. It is my position that when a young woman is not ready to have a child and chooses to terminate a pregnancy that should be a matter for her and her medical practitioner, not a matter for the state.”

He goes on, “Surely a young person should not have to ruin their young lives by proceeding with a pregnancy if they are not ready and their family and their doctor think it unadvisable.” Well, and perfectly correctly, said Mr Pyne.

However, there was one disturbing element to Mr Pyne’s speech. “Should this bill pass, the decision for the doctor would simply need to be that continuing the pregnancy poses a bigger risk to the woman than terminating it.” One has to ask, “What’s it got to do with the doctor?” Is women’s control over their own bodies now to be handed over to the medical profession?

Apparently Mr Pyne took this into consideration, for shortly before the Abortion Law Reform (Women’s Right To Choose Bill) came back from committee, Mr Pyne introduced the Health (Abortion Law Reform) Amendment Bill 2016 to clarify matters following the presumed removal of abortion from the Criminal Code. Mr Pyne’s speech in introduction showed the development of his thinking.

“Section 20 provides that only a qualified health practitioner may perform an abortion…It also says a woman does not commit an offence against this section for performing an abortion on herself.”

“Section 21 addresses abortion on a woman more than 24 weeks pregnant. It states that a doctor may perform an abortion…only if the doctor reasonably believes the continuation of the woman’s pregnancy would involve greater risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the woman than if the pregnancy were terminated; and has consulted with at least one other doctor [to the same effect.]”

This is an enormous step backwards. Not only does a distressed and vulnerable woman have to plead with one doctor to provide her “basic human right” (in Mr Pyne’s words) to the control of her own body, but she must now plead with two. This may not be as bad as it looks, though, because there does not seem to be any requirement for the second doctor to interview the patient, unless a judge decides that “reasonably believes” unreasonably requires such an interview.

The section does at least make it clear that there is no artificial and arbitrary upper limit on the period in which a woman in physical or mental danger can obtain (doctors willing) an abortion.

What happened to that talk in the earlier bill about removing abortion from the Criminal Code? Well, it does get a guernsey in a note to Section 21. “A failure by a doctor to comply with this section does not constitute an offence but may constitute behaviour for which action may be taken under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (Queensland), Part 8 or the Health Ombudsman Act 2013.” That is some relief.

“Section 22 concerns the duty to perform or assist in abortion. It says no-one is under a duty to perform or assist in performing an abortion…However, a doctor has a duty to perform, and a registered nurse has a duty to assist a doctor in the performance of, an abortion on a woman in an emergency if the abortion is necessary to save the life of, or to prevent a serious physical injury to, the woman.” The difference between the conditions applying in this situation and those of section 21 are quite clear. Section 21 only addresses “greater risk” of physical or mental injury by continuing the pregnancy than by terminating. Section 22 addresses an immediate threat. This provision will be worthwhile if it prevents the suicide of one desperate woman who finds herself at the mercy of the “consciences” of medical providers in, for example, a country hospital. It is important to note that this safeguard applies to all abortions, up to term.

The first bill is at least unambiguous and represents a great leap forward for Queensland. The second bill is something of a curate’s egg, but is overall a step in the right direction. There is, however, a glaring omission.

While this long-awaited clarification and rationalisation offers more security to women and the medical practitioners seeking to help them, including the important consideration that abortion is available until term, no-one seems to have considered the situation of women whose foetuses are delivered prematurely. Given that the justification for the great majority of abortions under current circumstances is concern about the mental, rather than the physical, health of the woman, this is a grievous oversight. Suppose a woman who, though in a desperate psychological condition over her pregnancy, holds off having an abortion through a certain reluctance and in the belief that she still has, say, eight weeks to decide. Suppose further that this woman has the misfortune to deliver the foetus at this time. If anything, this circumstance would render the woman’s psychological state more parlous. Yet at the very time of her greatest vulnerability and need, the state and the law turn their backs on her, denying her the undoubted benefits of an abortion in her troubled state, because of an accident of timing.

This anomaly and injustice could be addressed by defining a “nominal pregnancy.” While the details would have to be decided by extensive consultation, suppose that the minimum period of a nominal pregnancy were defined as 37 weeks. The mother of any foetus delivered before 37 weeks gestation could then seek to have her nominal pregnancy terminated on the same basis as a woman whose actual pregnancy was similarly advanced.

This is not a proposal for infanticide. Pregnancy properly lasts about 39 weeks; the foetus is not ready for the outside world until then, as the difficulties of the prematurely born attest. So such a pregnancy coming to term at the usual time reflects the proper transition from foetus to infant. A prematurely delivered foetus is physiologically, then, still a foetus, although one in more difficult circumstances than usual. Furthermore, any psychological and exacerbating financial stresses on the woman will be aggravated by the circumstances of premature delivery.

It goes without saying that the termination of what we might call an externalised foetus would be achieved in the most humane possible manner, involving no suffering to the foetus. This carefully controlled process would in fact be much more humane than the process of normal late-term abortion, with its necessarily confronting aesthetics.

Hopefully the opportunity presented by these bills will seized in full by amending the second bill to include the just principle of a “nominal pregnancy” and put Queensland at the forefront of progressive thinking on women’s issues.

Redefining marriage

Brendan O’Neill raises a point which I have never heard in the discussion before, but which I have always felt is critical. This unprecedented redefinition of the basic building block of human society rewrites the contract that the State entered into with every currently married person. How’s that for retrospective legislation? I will return to this point below.

Speculate for a moment that the purpose of this push is the destruction of the the institution of marriage. How does that fit with the observations that the original dynamic of homosexual activism was, loudly and proudly, the destruction of the bourgeois institution of marriage? Perfectly well. That same motive was expressed equally fervently by what was known radical feminism in the 70s, and which has become the taken-for-granted feminism of the teenies. If that is the major motivation it has worked very well.

Still, though, something about the appeal of marriage has not been eradicated.  Couples who have lived together for years will marry when they decide to have children.  How about that?  That has happened in my own family. Why would they do such a thing if marriage is merely a recognition of the commitment and loving relationship between two people?  So marriage is a tougher nut to crack than was first imagined, and all those young feminists are still going off and getting married before having their children. “Gay marriage” is the next move in the campaign to break the nexus between marriage, family and society.

Returning to the issue of retrospective legislation, I note that there is no provision being made for those who have grave objections to the State’s redefining marriage, and in particular their marriage, to leave the redefined state. If these legislators are to pretend to have any concern for their constituents, they must surely include a provision for those who are currently married to be awarded a divorce on the single ground that the state has violated their original contract of marriage. Such a provision would provide for the automatic transfer of the state-sanctioned marriage to a state-sanctioned civil union of the kind that was offered to homosexual couples.

Those whose marriages are, first and foremost, a sacramental union, would still be sacramentally married.  The Catholic Church, for example, does not recognise the State’s divorces.  George Weigel, after the re-election of Obama, wrote, “Thus it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.” Amen. That’s not going to happen, in the US or Australia, because it takes a Church with courage, commitment and a vibrant faith to stand in open opposition to the surrounding culture and many who are nominally within its own ranks.

Nonetheless, it should be the subject of a vigorous debate now. The various churches which currently act as agents of the State in marriage ceremonies could demand that their recognition as marriage agents be withdrawn as part of any “gay marriage” enabling legislation. They would advise couples to enter into civil unions immediately before coming to the church to marry, so that their legal rights would not be threatened.  Failing the cooperation of the State, the churches could engage in their own campaign of civil diobedience, refusing to sign State marriage contracts or allow them to be introduced into the church.

I’m not holding my breath.  The prospect of “gay marriage” has receded in Australia with the election of a conservative government, even as the law has recently been changed in the UK. In the United States, the fight is bitter, unequal and undemocratic, as the fate of both Proposition 8 and Brendan Eich attests. It is understandable, then, that a debate such as George Weigel proposed is being conducted in some nooks and crannies of the American Catholic Church, and perhaps in other congregations.  It is also understandable that Weigel’s view has been rejected in such comments as I have read.

Does Intelligent Design subvert faith?

Spengler (David Goldman) posted an article in the Asia Times Online, titled Why ‘Intelligent Design’ subverts faith. What follows is my reply. Quotes from Goldman’s article are in italics, for the most part. Spengler quotes from an article by David Bentley Hart, hence the reference.
The workings of nature are so complex and perfect…that they bespeak a design, and a design must have a designer. The trouble is that the same clock seems to set off a bomb at random intervals. 
There is a false premise in Voltaire’s argument, namely that humankind is always and inevitably subject to the ravages of cruel and capricious nature. We now build cities able to withstand earthquakes; the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 killed 16,000 people in much more densely populated regions, a terrible toll, to be sure, but a fraction of the Lisbon dead. No human being need die from hunger, or cold, or bacterial disease; if some die, it is the fault of human action, not an Act of God.
Human understanding of the mechanism of earthquakes depends upon the complex perfection – the rational predicability – of nature. Voltaire’s argument stands up well. It’s not that everyone “is always and inevitably subject…” because there have always been many who lived peaceful and uneventful lives, culminating in a quiet death. David Hart’s meditation was occasioned, if I recall correctly, by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost over a vast area, on the day after Christmas. The scale of the destruction, and, I believe, its timing, gave rise to much anguished reflection.
What, however, distinguishes such a catastrophe from the mundane reality of our mortality, from the sum of the small tragedies that occur all around us every day: the toddler crushed under the wheels of his mother’s SUV; the father of a young family crushed in an industrial accident; the chance encounter with meningococcus or SARS; the semi-trailer jack-knifing into the path of the family’s sedan? It is the concentration and sheer mind-boggling scale that overwhelms our blasé defences. And it is something else. It is the shock of confronting our hubris; naked, terrified and inadequate where a moment before it had been cocky and overblown.
Build as we might, Nature will always have in reserve a better disaster. All of those areas swamped in Japan had sea-walls. Tsunamis are not unexpected in Japan. But the scale of this one was. Now a new standard will be set for the sea-walls, and smaller waves will be contained. The meteorite that struck Siberia in 1908 might just as well have struck a populated area. Where will the next comparable strike occur? Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection. In a north Queensland hospital, in an isolation room, is a young girl from Papua New Guinea who has a multi-resistant strain of TB.  Only one drug remains in the armoury against it. This story is being repeated across the globe. The ancient scourge is back, and gathering in force. How will we defend against it?
Such questions must be considered in the light of another: when the economy tanks, who will pay for the protection against the tsunami, or earthquake, or cyclone, or tornado, or storm surge, or TB? Who pays for it now in most of the populated world?
So, I disagree with the Panglossian optimism of your response to Voltaire. But, even if I did agree, the notion of human beings as co-workers with God in the improving of Creation, does not answer the Voltairian criticism. For it places the responsibility of the broken and tragic state of Creation firmly at the feet of God. Then, with Augustine, we can ask, “If God is all-good, He wants His creatures to be happy, and if He is all-powerful, He can do whatever He wants. But His creatures are not happy. Therefore He lacks either goodness or power or both.”
If the resolution of this question is to be found in the millennial striving of the community of co-creators, we are back, are we not, at a requirement “..to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of – but entirely by way of – every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known…“?
Against this stands, not the surrender of (what we now know to be) the vastness of the natural order to hostile forces, but the exodus from the Garden.  Nature is as nature always was. It continues to exhibit the predicability of its design, and it continues on the path determined by its design – complete with tectonics, cyclones, earthquakes and disease. In Aquinas’ analogy, the insensate arrow follows the trajectory determined by the purposeful archer.  But we are not as we were when God offered us His protection. This is not a Christian story: we Christians inherited it, as we live in the consequences of that first exodus.
Any role for the Creator in the construction of nature implies design. So,  if I am correct in my understanding of your comments concerning Soloveitchik,
…the final perfection of nature is a messianic vision… But there is a great deal to do in the meantime. Man is not the passive victim of earthquake, flood, famine or disease. We can build defenses against natural disasters, cure disease, and eliminate hunger. Whatever harm befalls us today, we can change our destiny in the future. … We are not the passive victims of nature. We strive to establish human dignity by mastering nature…
then Soloveitchik has not addressed the questions of theodicy at all. God has chosen to make the world we inhabit with its complement of tragic potentials, and it sounds from the above as though He has done so “for our own good,” in order that we may struggle to overcome the deliberate failings of His deliberately inadequate design. It’s not a good look.
As regards design, it seems to me that there are two possibilities. The universe created itself spontaneously, so it has no Designer at all, and all of the predictable order that we detect is but the playing out of incalculable improbabilities resulting –  presto –  in the spurious appearance of design. Alternatively, God created the Creation – time, space and the whole shebang – in which case it was, by definition, designed by Intelligence. In either case, Nature displays design: if it did not, if it was chaotic and unstable, how could comprehending intelligences ever come to exist within it?
Soloveitchik may be arguing that evidence of a Designer, coming from the studies of Intelligent Design, would degrade the quality of faith in believers. Aside from the difficulties of demonstrating ID with a level of certainty that would persuade most workers in the biological sciences, such an argument would be opposed by another revered Jew, St Paul of Tarsus. Following Paul, the Catholics have always held that the world displays such evidence as is necessary for the seeker of truth to determine that God, indeed, exists. They insist on the unity of Faith and Reason, and reject Fideism.
The particulars of your objections to ID I take to be these. What stake does man have in a nature designed by God such that it both nurtures and destroys him? Assuming the Creator’s design, how can we presume to know “the grand design of physical creation?”
Yes, the first takes us immediately to questions of theodicy, but what else is new? No matter how you dice and slice the concept of the Creator God, Judeo-Christian faith must deal with such questions. If God is indifferent to human suffering, no question arises. But revelation tells us otherwise, and we must give an answer. What stake? Only that this world, this Nature, is the only temporal home we have. It is the stage on which the eveternal drama of our lives must be played out. We act to ease the suffering of our neighbour because we have been told that it is incumbent upon us, even as we feel the call to such action in the depths of our souls. We inflict suffering on our neighbour because of the insufferable dilemma of human existence, on the horns of which we are in this life impaled. What stake do you need?
The atheist Stephen Hawking may, at the instigation of his publisher, presume to claim that knowing the mind of God is within our grasp, but, theoretical physicists aside, most scientists have no such grand illusions. Most are working in a tiny corner of the universe of phenomena, in the expectation of rational behaviour by the universe and all of its constituent parts. For the most part, they are not disappointed. Harking back to St Paul, this realised expectation is not destructive, but supportive, of faith. A Fideism that cleaves to the “accident” of a particular religious faith, in the face of contradictory explanations derived from observations and theories about nature, will always be brittle. A faith which can – in good faith – subsume the discoveries of the scientific method, will be much more robust. I note, however, that my proviso is not, for the most part, observed.
ID is not essentially different from the broader project of science, despite the furious attacks on it from within established science. Its hypothesis is that nature is, to an important extent, designed, rather than being the result of various random processes. In order to test this hypothesis, they seek evidence of design in some of the minutiae of nature. It is not a grand scheme, and, as an hypothesis, it makes no assumptions about the source of the design. Obviously, there are plenty of people who are prepared to make conjectures about the Source, but that is irrelevant. The real threat of ID is that its acceptance would shatter the nexus, generally unconscious but no less fanatically held for that, between scientific methodology and the philosophy of scientific materialism.
I don’t know whether ID will succeed with such a demonstration: I will them well. Should they succeed, there will not be a stampede to the the churches and synagogues, but the hand of the faithful will have been strengthened in the current fight to the death of the culture wars. Should they fail, those who maintain the argument against scientific materialism will be no worse off.

Speaking from my invincible mathematical ignorance, I concur with your comments on the importance of Gödel. However, his was only one contribution to the dismantling of grandiose modern expectations of science and mathematics. In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi tried to chart a way forward for science when the god of scientific certainty had been shown to have failed. Like Gödel, he had confidence in the ability of science to grope towards truth, and he understood the critical role of what you have called “inspiration.” But in all of this is the discovery of the design of things, and in none of this is there any necessary threat to faith.

Updated 25 Feb 1013

Glory to God?

The Anglicans have rewritten the Gloria Patri to make it less offensive, bless their hearts. The optional new, improved version goes like this.

Glory to God, Source of all being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit,
As is was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever. Amen.

As a reminder, here’s the version of the original that I’m familiar with.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen

What’s the critical difference between these versions? It is this: the new version is no longer Trinitarian. The three persons of God have disappeared. Instead, we have three characteristics of a Unitarian God. The first line of the PC version could just as well have read,

Glory to You, Source of all being, and to the Eternal Word, and to the Holy Spirit…

but it doesn’t. Inclusive language turns out to be exclusive, after all. Disguised as an agonisingly sensitive response to the genuine anguish that women have clearly suffered for millennia in reciting the Gloria, the revolutionaries who have gained the ascendency in various Christian jurisdictions over the last forty or fifty years have slipped a Unitarian formula into one of the most oft-repeated prayers of the Church. A substantial proportion of the Anglican communion now regularly proclaim that God, the Trinity, is dead: long live God the Unity.

The Science of Resurrection

In the collection of essays on which I based my discussions of Bultmann, you will find, as the last essay, a summary of the original eight essays by Austin Farrer, entitled An English Appreciation. In the course of it, he offers this:

The established, or virtually established, positions of science and history give rise to necessary refusals, as when we refuse to believe that the world was created eight thousand years ago or that the sun stood physically still for Joshua… About necessary refusals nothing can be done or ought to be done. They must be accepted.

While I have some sympathy with him, and I understand why he says this, I don’t agree with him. As he himself seems to be saying, there are two categories of knowledge involved here. The first, that the world was not created eight thousand years ago, is the knowledge of the history of the earth, derived mainly from the study of the geology of the earth itself, and the study of the formation of the solar system. The second, that the sun did not physically stand still for Joshua, whilst it is an historical assertion, is based upon the immediate evidence of the behaviour of the solar system, and the theories of planetary motion that have been derived, and may be constantly re-affirmed, from that always available evidence.

Common to both of these statements (and to any useful statements we make) is a cluster of assumptions. We rely on our ability to draw true and useful conclusions about the world because we first rely on the world to be consistent in its structure, and to behave consistently. This is a confidence we learn from experience: the objects out in the environment are such as to allow us to learn about them without constantly having to re-evaluate that learning.

With the rise of scientific methodology, we have stepped far beyond the realms of direct experience. Take, for instance, our view of the solar system. Our knowledge—that the earth and all the planets orbit the sun—flies in the face of the evidence of our senses—that it is the sun, the planets and the stars that move, whilst the earth remains in place. Our confidence in this knowledge, and all such counter-experiential or non-experiential knowledge, is based on our confidence in the structures our society has erected for the testing, extension, elaboration and explanation of scientific knowledge. In short, we rely, for almost everything we know, on the testimony of witnesses whom we trust.

This confidence has become so great in light of the staggering technological advances in our societies, that the methodological processes that underlie it have quite rapidly become a religion in their own right.

What is it about our scientific knowledge that rules out believing that the sun stood physically still for Joshua? It is not our knowledge of the day-to-day mechanics of the solar system, or our knowledge of the tremendous scale of the force of gravity (itself an utterly mysterious force acting at a distance, until replaced by the new mysteries of general relativity) that rules out the Book of Joshua. It is, instead, the unshakable belief that the universe created itself; that there is no Creator. That absence of a Creator means that only physical processes deduced to be the operating principles of the universe can possible act on a planetary scale. I think it is safe to claim that this is an a priori position. It is not a conclusion which has been drawn on the basis of evidence uninformed by pre-suppositions. It is the fundamental working hypothesis of all materialists. To put it another way, it is the primary article of the creed of materialism. It is a statement of faith.

That is not the view of Christians. Christians know their Creator. It is He who is the maker of all things, visible and invisible. What is more important: He is an active God, participating to the point of revealing His name to the Hebrews, and coming in person to the Jews, and remaining in person to all who believe in Christ. This activist God has always accompanied His message of revelation with signs and wonders, for we are a sceptical people.

If this is true, and I believe there are compelling reasons for believing this, then no action that God has taken in history in support of His revelation is “impossible.” This, in itself, is not a statement of faith, but a logical consequence of the faith-supported belief in the Christian God. It is no more a statement of faith than the contention that the laws of physics preclude the standing still of the sun: itself a logical consequence of the belief that the universe is self-created; or at least that the agent of its creation, like Aristotle’s First Mover, is more remote than the ends of the expanding universe from its creation.

Such is the science of Resurrection. Science itself can tell us nothing about the Resurrection, but the Resurrection can tell us a great deal about science. We believe the fact of the Resurrection because we believe the witnesses; the chief of which is the Church itself. Having accepted this evidence, we draw our conclusions from it, as did the early Church. Among these are that we cannot understand ourselves as material beings. Not only can we not gain an understanding of our minds on this basis, but we cannot even appreciate the nature of our physical bodies on the basis of materialism. This event-based science subsumes and limits materialist science. It must inform all of our scientific thinking.

The other “necessary refusal” is of a young earth. This is a somewhat different case. The Tradition in which I have found myself—Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism—is not sola scriptura. For Catholicism, Scripture, although inerrant, is not necessarily literally so. Scripture itself, in the Catholic view, was accredited by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: and it remains to the teaching authority of the Church to interpret Scripture, and to delineate the literally inerrant from the allegorically, and the like. I will assume that, for example, the conclusions of geology about the formation of the earth’s crust and topography meet the criteria of relatively uncontroversial and accepted science. This study concluded long ago that there had been massive changes in the earth’s surface over what can only have been very long time frames.

To address the young earth issue, we return to the assumption about the consistency of nature, but with a different emphasis. Whereas the reported Joshua event would involve a massive interruption to the normal process of nature, that interruption was of less that a day, at a remote point in history. No direct physical evidence of this event, which is not reported to have caused any other changes, can possibly be adduced either in support of, or against, its occurring.

In this case of the young earth, however, we have before us the same Book of Nature which the geologists have studied intensively over the past two centuries or so. From my Catholic perspective, I have no problem with this: the problem is displaced to other sites of contention. From the perspective of, let us say, an evangelical who believes in a young earth, at least two kinds of response are possible.

One is to challenge the interpretation of the evidence. This approach is fraught with difficulties. It accepts that nature speaks to us consistently and accurately, and so it involves endlessly contesting the accepted scientific interpretation, and every new piece of evidence that is presented.

Another is to embrace the primacy of faith and the literal interpretation of the Bible, while accepting that nature is telling a different story. I believe that a lot of scientists and technologists have adopted this position. For them, nature sets a complex and ever-fascinating series of puzzles whose solution generates worldly benefits for human beings; in mineralogy, for instance. They accept the terms that these challenges present, and set about trying to solve them. While nature is true and consistent in terms of the puzzles it presents, it is not the real story. That story is told in the Bible. Fallen Man can only appreciate the surfaces of nature; redeemed Man understands the Truth that God created all of this in six days. I have never had this discussion with such a person, so I am speculating from shreds of evidence, but this position offers a surer footing for literalism, even at the price of Fideism.

Catholics and Anglo-Catholics avoid these dilemmas by regarding the Genesis account of the age of the earth as an allegorical description of an underlying reality; the Creation ex nihio as a deliberate intention of God. For them, however, the challenges of scientific materialism have been displaced. The attacks on the Faith have been directed for some time now to the credibility of the witness. When the primary texts in which the testimony occurs are acknowledged to require interpretation, an open but unavoidable invitation to their undermining has been issued.

Though not germane to this particular discussion, I will quote in passing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, lest the extent of Catholic accommodation to modern viewpoints be misunderstood.

How to read the account of the fall

390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

Resurrection Denialism

On the evening of that day,  the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side… Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.”Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight… As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit… “See my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
This is what Christians believe. St Paul understood this. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. At least, this is what Christians believed for two millennia, and what they still profess. The problem is that so many of them do not.
I cannot see how anyone who denies the physical, and permanent, resurrection of Jesus can maintain that he is a Christian. All such are working, in my view, for the destruction of Christianity; and they’re doing a pretty good job. Various surveys have shown that Christianity has waned dramatically over the past half-century in Europe and the Anglosphere, with the exception of the USA, where the decline has been much less marked. Neither do surveys tell the whole story. According to one report, only 1.13 million adults went to church on Easter Sunday, 2001, while the same report indicates that, in the 2001 census, 72% of adults in Britain classified themselves as Christian. In 2002, a survey of 20% of the Anglican clergy found that one-third of them did not believe in the physical Resurrection of Christ.
The truth claims of the faith are quite definite: denying the Resurrection flouts those beliefs. During Hitler’s rise to power, as an important part of his program for seizing complete control of Germany, he promoted a movement known as “German Christianity.” The various churches in Germany had an “interesting” relationship with the German state; they still do. At any rate, German Christianity split the churches, and a countervailing movement known as the Confessing Church arose. It included notables such as Bonhoeffer, Barth and Bultmann. Their purpose was to assert ecclesial independence. Bonhoeffer’s activities in the Abwehr, leading to his execution, were not conducted under the auspices of the Confessing Church. In 1937 Pope Pius XI, from this sickbed, wrote the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern) to the German Church, asserting the incompatibility of Nazi ideology and Christianity. The Catholics too were being ravaged by the appeal of the Nazis.
At this remove, there are few, if any, who would argue for the theological validity of German Christianity. Yet, as far as I am aware, it denied none of the fundamental tenets of of the Creeds. Today, however, the credal basis of the faith is being trashed in seminaries and theological colleges throughout the Western world.  Currently fashionable political movements demand that Christian teaching be radically altered to accommodate their agendas, and this is done as a matter of course.
Orthodoxy will again resume its place at the centre of Christian life and worship. How long it will be, God knows. When is does, this time will be seen as one of those periods in the history of the Church during which the Body of Christ was traumatised by the struggle between catholic truth and dangerous heresy. In such struggles, souls are torn asunder.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

The Schoolman Dawkins

What does Dawkins mean by the term evidence? That seems to depend on the circumstances in which it is applied. In a previous post, I wrote about the challenge to the likes of Dawkins, presented by the testimony of and about Padre Pio.  Subsequently, I discussed the use Dawkins made of Hume in dealing with that challenge.

It has occurred to me since, that Dawkins double standards on evidence align him in some senses with the Schoolmen from the declining years of Scholasticism; or at least with the caricature of them that is retailed by the camp-followers of “The Enlightenment.” In this view, the Scholastics were lost in a world of excessive subtle arguments based on an Aristotelian and Thomist philosophy, splitting finer and finer hairs in a debate hopelessly divorced from the real world. Into this massive but brittle word of ideas was introduced a new realism, throwing away the old edicts, and relying only on observation, evidence and reason.

A basic problem with this caricature is that evidence ain’t evidence. Some evidence can, according to Dawkins, be dismissed a priori; for example, evidence of the miracle of the sun at Fatima, or of the bi-locations of Padre Pio. By what authority is this evidence dismissed? By the absolute authority of a philosophical commitment: that all things, visible and invisible, are material, complete, entire and with no non-material residue. This dogma trumps all evidence. For there can be no evidence that contradicts it. Given the pre-suppositions of the dogma, any evidence which purports to contradict it must necessarily by fraudulent, mis-reported, mistaken or mis-interpreted. Q.E.D.

It turns out that this dogmatic rejection of evidence is not unusual in the history of science, and Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, most notably, have pointed out.

During the eighteenth century the French Academy of Science stubbornly denied the evidence for the fall of meteorites, which seemed massively obvious to everybody else. Their opposition to the superstitious beliefs which a popular tradition attached to such heavenly intervention blinded them to the facts in question. [Personal Knowledge,II.6.2 Scientific Value]


 Ordinary people were convinced of the fall of a meteorite, when an incandescent mass struck the earth with a crash of thunder a few yards away, and they tended to attach supernatural significance to it. The scientific committees of the French Academy disliked this interpretation so much that they managed, during the whole of the eighteenth century, to explain the facts away to their own satisfaction. It was again scientific scepticism which brushed aside all the instances of hypnotic phenomena occurring in the form of miraculous cures and spellbinding, and which—even in the face of the systematic demonstrations of hypnosis by Mesmer and his successors—denied for another century after Mesmer’s first appearance the reality of hypnotic phenomena. When the medical profession ignored such palpable facts as the painless amputation of human limbs, performed before their own eyes in hundreds of successive cases, they acted in a spirit of scepticism, convinced that they were defending science against imposture. We regard these acts of scepticism as unreasonable and indeed preposterous today, for we no longer consider the falling of meteorites or the practice of mesmerism to be incompatible with the scientific world view. But other doubts, which we now sustain as reasonable on the grounds of our own scientific world view, have once more only our beliefs in this view to warrant them. Some of these doubts may turn out one day to have been as wanton, as bigoted and dogmatic as those of which we have now been cured. [Personal Knowledge, III.9.3 Reasonable and Unreasonable Doubt]

Such examples are multiplied in Polanyi and Kuhn. They demonstrate the overarching role of some underlying structures of belief that are virtually indistinguishable from faith in the way scientists deal with the flux of information that comes to them from their environment, both personal and professional.  These models of reality are many cases simply the internalisation of the theoretical constructs of those scientific disciplines with which an individual is familiar, but all of these are encompassed by his broadest philosophical understanding of the nature of reality.

Philip E. Johnson wrote an article, The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism, in the November 1997 issue of First Things, in which he responded to a piece by Harvard Genetics Professor Richard Lewontin in the New York Review of Books in January, 1997. It’s a interesting article in a number of dimensions, including this quote from Lewontin:

Dawkins’ vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing nonselective forces in evolution.

Johnson continues:

Lewontin laments that even scientists frequently cannot judge the reliability of scientific claims outside their fields of speciality, and have to take the word of recognized authorities on faith. “Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution.”

 However, the centrepiece is this direct quote from Lewontin.

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Johnson, rightly, regards this comment as revealing of a systematic rationale operating within the evolutionary biology communities. However, from previous examples, it can be seen that such systematic belief systems are endemic to science.  The question then is, not whether they exist, but whether, and to what extent, they are detrimental. In terms of the title of this posting, are we at present in the midst of the intellectual and religious flowering of the current structures of belief, or are we in the midst of its decline and fall, in a climate that is sterile, self-defeating and inimical to human flourishing?

Those who have eyes to see

Reading about Fatima, I noticed a theme that recurred in various descriptions of the miracle of the sun.

O Seculo (a pro-government, anti-clerical, Lisbon paper):

From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place.

O Dia (another Lisbon daily, edition of 17 October 1917):

“At one o’clock in the afternoon, midday by the sun, the rain stopped. The sky, pearly grey in colour, illuminated the vast arid landscape with a strange light. The sun had a transparent gauzy veil so that the eyes could easily be fixed upon it. The grey mother-of-pearl tone turned into a sheet of silver which broke up as the clouds were torn apart and the silver sun, enveloped in the same gauzy grey light, was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds.

Ti Marto (father of Jacinta and Francisco)

We looked easily at the sun, which for some reason did not blind us. It seemed to flicker on and off, first one way, then another. It cast its rays in many directions and painted everything in different colors— the trees, the people, the air and the ground. But what was most extraordinary, I thought, was that the sun did not hurt our eyes.

Dr. Almeida Garrett, PhD (Coimbra University):

It must have been nearly two o’clock by the legal time, and about midday by the sun. The sun, a few moments before, had broken through the thick layer of clouds which hid it, and shone clearly and intensely. I veered to the magnet which seemed to be drawing all eyes, and saw it as a disc with a clean-cut rim, luminous and shining, but which did not hurt the eyes. I do not agree with the comparison which I have heard made in Fatima—that of a dull silver disc. It was a clearer, richer, brighter colour, having something of the luster of a pearl. It did not in the least resemble the moon on a clear night because one saw it and felt it to be a living body. It was not spheric like the moon, nor did it have the same colour, tone, or shading. It looked like a glazed wheel made of mother-of-pearl. It could not be confused, either, with the sun seen through fog (for there was no fog at the time), because it was not opaque, diffused or veiled. In Fatima it gave light and heat and appeared clear-cut with a well-defined rim…

It was a remarkable fact that one could fix one’s eyes on this brazier of heat and light without any pain in the eyes or blinding of the retina. The phenomenon, except for two interruptions when the sun seemed to send out rays of refulgent heat which obliged us to look away, must have lasted about ten minutes.

Similar experiences are common at Medjugorje, as I discovered when I made my own pilgrimage there. This impressed itself on me most powerfully not through my own experiences of phenomena of the sun (I had none) but through standing beside a couple of young blokes from Adelaide as they observed them. All of these instances are testimony to the cracks in the foundations of a purely materialistic worldview. They are evidence that flatly contradicts materialism’s alibi. The challenge is to draw all such strands of evidence together to bind up this strong man.

Dawkins v. Fatima

In my previous post, I quoted from Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, as follows.

It is the 70,000 witnesses that impress. Could 70,000 people simultaneously be victims of the same hallucination? Could 70,000 people collude in the same lie? Or if there never were 70,000 witnesses, could the reporter of the event get away with inventing so many?

Let’s apply Hume’s criterion. On the other hand, we are asked to believe in a mass hallucination, a trick of the light, or a mass lie involving 70,000 people. This is admittedly improbable. But it is less improbable than the alternative: that the sun really did move. … If the sun moved in truth… an even greater miracle would have to have been perpetrated: an illusion of non-movement had to be staged for all the millions of witnesses not in Fatima. And… if the sun had really moved at the speed reported, the solar system would have broken up. We have no alternative but to follow Hume… and conclude… that the miracle of Fatima never happened. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the onus is on us to explain how those 70,000 witnesses were misled. [My bold emphasis.]

I mentioned the logical flaws in such arguments, so I had better explain myself.

Let us conduct a thought experiment. In order to determine the way a large crowd of people experience the sun, we arrange to conduct tests at a number of venues at which crowds of from 50,000 to 120,000 people gather. Candidates for such gatherings spring readily to mind. With the co-operation of the organisers of these gatherings, we ask the attendees to glance towards the sun, while reminding them of the dangers of doing so. We further ask them to report to one of the many data collectors present, whether they noticed any peculiar behaviour of the sun. What expectations would we have? Apart from being sued by a large number of people because of the damage they sustained to their eyes in following our instructions, we can confidently expect that at none of the venues would any untoward phenomena be reported of the sun.

If, however, at the Portugese national soccer championship, 70,000 people suddenly cried out in terror as the sun seemed to tear itself from the heavens and hurtle towards the earth, how would we respond? Could we repeat what Dawkins has said above, and conclude that it never happened? Let’s be clear about it. In this case, as in Fatima, it is that 70,000 people saw the sun behave in inexplicable ways, ways contrary to the “laws of nature.” We might argue, with Dawkins, that the failure of others away from the venue to observe these phenomena means the the sun did not actually change it’s behaviour at that time. However, would Dawkins himself dare to argue that it is not at all clear that the onus is on us to explain the phenomena? I very much doubt it. Some hypotheses would have to be offered. But how could they possibly be tested, especially if, across all of the experimental venues, this turned out to be a unique event?

Unique events are always problematical for science. Scientific methodology is most comfortable with the observation of interchangeable subjects and controlled conditions. As either of these reduces, the problems of drawing generally valid conclusions multiply. Unique events in uncontrolled circumstances—the stuff of most of our lives—most of the time defy any but serendipitous observation. Why, for example, do we hold no expectation at all that the above thought experiment would yield such a result?

Our lack of expectation tells us nothing about the likelihood of the events at Fatima, because of the extra dimension, inapplicable to our experiment. That dimension is is the supernatural intervention of the Virgin Mary. My point in proposing the experiment is to demonstrate the different criteria that are applied to events thought to be naturalistic, and to those thought to be supernaturalistic. Why two standards for the judgement of the evidence?

The miracle of the sun at Fatima was witnessed by so many because it had been predicted by the children.  Mary, in the preceding apparition, had promised that some such event would occur on that date, and at that time. A falsifiable prediction was made, based on the hypothesis that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the one who was appearing, and that she, through her Son, had the power to initiate such events. Dawkins, as a scientist, should be very pleased with such a set of conditions, even if he is incensed by the success of the prediction.

Hume’s criterion, which to Dawkins seems…unassailable, he quotes as follows:

…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish. ‘Of Miracles’ (1748)

Hume is talking about testimony, because his primary aim is to destroy confidence in the testimony of the Bible, and particularly, though not exclusively, the New Testament. Whereas the miraculous events of the OT occur in the Law and the more ancient histories, the NT is the witness, the testimony, of the contemporaries of Jesus, and Christianity was founded on this testimony. What he is demanding is that the testimony to, say, the Resurrection and subsequent appearances of Jesus, be of such a kind that it would require a miraculous revelation even more astounding than the Resurrection itself, to engender disbelief.

Is this feasible? Of course not. All human testimony carries a burden of uncertainty. Furthermore, supernatural events, by definition, are not repeatable, so no testing can be carried out ex post facto to reproduce the reported event or events. In that, it’s like the unrepeatable moments of our lives. It is the observed stability of many classes of events in the natural environment that gives us the confidence to repeat an experiment, on the understanding that the unrepeatable components of the new event do not detract from the common element that we abstract from the experimental reality.

Fatima, though, is a event that comes perilously close, for sceptics, to fulfilling Hume’s criterion. Surely the falsehood of the testimony of 70,000 witnesses would be miraculous? Dawkins accepts that, but fails the witnesses on the test of comparative miraculousness. But how many witnesses would it take to convince Dawkins? Had the whole of the daylit human population witnessed the event, it would not have been enough, because “the solar system would have broken up.”

That is to deny the nature of the demonstration that was Fatima. What drew 70,000 to Fatima was the promise that the Trinity would act in support of Mary’s appearances and messages to the children. They who created the natural universe, space and time, would act on their creation so as to demonstrate its dependence upon them.

Another word for testimony in this context is evidence, and when it suits his purposes, as it frequently does, Dawkins attacks everyone who does not share his worldview, as having no evidence to support their contentions. Here, though, Dawkins reveals that he simply disregards evidence which is contrary to his philosophical presupposition of exclusive materialism. For this criterion is nothing but a statement of a deeply held a priori philosophical commitment.

Hume’s test is prima facie anti-scientific. Nonetheless, it is the way most scientists proceed. They draw conclusions based on their own judgements of what is feasible and infeasible, reasonable and unreasonable, possible and impossible. Consequently, observations which wildly contradict prevailing scientific theories are dismissed as freakish outliers. Only if such observations persist might they begin to trouble the scientific conscience. Scientific consensus, however, can be a very unscientific thing.

From Pio to Bultmann and back

C. Bernard Ruffin, in his book Padre Pio: The True Story, wrote:

Padre Pio was almost an exact contemporary of Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976)… Bultmann wrote in Kerygma and Myth:It is impossible to use electric light … and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.” Yet Padre Pio, Bultmann’s contemporary, convinced many a learned man that angels appeared to translate letters he received in foreign languages, that he cast out devils, and that he was, on many occasions, knocked bodily to the floor by irate demons.

It was reading that which sent me to Bultmann in the first place. The contrast between the despairing and barren Christianity of Bultmann, and the richness that was Pio’s Christian spiritual life and his gift in the lives of those who came in contact with him—that contrast could not be greater. One cannot subscribe to both views of Christianity.

To take the evidence of Padre Pio’s life and work at face value is to destroy the foundations of the great edifice of academic theology that has been built up over the past century. It’s that simple. So, have the “dark Satanic mills” of modern seminaries, theological colleges and university departments of religious studies fallen into disarray? Not a bit of it. So how do they cope?

I seem to recall Richard Dawkins’ scoffing at the Vatican process for evaluating a cause for canonisation by requiring evidence of successive miracles. What he was scoffing about, if I recall correctly, was the very idea of gathering evidence of miracles. Dawkins’ approach is outlined in his discussion of Fatima in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder.

It is the 70,000 witnesses that impress. Could 70,000 people simultaneously be victims of the same hallucination? Could 70,000 people collude in the same lie? Or if there never were 70,000 witnesses, could the reporter of the event get away with inventing so many?

Let’s apply Hume’s criterion. On the other hand, we are asked to believe in a mass hallucination, a trick of the light, or a mass lie involving 70,000 people. This is admittedly improbable. But it is less improbable than the alternative: that the sun really did move. … If the sun moved in truth… an even greater miracle would have to have been perpetrated: an illusion of non-movement had to be staged for all the millions of witnesses not in Fatima. And… if the sun had really moved at the speed reported, the solar system would have broken up. We have no alternative but to follow Hume… and conclude… that the miracle of Fatima never happened. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the onus is on us to explain how those 70,000 witnesses were misled.

Dawkins and the new tribe of scoffers, including the late Christopher Hitchins (may God have mercy on his soul) perform a valuable service. They take it upon themselves to provide intellectual respectability to the primary means by which both the secular and the theological establishment cope with the likes of Pio: denial. Dawkins et al write prolifically in denialist vein, and analyse selected instances of miraculous events in the manner of the quote above. It is of no consequence that such “analyses” display fatal logical flaws; it is enough that they are written by an authoritative atheist with a commanding debating presence and manner which will see them through the necessarily trivialised TV encounters that are the most important means of conveying the message. For every such figure, there are a million “village atheists” (Richard John Neuhaus’ lovely term) who hang on their every word, and who will triumphantly misquote them in their next encounter at the pub or the party.

Obviously, sophisticated theologians can’t simply pretend that Pio never existed, and hope that all trace of him disappears. But infidels need never despair, for help will always arrive. It is in the nature of all human knowing, faith, doubt and uncertainty that there is always a way out of believing.  In the case of Pio, for instance, Sergio Luzzatto has come to the rescue, with a book called Padre Pio. Miracoli e politica nell’Italia del Novecento (Miracles and politics in a secular age).  It is an exposé of Pio as a charlatan, proto-Fascist, and so on. This book can now be used to deflect the challenge that the phenomenon of Pio represents to modern theological infidelity. One does not have to read the book—reading a good review will do—to provide enough ammunition for those dinner table, or bar table, or pulpit arguments; to feed doubt in those who have not themselves studied Pio’s life in detail. Just Google “luzzatto pio” and you’ll see what I mean. Encouragingly, it’s a measure of the threat that Pio presents to the “secular age,” that this book had to be written.

The driving rationale for this book, as for Dawkins and co., is that the life and works of Pio cannot have been actual, by definition; that the events of Fatima could not have actually occurred, by definition. The programme is laid out in Dawkins quote. No matter how improbable the alternative explanations, one of them must be correct, because the simple contradicting hypothesis is impossible. This should come as no surprise, because such a priori hypothesis filtering is, in fact, engrained in the process of human knowing, including the carefully elaborated structures of scientific enquiry and knowing. Nonetheless, it is precisely the filters of our presuppositions that are in question here.

Fatima and Pio and the great crowd of Christian witnesses reaffirm the Judaic and Christian truth that God, the maker and master of His creature universe, loves and reveals His presence to His creatures, Man. This revelation is not isolated in the distant past, to events that we can only possibly approach through a Faith insulated by an ignorance of the present and the intervening years. Come and see, that the triune God still approaches His creatures, still sends his messengers, still tells us in truth, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do.