Friday, November 9, 2012

Faith, analogy, and modern science

In his 8 November address to the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Benedict spoke of the "urgent need for continued dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and of faith in the building of a culture of respect for man, for human dignity and freedom, for the future of our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet." He explained that
the sciences are not intellectual worlds disconnected from one another and from reality but rather that they are interconnected and directed to the study of nature as a unified, intelligible and harmonious reality in its undoubted complexity. Such a vision has fruitful points of contact with the view of the universe taken by Christian philosophy and theology, with its notion of participated being, in which each individual creature, possessed of its proper perfection, also shares in a specific nature and this within an ordered cosmos originating in God’s creative Word. It is precisely this inbuilt “logical” and “analogical” organization of nature that encourages scientific research and draws the human mind to discover the horizontal co-participation between beings and the transcendental participation by the First Being.
This is a point that is explored in my book Beauty for Truth's Sake, but has rarely been stated so clearly or succinctly. The Pope went on, in terms that echo the book by Barry R. Pearlman, A Certain Faith:
It is within this broader context that I would note how fruitful the use of analogy has proved for philosophy and theology, not simply as a tool of horizontal analysis of nature’s realities, but also as a stimulus to creative thinking on a higher transcendental plane. Precisely because of the notion of creation, Christian thought has employed analogy not only for the investigation of worldly realities, but also as a means of rising from the created order to the contemplation of its Creator, with due regard for the principle that God’s transcendence implies that every similarity with his creatures necessarily entails a greater dissimilarity: whereas the structure of the creature is that of being a being by participation, that of God is that of being a being by essence, or Esse subsistens.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Tolkien

The field of "Tolkien studies" continues to evolve. The book based on the Exeter College conference, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Sources of Inspiration, is still available and remains one of the most interesting collections of academic essays on this topic. The journal of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, VII or Seven, has for thirty years been publishing excellent articles about Tolkien and the other authors in his circle. In Oxford we also now have an excellent Journal of Inklings Studies. West Virginia University Press has a journal of Tolkien Studies. Meanwhile the online Tolkien Library remains a useful resource for finding lots of wonderful books by and about Tolkien. My own book on Tolkien is about to be launched in a new edition (details will be posted as soon as I have them).

The main site for Tolkien fans is of course the Tolkien Society, and that has links to many others. The Encyclopedia of Arda explores Tolkien's imaginary world in great detail, with maps, timelines, illustrations, etc. There are numerous sites devoted to the languages of Middle-earth, and even to Elvish heraldry. Another impressive online resource for studying the books is the Lord of the Rings Project. And there are a number of blogs that offer fascinating insights into the thinking and spirituality of this profoundly Christian writer: I recommend particularly The Flame Imperishable by Jonathan McIntosh, and Bruce Charlton's Tolkien's Notion Club Papers. Finally, Raymond Edwards has recently written a superb pocket biography of Tolkien for the CTS.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ethos of a Catholic School

On 30 October the Anscombe Centre is organizing an "ETHOS" conference in Oxford on the role of ethics, science, and religion in Catholic schools. The poster is here. I will not be able to attend, but it seems a good opportunity to reflect on the theme that is under debate.

The ethos of a school refers to its moral environment, the sense of belonging to a community of shared values and ideals. The word ethos originally meant “custom”, or “habit”, or “character”; the ethos is determined by the way we treat each other and behave towards each other. It depends on the quality of our attention and respect for one another. It supports and stimulates both imagination and intellectual inquiry but is distinct from both. It may be
expressed in a mission statement, but that can be no more than a point of reference. Ethos requires us actually to behave, not just to speak, in accordance with the faith and intelligence we profess. It is a matter of the “spirit”, rather than the “letter”. 

In an article for the Catholic Herald on 5 October 2012, Tim Gardner OP chooses these words from the Declaration on Christian Education by the Second Vatican Council to express the ethos of a Catholic school:
“a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith” (n. 8).
How can we tell if a school has this “Catholic ethos”? It comes from the presence of a certain spirit within the community, which shows itself in different ways, from an almost tangible mood or atmosphere through to various concrete signs, such as the close integration of liturgy, prayer, and religious instruction with the rest of school life, the moral example set by teachers, encouragement given to charitable activity, interest in the life of each pupil, care for those with special needs, and so on.

The Catholic ethos radiates from the liturgy and the sacraments but extends throughout the community and the work of the school. This even affects what is taught and the way it is taught. The Incarnation is not some piece of historical information that, once communicated, can be forgotten while we turn our minds to geography or biology or mathematics. If true, it changes everything, even the way we view the cosmos. It alters the way every subject is taught as well as the relationships between them. It connects them severally and together to our destiny, to the desire of our hearts for union with infinite truth – what used to be called, and perhaps still should be, the saving of our souls. Once that lesson is learned, there are no “boring” subjects. Nothing can be ugly or pointless unless we make it so.  

To some it may sound excessively pious to say so, but a Catholic ethos is essentially Marian, and the “atmosphere” of a Catholic school will tend to be redolent of the Holy Family, since this is the educational environment in which Our Lord himself grew to maturity. It is the work of the Catholic school to help bring Christ to birth and to maturity in each member of the community, and to that extent to help extend the ethos of the Holy Family throughout the world. This is only possible with the grace of the sacraments, making possible the living presence of Christ himself.

Details of the conference follow:

A conference on the role of ethics, science and religion in Catholic schools: The Anscombe Centre is delighted to announce a conference for teachers and school leaders on Tuesday 30th October (10am - 4pm), at St Gregory's Catholic School, Oxford OX4 3DR. This presents an excellent opportunity to encourage an authentic, reasoned, and persuasive account of faith in education, supporting teachers and, ultimately, students.
Three speakers from national centres of excellence in the worlds of education, Catholic bioethics and science and religion will deliver presentations. Fr Tim Gardner OP, Prof David Albert Jones, and Rev Dr Andrew Pinsent will focus on the educational worldview involved in Catholic schools, relating this to practice and the formation of a schoolwide ethos. There will be opportunities for discussion, and for involvement in our follow-on project: consulting with us on a book we are publishing on these themes.

The conference could be used as an INSET day, for those who organise INSET days, or more generally as a day for all who are interested in what it means in practice and theory for an educational institution to have a religious ethos.

Online bookings can be made here: The cost of the event is £80, which includes refreshments and lunch. Places are limited. Free parking is available at St Gregory's. Please book asap. For more information contact the Anscombe Centre at or on 01865 610 212.

Classical Conversations

A wide community of home-centred educators based at Classical Conversations combine the classical methods of learning with a biblical worldview. In this connection I was due to participate in a radio show called Leigh at Lunch hosted by Leigh Bortins, talking about the two books advertised on the left. Technical difficulties prevented it happening as originally scheduled, and it will now take place in the New Year. Details will be announced. I am looking forward to it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What's wrong with higher education

An impressive American analysis, along with proposals for radical reform, all grounded in the classical humanistic tradition, by Robert C. Coons – "Dark Satanic Mills".

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Particle collisions: CERN
I love it when New Scientist tackles the big questions. This week it is "What is Reality?" There is a new humility in science, it seems. Many scientists will now admit that we just don't know the answer to the question. Reductionism is no longer convincing. You can examine ever smaller components of the material world (so far we have boiled it down to quarks, leptons, and bosons), only to discover that there may be no bottom level, or that if there is, it is well beyond the reach of observation (minute vibrating strings in several extra dimensions).

More importantly, since everything from the most elementary particles to the objects we see around us with the naked eye can be described in terms of "wave functions" or waves of probability, existing in a "superposition" of contradictory states until the function is "collapsed" by the act of observation, it seems that the consciousness of an observer has re-emerged as a determining factor in reality itself. Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, said in 1931, "I regard matter as derivative from consciousness." The
only way to avoid this is to think in terms not of conscious observation but of "measurement", or the interaction of the subatomic processes with a measuring instrument of some kind – which means that the subatomic realm is no longer "more fundamental" than the world we see with our naked eyes.

The most interesting form of reductionism reduces subatomic particles to collections of space-time points, these in turn to sets of numbers, and the numbers themselves to pure logical sets. But what are sets? Like numbers themselves they exist either as shared mental constructions, or as entities outside both materiality and subjectivity in a Platonic "third realm". Either way, materialism is refuted. At least this would help to explain why the world conforms to the rules of mathematics, which as the physicist Eugene Wigner pointed out in 1960 would otherwise look very like a miracle.

Concurrently I am reading a series of SF novels by Stephen Baxter (the Xeelee sequence) that build on these discoveries and speculations of modern physics. For Baxter, life can emerge and thrive wherever there is the right combination of complexity and stability – even in the heart of a star, or in the first few nanoseconds after the Big Bang, when the universe was no bigger than an orange. Whole civilizations rise and fall before the formation of stars, or even atoms. Baxter's wildly imaginative stories feature creatures composed of dark matter, quarks, flaws in spacetime, and even convection currents in planetary oceans.

The idea that consciousness emerges wherever there is ordered complexity reminds me of Christopher Alexander's intuition in The Luminous Ground that degrees of beauty, of ordered complexity, are degrees of life, of connectedness with the ground of reality which he calls the Self, but which might as well be called Being. But this does not lead to a merging of all things into a supreme Oneness. “This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become more individual and most precious.” (p. 309)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Beauty won't save the world alone

The title of Gregory Wolfe’s excellent collection of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, is based on a much-quoted line from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In its context it appears only in indirect speech, being attributed by one of the other characters to the “Idiot” of the title, Prince Myshkin. Thus in its original context its meaning is ambiguous, or at least ill-defined. That makes it doubly appropriate for Greg’s title, since he is arguing against the “ideologues” of today’s culture wars in favour of a literary and imaginative approach to the truth. Conservatives have succumbed to philistinism, and fail to appreciate modern art, he argues. Great literature, and art in general, explores the world – and today that means the modern world – from
the inside. It is not preachy or moralistic; as a result, conservatives of a Puritan or pragmatic bent often find it unedifying, or even profane. But it is legitimate, Greg believes, for art to shock, to revolt against established conventions, to make explicit what others may hesitate to look upon. In many cases this may the only way for the artist to discover a “redemptive path toward order”.

A particular target of the book seems to be those conservatives who can see nothing good coming out of modernity except the Inklings. I suspect Greg numbers me among them, although in reality my tastes are much broader than the things I tend to write about. But it is the case that my interest is less in literature and the arts, important though these are in posing the right questions and exploring the ambiguities of our time, than in philosophy and theology, where we legitimately search for answers to those very questions. This is not the same as seeking an ideology, though of course a theology can be rendered ideological easily enough. Theology at its most authentic is not a fortress of ideas, but more like a path across a landscape, a route map, or a system of signposts. It is intrinsically mystical, it is of the spirit not the letter.

Greg has developed a strong aversion to the kind of conservatism that rejects the modern world and gives up on modern culture, pretending to saw off the branch on which it sits. The importance of “Beauty” is that she is the only one of the ancient “transcendentals” that still speaks to us through modern culture. She is our way back to the vision of the whole, to a meaningful universe. But she has become separated from her sisters, Truth and Goodness, and thus relativized and subjectivized. Lacking a sense of transcendent Truth and Goodness, our culture is easily dominated by purely political and economic forces – power and money are the new transcendentals. He has a good account of how this happened, beginning with the Nominalists. But through it all, Beauty remains eloquent, calling us back to an awareness of Being and therefore of the reality our ideologies have squeezed out of the picture. The artist is the one who keeps us hearing this call to meaning, which is the breath of life.

The artist awakens the question of meaning, and takes us to the threshold of understanding. He speaks to the imagination, which is far more important than the rationalist in us admits. Imagination is our faculty for comparing and connecting the various parts of the world to make some kind of whole, a narrative in which we have a part to play, or an icon of the self we have lost. The imagination, Greg says, “works through empathy”. It is by empathy that the artist passes over from his or her own experience to that of another, and through that transcendence of self attains a glimpse of common or universal humanity beyond the reach of solipsistic individualism.

This is all very well, but will Beauty, will the imagination, “save the world” on its own? I doubt it very much. Beauty may prepare the world to be saved; it may crack the walls of our prison. But to pass through that crack we need something more. To step out of the cave and into the light we need the will to do so, and that can only be engaged if Beauty is reconnected with Truth and Goodness. Greg himself sees this. He is more than familiar with Balthasar's warning of the consequences of separating Beauty from her "two sisters", and he writes of artistic creativity as a "call" or "invitation" to virtue. It is a point that is hard to develop further without falling into moralism. The arts and literature are preparatory, even essential in some ways, to the life of the spirit, but nevertheless some more radical engagement with the world is necessary, and that is found in spirituality, in the inner life, in mysticism, in metaphysical intuition. That is not to say we must all become "intellectuals", because that word now refers to a kind of book-learning and cleverness that is very far from what I have in mind. We must become more open to a light that we only half remember, which comes from a horizon beyond the achievements of human culture however noble, and which answers the cries of the human spirit to which the artist gives a voice.*

I see this as one possible meaning of another work by Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. In this short story, a man intending to commit suicide dreams of an unfallen world of human beings living in peace with each other, with nature, and with God. But he also dreams of how he introduces sin and corruption into this world, until it becomes as bad as his own world, so that in a desperate desire to atone and heal he teaches them to make a cross and implores them to crucify him.

Awake again, his love of life is restored. “For I have seen the truth,” he writes; “I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth. I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just this faith of mine that they laugh at. But how can I help believing it? I have seen the truth – it is not as though I had invented it with my mind, I have seen it, seen it, and the living image of it has filled my soul for ever.”

Here we see the role of the imagination, of the arts, which is ultimately to show us an image that our soul will recognize as true. But then we must act, we must become apostles, we must become “ridiculous”.
“The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that's the chief thing, and that's everything; nothing else is wanted – you will find out at once how to arrange it all. And yet it’s an old truth which has been told and retold a billion times – but it has not formed part of our lives! The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness – that is what one must contend against. And I shall. If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once.”

* This paragraph has been revised since first publication to express my meaning more clearly. – SC