I studied biology as an undergrad, so I often think about what it means for me to be Catholic and pro-science.
Here is what I purchased recently:
Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World by James Boyce
You know how sometimes you read a book at just the right time? Last year, I suddenly got the urge to reread Augustine’s Confessions. Since finishing it, not a day has gone by that I do not think about Augustine’s meditations on human nature. If you have not read Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine of Hippo you are missing out on one of the best biographies in the past 50 years.
Original Sin is hard to square with evolutionary biology, and it’s not really in the Bible (at least not explicitly). Augustine had a poorly translated Latin edition of the New Testament. He projected his own sexual struggles and a particular interpretation of Romans 5:12 onto the second Creation story. Eastern Christians do not believe that humans are born with the guilt of the sin of Adam. They do believe, however, that humans suffer the consequences of his sin. Despite the rejection of the doctrine today, Original Sin makes claims about humanity that still ring true for Western Christians…and atheists. James Boyce’s book traces the influence of Original Sin on the West. Half of the book deals with the influence of the doctrine on Deistic and Atheistic scientists. While most Christians no longer fear for the salvation of unbaptized babies tainted by the sin of Adam, the militant atheist Richard Dawkins has written a book called The Selfish Gene. Evolutionary biology has demonstrated that at least a part of our identity is determined by our genetics. Social and political theorists talk about structural sins. Perhaps, original sin, despite its mythical content, is more true than many of us would like to admit.
Do humans have freedom? Why did Martin Luther find predestination comforting? Did the Enlightenment really overthrow Augustinian original sin? What causes us to commit evil acts? All of these questions and more are explored in this brief book of historical theology written for a popular audience.
I have a lot of respect for Augustine and his theology. His teachings, however pessimistic, have helped me deal with struggles in my personal life (spiritual and psychological). I have very high expectations for this book.
Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution by Kenneth Miller
Kenneth Miller is a cell biologist at Brown University, an ardent defender of evolution, and a Roman Catholic. I enjoyed his four-part interview with The Jesuit Post’s Fr. Quang Tran, S.J. on YouTube, so I decided to purchase his book on the intersection of biology and theism.
Christians assume that the non-religious or the “spiritual but not religious” are necessarily undisciplined. Pastors complain that young people today are more hedonistic because they are less religious. Lay missionaries publish countless Christian self-help books to address people who, because of their lack of belief, are evidently unable to make commitments or sacrifices. Jesus makes people moral, so non-Christians are necessarily less moral.
Unfortunately, moralism is not only a distortion of the Gospel, it is also condescending and false. Recently, one of my favorite non-religious YouTubers made a video about being a vegan. The video challenged my assumptions about the non-religious. Vegetarianism and veganism are growing trends in the United States. Thousands of young people every year consciously decide to give up not only meat but also eggs, cheese, milk, certain oils, and even leather. Many of these young people would call themselves Agnostics or Atheists. And yet they have decided to make significant sacrifices in their lives. It takes a lot of discipline to give up all animal products. Most vegan food has to be made from scratch.
The YouTuber explained why she decided to be vegan. She had been a vegetarian for years, but one night she suddenly decided to avoid all animal products. After considering the negative impact the consumption of animal products has on the world, she became convinced that veganism was the more ethical alternative. She was disturbed by how her consumption was hurting the poor around the world. She recognized her privilege. She wanted to love her neighbor better.
We Christians need to stop assuming the non-religious are immoral. Millions of non-religious are concerned about the ethical implications of their actions. I am not a vegan or even a vegetarian. I’ve never really considered the impact eating meat has on the poor or the environment. But that YouTuber has, and she is not alone.
Christianity doesn’t necessarily make a person more moral. Instead of pitting ourselves against the non-religious we should celebrate the sacrifices they make in their everyday lives. We should join them in their projects to better the world.
Christianity is not a moralism. It is a relationship. A relationship with a person who is also the Son of God. Instead of trying to show up the non-religious we should focus more on helping people encounter Christ in prayer, in the sacraments, and in their daily lives. In general, Christians need to be less condescending toward others. We need to pontificate less and dialogue more. We need to stop assuming that we are morally superior. Throughout history, Christians have benefited from the wisdom of the pagans.
The reign of life has begun, the tyranny of death is ended. A new birth has taken place, a new life has come, a new order of existence has appeared, our very nature has been transformed! This birth is not brought about by human generation, by the will of man, or by the desire of the flesh, but by God.
If you wonder how, I will explain in clear language. Faith is the womb that conceives this new life, baptism the rebirth by which it is brought forth into the light of day. The Church is its nurse; her teachings are its milk, the bread from heaven is its food. It is brought to maturity by the practice of virtue; it is wedded to wisdom; it gives birth to hope. Its home is the kingdom; its rich inheritance the joys of paradise; its end, not death, but the blessed and everlasting life prepared for those who are worthy.
This is the day the Lord has made – a day far different from those made when the world was first created and which are measured by the passage of time. This is the beginning of a new creation. On this day, as the prophet says, God makes a new heaven and a new earth. What is this new heaven? you may ask. It is the firmament of our faith in Christ. What is the new earth? A good heart, a heart like the earth, which drinks up the rain that falls on it and yields a rich harvest.
In this new creation, purity of life is the sun, the virtues are the stars, transparent goodness is the air, and the depths of the riches of wisdom and knowledge, the sea. Sound doctrine, the divine teachings are the grass and plants that feed God’s flock, the people whom he shepherds; the keeping of the commandments is the fruit borne by the trees.
On this day is created the true man, the man made in the image and likeness of God. For this day the Lord has made is the beginning of this new world. Of this day the prophet says that it is not like other days, nor is this night like other nights. But still we have not spoken of the greatest gift it has brought us. This day destroyed the pangs of death and brought to birth the firstborn of the dead.
I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God. O what wonderful good news! He who for our sake became like us in order to make us his brothers, now presents to his true Father his own humanity in order to draw all his kindred up after him
It is with increasing insistence that God issaid to be dead today. The first time it was said, in Jean Paul, it was just a nightmarish dream: Jesus who is dead proclaims to the dead from the rooftops of the world that when he journeyed to the beyond he found nothing, no heaven, no merciful God, just infinite nothingness, the silence of the gaping void. It is still a horrible dream which is pushed to one side, wailing away in the waking hours, as a dream does, although the anguish it inflicts can never be cancelled for it was always lying in wait, sinister, in the depths of the soul.
A century later, in Nietzsche, it becomes a mortal seriousness which is expressed in a cry, shrill with terror: “God is dead! God will stay dead! And we have killed him!”. Fifty years later, it is discussed with academic detachment and preparations are made for a “theology after the death of God”, eyes search for ways to go on and men encourage each other to start preparing to take God’s place. The terrible mystery of Holy Saturday, its abyss of silence, has thus acquired a crushing reality in these days of ours. For, this is Holy Saturday: the day of God’s concealment, the day of that unprecedented paradox we express in the Creed with the words: “Descended into hell”, descended into the mystery of death. On Good Friday we still had the crucified man to look at. Holy Saturday is empty, the heavy stone of the new tomb is covering the dead man, it’s all over, the faith seems to have been definitively unmasked as fantasy. No God saved this Jesus who posed as his Son. There is no further need for concern: the wary who were somewhat hesitant, who wondered if things could have been different, were right after all. Holy Saturday: the day God was buried; is not this the day we are living now, and formidably so? Did not our century mark the start of one long Holy Saturday, the day God was absent, when even the hearts of the disciples were plunged into an icy chasm that grows wider and wider, and thus, filled with shame and anguish, they set out to go home, dark-spirited and annihilated in their desperation they head for Emmaus, without realizing that he whom they believed to be dead is in their midst? God is dead and we killed him: are we really aware that this phrase is taken almost literally from Christian tradition and that often in our viae crucis we have made something similar resound without realizing the tremendous gravity of what we said? We killed him, by enclosing him in the stale shell of routine thinking, by exiling him in a form of pity with no content of reality, lost in the gyre of devotional phrases, or of archaeological treasuries; we killed him through the ambiguity of our lives which also laid a veil of darkness over him: in fact, what else would have been able to make God more problematical in this world than the problematical nature of the faith and of the love of his faithful?
The divine darkness of this day, of this century which is increasingly becoming one long Holy Saturday, is speaking to our conscience. It is one of our concerns. But in spite of it all, it holds something of comfort for us. The death of God in Jesus Christ is at the same time the expression of his radical solidarity with us. The most obscure mystery of the faith is at the same time the clearest sign of a hope without end. And what is more: only through the failure of Holy Friday, only through the silence of death of Holy Saturday, were the disciples able to be led to an understanding of all that Jesus truly was and all that his message truly meant. God had to die for them so that he could truly live in them. The image they had formed of God, within which they had tried to hold him down, had to be destroyed so that through the rubble of the ruined house they might see the sky, him himself who remains, always, the infinitely greater. We need the silence of God to experience again the abyss of his greatness and the chasm of our nothingness which would grow wider and wider without him.
There is a Gospel scene which in an extraordinary way anticipates the silence of Holy Saturday and which again, therefore, seems to be a profile of the moment in history we are living now. Christ is asleep on a boat which, buffeted by a storm, is about to sink. The prophet Elijah had once made fun of the priests of Baal who were futilely invoking their god to send down fire on their sacrifice. He urged them to cry out louder in case their god was asleep. But is it true that God does not sleep? Does not the prophet’s scorn also fall upon the heads of the faithful of the God of Israel who are sailing with him in a boat about to sink? God sleeps while his very own are about to drown – is not this the experience of our lives? Don’t the Church, the faith, resemble a small boat about to sink, struggling futilely against the waves and the wind, and all the time God is absent? The disciples cry out in dire desperation and they shake the Lord to wake him but he is surprised at this and rebukes them for their small faith. But are things any different for us? When the storm passes we will realize just how much this small faith of ours was charged with stupidity. And yet, O Lord, we cannot help shaking you, God, you who persist in keeping your silence, in sleeping, and we cannot help crying to you: Wake up, can’t you see we are sinking? Stir yourself, don’t let the darkness of Holy Saturday last for ever, let a ray of Easter fall, even on these times of ours, accompany us when we set out in our desperation towards Emmaus so that our hearts may be enflamed by the warmth of your nearness. You who, hidden, charted the paths of Israel only to become a man in the end with men – don’t leave us in the dark, don’t let your word be lost in these days of great squandering of words. Lord, grant us your help, because without you we will sink.
Note about the art: The Not Gottes, or the Poverty of God, is one of Ratzinger’s favorite representations of the Trinity. They were mostly produced during the Northern Renaissance (although Ribera’s was produced in the 17th century) and depict the crucified Lord being supported by the Father. These crucifixion scenes suggest that the Father suffered along with the Son.
Our kind Mother, our gracious Mother, for he would be wholly our mother in every way, he took up the ground of his work at its lowest point, in the Maiden’s womb, with utter meekness. And this he showed in the first revelation, where he brought my understanding to see her in simple guise, a modest maid, just as she was when she conceived. This is to say that our high God who is sovereign wisdom of all arrayed himself in this low place, clothing himself in our poor flesh, so that he might himself perform the service and office of motherhood in all things.
The mother’s task is nearest, readiest, and most sure, for it is the most real truth. This task might never, nor could it, be done by anyone other than himself. We will know that all our mothers bear us to pain and to dying. Yet what does he do? Our own true Mother Jesus, he who is all love, bears us to joy and endless living – blessed may he be! Thus he sustains us within himself in love and labor until the full time when he gladly suffered the sharpest throes and most grievous pains that ever were or ever shall be, and died at last.
And when he had done, and so borne us to bliss, yet all this still could not satisfy his marvelous love. This he showed in these high words of overriding love: “If I might suffer more, I would suffer more,” he might not die again, yet he would never cease his working. And therefore he is compelled to feed us, for the precious love of his motherhood makes him a debtor to us. The mother may suckle her children with her own milk, but our precious Mother Jesus, he may feed us with himself. And he does this most courteously, with much tenderness, with the Blessed Sacrament that is our precious food of true life. And with all the sweet sacraments he sustains us with every mercy and grace (133-134).
Reference: Julian of Norwich. Revelation of Love. Trans. John Skinner. New York: Bookspan, 2002. Print.
I am one of a group of parishioners who are helping to welcome Catholic refugees in my diocese. Because I know French, I serve as an interpreter. Today, I accompanied a refugee to the doctor. Unfortunately, she doesn’t speak French or English.
I have forgotten what it is like to not understand English. I forgot how vulnerable you are when you don’t know the language of a region, when you speak a language no one else speaks. I learned English in kindergarten, but I had to go to a speech therapist for a year to correct my mispronunciations. I was ridiculed for mispronouncing peoples’ names or accidentally blurting out answers to math problems in Farsi. At the age of 9 I suddenly quit speaking and writing in Farsi. Today, I only remember a few words and expressions.
The woman I was accompanying speaks a language only a few Americans know. The hospital claims to have interpreters for over 200 languages, but they didn’t have a human interpreter for her. Thankfully, they did have an electronic interpreter, so she was able to get the help she needed.
It is tempting wish that everyone could speak the same language. But language has a cultural component, so linguistic diversity implies cultural diversity.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Jews of different nationalities were suddenly able to understand each other on Pentecost without learning new languages.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine (Acts 5-11).
God wills that all of us may hear and understand each other even though we may speak different languages. We should celebrate the diversity of languages in the world.
The woman I accompanied today is currently attending an ESL program, but modern language programs need to improve in America. The United States is one of the few monolingual nations in the world. While more and more students are learning Spanish, many Americans don’t understand the point of learning another language. I hope interacting with the refugees will help my fellow parishioners appreciate the value of learning other languages.
There are children attending my parish who can’t speak English yet. I worry that they will be pressured by their English-speaking friends to renounce their native languages. I’d like to think that American elementary schools are becoming safer places for immigrant children. But I’m not so sure…
America is making me upset. My president evidently doesn’t think enough people have died in Syria. Lord have mercy!
In light of current events and since today is a Friday, it is only appropriate to share with you a reflection on Christ’s sacrifice and forgiveness by St. Ephrem the Syrian.
St. Ephrem the Syrian
St. Ephrem (306-373) was a Syriac theologian and deacon, known today for his hymns. Ephrem started writing hymns at a very young age in his hometown of Nisibis. When Constantine died in 337, Shapur II the Great of Persia attacked the Roman regions of Northern Mesopotamia. When Nisibis was captured in 363, Ephrem and his fellow Christians were forced into exile. They became refugees. Ephrem settled in Edessa and spent the rest of his life teaching and ministering to the other Syriac Christians in the city. Over 400 of his hymns still exist.
Do not lose heart
Do not lose heart, O soul, do not grieve; pronounce not over yourself a final judgment for the multitude of your sins; do not commit yourself to fire; do not say: The Lord has cast me from his face.
Such words are not pleasing to God. Can it be that he who has fallen cannot get up? Can it be that he who has turned away cannot turn back again? Do you not hear how kind the Father is to a prodigal?
Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly: I will arise and go to my Father. Arise and go!
He will accept you and will not reproach you, but rather rejoice at your return. He awaits you; just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as did Adam.
It was for your sake that Christ was crucified; so will he cast you aside? He knows who oppresses us. He knows that we have no other help but him alone.
Christ knows that man is miserable. Do not give yourself up to despair and apathy, assuming that you have been prepared for the fire. Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire; he gains nothing if he sends us into the abyss to be tormented.
Imitate the prodigal son: leave the city that starves you. Come and beseech him and you shall behold the glory of God. Your face shall be enlightened and you will rejoice in the sweetness of paradise. Glory to the Lord and Lover of mankind who saves us.