The God who is Found in the Universe

Library volunteer Peter Cox shares some of his thoughts on finding God.

Awareness of God

Humankind’s first inkling of God may have been several millions of years ago. Judging from experiences of various people, this inkling may have begun from a simple awareness of God either personally or through the earth. The personal awareness was probably too primitive to be termed a full relationship with God and the apparent personal ‘God’ would not have been regarded as the God of anyone else. Nevertheless, a personal primitive God could appear to be constant and loving. However, the more that people became aware of the same loving God, the more certain that God would be and the greater chance that a quest for such a God would be successful. Moreover, the true God would be the God of all things and considerably more powerful than a god of one human person alone. It would therefore be a very significant step to find this powerful God. Such a step may be difficult because of a general support for different gods supported by organised religion. The awareness of God in the universe was probably initially not towards a universal God but to a multiplicity of spirits of various elements of the earth such the sun, moon, water, fertility, etc, which became a host of gods. As humankind began to realise that all elements of the earth were related, there became a tendency to believe in a chief god over the other gods. These gods often acted according to what human persons did or did not do. The exchange of gifts between the god and humankind were often quantitative and was therefore judicial in a material sense so that the relationships with the gods would not be based upon love. History is full of instances when sacrifices were made to a god or gods so that crops would not fail and enemies were overcome. Moreover, many states used religion as a device to protect their supremacy so that their gods were subject to invention.

Finding the God of Darkness by contemplation

A universal God cannot be a god who acts judicially and therefore materially so that He must be other than the universe. A person finding the true God therefore has to search beyond all earthly things such as images and words including those of religion. This is why the God found in this way can be termed the God of Darkness. Some will find only a false God because they have mixed the true God with earthly things. Others will not have the courage to enter a realm which is unknowable to them. However, if a person found the true God, His awesome power would be experienced and the God of certainty would be found. From the book of Genesis, it appears that at least Moses1 and Elijah2 found this God of Darkness and quite likely Abraham also. If Abraham had found the universal God, it would explain why he would do anything for God even if it meant sacrificing his own son.3 In patristic times, the God of Darkness was found by St Gregory of Nazianzus,4 St PseudoDionysius,5 and St Maximus the Confessor.6

Finding the God of Light

Another aspect of God is perceived through the universe as expressed by Isaiah.7 While this experience has less depth than that of the God of Otherness, it is just as important. Those who experience the God through the universe receive the impression of light and love. Such a light is ‘truly mysterious’8 and so is not the same as physical light. Furthermore, God desires that His love be returned as Hosea stated that God desires ‘steadfast love (but) not sacrifice.’9 The impression of the God of Love therefore appears to be more outgoing than the God of Otherness.

Reconciliation of the God of Otherness and Love

If God was only ‘other’, He would be entirely unknowable so He could not be found. If God was not ‘other’, He would be an element of the universe and not God. If however, God related to the universe without being limited by its attributes, He would maintain His distinction (διακρισις) from the universe and therefore still be ‘other’ as well as relating with love. This unrestricted God would be infinite relative to the universe so that His love would be infinite and directed towards all things without partiality.10 Also, as He would be unrestricted by number, He could be regarded as the One11 as He could not be divided.

The divine essence and energies

If we find the true God, we will realise that He is infinite relative to us but, because of this, He can never be completely knowable to us. If we also find that He loves the universe and its parts, we would never be able to understand the infinite quality of His love. We can express this by saying that we cannot know God as He is in Himself12 which St Maximus defined as the divine essence.13 The fact that we can find God at all must be because of His infinite love and because parts of the universe are able to respond to it. The resulting affect of the divine love and the response can be termed the divine energies in contrast to the unknowable divine essence. However, we cannot categorically state that only human persons can find God as, because the infinite quality of God’s love, even an almost infinitesimal response could enable some knowledge of God to be found.

1. Ex 3.2-6.

2. 1 Kings 19.11-13.

3. Gen 22.

4. St Gregory Nazianzus, Orat 37 on Mt 19; PG 36; trans. NPNF2, Vol 7, p. 339.

5. St Pseudo-Dionysius, Myst Theol 1.2; PG 3, Col. 1000A; trans. CWS-PD, p. 139.

6. St Maximus, Gnost 1.84-85; PG 90,; trans. CWS-MC, p. 144.

7. Isa 6.3.

8. St Pseudo-Dionysius, Myst Theol, 1.1/1.3/1.3; PG 3, cols 1000A/1000C/10001A; trans. CWS-PD.

9. Hosea 6.6.

10. Acts 10.34.

11. 1 Cor 8.6.

12. St Maximus, Char 4.7; PG 90; trans. CWS-MC, p. 76.

13. St Maximus, Amb 34.2; PG 91, col. 1288B; NC-AMB2, p. 67.

 

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Book Club review: The Warden

The Book Club began 2018 with what was for most of us a return to a classic: The Warden, by Anthony Trollope. The first and (at least in length) slightest of the Barchester novels, it’s the story of quiet lives buffeted and overturned by the forces of reform, greed, power, conscience and love. The income of a charitable trust has grown in size over the years so that after the modest needs of the beneficiaries are met, their warden enjoys an extremely prosperous lifestyle. But should he? Is it legal? Even if it’s legal, is it right?

Out of the murky motives of the national newspaper editor, the self-righteousness of the reforming young councillor, the legalistic defensiveness of the church authorities, the manipulated anger of the almsmen and the conscience-stricken doubts of Mr Harding, the warden, himself, Trollope builds a structure of clashing ideas of right and rights which is more complex than it looks, and never less than charitable, except maybe to the campaigning editor of the newspaper who holds the warden up to national public scorn. And that is the strength of this novel: no-one’s motives are pure, no-one’s position is impregnable. Even John Bold, who kicks the whole thing off in a fit of what he thinks of as self-sacrificing zeal, can’t quite bring himself to sacrifice his love for Mr Harding’s daughter, and backs off. The ending, in which no-one gets what they want, is impressive in its quiet anger.

In case you’re wondering where the comedy’s gone, there was a lot to smile at here too, especially the warden’s desperate attempts to circumvent his son-in-law, the terrifying archdeacon. For the group, this arcane dispute over a very old will had many contemporary echoes, aided by Trollope’s accessible style.

Next month it’s Unless by Carol Shields: come and join in the discussion!

Living with gods

One of our Library Volunteers, Michael, writes of his recent experience at the British Museum’s ‘Living with gods’ exhibition and reflects on the different forms of religious symbolism.

‘Living with gods’ is the title of an exhibition at the British Museum looking at how people believe through everyday objects of faith. Beliefs in religious beings and worlds beyond nature are distinctive to all human societies and provide a perspective on what makes believing a vital part of human behaviour.

The exhibition begins with an incredible 40,000-year-old ivory sculpture made from a mammoth tusk, known as the Lion Man. Depicting a human body with a lion’s head, it is the oldest known figurative sculpture in the world and must have had some ritual purpose due to its torso being worn smooth by handling – possibly by many generations.

Discovered in a cave in Ulm, Germany in 1939, it is a being which cannot exist in nature. While we shall never know what the Lion Man meant to the community which created it, it is estimated that it took approximately 400 hours to carve, which suggests that it was an object of great importance.

You can learn more about the Lion Man, and see images, on the British Museum’s blog post here: British Museum: The Lion Man

Following on, key themes of belief are shown relating to our senses- light, water and fire. Light is essential to life and represents divine presence. This takes many forms around the world: Amaterasu, a powerful Japanese deity, seen as the goddess of sun; Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, spiritually signifying the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, hope over despair.

Water, through baptism, is the door through which every Christian enters the faith and becomes part of the Christian community. In Hinduism, the river Ganges is considered sacred and is personified as the goddess Ganga. She is worshipped by Hindus who believe that bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and the water is considered very pure.

Fire, a fascination and fear to our ancestors. It kept wild animals at bay, but allowed us to cook, keep warm and safe – the hearth is the home. In classical mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods. For the Jews, God spoke to Moses from the flames of the burning bush. In ancient Rome, the goddess of fire was Vesta and in her temple, the hearth was home and was Rome itself – and if the flames ever went out, that was the end of Rome.

Objects on display reflect all these senses and show how people connect to worlds beyond nature through the natural environment or in specially built spaces.

Other objects show the power of prayer, the importance of song, festivals and pilgrimage and the key life experiences – birth, coming of age, marriage and death. Christian pilgrimage, for example, is represented by a souvenir model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, said to be built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century after a visit by his mother, Helena, to the site of Christ’s death and burial.

Pilgrimage is also represented by Christian pilgrim badges, collected as souvenir: for example, a lead scallop shell, symbol of St. James of Compostela, and a lead figure from Canterbury representing St. Thomas. Newly-born babies and their mothers are represented by a ceramic figure of St. Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of childbirth, and becoming an adult in the Pacific island nation of Vanuata by a lock of brown hair.

One piece of fascinating evidence that there were polytheistic societies (those who worshipped many gods) in Britain is a roman earthenware jug, dated about 250 AD, which was found in Norfolk in the 1840s. It contains small bronze figures depicting the different gods, including Jupiter, chief of the roman deities and god of sky and thunder, and Minerva, goddess of wisdom wearing a helmet.

In contrast, monotheistic societies (those who believe that there is only one deity), is represented by the Marduk tablet from Babylon and the limestone fragmentary stela showing ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton.

Divine authority for rule is another aspect covered. A bronze vessel from China, whose inscription suggests that dynastic leaders enjoyed a mandate from heaven. We in Britain experienced this in 1953 with the Coronation of our Queen – ‘anointed of the Lord’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The story of life is represented by a tanka or Buddhist Wheel of Life from Tibet. Made of blue dyed cotton and highly painted with a rod through the top to enable it to be hung, probably in a temple, it tells a story which connects our individual lives to the community and the world to which we are briefly a part.

The beginning of the exhibition shows the 40,000-year-old Lion Man which played a central part in what might be described as a religious ceremony. The last item on display is another small sculpture which was also designed to be held in the hand. It is a small cross made of two pieces of wood nailed together. An Italian carpenter in Lampedusa took wood from African migrant boats that had been shipwrecked on 11 October 2013 off the coast of the island, and turned the wood of destruction into a cross; something that came from his own tradition but spoke of hope for everybody. It’s very powerful. The cross, an emblem of death, becomes in itself a sign that there is hope; a different life, a better life.

‘Living with gods: people, places and worlds beyond’ is at the British Museum until 8 April 2018.

Images of some objects referred to in this post can be seen here: British Museum: highlight artefacts

Michael Graham, Library Volunteer

Who is Duke Humphrey of Gloucester?

duke humphreyAs Guides, we introduce him as ‘the only royal burial in St Albans Cathedral’, however he was much more than that. He was a warrior who fought at the Battle of Agincourt, a lover who picked up several unsuitable wives, and an intellectual who was a great patron of literature and art. His life ended with accusations of treason and as a possible murder…

Let’s find out more.

Born in 1391, he was the youngest son of Henry IV and Mary Bohun. During his younger years, he attended Oxford University and thrived – studying subjects such as medicine, classics and astronomy. It was there that he found a lifelong friend in John Bostock, who went on to become John of Wheathampstead, Abbot of St Albans Abbey (1420-1440; 1452-1465). Here began Humphrey’s connection and loyalty to St Albans Abbey, which he visited many times throughout his life and became the place of his burial.

Duke Humphrey’s brother became King Henry V in 1413 and, with Humphrey’s help, fought to keep control of England’s territory in France. In 1415, at the Battle of Agincourt, Humphrey fought on the front line, helping England to victory. In a dramatic turn of events, Humphrey was seriously wounded and was saved from some attacking Frenchmen by the king himself. Humphrey was a successful commander throughout the war and an outspoken proponent for continued fighting in France, causing trouble within the pro-peace council. War was an expensive business. At one point, Humphrey was tasked with going to London to obtain more funding and yet somehow charmed his way through town, earning the nickname ‘The Good Duke Humphrey’.

Despite his popularity, Humphrey was unlucky in love. His first wife Jacqueline was married to her first husband when they courted and their families were unimpressed. In spite of this, in 1423 they spent Christmas at St Albans Abbey and on the Feast of the Epiphany were honoured with induction into the Fraternity of St Alban. Sadly, the marriage was not to last. When faced with difficulties, Humphrey abandoned his wife, never to see her again.

As soon as the Pope gave permission, Humphrey tried again, this time marrying one of Jacqueline’s ladies in waiting, Eleanor Cobham. She developed a soft spot for the Abbey after praying at the shrine of St Alban during a particularly bad instance of toothache. She was miraculously cured and, in thanks, she sent a golden tooth to be hung at the shrine.

After Henry V died in 1422, his infant son succeeded him as King of England and France. Humphrey became Lord Protector of England. Despite the glamourous title, the position left him with no real power or voice on the council. The decision to exclude Humphrey was, in part, due to his constant struggles with his uncle, Henry Beaufort who claimed Humphrey was too unstable to be regent. It was only after his older brother John died in 1435 that Humphrey finally gained the title of regent and became heir apparent.

The forces at court were unhappy with Humphrey being so close to power, and in 1441 his wife Eleanor and several members of their household were accused of witchcraft and heresy. Eleanor escaped execution for a plot to poison the King, but was made to endure a Game of Thrones-esque punishment. After performing several walks of penance, barefoot and wearing only a thin simple dress, she spent the rest of her life in prison.

Due to his wife’s public downfall, Humphrey was forced into an early retirement, which he spent surrounded by his beloved books at his home in Greenwich. It was during this time that he built his chantry chapel at St Albans Abbey. This could not have been further from the golden years Humphrey imagined when he returned in glory from Agincourt all those years before.

The final straw came when his nephew Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. Humphrey was outspoken in his opposition to the marriage and loudly critical of the one of the king’s chief advisers, the Earl of Suffolk. These actions resulted in his exclusion from the Privy Council and earned him a deadly enemy.

Humphrey’s death was sudden and mysterious. We know that in 1447 he was summoned to a parliament at Bury St Edmunds. Before entering the town he was separated from his entourage and went to dinner with his servants. He was then arrested on charges of treason, after which, he became ill and died several days later. His body was put on display (to show that there had been no foul play) and was then escorted to St Albans, where he was laid to rest in his burial chamber on 22 March 1447.

So, was Duke Humphrey murdered by his enemies at court? Contemporary sources do not seem to think so. His friend, Abbot John, claimed he died of a sickness caused by his sudden arrest. However, it is not hard to imagine the motivation behind eliminating Humphrey as heir to throne. There is no hard evidence pointing to foul play in Humphrey’s death, only speculation – and of course Shakespeare. According to Shakespeare (in his plays Henry IV, I, VI) Humphrey was quite clearly poisoned by the Earl of Suffolk and this became fact for many years after.

The location of Duke Humphrey’s tomb was eventually forgotten and it was not discovered again until 1703 when ex-mayor of St Albans and tanner John Gape died. It was whilst the floor of the Shrine Chapel was being excavated to accommodate his grave that the trap door to Humphrey’s burial chamber was discovered. When the lead coffin was opened, they discovered a body that was extraordinarily well preserved in a mysterious liquid. The parish clerks took advantage of the interest in Duke Humphrey and allowed the public down to have a look and take away a small vial of the liquid (for a small fee) for many years.

As time went on, the mysterious liquid slowly disappeared through evaporation and consumption, causing Humphrey’s body to fully decay (despite the rumour that the landlord of the White Hart pub across the road secretly came in at night to top it up as he was getting such good trade from the tourists). Eventually his bones began to be taken, and by the 1870s his tomb was shut to visitors. What does remain are the 114 signature graffiti on the walls of the tomb, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today he is remembered as the loyal (if not politically savvy) son, brother and uncle to three English kings, one of the first promoters of humanist thinking in England and a huge patron of the arts. He was a lifelong benefactor of Oxford University and left the institution his extensive library when he died. The donation was used to found the Bodleian Library, and you can sit in the Duke Humphrey reading room today.

If you want to learn more about Humphrey and his connections to St Albans, make sure you visit the Cathedral and join one of our free Guided Tours!

LML Bloom
Cathedral Guide

The Benedictines  

Until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England in the sixteenth century, the Benedictines flourished, with many monastic establishments throughout the country and a premier site at St. Albans. But who were the Benedictines, what are their origins and how did they come to be established in England? Here are brief answers to these questions.

The Benedictines, also known as the Black Monks in reference to the colour of the monks’ habits, were monks who took their name from St. Benedict of Nursia, who was born in Italy around 480 and died in the mid-sixth century.

Benedict was a devout Italian Christian who became a monk at the age of 20, wishing to withdraw from the world after he visited Rome and was shocked by how immoral life in the Holy City had become. He founded his own monastery in 529 at Monte Cassino in Campania.

Benedict is attributed to the founding of Western Monasticism and composed the ‘Rule of Benedict’, the blueprint for monastic life in the medieval world, covering all that the author deemed necessary for regulation of life within a monastic community, as well as its good government. Thus, in addition to the articulation of the spiritual goals of the monk and the means by which he should strive for them, Benedict carefully planned the occupations of the monks around the core of their existence, the Opus dei, that is, the communal worship which took place at regular intervals of the day (and night).

Around this backbone of the monastic day were structural periods of manual work and lectio divina (sacred reading, or contemplation), careful provision was also made for the regulation of food and drink, clothing and bedding, and the conduct of monks outside the monastery. Every aspect of monastic life was covered and the community was ruled by the abbot, who combined the rolls of father (abba), pastor, and disciplinarian. Benedict’s monastery was a community in itself and, except in unusual circumstances, capable of ruling its own affairs without outside intervention, but was not totally isolated from the outside world.       

Benedict created the rule at a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed in the West, and Europe was being overrun by barbarian tribes, most of them pagans. It looked like Christianity in Europe was finished. Benedictine monasteries, more than anything else, kept the faith alive. Benedict required monks to spend time in reading, thus, they kept theology and culture alive through centuries when almost the entire continent was illiterate.

By the ninth century, the Benedictine had become the standard form of monastic life throughout the whole of Western Europe, excepting Scotland, Wales and Ireland, where the Celtic observance prevailed.

Benedict’s Rule was brought to England in 597 by Augustine, a monk who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to preach to and convert the Anglo-Saxons. They arrived in Kent and were received by King Æthelbert who was sufficiently well disposed towards these Christians to allow them to stay: he himself had recently married a Christian, Bertha. Augustine and his forty monks established themselves at Canterbury. As the monks lived the monastic life of prayer and community, they made a good witness of Christianity to their neighbours. In time, King Æthelbert was baptized and Canterbury became the seat of the Church in England.

The Benedictine observance co-existed for some 50 years with other observances of Celtic origin, especially at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, but, in the end, prevailed at the Synod of Whitby in 664 thanks to St. Wilfred of York and Benedict Biscop.

The Venerable Bede (d. 735) of Wearmouth and Jarrow monasteries shows through his written History that in the 7th and 8th centuries English monasticism was evolving under the influence of not only Augustine but also the Celts, and was close to maturity. Rather than being insular, monasteries were part of the English Church. The liturgy was the central work.  Community life was disciplined and based upon a moderate interpretation of the Rule of Benedict. Labour was generally of the intellectual or artistic nature. Education was an important and vital apostolate (leadership in reform). Priestly vocations were common among the monks as was missionary work. This form of English Benedictine monasticism is still expressed today.

In the 9th century the Vikings destroyed the monasteries. Monastic life all but ceased.

It was not until the middle of the 10th century that the Viking raids had ceased and monasticism could be resurrected. Remarkably, the rebirth originated entirely from within: the importance of monasticism persisted in the Anglo-Saxon memory. Under the inspiration and patronage of King Edgar, monastic life was restored. The work was led by three clerics: Dunstan (Archbishop of Canterbury), Æthelwold (Bishop of Winchester), and Oswald (Bishop of Worcester). From their principal abbeys of Glastonbury, Abingdon and Ramsey, respectively sprang more than 50 daughter houses, including St. Albans.

The significance of the revival work by Dunstan, Æthelwold and Oswald cannot be underestimated. All the 10th century monasteries were founded upon the Rule of Benedict. Furthermore, the monastic observance was uniform, because of agreement at synod which was recorded in Æthelwold’s Regularis Concordia which supplemented the Rule of Benedict, detailing an interpretation that encompassed all aspects of monastic life, in particular the liturgy. From this point forward, monasticism in England flourished, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. All monasteries were dissolved and their lands confiscated by the Crown, forcing their Catholic members to flee into exile on the Continent.

Today, as a result of a revival in the 19th century, the Benedictines continue to group themselves in congregations of monasteries, but are much reduced in numbers. The followers of St. Benedict vary much in the way they carry out the thrust of Benedict’s Rule, but in general they retain essential features of their origins- local gatherings of monasteries who seek God in common life of prayer, reading and service.

Michael Graham                                                                                                                                    Library Volunteer

Why Forgiveness Matters

An American friend of mine tells me that when he was about ten, he chastised a minister who had just preached a sermon on the need for our sins to be forgiven. ‘I don’t need to be forgiven’, said my friend’s precocious young self. ‘I’ve never committed any sins; not really.’ The minister fixed my friend with a steely gaze. ‘Perhaps not’, he replied (sensibly avoiding the temptation to lecture my friend on the concept of original sin). ‘But you will.’ My friend reports that the minister turned out, of course, to be right.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ We pray this – whether we are ‘sins’ people or ‘trespasses’ people – all the time. But what do we mean? What does it really mean to forgive, and what does it mean to be forgiven?

In May, I’ll be one of the speakers at a workshop in St Albans that aims to explore what forgiveness is, and why it matters. This is part of Why Philosophy Matters, a series of public events organised by the University of Hertfordshire Philosophy Department. ‘Why Forgiveness Matters’ is our second workshop to be co-organised with the St Albans Cathedral Study Centre.

We plan three talks and a discussion of forgiveness between a theologian (Professor Anthony Bash of Durham University), a psychologist (Dr Liz Gulliford of the University of Birmingham) and a philosopher (yours truly). There should be plenty of time for questions and discussion, and it’s all tailored for a general audience. Amongst the issues we hope to explore will be: What, precisely, is forgiveness? Is it ever right to forgive those who are not sorry or repentant, and if so, when? What does the New Testament actually say about forgiveness? How might its message have been changed – or even distorted – by ideas that have arisen since the Bible was written? Does forgiving a wrongdoer amount to condoning or excusing what they have done, and so somehow justifying a wrong? What are the roles of justice, mercy and love in forgiveness? And what should we do if we find that we just cannot forgive? Turning to the psychology of forgiveness, what psychological processes are involved in forgiving someone? Should forgiveness be promoted in psychotherapy, and if so, how? Who gains from it – the one forgiven, the one forgiving, or both? Finally, is it possible to forgive yourself? Does self-forgiveness always amount to letting yourself off the hook, or are there circumstances in which it is just what is needed?

John Lippitt

 

What is this thing called mindfulness?

As the summer term approaches, the teacher of our Mindfulness Course, Caroline Waterstone, reflects on what mindfulness is, and how you might benefit.

‘What is this ‘thing’ called mindfulness?! The man who brought it into the mainstream, so that it is now widely practised, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes it thus: it is paying attention in a particular way – on purpose, moment to moment, and non-judgementally.

How often do we, you and I, live our lives on automatic pilot? It’s great for driving cars and making our usual meals, but not so helpful when that automatic pilot runs us: the tapes of our stories of past failures and fears about the future. I have noticed during years of practising mindfulness that the skill is learning to notice that the tape is about to start and then choosing to switch it off, before it runs away with itself and me! So when your boss, junior colleague, teenage child, spouse, mother or whoever it is that presses your buttons is about to start their tape, you can choose not to play yours and in that moment change is already made.

How do we learn this? By allowing objectivity, a wider perspective from which to meet all that occurs in our lives, people and situations, taking time to pause, reflect and then choose how to act in the best interests of the situation.

By practising tuning into our bodies and learning to acknowledge what’s really going on in our minds and hearts, moment to moment, we can choose to make skilful choices, without reacting out of our old tired stories. We can learn to re-write our scripts to allow us to respond more creatively in the many situations we find ourselves in day to day.

And if we can change how we react to others, how great would it be if we could treat ourselves with greater kindness and compassion, responding to our own needs with humour, patience and courage.’

If you are interested in joining a Mindfulness Course at St Albans Cathedral, email studycentre@stalbanscathedral.org for an application form.

Faith and Science: our first forum

Earlier this month, the Revd Dr Tim Bull, Diocesan Director Ministry, who holds PhDs in both theology and computer science, led the first of our Open Forum on Faith and Science events.  In this post, he looks back over the evening.

Tim writes:  Canon Tim Bull 2014

Around a dozen of us gathered at the Cathedral Library one evening early in March for the Study Centre’s first science and faith discussion evening. We were quite a diverse bunch: from an A-Level student, to an Ordinand training for ministry in the Church of England, to a retired scientist. Some of us were lifelong Christian believers, while others were interested sceptics.

 

The focus of the evening was: What are scientists and theologians really saying when they claim something is true?

We began by looking at a picture from a bubble chamber. This remarkable piece of scientific equipment is used by physicists to look at subatomic particles — although of course it doesn’t “look” at these particles at all. It merely shows the presence of an electrically charged something moving through the superheated transparent liquid. The best we can do is find indirect evidence for the existence of a new particle such as the Higgs Boson. So why do the scientists believe they have found something new?

At a more elementary level, when school pupils investigate the extension of a spring loaded with weights and then plot the points on a graph, they find that these lie on a more-or-less straight line. This is Hooke’s Law. However, these points could equally well be connected by a wiggly line. So why should the pupils believe the line is straight?

Both these examples illustrated how scientific claims are at best good – albeit extraordinarily good – guesses at what nature is really like. There is always the possibility that they may be wrong. This was the thinking behind the philosophy of both Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.

So if scientific theories are only approximations to the true nature of the world, what about the claims made by theologians? Do they fare better or worse?

Faith and Science forum

We then moved on to consider some claims made in the Bible. These were taken from a variety of places and were of different genres. First we considered the words from Proverbs:

Better a dry crust with peace and quiet

than a house full of feasting, with strife. (Proverbs 17:1)

We agreed that this was, in some sense, as true a scientific statement as Hooke’s Law. If an experiment was done, it would likely show that peace and quiet is more strongly correlated with personal wellbeing, than is the quantity of food on the table.

A second verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans proved more problematic.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

How would we know whether or not that statement is true? What would it even mean for it to be true? There were particular difficulties around the definition of some of these statements. What exactly do we mean by “God”, “sinners” and “Christ”? We agreed that it might be possible to conduct an experiment to ascertain to what degree people who believed this statement and endeavoured to live by it were happier than those who didn’t. But that wouldn’t prove anything about the validity of the statement, merely about its effect on believers. It might be false, but equally it might be true. There’s no obvious way of deciding one way or another.

Thus, if scientific statements are at best approximations to the truth, theological statements, by being difficult to pin down, also escape easy categorisation as “true” or “false”. In other words, statements in both fields are in principle undecidable but for very different reasons.

We finished our evening together by asking whether this meant that science and faith were at loggerheads, simply talking about different domains, or could be reconciled as describing different aspects of one common reality. Unsurprisingly, given our backgrounds, we differed on this point. However, as the lecturer, I had the last word. So I concluded by explaining how, for me, my faith was enhanced by an understanding of science, and my science was enriched by an appreciation of the Divine.

You can find out more about Tim’s work by following him on Twitter.  His next Faith and Science Forum on Thursday 23 June will look at farming and genetic technology, and is open to all.  Book online or just turn up.  Places are free for students.

Reading Together: The Cathedral Library Book Groups

On the second Tuesday of each month, Book Groups meet at 2.30 and 6pm in the Cathedral Library.  Open to all, their aim is to discuss novels which may have particular resonance for a Christian audience.  On the blog, Anne Stockley, one of the regulars from the 6pm group presents her thoughts on the group and on the book we read for Lent, a recommendation from the Canon Chancellor, the Revd Dr Kevin Walton.

Anne writes:

I joined the Cathedral Library Book Group in July when a new job in St Albans meant I could get to the 6pm meeting.  I had seen on a service sheet that the book for July was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald which I had read at Easter and loved, so this seemed a good omen.  Through the reading group, I have discovered Barbara Pym and read several authors I would not have come across otherwise including Gerd Theissen who wrote The Shadow of the Galilean, the book choice for March.

Library

Gerd Theissen is a German theologian and academic but The Shadow of the Galilean takes the form of a novel.  It is narrated by Andreas, a Jewish trader in fruit and grain, who is ‘obliged’ (after being caught up in a demonstration against Pilate) to report to the Romans on the Essene movement, John the Baptist, and subsequently on Jesus.

Andreas never meets Jesus although he comes into contact with characters who know of him such as the toll collector who replaced Levi.  Through these reports, Andreas acquires his knowledge of Jesus and the reader learns about the social and political background of the time.  We learn for example of young men leaving home because they are dissatisfied with land owners and with unemployment.

The narrative of Andreas’s search for these characters is interrupted by letters from the author to a Dr Kratzinger which deal with such issues as narrative framework, whether it is appropriate to invent conversations between historical figures and whether readers will take Theissen’s work as fact not fiction.  The members of the reading group as a whole disliked the letters and found them irritating.  They felt forced, as if Theissen was trying to preempt criticism of his novel, and I must admit to skimming them in places.

The Shadow of the Galilean

I very much liked the character of Metilius, the Roman officer who Andreas reports to.  As the novel progresses, Metilius learns about Judaism and discusses his questions with Andreas.  This could feel a little forced at times but enables the reader to learn something of the Jewish faith as at the time of Jesus.  At the end of the novel, Metilius himself has started to attend the temple and is attracted to the Jewish belief in one God.

The language of the prayers that Andreas recites is quite beautiful in places and several members of the reading group found the final chapter ‘The man: A Dream’ extremely moving.  Andreas dreams of Jesus and wakes with a sense of peace.  Theissen says:  “The rule of the beasts could not last forever.  Some time the man had to appear, the true man.  And everyone would recognise in him the features of Jesus”.

For me, the novel was a brave attempt at fictionalising not so much the life of Jesus but the backdrop to his life – the social, political and religious situation and the details of people’s daily lives.  Like other books we have read for the group, it was not liked by the whole group but that makes for a good discussion.  I would recommend the reading group to anybody interested in reading a range of books and discussing them in a friendly environment.

Studying Theology and Exploring Vocation

Our Certificate Programme at St Albans Cathedral is often attended by people who are exploring vocation, whether as Christians in general, or to particular ministries, whether lay or ordained, from various denominations.  Studying theology is not only a required part of investigating particular vocations, it is a brilliant way for anyone to think in a rational and informed way about their faith and what God is calling them to do.

Among our students on the Introduction to the Old Testament module this term are two young people on different Roots internship programmes in the Diocese, who are giving a year to exploring possible calling to the priesthood.  In this post, Ben Scott and Vanessa Hadley-Spencer explain what they feel the Study Centre programme and studying theology are bringing to their year.

Vanessa writes…

Vanessa  I am currently a member of the newly formed Root group in Hatfield working part-time in the chaplaincy at the University of Hertfordshire and with the parish of St John Bishop’s Hatfield to further explore my vocation to ordained ministry.

I began studying at the St Albans Cathedral Study Centre as the theological study element of my internship year.  Studying whilst exploring vocation is exciting.  It brings a depth to the things you are experiencing whilst on placement and helps you to better understand the theology behind the way things are done.

It is a good idea to study if you are considering vocation as it allows you to explore whether you would be able to complete further theological study as part of training for ministry. The SACT courses have been the first form of theological study I have undertaken and they have provided an accessible basis to start from.  I have found the courses have introduced me to the topics and have left me keen to learn and explore more.

Gaining a deeper understanding of scripture has been really useful whilst I have had to prepare talks for use in the university chaplaincy and in the parish. Having gained an overview of the context of the New Testament in the first term, I have a better foundation to draw upon in my preparations and now read scripture with a deeper understanding and background.

Managing time whilst on a busy placement is essential but I have found that I have been able to fully participate in the courses as they take place in the evening and don’t require a large amount of preparation.

Contact Vanessa at v.hadley-spencer@herts.ac.uk if you would like to find out more about her work with the Root group.

Ben writes…

BenI am currently undertaking a year placement on the long-established Root Scheme at St Albans Cathedral, while I explore my vocation to the priesthood.  As part of this scheme we are required to take certain SACT modules, which for me so far have been a term on the Introduction to the Old Testament and a term on the New Testament; next term I will be taking the Introduction to Christian Doctrine.  I have also attended various Study Days and Talks offered by the Study Centre, and I have been really grateful to be able to access these opportunities.

This is the first time I have studied theology and have found it really interesting.  I’ve found the modules to be offered at an accessible undergraduate level.  Studying has really helped in my various activities at the Abbey to provide a grounding and understanding for what I am communicating to others.  Theological education is the foundation of training for ministry and therefore a really crucial part of the Root scheme, as it begins to prepare you for the demands of this.  It has certainly left me excited by the prospect of studying topics in greater detail.  If one is accepted for training this will involve completing a degree in theology so that the candidate is prepared to engage with the church in a changing world and make the Church’s missional activities new and relevant.

Follow Ben on Twitter to find out more about his work at St Albans Cathedral.

If you are exploring vocation of any sort, the Study Centre may be able to advise which courses would be appropriate for you.  For more information about considering vocation within the Church of England in the Diocese of St Albans, see their website.