Monday, April 29, 2013

Guy Consolmagno on science and faith.

The British Jesuits' online journal Thinking Faith recently published the text of a talk given last month by Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer who works at the Vatican Observatory. (Guy has appeared on this blog a number of times before, notably here and here.) Speaking before an audience at the Mount Street Jesuit Centre in London, Brother Consolmagno had this to say about the place of belief (broadly considered) in scientific inquiry:
There are three religious beliefs that you have to accept on faith before you can be a scientist. You may not think of them as religious, but I can name religions that do not have these beliefs.

The first thing you must believe is that this universe actually exists. This may seem obvious; but if you believe, as some religions do, that 'everything is illusion,' then what is there for a scientist to study? If you were a solipsist, then being a scientist would be just wasting your time studying a figment of your imagination.

The second thing to believe is that the universe operates by regular laws. How can you go searching for the physical laws of the universe if you do not believe there are physical laws to be found? Today we have a thousand years of finding those laws and seeing how we can use them to make the telephones work; but who was the first person a thousand years ago to think that such laws exist, and that they could be discovered? Where did he or she get the faith to believe that there might be laws to be found?

. . .

And here is the third thing you have to believe as a scientist: you have to believe that the universe is good. We get that, again, from Genesis. If you think the universe is a morass of temptations, then you will be afraid to be too involved in it; you will want to meditate yourself to a higher level, perhaps. If you believe that, you are not going to want to be a scientist. But instead, we believe in a God who so loved the universe that He sent His only Son...

So why do people think that there is a conflict between science and religion? Too often the assumption is that science and religion are systems of epistemology, ways of knowing facts. Science gives me one set of facts, religion gives me another set of facts, and so surely there is going to be a time when the two systems conflict.

But that is not what science is at all, and not what religion is at all.
Later in the talk, Brother Consolmagno has some good things to say about the nature of faith:
Faith is not accepting a bunch of facts in the absence of evidence. It is making choices in the absence of all the facts… whether it is your choice of school, or job, who you will marry, where you will live. When you made those choices, there was no way you could know how it would turn out. That’s life, making choices in the absence of sufficient data. But you make these choices in the expectation that things will turn out well. That’s faith. Sometimes that expectation is going to be shattered, but you go ahead anyway; what else can you do?

These expectations based on faith occur in science all the time. When I choose what field of science to enter, I am assuming that it is going to be interesting down the line; if I knew what I was going to discover, I would not have to do the science. When I see an interesting problem to chew on, I have to guess what approach is going to be the most fruitful. How do I make that decision? Of all the different approaches that are possible I only have time to try one or two; how do I choose? It is a blind step into the unknown.

Science is not a big book of facts. Science is not about ‘proving’ anything. Science describes, but the descriptions are incomplete; we keep hoping that they get better. For that very reason you cannot use science to prove the existence of God (or no-God). But can science encourage us in our belief?

One trait of God I find is that He always gives us ‘plausible deniability.’ Every time you see His action in the universe, you can always come up with some way to explain it away if you want to. It could just be coincidence, or an illusion. You can never know for sure; that, of course, is why we need faith.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The last of the Beguines.

I've been quite silent lately, largely because of end-of-semester stuff and the demands of an intensive two-week course that began after spring exams and finished yesterday. To break my silence, I would like to call your attention to a report from The Economist on the recent death of Marcella Pattyn, the last living member of a once-thriving religious community known as the Beguines. Who were the Beguines? The Economist offers a brief look at their origins and their place in European history:
At the heart of several cities in Belgium lies an unexpected treasure. A gate in a high brick wall creaks open, to reveal a cluster of small, whitewashed, steep-roofed houses round a church. Cobbled alleyways run between them and tiny lawns, thickly planted with flowers, grow in front of them. The cosiness, the neatness and the quiet suggest a hortus conclusus, a medieval metaphor both for virginal women and the walled garden of paradise.

Any veiled women seen there now, however, processing to Mass or tying up hollyhocks in their dark habits and white wimples, are ghosts. Marcella Pattyn was the last of them, ending a way of life that had endured for 800 years.

These places were not convents, but beguinages, and the women in them were not nuns, but Beguines. In these communities, which sprang up spontaneously in and around the cities of the Low Countries from the early 13th century, women led lives of prayer, chastity and service, but were not bound by vows. They could leave; they made their own rules, without male guidance; they were encouraged to study and read, and they were expected to earn their keep by working, especially in the booming cloth trade. They existed somewhere between the world and the cloister, in a state of autonomy which was highly unusual for medieval women and highly disturbing to medieval men.
Like many another vocation, the call of the last Beguine had its roots not in an explicit attraction to the charism of the institute that she entered but rather in very practical considerations. Born to Belgian parents in the Congo in 1920, from an early age Marcella Pattyn wanted to serve as a missionary sister in Africa but was unable to do so because of her poor eyesight. After another religious community turned her away on account of her near-blindness, Marcella became a Beguine at the age of 21 and remained one until her death two weeks ago at 92. I'll let The Economist pick up the story from there:
Contentedly, in the beguinage at Ghent from 1941 and at Courtrai from 1960, [Marcella] spent her days in tasks unaltered from the Middle Ages. She knitted baby clothes and wove at a hand loom, her basket of wool beside her chair, chatting and laughing with the other women. At lunchtime, like the others, she ate her own food from her own cupboard (identified by the feel of the carvings under her hands), neatly stocked with plates, jugs, coffee and jam. Cooking she was spared, ever since on the first occasion she had failed to see the milk boiling over, but she washed up with a will.

A good part of the time she prayed, all the prayers she could remember, but especially her rosary whose bright white beads she could almost see. Most usefully, since she was musical, she played the organ in chapel; and she cheered up the sick, as she nursed them, by serenading them on banjo and accordion. Almost her only concession to modernity was the motorised wheelchair in which she would career around the alleyways at Courtrai in her later years, wrapped in a thick knitted cape against the cold, her white stick dangerously levelled like a lance.

. . .

When she was known to be the last [of the Beguines], Juffrouw Marcella became famous. The mayor and aldermen of Courtrai visited her, called her a piece of world heritage, and gave her Beguine-shaped chocolates and champagne, which she downed eagerly. A statue of her, looking uncharacteristically uncertain, was cast in bronze for the beguinage.

The story of the Beguines, she confessed, was very sad, one of swift success and long decline. They had caught the medieval longing for apostolic simplicity, lay involvement and mysticism that also fired St Francis; but the male clergy, unable to control them, attacked them as heretics and burned some alive. With the Protestant Reformation the order almost vanished; with the French revolution their property was lost, and they struggled to recover. In the high Middle Ages a city like Ghent could count its Beguines in thousands. At Courtrai in 1960 Sister Marcella was one of only nine scattered among 40 neat white houses, sleeping in snowy linen in their narrow serge-curtained beds. And then there were none.
May her memory be eternal. AMDG.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The faith of Colin Davis.

The great English conductor Sir Colin Davis died on Sunday at the age of 85. Hailed by critics as "the greatest Mozart conductor after the death of Karl Böhm" as well as a versatile artist who changed over the course of a long career from "a prickly firebrand to a thoughtful, magus-like philosopher-musician," Davis is also being remembered by many of his fellow musicians with great affection and respect. I am not a critic or a musician, but I can count myself among Colin Davis' admirers, owning a few of his recordings and having seen and heard him conduct a couple of times in New York. The second of my two concerts with Colin Davis was a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, which was memorable not merely for great musicianship but for the palpable sense that this would be one of the last chances that a New York audience would have to hear Davis conduct.

Colin Davis was not a religious man, but he had a great love for the Missa Solemnis. In some sense, as Davis made clear in an interview with the Guardian in 2011, the experience of conducting that work gave him a brief yet ecstatic encounter with the divine:
"At the end of the piece, in the final movement, the Agnus Dei, Christ has gone back to heaven, and Beethoven gives us this image of humanity left behind, crawling about in this mud, loaded with sin. The music is saying that humans cry for peace – and make war. That's what Beethoven means. It's absolutely clear. The music reaches an intensity of protest which is almost unbearable. And yet, there's the power with which he sets the words: 'Credo in unum deum!' [I believe in one God!] You'd better believe him when he says it. And I do. I believe every word of the Missa because Beethoven makes it possible. But when I'm left alone, I can't believe anything. So it's even more poignant for me. But for that brief hour and a half when I'm conducting the piece, I do."
The sort of attitude that Davis expresses here can be found among other musicians, who often present themselves as skeptics but are still able to find their way to a sense of transcendence through their art. Though I can't locate the citation right now, I recall once reading an interview with the Flemish conductor Philippe Herreweghe which included a point very similar to the one that Davis makes here. If memory serves, Herreweghe said something to the effect that the only time he could really believe in God was while conducting Bach - in effect, his doubts would vanish when he gave himself over to the music, but only so long as that direct encounter could be sustained. As Davis explained to the Guardian, conducting may not have given him an enduring faith in God but nonetheless provided him with an experience of transcendence - as well as the ability to share that transcendence with others:
"It amounts to an alternative reality. That's the only way I can describe what happens. And I'm no longer this idiot sitting here trying to make sentences about the music I love. In those concerts, I'm beyond myself. And none of my everyday experience is of any use whatever. There's only this joy in communicating with other people, and the feeling that you're part of something that's much bigger than any of us. That's what it feels like. And that's my answer to those people who ask, 'What's the use of music?' Well, yours isn't the only reality. Income tax, prime ministers, and so on, certainly exist, but so does the Missa Solemnis when you are playing it. It has just as much sense of existence as anything else."
May Sir Colin Davis rest in peace, and may his memory live on in the many lives that he touched and in the great musical legacy that he leaves behind. AMDG.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Today in Boston.

This is all I'm going to say for now about today's events in Boston. As I wrote the last time I shared the above piece, "music helps - or at least it helps me." Peace to all and prayers for the dead and the wounded.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

S-T: Iconic New Bedford diner for sale.

Here is an article that I would have posted on Thursday, when it was published, had I not been busy with final exams and papers: my hometown newspaper reports that a New Bedford landmark, the Shawmut Diner, is being put up for sale. Retiring from the restaurant business after thirty-two years running the Shawmut Diner, owners Phil and Celeste Paleologos are hoping for buyers who will keep the diner open - even if that means moving the 1954 structure to a new location. Here is more on the transition, from Thursday's article in the New Bedford Standard-Times:
"I love (the diner), and I love these two people right here, I'll tell you that," said Cindy Lopes, a two-year employee at the diner. With tears in her eyes, Lopes said she would stay if the business changes hands.

"It's life," she said, adding that working at the diner is allowing her to put her 20-year old daughter through college. "If the diner moves that would be my best thing — I will be helping it move."

. . .

For their customers, the Shawmut Diner without Phil and Celeste is hard to imagine.

The owners are as much of a fixture as the iconic railcar-style diner featured in a striking nighttime shot in the 2003 movie "Passionada" which was filmed on SouthCoast.

Sipping frappes Wednesday morning were John and Lynne Reale, who ate at the diner the morning after their prom in 1956. Almost six decades later, they're as loyal to the establishment as ever.

"It was just the place to hang out because there weren't any fast food places," said Mrs. Reale, maiden name Green, who was Miss New Bedford in 1959.

"They'll be missed," she added. "Hopefully somebody good will take over and continue the tradition."

That's what Paleologos is hoping for and he said he'll do what he can to make it happen.

"If those stools could talk," Paleologos said, "the stories they would tell ... would constitute a best seller — all the different conversations that went on, all the relationships that took place here, all the different events."

"This is what America is all about," he said. "This is a microcosm of what life is all about — a little neighborhood diner."
To read more, click here. Here's hoping that the Shawmut Diner falls ino good hands, and remains a SouthCoast fixture for very many years to come. AMDG.

The photo that illustrates this post was found here.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Roger Ebert, Catholic.

Veteran Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert died last week at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer. Like many others, I can say that Roger Ebert had a perceptible impact on my life. Growing up in a small town in the years before the Internet changed the nature of communication, Siskel and Ebert and The Movies was my major source of information on new film releases; in a very real sense, Ebert and his colleague Gene Siskel expanded my horizons by drawing my attention to many foreign and independent films which I may never have discovered otherwise. As an adult, I regularly read Ebert's reviews of new releases as well as his writings on classic cinema (as I write this post, a copy of Ebert's The Great Movies peers down on me from a nearby bookshelf). For years, Roger Ebert has been my go-to film critic: his evaluation was the one that mattered most when I was deciding which movies to see, and with his death I feel like I've lost a trusted cinematic oracle.

The fact that I viewed Roger Ebert as a 'cinematic oracle' does not mean that I always agreed with him. In my view, Ebert often seemed to miss the mark in his evaluation of films with explicitly Christian messages. In his review of Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, for example, Ebert effectively argued that the monks of Tibhirine wasted their lives by accepting martyrdom, when their prior "should have had the humility to lead his monks away from the path of self-sacrifice" by returning to France. Ebert's review of the Mexican war epic For Greater Glory was arguably even more egregious, as Ebert questioned the film's historicity on the rather flimsy basis that neither he nor a "Mexican-American friend, well-informed in Mexican history" had ever before heard of the Cristeros, going on to suggest that the film would have been "more effective" had it "not hewed so singlemindedly to the Catholic view and included all religions under the banner of religious liberty" - notwithstanding the fact that For Greater Glory was concerned with the persecution of the Catholic Church at a time when Mexico was overwhelmingly Catholic. Since Ebert would admit from time to time that he had been raised Catholic but was no longer a believer, my general tendency was to dismiss such comments as axe-grinding by a disgruntled ex-Catholic who also happened to be a brilliant film critic.

Of course, there is always more to the story. In an essay published about a month before his death, Roger Ebert again affirmed his longstanding agnosticism but also spoke affectionately of the Church in which he was raised. As Ebert emphatically affirmed, "I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God." It also emerged that Ebert was friendly with a number of prominent Chicago priests, including a Jesuit of my own province who preached at the film critic's funeral yesterday - a funeral that took the form of a Roman Catholic Mass at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral. I do not know whether Roger Ebert "died in the Church," fortified by the sacraments, but in some sense he seems to have 'come home' at the end of his life.

Steven Greydanus of the National Catholic Register has a thoughtful take on Roger Ebert the Catholic, bringing together Ebert's various autobiographical jottings on his religious upbringing and parsing his reviews for signs of positive Catholic influence. Greydanus argues that Ebert's writings suggest that he "couldn’t believe [Catholicism] any more himself, but he was somehow pleased that it endured, and that other people continued to believe it." Greydanus finds that, true to his "lock, stock, and barrel" affirmation, Ebert was deeply committed to certain particularly Catholic values:
Yet, despite his loss of faith, Ebert’s continued identification with his Catholic heritage, and the moral outlook it instilled in him, were touchstones of his warm humanism, in the best sense of that word. Today the word "humanism" has often been debased as a virtual synonym for "secularism" or "irreligion." There is such a thing as secular humanism, although in the long run I think there’s a contradiction at its heart that eventually leads to secular posthumanism.

Ebert was not a posthumanist. He was a man whose instincts and affections were fundamentally sound and wholesome, though not unflawed, particularly in the area of sexual morality. Early in his career, Ebert collaborated with notorious grindhouse filmmaker Russ Meyer on a number of exploitation films, notably writing the screenplay for the trashy cult film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Ebert rose above this lurid chapter in his career, but he never had a problem with movie eroticism, and, like so many lapsed Catholics, could never regard the phrase "impure thoughts" with anything but a smile.

Yet where some critics seem to wish to suspend all moral judgment, preferring to charge films only with aesthetic faults, Ebert was willing to invoke moral principles in his reviews, even at the risk of appearing uncool or unsophisticated....

Ebert even made a point of trying to reserve his zero-star rating for films that were not only devoid of aesthetic value, but in some way immoral as well. His approach was certainly an influence on my own attempts to work out a systematic approach to evaluating movies with respect to moral as well as artistic and entertainment value.

There is a generosity and empathy to many of his reviews, and in many of the films he appreciated. One of the qualities he most celebrated in a film was its ability to "take us outside our personal box of time and space and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization." (If his celebration of empathy sounds over the top, consider that St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) arguably goes further: Empathy, she maintained in On the Problem of Empathy and other writings, is foundational to personhood and community, to knowledge even of the self, as well as others.)
Could Roger Ebert and Edith Stein have shared a common insight? After all, they were both baptized into the same faith and received elements of the same moral and spiritual formation. At the end of his life, Ebert may have been able to make an affirmation something like one offered by James Joyce, who held that, despite his own loss of faith, all the good that he had accomplished as well as his ability to overcome life's adversities could be explained by "the influence of A.M.D.G." - by a religious upbringing that maintained its hold on him in spite of his own professed lack of belief. Requiescat in pace.