Why Marriage?

Homily at St Philip Evans on the First Sunday of Lent, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Marriage is God’s idea – a permanent bond.

This Lent, we’ll be reflecting a great deal on marriage – it’s something our bishops have asked us to focus on before the next Vatican Synod on marriage and family life this October. It’s something I’ve talked about in recent sermons, suggesting ways to enrich married life, and reminding us that there is no obligation on Catholics to stay in a situation of domestic violence. But today, at the start of Lent, I want to take a step back and ask why the Church is so concerned about marriage in the first place.

Marriage affects all of us. Some of us are currently married. Some of us will never marry. Some of us are no longer married. But all of us will interact with married people on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and our attitudes and actions can either build up or undermine the marriages around us. So whatever your current status, please join me for this journey through Lent which begins with a very basic question: Why marriage?

Today’s readings contain two powerful themes – Kingdom and Covenant. A Covenant is a solemn promise made between two parties. Sometimes this is by mutual consent. But the covenant God makes with Noah and his descendants is one-sided. After sending a flood to destroy the wickedness of the human race, God spontaneously promises never to do so again. There are other covenants in the Bible, too. Some come with conditions – God tells the people of Israel, through Moses, that He will protect them if they follow the Commandments and other laws set out by Moses. Others are unconditional – King David is told that his descendants will be kings forever. That didn’t happen in the politics of Israel, but it is true of Jesus, the everlasting King of David’s line.

In today’s Gospel, hotfoot from 40 days in the desert, Jesus comes into town to proclaim that “God’s Kingdom is close by!” This is good news – surely things will be better with God in charge – but it’s also challenging. If you haven’t been keeping God’s laws very well, do you want God to turn up in your life? Jesus is firm but fair. You can repent, and make a fresh start with God, but you do have to acknowledge that God makes the rules – that’s the Kingdom.

What are God’s rules? In many cases, Jesus undid the work of Jewish religious leaders who had set out rules much more demanding than those given by God. For Jesus it was not a problem to pick your own lunch or cure a sick person on the Sabbath Day, and it was a religious duty to help a leper or a wounded traveller, even if that made you ritually unclean. But when it came to having a pure heart, Jesus set out a law more demanding than Moses. He pulled no punches in warning us that we are in danger of going to Hell if we let lust master our lives, or fail to restrain our anger towards others, or do not give of our resources to help the poor and needy.

And then there’s marriage. When he spoke about that, Jesus gave a teaching so challenging that even his apostles did a double-take and asked if he really meant what their ears were hearing. Yes, said Jesus, this was God’s plan from the beginning. Once two people become one flesh, they are joined by God and no earthly power should separate them. When St Paul pondered this, he came to see that marriage lived out as such a total commitment would reflect the way that Jesus gave his life for the Church – such a marriage would be a sign that God’s Kingdom was present in the world today. For this reason, marriage itself is honoured with the name which the Bible gives to the most solemn of promises – it, too, is a Covenant.

What makes a marriage? It is made by the deliberate choice of a man and a woman who each declare that from that day forward, the most important priority in their life will be their partner’s wellbeing. This is very different from a purely practical decision to have a joint bank account for household expenses, or two parents making a pragmatic decision to share caring duties for their child. Marriage is an irrevocable decision that the most important human being in your life is no longer yourself, but your Significant Other. Such a commitment would be quite dangerous and completely irresponsible, unless it were made to a person making the same kind of commitment to you!

Two years ago, a British High Court Judge resigned so that he could speak up for marriage. Sir Paul Coleridge had served for some years in the High Court’s family division. Late in 2012 he wrote a newspaper article noting that marriage “brings clarity and removes ambiguity” from relationships. He was concerned that couples who merely live together are much more likely to suffer a relationship breakdown than those who have made a positive commitment to stay together. Although there are statistics which back this up, he was given an official warning that this was not an acceptable view for a judge to hold publicly. Rather than compromise his morals, he resigned and now runs the Marriage Foundation, which reminds British Society that there are positive good things about being married, and proposes sound reasons why politicians should not be afraid to say that marriage is a Good Thing.

Today, our bishops offer us a prayer card to take home reminding us of positive things we believe about marriage. Alongside this, it’s good to note that research shows that being married makes a positive difference. Indeed, the evidence is that one in three unmarried couples with an infant will have split up by the time the child is 7, but only one in eight married couples with an infant will break up in the same timeframe. Nevertheless, our core reason for supporting marriage is not based on statistics or our personal political views. The MAIN reason we believe in marriage is one of faith. Jesus wasn’t willing to compromise on the idea of a lifelong commitment being essential for sexual partners. We cannot follow him and do otherwise.

One final thought: Sir Paul’s Marriage Foundation has a logo – an arch made of stones. Sir Paul chose that because arches come in every shape and size and can be very beautiful when well designed and built. Arches usually join together two inherently unstable structures; the two pillars on either side. But when an arch joins the two sides, the whole becomes immeasurably stronger. In times of serious instability – an earthquake – there is no better place to stand than under a well constructed arch. I don’t know if Sir Paul had the rainbow in mind, but remember: God chose an arch as the sign of his covenant with us, too!

A stylized arch of yellow blocks and an orange keystone.

0 Shades of Grey

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, 2015.

The Seven Word Sermon: Reject porn at all costs – it’s sin!a stylized TV set with XXX in red on a black banner

Today God asks us not to be drawn into worshipping false gods. A god is anything which has a controlling effect on our lives, and tonight I am going to speak about one such god: pornography.

In a recent survey, 75% of Christian men admitted looking at porn at least once a month. 42% of Christian men admitted having a porn addiction. That tells me it is something I need to talk about, and with 50 Shades of Grey in the news, it is all too topical.

Why is porn bad?

First, have no doubt that someone sins by making it, someone sins by distributing it and someone sins by selling it. As soon as you get involved, you are asking a whole chain of people to sin on your behalf. Anyone who causes others to sin will answer to God for their actions.

Second, recent research shows that exposure to even not-very-graphic images rewires your brain and raises our expectations of what might be possible. But you will marry a real human being, not a porn star. Your current or future spouse becomes more inadequate each time your expectations are raised. And porn becomes even worse when it suggests violence should be involved in lovemaking. This not only raises our own personal level of what to expect, it subtly raises society’s level of what might be tolerated.

Third, porn makes relationships about sex instead of about a person. But St John Paul II warned us clearly that human dignity means we must never use another person as a means to our own pleasure.

What would happen if you lived the Catholic way, and never tried sex until your wedding night?

First, you would be able to give your life partner the gift of being your first time and your only ever partner. You can only give one person your virginity. Make it count!

Second, you would never be tempted to compare your husband or wife with anyone else’s sexual performance… how would you know? St Paul reminds us that any sexual act forms a bond between two souls. This can be dealt with spiritually. But the memories remain.

Third, good sex wouldn’t be the reason you married that person. This will make your relationship more robust for the times when for reasons of health or avoiding conceiving, sex is off the menu.

Of course, any couple who followed Catholic principles wouldn’t find out if they were sexually compatible until their wedding night. But the church has provision for this – a marriage does not become sealed until it is consummated. Being unable to couple with one another is the one reason which does allow the Church to dissolve a valid marriage.

Meanwhile, what are we to do about pornography? For those tempted to use it, the only answer is self-discipline. Every day, renounce your own desires and choose to do the will of God – just as Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way to be holy. It’s the only way to live a life worthy of God. When you wake up, say to yourself: “Today, I will not look at porn.” Make it a promise to God. Make it a promise to yourself. Make it a promise to your future, or current, wife. And get help. Blocking software helps. Confession helps, but don’t fall into the trap of kidding yourself that “it’s OK, I can always go to confession later.” And look for support on websites like xxxchurch and theporneffect.

All of us, whether we struggle with this or not, can make a point of asking newsagents to move dirty images to less visible shelves; and if someone asks us about 50 Shades, we can say we would never dream of going to see such a movie, because it offends human dignity.

Today God sets a path before us of life or death. Each time we choose porn, we drive a nail into our soul, a nail into our current or future spouse, a nail into the soul of each person who works in the porn industry, and a nail into the body of Christ. Each nail takes us one step closer to death. What gain, then, is it for a man to have won the whole world and to have lost or ruined his very self? Choose life!

Update: comprehensive list of useful websites now available at: www.tinyurl.com/PornPreventionResources

Lessons of the Heart

Sermon at the Wedding of Tara Moore and Graham Jones at St Edward’s, Sutton Park, on Valentine’s Day 2015

Tara, Graham, you have chosen to mark your wedding day by beginning with two candles and using them to light a new candle, representing the new partnership you begin on this day.

To hold those candles you have provided a framework. Here it is, before us on the altar. It is a solid framework, made of metal, cast in the shape of a heart. After this wedding day, it will become a feature of your home, a reminder of the vows you are about to make. It would be easy to dismiss the design as just another heart, on Valentine’s Day, a day when the world uses the image of the heart in a million different ways. But today I invite you to stop and reflect on the deeper meaning which this shape holds. Let it be the framework for your marriage!

Those scientists who study the heart know that if you take a few living cells from a human heart and keep them alive in the laboratory, they twitch. They are yearning for something, seeking a signal which will help them move in time with one another. Just as conductor in an orchestra helps each musician to play their part at the right time, so the heart has a corner which is its own ‘conductor’, a ‘heart within the heart’ which orchestrates all the cells into the right beat. But it is not enough for the heart to be co-ordinated; the heart must be a complete chamber, lacking no part, in order for it to complete its mission and bring life to the body it serves.

Today, you, Graham and Tara, commit to become one flesh, one household within the Body of Christ. You must move together to achieve your common purpose, and you must be conducted by Christ. Let Him be your guide in all things, and rejoice in the wonderful words of the Gospel: that Jesus calls you His friends, chose you to bear fruit, and fills you with confidence that God, our Heavenly Father, will give what you ask. Your marriage, blessed by God, is a sacrament – a sacred bond carrying God’s promise of assistance. When things get difficult – as at times they surely will – you will have every right to turn to God in prayer and say: “Lord, we celebrated our marriage in your house. Now we need your help.” And because God is faithful, you will find that help will be given, in God’s way and at God’s timing, which is never comfortable but always wonderful!

Like any muscle, the heart grows bigger when it is exercised. Tara, when you spoke to me of meeting  Graham, you said that for you, “Life got bigger!”, and that you were looking forward to your new identity as a couple. All this is good, but for your marriage to have a healthy heart, you must keep exercising it. St Paul teaches us the way: Your love for each other will grow greater whenever you choose to excuse, trust and hope in one another. As you share your life with one another, you will become more aware of each other’s limitations and imperfections. Sometimes even a healthy heart will skip a beat, but it quickly regains its rhythm. In the same way, although you may stumble along the way, be slow to take offence, and quick to apologise and forgive. The most important words to sustain a healthy marriage are “Please”, “Thank You”, and “I’m so sorry!”

Never give the heart of your marriage the chance to become diseased, for if you do not look after it, it will become clogged. The moment you spot jealousy, resentment, rudeness or selfishness taking hold, perform surgery! And perhaps a day will come in your life when you have had a row and you cannot find the words to restore peace. Should that day come, go to this solid heart, which is the framework of your marriage, and light once again the candle with your name on it. That will be your acknowledgement that you have put your own needs first, and you are sorry. And when your spouse sees this, let them light their own candle as a sign of their willingness to forgive. When you see that both candles are lit, come and rekindle, together, the flame of your marriage, remembering the vows which you make on this day.

The heart is not like any other muscle in the human body. Other muscles become fatigued when they work for a long time. The heart must continue pumping every minute of our life. This makes it the perfect symbol of the love of which St Paul speaks: Love is always patient, love always endures. Love does not come to an end.

Together, Tara and Graham protect the heart of your marriage. A heart has two chambers. One pumps the blood through the body, sending life-blood to its furthest extremities. So must you love one another and bless those whose lives intertwine with yours, especially souls in great need. A heart in love beats faster; with your love for one another, you will be more able to bless each other and bless the world around you.

The other chamber of the heart pumps spent blood to the lungs, so that it may be refreshed; so too you must spend times of refreshing with one another and with God. God has spoken to the world through many prophets and saints. The one most people will think of today is Valentine, a Christian priest who gave his life for being faithful to what he believed, but of whom we know little more than legend. I am thinking of a different saint, Margaret Mary Alacoque, who lived in seventeenth century France. In the 1670s, she received a series of visions of Jesus Christ. He showed her His Heart burning with love, and said: “Behold this Heart, which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify its love.”

The Gospel we heard today reminds us that Jesus gave his life on the Cross so that all who accept his love can go to heaven. 1500 years later, Jesus reminded the world of this love through St Margaret Mary. She described His Heart as a furnace of burning white love, but also drew it crowned with thorns and pierced to remind us of what He suffered for us. Graham, Tara, today Jesus calls you his friends and asks you to do what friends, do, spending time with Him. I can promise you that time spent in prayer – alone and with each other – will bear fruit in enriching your life. You can provide the candles, but only Christ can provide the true light for your lives.

Finally, I would like to share with you a reflection on Genesis. What meaning can we find in a poetic story about woman being created from the rib of man? The rib is the bone closest to the heart of a man, the bone which will shatter before it allows his heart to be damaged. And therefore:

Woman was created from the rib of man
She was not made from his head to top him
Nor from his feet, to be trampled on.
She was made from his side, to be equal to him,
From under his arm to be protected by him,
From near his heart to be loved by him.

Tara Moore, Graham Jones, if you are ready to choose to become one heart, one mind, one flesh, to kindle the flame of a lifetime of love, I invite you now, with your witnesses, to come and stand before this altar, to make your vows with all your heart.


In Search of a Consistent God: A Scientist Explores Faith

Breakfast Talk at St Chad’s, Shrewsbury, on the occasion of the 2015 Darwin Festival.


Many contemporary adults learned the stories from Genesis at a tender age or embraced the idea of God as a suitable answer to childish questions about who created the Universe. But this causes deep doubts when modern science contradicts Genesis and questions are posed of God the Unquestionable Answer.

A person who came to faith already well-versed in science might see God in quite a different way, not least since the only God worth believing in is a God consistent with the contemporary world. The true God must be entirely consistent with the world’s tragedies and disappointments and the diversity of reported religious experiences, and robust enough to withstand future scientific discoveries.

Adrian invited me to come and speak to you today because in a Q&A I gave at the Orkney Science Festival in 2013, he felt I was proposing a way of understanding God accessible to the modern mind yet challenging to the preconceptions which he and many other Christians held. As I reflected on this, it helped me realise that my understanding of God must be rather different from many of us who have grown up in a Christian environment. And I think the best way of exploring this is to share my own story with you.

I grew up in a family which had a Christian background, but where my parents were not churchgoers. My Mum’s father was active in his local Anglican parish, and under his influence I was baptised as a baby, but he died when I was still an infant. My own Dad, a postman, was interested in science and enjoyed BBC programmes like Horizon and Tomorrow’s World. At the age of seven I got hooked on astronomy, and a year later spent a very enjoyable day with the popular astronomer Patrick Moore. By the age of ten, I had devoured all the books on astronomy in the local children’s library, and then got sidetracked into computer programming through the gift of a Sinclair ZX81.

To me, even at that age, the scientific approach to understanding the world made sense. You study the world around you, you describe it, and so you pin down the rules of how the Universe works. All the evidence seemed to point to a Big Bang at the beginning of the Universe; dinosaurs and other fossils indicated that life on earth has taken different forms in different periods dating back over many millions of years; and our growing knowledge of how DNA controls living cells made it quite natural that species would evolve and adapt in the way Darwin described. I don’t think I ever asked why things were the way they were; I was quite content with descriptions of how things worked. The Universe clearly had rules, and it fascinated me to learn what they were.

As for church, I attended Sunday School throughout my youth, and there was good religious education at the State primary school I attended; at that time, Wales was still culturally Christian. The parables of Jesus became very familiar and Christianity presented some very clear moral rules. I absorbed the teaching of Jesus and the history of Biblical Israel. I would have known the stories of Adam and Eve, and Noah and the Ark, from a very young age; but when I learned the science of the Big Bang and evolution I was happy enough to note that the Bible was “what we used to think” but now we had a better idea, based on evidence.

I started taking the Christian faith more seriously at the age of 11. In 1985, my grandmother died, and I said the first serious prayer of my life. “Lord, look after my granny; I hope she has gone to be with you. And if you are real, please show me.”

In the weeks after that prayer, I had a strong and powerful sense of Someone being present in my life. I tried praying for lost things to turn up, and they did, with startling regularity. God now had my attention, and I started to read the Bible seriously for the first time. R.E. in the second year of Comprehensive School focussed on the Old Testament, with a module on the early part of Genesis and a clear explanation of how stories could be meaningful myths rather than historical accounts. By the time I was taking my GCSEs in science, I had decided to become a Catholic, because that seemed to me the best way to respond to the invitation of Jesus to eat his body and drink his blood. Along the way I became aware that many evangelical Christians believed the Bible to be literally true in all regards, but that the Catholic Church interpreted it in such a way that a church member was not required to take Genesis literally. Indeed, a Catholic priest had developed the mathematics behind the Big Bang theory!

Even at that age, I realised that there were two problems facing a Christian who was also a scientist. Was Genesis historically accurate? And did Jesus work miracles? The first seemed to me a non-problem. If Genesis wasn’t meant to be read that way in the first place, there was no reason not to accept the Big Bang and Darwinian Evolution as the current best explanation of why the world was as it was. It was rather satisfying when my later theological studies confirmed that it was only in the light of the 16th Century Reformation that both Protestant and Catholic Christians started trying to read Genesis that way; previously, Christians through the centuries had loved and respected the beginning of the Bible as rich symbolic stories whose main message was that the physical world was something good in itself and loved by God.

As for miracles, this seemed to need a different solution. The New Testament gives many accounts of Jesus as one with the power to heal and control nature; not only that, but he commanded his apostles to go and heal the sick and cast out demons, too. The New Testament would need a huge amount of rewriting if this were not what Jesus had really meant! Further, I had read something of the history of the Pentecostal movement and the Charismatic Renewal which came into the Catholic Church in 1966. If what the Pentecostals and Charismatics claimed was true, then God’s healing power was alive in the 20th century just as much as in the lifetime of Jesus. As a scientist, consistency appeals to me, and this was certainly consistent!

By very definition, a miracle is an act of God which contradicts what the normal working of science predicts. That could be the breaking of an absolute law, or it could be a divine tweak to ensure an outcome which was already theoretically possible, but statistically overwhelmingly unlikely. Turning water into wine would be the first kind, but the kind of nudges which would enable a tornado to assemble a junkyard into a Jumbo Jet would be the latter. My journey into faith had begun with the sense of the presence of Someone who was answering my prayers; I saw no problem in believing that this Someone had the power to suspend the usual workings of science for some higher purpose. This does leave one key problem: how does God decide who should benefit from a miracle, and which prayers will be left apparently unheeded? A God who heals sometimes is an extremely frustrating being to worship. But empirical evidence rules out the idea of a God who always grants what we ask; and a God who never heals seems inconsistent with the New Testament. My inner scientist would love to construct a theoretical model of why God might choose to grant, delay or withhold healing and compare it with the case studies available; but that would take more time than I have in parish ministry, and I might come up against the problem that God’s thinking far exceeds human rationale!

The only God worth believing in is a God consistent with the world around us. This rules out the God who always heals, but leaves enough space for the God who heals here and there; one-off events are notoriously difficult for science to examine, as experimental science presupposes the thing being examined will always follow consistent rules. It also follows that, since I live in a world where people get sick and die at tragically young ages, natural disasters strike without warning, and human beings inflict violence on one another on a depressingly regular basis, the only God worthy believing in is one who exists alongside that. I have read most of the Bible and have yet to find the passage where God promises his followers that they will always be protected from sickness, death, tragedy and violence. On the contrary, the Old Testament made God’s protection contingent on the whole nation keeping the covenant (and when did that ever happen for an extended period?) – and disciples of the New Covenant are warned they can face persecution and execution if they follow Jesus. True, some Gospel passages seem to promise that prayers will be answered positively on demand, but Jesus also gave us a parable about a persistent widow as a lesson about patience in prayer!

During the last 15 years, as a seminarian and a priest, I have interacted with many children in Catholic schools. From many conversations, a repeated pattern seems to emerge. The children were taught about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, at a tender age, an age when they implicitly trusted whatever significant adults told them. This belief in a creator God formed the bedrock of their understanding of God and the authority of the Church. As teenagers, they learn about Evolution and the Big Bang. But the childish ideas of God-the-Creator are so deep rooted that they cannot set aside a historical reading of Genesis without losing faith in God and the teaching Church. The baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.

Now, as a good scientist, this is only a conjecture. Some sociological research would be needed to test my hunch. But the longer I work in Christian ministry, the more concerned I am getting that what we teach young children sets them up for doubt and disbelief at a crucial age. Pope Francis recently commented of the danger of building on derived ideas rather than primary truths about Jesus. It seems to me crucial that what we teach our children about God must be ideas which will hold firm, while becoming more nuanced, when they are adults.

Now I’d like to focus more closely on the question of who God is. I first encountered God – not the idea of God, but the actual presence of a Someone who I identified as God – at the age of 11. Then, as I read the Gideon New Testament I received later that year, everything I read about the one Jesus called Father seemed to fit with this Someone. This was the source for my understanding of God – a few glimpses of this Someone in prayer, and the message of Jesus which filled out the picture with much more detail.

Did I expect this Someone to protect the world from all disasters? No. That wasn’t part of the package. Indeed, there is one text in the Gospel which I have never heard preached on, which is crucial in this regard – the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. Jesus refuses to give a moral cause for a physical tragedy – you can almost hear him saying the sad words, “These things just happen.”

Did I expect this Someone to intervene in the world in answer to prayers? Yes, and some years later, when I got involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, I heard many first-hand testimonies from people who had seen remarkable things.

Did this Someone match the God of the philosophers? In my teens and early twenties, I would have had my first exposure to arguments like the Five Ways of St Thomas Aquinas, the kind of arguments which say everything has a cause, except for the very first link in the chain which must be an Uncaused Cause, and that – declares the theologian with a flourish – “is what we call God”. This left me deeply unsatisfied – the Uncaused Cause, the Unmoved Mover, the Ground of All Being, seemed very abstract from the Someone whom Jesus presented as a loving Father. Nevertheless, since Scripture says that in God “we live and move and have our being”, I will take on trust that the Father is indeed the Ground of All Being and the primal origin of whatever goes along with that.

One issue which did trouble me what I became a Catholic was this. Every Sunday in church, I would recite the Creed along with my congregation, saying: “I Believe in God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth”. But what did I mean by affirming God to be the Creator?

Physics can explain a lot without needing God’s help. Physics can even account for ways in which matter can appear out of nothing. Though this sounds rather implausible, it has been borne out by experiment – if you don’t want to take my word for it, look up the term “Casimir effect”. OK, it’s still a big jump from there to suggesting that physics can explain how the whole Universe could appear out of nothing – but not so big a jump as to be unthinkable. Current research, using machines like the Large Hadron Collider – the Big Bang machine at CERN in Geneva – aims to pin down the laws of physics in extreme circumstances to see if they do allow this. Physics might be able to explain the whole Universe as a possible or even necessary consequence of mathematics.

One kind of answer says there never was a beginning, that the past extends backwards for ever. Astronomers used to think this about the Universe (the “Steady State Theory”) and the Hindu religion also imagines the universe in endlessly repeating cycles. But Einstein’s General Relativity says that time and space are two ways of looking at the same thing, so when we talk about the Universe beginning we are talking about the beginning of time, so whatever “caused” the universe is outside time. Normally a cause is the thing that happened “before” to set things off, but if there is no time, how can there be a “before”? So the kind of answer we are looking for is one which is “always” true, not always in the sense of “every minute” but always in the sense of “by its very nature, so it cannot change with time, and can hold ‘outside’ time”.

There is a repeated pattern in physics that whenever we apply maths to the universe, things which are mathematically possible are found to be physically real – the starkest example would be the prediction of antimatter before it was actually discovered, simply because square roots can be negative as well as positive! Perhaps there is only one mathematically consistent way a Universe can be. In that case, logical consistency would be sufficient reason for the Universe to exist!

What we haven’t worked out yet is whether ours is the only kind of universe that can exist, or whether there might be more than one universe. If there could be more than one kind, then why is it our kind? There are at least three possible explanations – perhaps there are many bubbles with different kinds of universe, and of course – pacé Darwin – we live in the one most fitting for us. Or perhaps, as some people believe of quantum theory, conscious observers may be required to help a quantum universe decide which way it is going to be; this forces the Universe to crystallise in a way which accommodates us. Or perhaps it’s a random accident that the Universe makes it possible for us to exist. Then we get into the “God of the gaps” territory of whether it was actually God who fine-tuned the whole Universe. I am always wary of this way of thinking because given long enough, scientists are good at coming up with sound reasons for unlikely-seeming things actually taking place.

One thing I am sure of: it is mathematically possible for the Universe to be here, otherwise we wouldn’t be. So what do I mean by calling God the Creator? The God of the Bible introduced himself to Moses as “I am the one who exists” and Jesus said “I am the Truth”. If there is a mathematical theory which explains the whole Universe, that wouldn’t do away with God – it’s a manifestation of the truth which is God, and with St John I can cheerfully agree, “through God’s Word, all things were made”. I wouldn’t want to limit God to being a statement of mathematical truth – but if the loving Someone I encountered in prayer is the ground of all Being, then I am content to acknowledge this Someone as also the embodiment of all necessary logical and mathematical truths.

The final thing I will share about myself is that I have never spontaneously asked the question: “What is the purpose of human life?” – and perhaps this is because I have grown up with a science-shaped brain which intuited that such a question is not meaningful in a scientific framework. Of course, as a teenager I had to ask myself what I planned to do with my individual life, but the fact that I enjoyed science and maths seemed a good enough reason to take a degree in physics at Oxford. Once I discovered that God was real, it became meaningful to ask in prayer: “Lord, what do you want me to do with my life?” – but God was not the answer to a question I was asking. Rather, the discovery that God was real added a layer of meaning which did not seem strictly necessary for the scientific understanding of the Universe.

Sometimes our emotional reactions to the universe lead us astray. A friend once pointed out the famous Hubble Space Telescope picture of “God’s eye” (the Helix Nebula) in a newspaper. For her, its beauty and the resemblance to a human eye suggested that God must be behind it. I find it beautiful too – but I don’t need God’s intervention to explain why it looks that way. An exploding star will ALWAYS put out a circular rim of debris with beautiful wispy dust inside, and I’ve seen plenty of other space clouds that look not unlike that one.

My faith in God exists alongside my appreciation of the universe we live in. Nothing in the beauty of nature proves to me that there’s a God – indeed, as a professional scientist, my job was to look at nature and ask, “How much of this can we explain with logic and reason alone?” Rather, my faith in God is because of the loving Someone who was there when I first prayed out of the depth of my neediness, and who I discovered had entered into History in Jesus of Nazareth: the same Jesus whose triumph over death we will celebrate this Easter. My faith in Scripture tells me that Jesus, the Word of God, was intimately involved in the making of all things that exist. My training in science allows me to marvel at how wonderfully nature takes its course to result in our beautiful world, of which Jesus Christ is Lord, yesterday, today and forever. Since Jesus said, “I am the truth”, I am content to accept that mathematical and logical truths are part of who Jesus is. I hope he explains it to me when I meet him in heaven!

Pope Benedict XVI looking down a microscope - because a believer can also explore science!

Fit for Purpose? Darwin’s Excellent and Meaningless Theory

Sermon given at St Chad’s, Shrewsbury, on the occasion of the 2015 Darwin Festival. Reading: Genesis 8:4-13.


Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is often referred to as “Survival of the Fittest”, a phrase which plants a subtle yet dangerous notion of excellence in the casual listener. A better label might be “The Survival of the Fitting” as often, species fit in to their environment in very inconspicuous ways.

Science alone gives us no reason to think that our era is special, and every reason to think that the species which exist today are simply a snapshot of forms that life could feasibly take on earth, with many life-forms no “better” or “worse” in any objective sense.

The everyday work of scientists takes place under the assumption that no sense of “meaning” or “purpose” is required to understand the natural world. Yet humans naturally yearn for a sense of direction in life. Expecting Darwin’s theory to provide this leads us down dangerous paths; at best, biology indicates what humans could be, not what we should be.

As for whether the Bible is a suitable guide, we will deal briefly with whether it is trustworthy on questions of the creation of the universe, the existence of species, and the first sin of the human race before embracing it as our natural selection for the perfection of our species!

We’ve just heard a report of a scientific experiment read straight from the pages of the Bible. Noah is, in fact, the Bible’s first recorded research scientist!

We know Noah was a scientist because – we are told – he does three things characteristic of a research scientist.

First, he adjust the details of his experiment one step at a time. He tries sending out a raven – then a dove.

Second, he repeats his experiment. At least, he can’t repeat the raven experiment because it hasn’t come back, but he can repeat the dove. In trial 1, it returns quickly. In trial 2, it returns with an olive branch. In trial 3 it corroborates the raven experiment by failing to return. In this way, Noah knows the water is drying up.

Third, Noah uses a complicated experimental set-up to test what a non-scientist would have approached by a more crude method – for instance, looking through one of the ark’s portholes!

I’ve used this story before when preaching about science and religion, but it seems especially appropriate here in the church where Charles Darwin was baptised. Like Noah, Charles Darwin sailed on a voyage of discovery. Like Noah, birds played a crucial part in the way Darwin tried to understand the world around him. In Darwin’s case, observing the bird-life of the Galapagos islands, and many other kinds of species, led him to propose a theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin’s idea is often summarised as the “survival of the fittest”. That’s a very dangerous phrase! In the English language, “fittest” implies the best, the strongest, the pinnacle of creation! What Darwin was actually describing was the survival of the most fitting. Kinds of creatures which fit best into their environment are most likely to survive. One way of fitting in is to become the strongest or smartest, but that comes with a price – big brains and thick limbs require more food energy to maintain.

Another way of fitting in is to become small enough to hide away, or excellent at camouflage. This was even the subject of a recent Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor mused about what would happen if a species evolved to perfect the art of hiding – how would we even know if it existed? The term ‘evolution’ itself has also picked up a flavour of progressing from good to better to best… what comes to mind if you try to imagine something ‘highly evolved’?

The only direction which evolution actually respects is “nearby”. A genetic mutation cannot change a lot of things at once. An organism gives rise to descendants which are similar, but perhaps not quite the same. The descendants most fitting to the environment at the time will be the most successful at surviving and breeding. There is nothing to stop evolution from ‘backtracking’ and going back to a previously used design, just as you might drive the same route to work on Monday and Wednesday even though you took a different path on Tuesday.

When we human beings analyse the abilities of an organism, we might judge a particular species to excel at doing something – but only by being the ‘best’ on some scale we choose to use. And species which excel at one thing do so at the cost of other abilities. Without mechanical aids, we human beings cannot fly, swim underwater for 90 minutes, or keep ourselves warm in an Arctic environment. Eagles, whales and polar bears might well dispute our claim to be highly evolved. And author Douglas Adams pointed out how the dolphins smile because they know they are superior to mankind, having learned how to spend all their days mucking about in the water and having a good time! Human beings, meanwhile, are marked by what we would call design flaws, if we were deliberately designed: back pain, flat feet, varicose veins and piles!

The world around us, as we know it, represents one slice in time, no more privileged than any date in the future or in the past. Natural selection will continue to cause species to change and adapt. Some, no doubt, will achieve new records on some scales, simply because the stepwise progress of evolution put that ability “nearby” to some existing genetic plan for the first time. Others will re-trace well trodden paths. When it comes to the ability to reason and use language, Homo sapiens does indeed hold the record for Planet Earth. Does that mean we will automatically increase in those abilities? If it is biologically possible to do so without needing undue food consumption, than random mutation might allow this to happen – there again, as Dawkins colourfully put it, the watchmaker is blind, so nothing is guaranteed.

When it comes to us human beings, we can no longer speak of ‘natural selection’ alone. Because our medical skills and human compassion cause us to care for sick members of our own species, and indeed our pets and our livestock, we enable less-well-fitting creatures to survive and breed, preserving gene lines which would otherwise have died out. If anything, this has a cooling effect on the rate at which humans and our companion and farm animals evolve. There again, the ability to perform deliberate genetic modifications, which will inevitably be permitted to some degree despite the protestations of religious leaders from my own and other traditions, will change the human race in ways which will ripple through future generations without limit. This has always been true of random mutation, but now Homo sapiens is personally responsible for some of these lasting changes whose consequences cannot be fully predicted.

As human beings, we have a deep-rooted tendency to seek meaning and purpose in the world around us. The ancient philosophers, following Aristotle, spoke of four causes: formal, material, efficient and final. In other words, we can understand a thing if we can answer four questions: What is it? What rules does it follow? What started it in motion? What is its purpose? Modern science makes do with three causes. We choose a thing, identify the rules it follows, and if we set it going in a certain way we can predict how its future will unfold.

Science doesn’t generally ask “What’s the purpose of this?” or “What is the final cause?”. To a scientist, this only applies to objects manufactured with a purpose in mind. Human artefacts have a final cause. Richard Dawkins has written at length about how evolution by natural selection produces “designoid” objects, which look as if they had a final cause but whose characteristics can be totally explained by the unfolding of natural selection.

Nevertheless, we do seek meaning and purpose in the world around us. As a Christian believer, I acknowledge that God has a purpose for the human race as a whole – to enter into eternal life in union with Christ – and a particular vocation, or as John Henry Newman called it, ‘some definite purpose’ to which God calls us individually. I also recognise that because God’s plan was for rational creatures to come into being, it was necessary for the natural world to be of a form which allows us to live in it. I reserve judgement on whether God intervened by overriding the rules, by loading the dice or simply by setting up a favourable set of rules; but I am not the kind of Deist who believes God wound up the clockwork and retired, because I do believe in a God who works occasional miracles in answer to prayer. I simply wish to avoid invoking God to plug any gaps in our current scientific knowledge of how the universe and life came to be, because I know that my scientific colleagues have an excellent track record in working out how seemingly-unlikely things can in fact happen profusely in the right circumstances.

I began with the story of Noah, taken from those early chapters of Genesis which contain stories of deep meaning. Way back in the third century of the Christian Era, a pagan philosopher, Celsus, poked fun at Christians and Jews because of the first books of the Bible. He accused the believers of being “silly” because they accepted the first chapters of Genesis as literal and historical. The Christian writer, Origen, in turn called Celsus “silly” because both contemporary Christians and the writers of the age when the Scriptures were composed, knew that the whole point of these writings was the symbolic meaning, not the literal one! It was only in the light of the 16th Century Reformation that both Protestant and Catholic Christians started trying to read Genesis in a more literal way. Genesis declares that God created beings ‘according to their kinds’, but we need not read this as revelation that species are fixed and cannot evolve; it is simply the way the author describes animal and plant life as it existed at the time of writing.

The Epistle to the Hebrews acknowledges that God has spoken more clearly through Christ than previously. We must therefore take seriously the words of Jesus when he appeals to Adam and Eve as the basis for the permanence of marriage; even so, we can understand that Christ was affirming the moral point, not the historicity, of the Genesis account. We must also take seriously St Paul’s assertion that the whole human race sinned in Adam; however, the claim that we all descend from an original sinner is no more or less radical than asserting that we all descend from an original mutation responsible for one or other of our human traits.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and skeptical guests here this evening, I put it to you that Darwin’s Theory – to give it its full title – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is a meaningless theory. The only illustration in Darwin's Origin of Species: a tree diagram showing branching evolutionBy that I do not mean it is poor science or badly-written English. I simply mean that it does what science does – it describes what is, and has no concept of what “should be”. It is an excellent starting point, much improved upon by our subsequent knowledge of genetics. Yet the very language we use fools us into speaking of ‘highly evolved’ creatures as if they were morally superior, or creatures with ‘defective genes’ as if they were morally lacking. Biology is amoral, but we have to keep reminding ourselves of this lest the natural use of language should seduce us. I note with interest that there is only one diagram in the Origin of Species, and it is a tree where all end points – existing species – have equal status. Why? They are equal in one crucial regard, they are alive now.

The fact that human beings have evolved to our current abilities tells us nothing about whether we will, or whether we should, continue in that direction of travel. Many science fiction authors have speculated about humans evolving to become non-corporeal creatures; my co-religionist Teilhard de Chardin speculated that creation was called to reach an ‘Omega Point’ of maximum complexity and consciousness in union with God. It would be a mistake to say that Darwinian evolution requires or even suggests these possibilities; this would be to apply a scientific hypothesis beyond the limits of its applicability.

If we wish to know what kind of eternal existence God is calling us to, or how we should live our lives on earth, we can turn to the Bible and find secure answers in the teaching of Jesus. Only the Heavenly Man can teach us the values of Heaven and how we should journey there. As for the things of earth, the story of Noah gives us reason to trust that the status of the world around us can be discerned from ravens and doves – so why not the finches and mockingbirds of the Galapagos?

Stop the Traffick!

A woman attached to strings like a puppetHomily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Trafficking happens in Cardiff today. Be vigilant!

“I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!”

With these words, the African American Solomon Northup resolved not to give up hope. This was no small task, because Solomon, born a free man in New York State, had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans. The recent movie, 12 Years a Slave, told the story of the beatings and abuse which he endured before he was finally able to mail a letter home, enabling the local sheriff to free him and return him to New York.

Today’s readings also speak of despair, slavery, and hope.

Despair, because Job’s life has collapsed around him. His flocks are destroyed, his camels stolen, his children killed and his own body plagued with boils. His friends said to him, “Curse God and die!” Job had enough faith to refuse to insult God, but – as you could hear in our First Reading – he was all gloom and doom, not seeing any prospect of hope.

Slavery, because St Paul is so driven to tell the world the message of Jesus, he declares himself willing to endure the conditions of a slave if that is what it takes.

Hope, because the Gospel shows us how Jesus is the one who can defeat fevers and evil spirits. We, the members of his body, are called to continue his work by defeating evil in all its forms. And some of that evil is closer at hand than you might think.

Slavery is alive and well in Cardiff today.

Last year, the police discovered 50 cases in Wales of people being treated as slaves. 28 children in Cardiff alone were found to be at risk. Some children were being forced to do domestic work, others to help to grow cannabis. Last January, a judge in Newport jailed a Czech man and a Romanian woman, who had tricked two Czech women into coming to Britain, then forced them to be prostitutes in Cardiff Bay. A similar thing happened to a Lithuanian woman who ended up in Blackwood, Gwent, two years earlier.

This is sad, but what’s it got to do with us?

First, we can all be vigilant. Any one of us might stumble across a situation in our local community. Some years ago, when I was still a seminarian, I made a home visit which aroused my suspicions. An Asian woman answered the door; she had very poor English but seemed to be living as wife to a British man who was out at the time. Judging by the red-top newspapers left lying around the house, the husband was a fan of Page 3. I didn’t take it any further, because nothing was clear, the woman’s English was so poor and I didn’t know what else I could do; but if I found myself in a similar situation today I would ring the national human trafficking hotline for some advice. Perhaps it was all OK, but my inner alarm bell was ringing loudly.

Second, we can raise our own awareness. For some months now, there have been green magazines in the porch about the work of the Medaille Trust. Some religious sisters from Llantarnam Abbey work with women who have been rescued from these kind of situations. But if the rescued women don’t have the legal right to be in Britain, they are only allowed 45 days’ grace before they are deported – that is not a lot of time for the mental healing required. If you are looking for something special to do for Lent this year, you might take one of those magazines, read it, and perhaps write to a politician or send a donation for their work. The Medaille Trust suggests that we might lobby MPs so that seized assets of the traffickers will be used to directly help victims. There is also information worth reading on our Bishops’ website, at the national charity Stop the Traffik, and a more local organisation, “Stop Human Trafficking Wales“.

Third, we can pray. I’ve chosen this theme today because February 8th is the feast of St Josephine Bakhita, another African who knew what it meant to be released from slavery. Our bishops ask us to keep this date as a day of special prayer for victims of human trafficking. We’ll offer some prayers in a few moments.

St Josephine was a Sudanese slave who had been kidnapped so young that she did not even know what name her parents had given her. She was bought by an Italian diplomat; she travelled with him back to Italy where she was freed, chose to be baptised as a Catholic, and sensed a call to the religious life. She was 50 years a religious sister, and was canonized for her evident holiness. Josephine is the name she took at her baptism; Bakhita, which means “fortunate”, was the name given to her by her kidnappers.

After 50 years as a happy religious sister, Josephine Bakhita suffered flashbacks during her final days. She re-lived the terrible days of her slavery and more then once she begged the nurse who assisted her: “Please, loosen the chains… they are heavy!” But at the last the Mother of God came to her aid: Her last words were “Our Lady! Our Lady!”, and she died with a smile on her lips.

At the age of 140, the Bible tells us, God blessed Job with gifts beyond those destroyed when he was tested. He came to own fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand she-donkeys; he was blessed with seven sons and three daughters, and saw his children and his children’s children up to the fourth generation.

After 12 years as a slave, Solomon Northup returned to freedom in New York, but only because a white man who hated slavery had the courage to post a letter for him. His rescue came not directly from God or our Blessed Mother, but from a human being willing to take a risk to help him. Somewhere in Cardiff, right now, there is a Solomon gritting his or her teeth and repeating constantly: “I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!”

I will always wonder if I missed the opportunity to be someone’s route to freedom, and I no longer know the address concerned. Don’t make that mistake. Solomon of Cardiff is counting on you!



Christ Our Light

Homily for the International Mass at St Philip Evans on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Celebrate Small Victories. Jesus surpasses Moses quietly!

Sometimes, we only appreciate light when we see it in contrast to the darkness.Artist's impression of light grey rings surrounding a planet

Last week, astronomers announced they had found a giant planet with more than 30 rings. How did they discover it? They measured the light from its parent star. The light dipped and rose, dipped and rose as the planet with its rings crossed the star. With some clever mathematics, the scientists worked out the pattern of rings which would explain those dips. We may never see those faint rings in all their beauty, but we know they are there because of the contrast of light and dark.

There is darkness in our own world, too. The Anglican Archbishop of Wales recently noted that the year 2014 had been “especially bleak. Ebola in Africa… the so-called Islamic State declaring war on all that seems to be decent, good and holy and executing people, in a most public and barbaric way; conflict between Israel and Palestine leading to many people being killed; the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the horrors of civil war in Syria, where the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 have been killed but has now given up even trying to count and four million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.”

Here in Wales, things are not so bleak, but we still face the grey realities of the extended credit crunch, of low wages, short hours and lack of full employment, of a health and social care service squeezed to the point where so many of us are frustrated that what it delivers is not what we had hoped for; and of everyday life where so many tasks seem to involve one step back for every two taken forward.

We are not to be left in darkness! A great light has entered our world! Tomorrow, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation, marking the day when the infant Christ was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. The prophets Simeon and Anna recognise him as God’s true messenger, and for that reason the Church celebrates tomorrow as Candlemas, with the solemn blessing of candles. Today we lit candles for the reading of the Gospel where Jesus casts out an evil spirit. As far as the people listening are concerned, he is a young rabbi, a preacher with impressive authority. But the servant of darkness recognise the true light and cries out, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”

So what kind of light for our world is the Christ we celebrate? In our first reading, we heard God’s promise that we would receive a prophet like Moses. It is interesting to see how Moses and Jesus compare…

Moses called down ten plagues on Egypt! Jesus stopped James and John from calling down fire on Samaria.

Moses parted the sea – thousands of Israelites were saved, and thousands of Egyptians were drowned. Jesus calmed a storm for the sake of a dozen troubled disciples.

Moses presented the whole Israelite nation with manna from heaven six days a week for forty years. Jesus fed two crowds of 5000 and 4000 with bread and fish.

Moses went up a mountain and received ten Commandments. Jesus sat on a mountain and proclaimed eight Beatitudes.

Under Moses, Israel was led for 40 years by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Over Jesus, the voice of the Father was heard twice, at his Baptism and again on the Mountain of Transfiguration.

Compared to Moses, I can’t help feeling that Jesus performed God’s work on a rather smaller stage. Indeed, we know that Jesus was tempted to perform public spectacles. Turn stones into bread? Have angels catch him as he stage-dived from the parapet of the Temple? He could have done both, but it wasn’t what he was about.

Jesus shows us what it is to be truly human. Few of us will be called to the dizzy heights of leading a nation in exile. All of us will feel angry, fearful or hungry at times. So although what Jesus does is less impressive on the world stage, it’s much more important for our daily lives. We are assured of God’s forgiveness, God’s comfort and God’s guidance in the trials which we all face.

St Mark gives us today’s story of Jesus casting out a demon because he wants us to know that Jesus has power to overcome evil and darkness. We, too , face a struggle with temptation – not in the form of a screaming demon, but of that small selfish voice inside of us which suggests we should put our own needs first.

We can win many small victories every day. We can choose to smile when an ageing parent rings us for the fourteenth time this week. We can get on with the laundry and the cleaning as a labour of love. We can pick up the phone and call a friend who is in need. We can do the tasks that need doing with good grace; and when something good happens beyond our control, we can rejA posse of angels on one shoulder prepare to overpower the demon on the otheroice and give thanks to God.

St Paul offered as some advice today on marriage – which basically boils down to ‘don’t get married!’. But if you read one of the verses just before today’s passage, Paul does say he is only giving his own personal advice, not God’s commands; and bear in mind that St Paul is an unmarried man who has had a radical conversion experience and become a travelling missionary relentlessly wearing down his shoe leather across the eastern Mediterranean!

Marriage always requires daily compromises. Sometimes this means that a partner has to make a permanent sacrifice – setting aside their own pet way of doing something, their daydream of how it SHOULD be…and never drawing attention to the matter again. In marriage, as in daily life, it is the small victories which matter.

Here in this parish, we may not have much power to solve global problems. We can pray for peace in the Middle East, we can send some money to CAFOD, and we can lobby our politicians… but there is something that we can do. The small things are important. Among our community are some who have relatives in the troubled parts of the world, and not a few who have fled war zones as refugees. When we offer such a person the small courtesies of daily life, a helping hand with seemingly trivial matters, we bring a flicker of the light of Christ to a soul conscious of great darkness. To us, such a small victory may be as inconsequential as the momentary dimming of the light of a star – but set against the darkness, these little lights, these small gestures, add up to something even brighter than the beautiful rings of a planet!

It is Jesus, not Moses, who shows us the path. Curb your anger, however frustrated you get. Be a peacemaker in troubled times. Give freely of what you have to those in need. Live out the eight Beatitudes. Live as a true child of God-the-Father. Live a life marked not by mighty spectacles, but by small victories which bring light to the lives of many. Listen to your better nature, not the inner voice of selfishness, and you will be victorious – with victories so small that only God and yourself are aware of the inner battle which have taken place. Then you too will be greater than Moses, and the light of Christ will shine in the world through you!