Book review no. 1: Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, by John Polkinghorne

It’s a shame that I hadn’t heard of John Polkinghorne until I listened to a podcast in which Bishop Robert Barron recommended this book. Polkinghorne is a scientist and an Anglican theologian, which puts him in a unique position to discuss how religion and science interact with one another.

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Polkinghorne’s main argument is that science and religion are complementary to one another because each are seeking to understand what is real. Neither has a monopoly on knowledge, for neither seeks to understand everything. Science seeks to understand natural phenomenon, and theology seeks to understand the nature of God. The best scientists and theologians are those who search out their respective subjects with humility, and acknowledge the limits of what they can understand.

While Polkinghorne discusses a variety of issues relating to the interaction between science and religion, he is at his best when taking on the supposed enmity between the two. He quickly dispels with the notion that science deals with facts and religion with personal beliefs. As for science, Polkinghorne asserts that “there are no scientifically interesting facts that are not already interpreted facts.” Experimental “fact” and theoretical “opinion” interact in a “subtle circularity.” As for religion, he points out that religious belief can only be helpful when it is true. Polkinghorne is very critical of those who use theological arguments to explain gaps in scientific knowledge; that gap can very well be closed by a rational scientific theory, leaving the theologian’s words flying in the wind. Nevertheless, given his strong belief in the unity of knowledge, he sees no reason why scientific truth can not live side by side with the poetic discourse of theology.

An example of Polkinghorne’s clearing the air between science and religion is when he takes on the myth that religious people opposed Darwin’s ideas on evolution, characterizing it as “simply historically false.” He points out how Darwin’s ideas were increasingly accepted in Christian circles as time passed. For example,

Darwin’s clergyman friend, the novelist Charles Kingsley, coined a phrase that succintly sums up the illuminating theological way in which to think about the scientific fact of evolution. Kingsley said that no doubt God could have brought into being a ready-made world, but Darwin had shown us that the Creator had done something cleverer than that, in bringing into being a world so endowed with fertility that creatures could be allowed to explore and bring to birth its possibilities, in a process in which they ‘made themselves.” (pg. 30)

Meanwhile, many scientists contemporary to Darwin never accepted his ideas, primarily because they could not see how small differences between successive generations would occur. That problem, however, was solved a few years after On the Origin of Species was published by Gregor Mendel, who was, by the way, an Austrian monk.

Don’t be misled by the small size of this book. It may only be 160 pages, but Polkinghorne’s prose is clear, concise, and precise. Whatever perspective one may have on how science relates to religion, I strongly recommend reading this engaging and provacative book.

 

So much for the Vatican bump: Clinton pummels Sanders in the New York primary

Earlier this week, Bernie Sanders got pummelled by Hillary Clinton in the New York Democratic primary by 16 points. Notwithstanding voting irregularities in New York City, such a disparity was no mean feat. Which leads me to ask a question: why on earth did Sanders think that visiting the Vatican less than a week before the primary was a good idea?

Politico published a relatively decent article that provides a post-mortem of Sander’s disappointing results in the state:

In New York, Sanders finally hit the wall, his winning streak halted by a daily pummeling that forced him on the defensive and stopped his momentum cold. The tabloids dealt him punishing hit after punishing hit. The Democratic establishment, most of it in Hillary Clinton’s camp, piled on harder than the Sanders campaign expected. Caught up in one distraction after another — a quarrel over debate details, a back and forth with Clinton over her qualifications, a trip to the Vatican in the run-up to the election — Sanders never gained his footing or even came close to pulling off the upset victory he once predicted with frequency.

Within this context, Sanders’ trip to the Vatican effectively destroyed whatever momentum he may have built up that would have been necessary for him to compete with Clinton in the state. And for what? It looks to have been no more than a Quixotic quest for an elusive endorsement of vague value:

The decision to leave the campaign trail late Thursday and head to a Vatican City conference was his own — even some of his top aides were unaware it was in the works until he told them. Some local allies were caught entirely unaware. Few developments from Sanders’ trip reached a New York audience on Friday, and the big moment didn’t come until the wee hours of Saturday night East Coast time, when most voters were asleep. By the time they were awake, Pope Francis had weighed in, simply calling the meeting a “common courtesy.”

Hopefully, Francis’s earlier broohaha with Trump cooled whatever intentions he may have had of getting involved in the US’s elections in any way.

Here’s hoping that Sanders’ debacle leads to the lesson that the Vatican is not alongside the road to the White House.

 

Venezuela is following the Mugabe model

The Economist published an important article highlighting the similarities between Venezuela’s current economic crisis and what Zimbabwe’s went through 15 years ago. In fact, the similarity can be displayed in one picture:

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Fortunately, the anonymous reporter was in Zimbabwe during its hyperinflationary period in the 2000s. He cuts through their cultural differences between the two countries and gets to the root of the problem:

Might Venezuela go the way of Zimbabwe? They are culturally very different, but the political parallels are ominous. Both countries have suffered under charismatic revolutionary leaders. Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. Hugo Chávez ran Venezuela from 1998 until his death in 2013. His handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, continues his policies, though with none of Chávez’s—or Mr Mugabe’s—political adroitness.

Mr Mugabe seized big commercial farms without compensation, wrecking Zimbabwe’s largest industry. Chávez expropriated businesses on a whim, sometimes on live television. He sacked 20,000 workers from the state oil firm, PDVSA, and replaced them with 100,000 often incompetent loyalists, some of whom were set to work stitching revolutionary T-shirts.

…Yet the key similarity between the two regimes is not their thuggishness but their economic ineptitude. Both believe that market forces can be bossed around like soldiers on parade. In both cases, the results are similar: shortages, inflation and tumbling living standards.

Mr Mugabe, who like the chavistas professes great concern for the poor, fixed the prices of several staple goods in the early 2000s to make them “affordable”. They promptly vanished from the shelves. The subsidies that are supposed to make price controls work have often been stolen in both countries. Suppliers, rather than giving goods away at the official price, prefer to sell them on the black market.

He also provides illuminating stories of the effects of Maduro’s insane policies on the lives of ordinary Venezuelans.

To learn more about the pernicious effects of inflationary monetary policies on display in Zimbabwe and Venezuela, I strongly recommend When Money Destroys Nations by Philip Haslam.

Sanders’s misunderstanding of Rerum Novarum

Reuters reports that in his speech to a Vatican conference on social justice, Bernie Sanders “decried the ‘immoral’ gap between the world’s haves and have nots, saying it was worse today than more than a century ago.”

Sanders noted that the Roman Catholic Church’s first encyclical on social justice, written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, lamented the enormous gap between the rich and the poor.

“And let us be clear. That situation is worse today. In the year 2016, the top 1 percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent,” the Democratic contender said.

“At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable,” he said.

Notwithstanding Sanders’s tired tirade against inequality, if he actually read a little bit of the document he referring to, he would quickly realize that the approach the encylical takes is nothing close to Sanders’s.

Pope Leo XIII indeed begins Rerum Novarum, the encylical Sanders is referring to, decrying the gap in both income and power between employers and workers:

3. .. [B]y degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.

And yet Leo XIII considers socialist solutions as hurting the very people they presumably wish to help!

4. To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. [My emphases]

In fact, Leo XIII goes so far as to say that socialism “is manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.” Further, inequality among people is a simple fact of life:

17. It must be first of all recognized that the condition of things inherent in human affairs must be borne with, for it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level. Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such inequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition. [My emphases]

Leo XIII wanted workers and capitalists to recognize that they need each other and act accordingly:

19. The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvelous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice. [My emphasis]

Leo XIII then goes into a great deal of detail discussing the respective roles of the rich, the working class, and the Church, but I have made my point. Sanders has constantly villified the rich, presumably to benefit workers. Leo XII’s perspective was completely different. He sought the natural harmony that can exist between labor and capital. If Sanders had any inkling of what Rerum Novarum actually said, one would hope he would have been much more hesitant to use it to support his divisive claims.

Los Angeles unions want to be exempt from the minimum wage they pushed for

The LA Times reports that the Los Angeles City Council is considering a proposal to exempt unions for the city’s minimum wage law. If the proposal passed, union workers would eventually receive that wage due to the state law recently signed by Governor Brown. However, it is remarkable, to say the least, that those who fought to impose a law on others want to be exempt from it themselves.

h/t economicpolicyjournal.com

 

Everyone believes in miracles

The only difference is where people look for them.

Labor activists pining to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour believe that such a law would miraculously improve the lives of the working poor, notwithstanding the cool, hard logic of economics.

Keynesian economists believe that increased government spending will miraculously lead to an improved economy, even though money came from somewhere else.

Many New Atheists believe that the scientific method is the one, true way to explain reality, even though the manner in which this conclusion is reached is anything but scientific.

With this in mind, I ask one, simple question: in these pictures, where is the beam of light coming from?

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These pictures were taken on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 3rd, in Greenville, South Carolina. Father Dwight Longenecker notes that it was a perfectly clear and sunny day.

Perhaps there is a scientific explanation for what happened. And yet, as Father Longenecker remarks, the Catholic church teaches that a supernatural explanation should not be ruled out.

Over the past few years, I’ve become quite attached to the Divine Mercy devotion, which Sister Maria Faustina received in the 1930s through extraordinary revelations from Jesus Christ himself. Visit www.thedivinemercy.org to learn more about its message.

Do Not Be Discouraged

When you fail to measure up to your Christian privilege be not discouraged, for discouragement is a form of pride. The reason you are sad is because you looked to yourself and not to God; to your failing, not to His love. You will shake off your faults more readily when you love God than when you criticize yourself.

You have always the right to love Him in your heart, even though you do not love Him in your acts. Do not fear God, for perfect love cast out fear. God is biased in your favor! God is more lenient than you because He is perfectly good and, therefore, loves you more. Be bold enough then to know that God is on your side even when you forget to be on His. – Fulton Sheen.

h/t Air Maria

Confusion over the Sanders going to the Vatican story

The original title of the New York Times article that I linked in my earlier post was “Bernie Sanders Accepts Pope Francis’s Invitation to Travel to the Vatican”. The article title now reads “Bernie Sanders to Travel to Papal Conference in Rome”.

Now why would the Times make an adjustment like that, the blogger innocently asks?

First, as the original title implied, it was believed that not only had Pope Francis personally invited Sanders to the conference, but that the Senator was going to meet personally with the Pontiff. Because those who write article titles are not the same people who write the article itself, I’m willing to let that claim go as a simple misunderstanding.

Second, it was initially believed that Sanders is going to the Vatican at its invitation. According to Politico, Sanders had the following exchange on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show:

“How did this come about?” co-host Mika Brzezinski said of the invitation.

“It was an invitation from the Vatican,” Sanders replied.

“That’s kind of impressive,” Brzezinski said.

“It is,” Sanders replied.

“I am a big, big fan of the pope,” he continued. “Obviously, there are areas where we disagree, on like women’s rights or gay rights, but he has played an unbelievable role — an unbelievable role — of injecting the moral consequence into the economy.”

There are two problems with this. First, Politico reports that Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, an autonomous institution that receives some funding from the Holy See but is not officially part of it, made the invitation to Sanders. Second, there is confusion as to who reached out to whom for Sanders to participate in the conference. Margaret Archer, president of the academy, told Bloomberg that “Sanders made the first move, for the obvious reasons”. Both the Sanders campaign and Bishop Sorondo insist that the Vatican invited Sanders to the conference, although the Bloomberg report notes that the Bishop “repeatedly declined to say who initiated the contact.”

 

 

Pope Francis publishes Amoris Laetitia, and Bernie Sanders to visit the Vatican before the New York primary

There are two big Vatican-related news items today.

First, Pope Francis published today his apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia. Given the US media’s combined cluelessness of Catholic doctrine and tendency to discuss religious matters within the narrow spectrum of American liberal politics, there’s no reason to react to any of their stories. I haven’t had a chance to read it myself, so I’ll hold off on providing my thoughts until I have. Given that the pdf is over 250 pages, that may take a while. Meantime, I’ll share some initial judicious thoughts from canon lawyer Edward Peters here.

Second, yet receiving far less coverage than the exhortation thus far, the New York Times reports that Bernie Sanders has accepted an invitiation to attend a Vatican conference on social, economic and environmental issues. It is not yet clear whether Sanders will be meeting Pope Francis when he’s there. However, the timing of Sanders visiting the Vatican days before the New York primary on April 19th is, well, let’s keep it as interesting, shall we?

This story raises a whole host of questions. For now, I’ll just focus on one: why would the Vatican invite a nominee for President of the United States to an academic conference just days before a significant primary election? This action looks like the Vatican is implicitly endorsing Sanders to be the next US President.

The Vatican’s involvement in American politics, however indirectly, can be very damaging to it and American Catholics. Perhaps there is more to the story. I hope so. I’ll keep monitoring it and post developments as they come.