Saturday, 30 March 2013

Hope or nothing?

On Wednesday evening, when Sir Terry Pratchett was yet again "Facing extinction" on the BBC, I chose to read a remarkable book we'd been lent by a medical student (via her mother), called Proof of Heaven. It's written by Dr Eben Alexander, an eminent American neurosurgeon. He inexplicably contracted the vanishingly rare e coli meningitis, which rendered his neocortex effectively "dead" and sent him into deep coma from which his colleagues expected him never to emerge. Clearly he did emerge and live to tell the tale, and his story is remarkable. As a neurosurgeon he knows what he is talking about when it comes to brain function and he has seen patients in all states of consciousness. He describes himself as having been a convinced scientific sceptic about all things spiritual. However what he experienced in his coma and what he describes with as much scientific objectivity as possible completely changed his mind.

I have certainly read accounts before of near death events (NDEs), which frankly I found anecdotal and somewhat fanciful. I have heard one person talking about experiencing heaven, to whom I was inclined to give some credence in the light of the impact it made on her life, though I suppose some people might describe her as "flakey". However, I basically held the sort of view that this man of science had before his coma: "I doubted their veracity, mainly because I had not experienced them at a deep level, and because they could not be readily explained by my simplistic scientific view of the world.
"Like many other scientific skeptics, I refused to even review the data relevant to the questions concerning these phenomena. I prejudged the data, and those providing it, because my limited perspective failed to provide the foggiest notion of how such things might actually happen. Those who assert that there is no evidence for phenomena of extended consciousness in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are wilfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts" (p.153).

Well, in his fairly unique sort of coma (with the entire neocortex not functioning) he experienced what he could only afterwards conclude was an experience of consciousness completely independent of the brain. What's more, this experience was extremely vivid and detailed, but has none of the naïveté and self-referential aspects of other NDE survivors' accounts whose comas have been less complete. He gives an astonishingly objective account of the experience, in terms which make sense to the modern mindset, for example about the huge number of dimensions and the ability to comprehend without words. It does of course present him with a problem when he tries to describe the indescribable in language! However having made it his first priority after his medically improbable recovery to note down his memories as fully as possible, he gave himself the data to provide a coherent account. He experiences three regions or states, the muddy darkness of "the Realm of the Earthworm's View", the green brilliance of "the Gateway" and the black but holy darkness of "the Core".

At one point, he concludes, "love is, without doubt, the basis of everything. Not some abstract, hard-to-fathom kind of love but the day-to-day kind that everyone knows - the kind of love we feel when we look at our spouse and our children, or even our animals. In its purest and most powerful form, this love is not jealous or selfish, but unconditional. This is the reality of realities, the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or that ever will exist, and no remotely accurate understanding of who and what we are can be achieved by anyone who does not know it, and embody it in all of their actions.

"Not much of a scientific insight? Well, I beg to differ. I'm back from that place, and nothing could convince me (otherwise than) that this is not only the single most important emotional truth in the universe, but also the single most important scientific truth as well....

"It is my belief that we are now facing a crucial time in our existence. We need to recover more of that larger knowledge while living here on earth, while our brains (including the left-side analytical parts) are fully functioning. Science - the science to which I've devoted so much of my life - doesn't contradict what I learned up there. But far, far too many people believe it does, because certain members of the scientific community, who are pledged to the materialist worldview, have insisted again and again that science and spirituality cannot coexist.

"They are mistaken...." (pp. 71-73).

I can't help being struck by the contrast of the different views of reality and, therefore, meaning presented by Eben Alexander and Terry Pratchett. Strangely Alexander's seems to me to invest the present with the greater significance - it is part of a greater reality. What you see is not all you get. And the certainty that "love, unconditional love, is the basis of everything" invests existence with an unparalleled luminosity.

At this point this week it is good to have a scientist's testimony that we do not all face extinction when our brains finally pack up, but that our souls, our essential selves, will survive. As St Paul said, "If in Christ we have hope for this life only, we are of all people to be pitied. But in fact...."

PS Dear BBC, How about giving some air time to Dr Alexander's hope, instead of the diet of gloom you seem so fond of? And before you dismiss the idea, do you dare read the book with an open mind, right to the end, where the final evidential proof comes? It's available on Amazon and Kindle.

PPS Eben Alexander's version of what he experienced will not please a lot of Christians or people of other faiths, as he is not propagating a party line. He is simply trying to describe his experience and understand it in his terms. I think it's worth reading because of who he is and the profound impact his experience made on him - and because it brings the possibility of hope nearer. For me, nonetheless, the final and best proof of life after death remains what we celebrate tonight and tomorrow. "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep."

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Pope and the paper-seller

I really liked this story about the Pope and the newspaper seller - which I've just lifted wholesale from The Catholic Newsagency

Pope calls Argentine kiosk owner to cancel paper delivery
A man in Rome holds a newspaper with Pope Francis' picture on it March 14, 2013, the day after the Holy Father was elected. Credit: Mazur/
.- Pope Francis surprised the owner of a kiosk in Buenos Aires with a telephone call to send his greetings and explain that he will no longer need a morning paper delivered each day.
Around 1:30 p.m. local time on March 18, Daniel Del Regno, the kiosk owner’s son, answered the phone and heard a voice say, “Hi Daniel, it’s Cardinal Jorge.”
He thought that maybe a friend who knew that the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires bought the newspaper from them every day was pulling a prank on him.
“Seriously, it’s Jorge Bergoglio, I’m calling you from Rome,” the Pope insisted.
“I was in shock, I broke down in tears and didn’t know what to say,” Del Regno told the Argentinean daily La Nacion. “He thanked me for delivering the paper all this time and sent best wishes to my family.”
Del Regno shared that when Cardinal Bergoglio left for Rome for the conclave, he asked him if he thought he would be elected Pope. 
“He answered me, ‘That is too hot to touch. See you in 20 days, keep delivering the paper.’ And the rest is, well, history,” he said.
“I told him to take care and that I would miss him,” Del Regno continued. “I asked him if there would ever be the chance to see him here again. He said that for the time being that would be very difficult, but that he would always be with us.”
Before hanging up the phone, he added, the Pope asked him for his prayers.
Daniel’s father, Luis Del Regno, said they delivered the paper to the former cardinal’s residence every day.
On Sundays, he said, the cardinal “would come by the kiosk at 5:30 a.m. and buy La Nacion. He would chat with us for a few minutes and then take the bus to Lugano, where he would serve mate (tea) to young people and the sick.”
Among the “thousands of anecdotes” the elder Del Regno remembers is one involving the rubber bands that he put around the newspapers to keep them from being blown away when they were delivered to the cardinal.
“At the end of the month, he always brought them back to me. All 30 of them!” 
He said he gets goose bumps whenever he thinks about Pope Francis’ simplicity.
“In June he baptized my grandson, it was an amazing feeling,” Del Regno said. “I know what he’s like. He’s one of a kind.”

There's a speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar where Brutus describes the way of the ambitious in the world. 
"But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend." 
I must say Pope Francis seems the diametric opposite of what Brutus feared in Caesar. He displays the utterly unfashion-able virtue of humility - which, in the Church's year, we shall see exemplified on Thursday, the night on which Jesus washed his disciples' feet, much to their embarrassment. The service where that is remembered and reenacted was always one of my favourite times.  
As I've said elsewhere I think that the Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury are both good news for their Churches. See Religion's premature obituary. The signs are good.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Following St Francis

I'm often grateful that I was encouraged to study Classics at school. It was certainly useful when it came to teaching English literature and of course later to reading New Testament Greek. But I got a slightly ignoble enjoyment from telling Jane yesterday the papal name that Cardinal Bergoglio had chosen before the Sky News boffins had worked it out. Mea culpa! 

Mary Kennedy, a nice Scottish Facebook friend, had written about the seagull on the now famous temporary Sistine Chapel chimney, and so I tuned in yesterday afternoon, while working on an article, to the Vatican "chimney cam". It was just the right balance between the diverting and uneventful having the picture alongside the document. Then at about 6 o'clock I noticed a trickle of smoke, which soon billowed white over the roof. Time to turn on Sky News.
It was simple but effective theatre. Getting on for an hour later came the announcement in Latin:
"Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam. Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio. Qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum." 
"I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope. The most eminent and reverend Lord, the Lord Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Who has given himself the name Francis." The commentators told us that Cardinal Bergoglio had been Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina. When he appeared, I thought he looked a nice friendly chap. 

In the course of commentary later it sounds as though appearances weren't deceiving. He's known for his unostentatious lifestyle, using the bus, living in a flat not a palace, cooking for himself - and, most importantly, being on the side of the poor. He's known in the slums of Buenos Aires, for example, for his concern for Aids' victims. Mary also put a link to the new Pope's Lenten letter which I liked. Near the end he said, "This year of faith we are traversing is also an opportunity God gives us to grow and to mature in an encounter with the Lord made visible in the suffering face of so many children without a future, in the trembling hands of the elders who have been forgotten and in the trembling knees of so many families who continue to face life without finding anyone who will assist them."

Not least significant is the name he's chosen. Popularly known as the first ecological saint, Francis of Assisi's real passion was for sharing the love of God with all his creatures, especially with the marginalised such as lepers and the poor, despite his merchant father's protests. "Following the Gospel literally, Francis and his companions went out to preach two by two. At first, listeners were understandably hostile to these men in rags trying to talk about God's love. People even ran from them for fear they'd catch this strange madness! And they were right. Because soon these same people noticed that these barefoot beggars wearing sacks seemed filled with constant joy. They celebrated life. And people had to ask themselves: Could one own nothing and be happy? Soon those who had met them with mud and rocks, greeted them with bells and smiles" (Catholic Online Encyclopedia). I like the prospect of this radical a Pope.

No doubt he is in for the muds and rocks of diverse critics. Indeed I've already seen hints of it in the British media. He dared as an Argentine Archbishop to have a view about our Falkland Islands, for goodness sake! However next week both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches will have new spiritual leaders installed - both of whom appear to have "a bias to the poor". Perhaps the Spirit of God is saying something to Christians and to the world, about his priorities. 

Monday, 11 March 2013

Keeping religion out of politics

It's commonly claimed that religion should be kept strictly private. There's a long tradition of that view stretching in this country at least back to Thomas à Becket whom Henry II famously called "a low-born cleric" or a "turbulent priest", because he would not put the King's interests above divine ordinance, leading to his assassination in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. In more recent times it was echoed by the Thatcher government when Robert Runcie prayed both for British and Argentine casualties after the Falklands' conflict and then put his name to the 1985 Faith in the City report (a government "source" rubbishing it before publication as Marxist propaganda). It was particularly puzzling and galling that former Scot's Guard and Military Cross winner, favoured Tory choice for the archbishopric, should be so turbulent as to suggest that the individualistic policies of the government might have contributed to poverty in the cities of Britain. And of course Rowan Williams got up the nose of successive governments, including Mr Blair's, with his rigorous questioning. And now David Cameron must be having similar thoughts to Margaret Thatcher concerning Old Etonian, Justin Welby. Of all people, the former oil executive, "within a month", questioning how benefit cuts would affect the poorest children - what is it about the post of Archbishop that suddenly turns sound men into bleeding-heart liberals? Certainly arch-conservative columnist, Melanie Phillips, who sometimes talks good sense, is at a loss to explain it and can only vent her spleen on such meddlesome men.

Strangely enough I heard her on The Moral Maze last week maintaining, I think, that belief in God was needed to underpin ethical behaviour; I recall her mentioning "conscience". It might occur to her that the way we treat the vulnerable, such as children, in our society is, or should be, a matter of conscience. I guess it certainly is for Justin Welby and his 44 merry colleagues. It seems to me that they are doing no more than their Christian conscience demands, as paralleled in the early equivalent of a welfare state. "They only asked us to remember the poor - the very thing I was eager to do." In this case, the Children's Society, because it is that admirable charity which has, I suspect, enlisted the bishops' and other church leaders' support, is asking for the welfare uprating bill to be amended in the House of Lords next week in order to protect children in particular from the ravages of inflation, which the financially robust are able to ride. The letter written by the bishops and published by the Sunday Telegraph seems to me a justifiable request to a still well-off government to remember the poor. And it seems to me that faith without a public conscience is dead. So I am glad that the new Archbishop has already indicated his intention to follow Jesus in being "on the side of the poor" and powerless.

Having said that let me add a postscript concerning the plight of politicians. It is all too easy and all too frequently done to indulge in government-bashing. After all the High Court of Parliament is adversarial, and it is right that governments be held to account. However on Saturday I was talking to someone who has had the closest contact with the highest ranks of government, and he said that ministers have an impossible job; their days are filled with meetings and briefings from civil servants and advisers. They really have no time for quiet reflection about the big issues. Once in power they hardly have time to think. The implication of what he said, I take it, was, "Have some sympathy for these people. They're trying their hardest with impossible jobs."

On Saturday, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who's not a politician I readily warm to, gave a speech looking to the next General Election. It was mischievously cast by the media as a leadership salvo. For me, more interesting because I suspect more genuine, was what she said at the outset: "It’s often said that politics is about public service, and of course it is. But to me, it’s about much more than that. Politics is a passion. A passion to make a difference. To change lives for the better. To stand up for people who work hard and want to get on in life. To help people to help themselves and their families. To help those in genuine need." I do appreciate that there's a bit of coding about strivers and skivers in those last phrases. Nevertheless the phrase "a passion to make a difference" does, I reckon, reflect the initial and fundamental motivation of the majority of those who enter the risky front line of politics, with its minefield of corrupting power. I guess that's why St Paul urged, "Pray every way you know how,... especially for those in power to govern well".