Sermon for Ash Wednesday

posted by Kaihsu Tai on February 17th, 2010

Ash Wednesday sermon at the chapel of Mansfield College, Oxford, based on two earlier blog posts: ‘What keeps me awake at night’ and ‘Brecht’s Galileo, or, Against Macho Science’.

Luke 15:11–32 (Prodigal Son).

May I speak in the name of God: Creator, Christ, and Comforter. Amen.

A few years ago, I went to the National Theatre in London, to see Bertolt Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo, in a version by David Hare. With 20th-century hindsight, the German playwright Brecht retold the life-story of the 17th-century scientist Galileo Galilei. Today, on this Ash Wednesday, I want to talk about the nature and motivation of scientific pursuit: this play happens to provide some hooks for my thinking. So, at the risk of substituting a theatre review in the place of a sermon, here I go.

If you recall, Galileo championed the theory of Copernicus that the Earth orbits the Sun. The Church forced him to recant this view. The famous British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking says, ‘Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science.’ Is this modern science a good thing in the round? Was the Church right to slow Galileo down after all? Galileo’s 17th-century contemporaries did not have the benefit of hindsight and retrospection: They were riding the wave of the Renaissance, pregnant with the prospect of rationalism’s triumph in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But now, a few decades after Brecht, no one in our times can be so sure of the liberating promises of rational progress anymore. It appears we are about to destroy many of the existing species in our biosphere, and make life more difficult for most of our own species, through man-made climate change. We may soon run out of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels, leaving a large fraction of us too unskilled to cope with fuel poverty.

The longest-living legacy of the human species is likely to be our radioactive waste. It would be good if a few pieces of paper in the desert and some stone carvings survive this. But that looks unlikely; even if that is the case, those that survive would be the so-called ‘atomic-heritage’ manuals, teaching those to come how to safely manage the radioactivity. (Yes, some scientists are actually planning for this.) This is not the worst case scenario actually. But these manuals are not as interesting as the works of Dante Alighieri, depicted in one of the chapel windows.

There are two survival strategies open to us, the Homo sapiens species. The first is advocated by the so-called transhumanist extropians. These are people trying to live in gated communities, walled countries, with large arsenals of arms to keep everybody else out. These are people trying to preserve their bodily selves – or rather, their (near-)dead bodies – in cryogenic suites. (But who is going to keep them plugged in and frozen when our energy runs out?) These are people planning to colonize the Moon and Mars. This is rationalist thought, carried to its logical conclusion.

The second strategy is that of (what we now call) ‘the poor’ and the ‘hippies’. These are resourceful people who are self-sufficient and resilient, who have not been too-absorbed into the globalized monetary economy. They are of all sorts, and more likely to emerge from (what we now call) the global South. ‘All sorts’ are the keywords here: ‘all sorts’.

Let me return to Brecht’s depiction of the dynamics between Galileo the scientist and the Church of his times. The conventional, rationalist wisdom blames the Church for trying to limit the progress of science, and counts it fortunate (or, inevitable) that reason’s march cannot be halted, if paused by the ‘martyrdom’ of Copernicus and the forced recantation of Galileo. ‘Traitor of science!’ they cry, against Galileo.

Brecht, a socialist, cannot bring himself to totally demolish this rationalistic paradigm upfront, but he still questions it as any thinking person in the 20th century has to. The present production at the National Theatre had images from the Visible Earth project for the backdrop, but equally appropriate, if anachronistic and less subtle, there could have been a mushroom cloud, an utterly disappointing scene for gung-ho believers of absolute rationalism.

Following Brecht, I would also not go so far as to say that the Church had it right all along, but rationalism and blind progress certainly did not have it right all along. No, the Church definitely cannot smugly say ‘I told you so’. Perhaps the Church did not express herself in quite the right way? Can we, both as Christians and as scientists, learn from history?

‘What are we for?’, Brecht’s Galileo asks: Are we scientists to be ‘inventive dwarfs for hire’, working for the highest bidder? Or can we have ‘science in the service of humanity’ (as often attributed to Marie Curie)? ‘human-scale science’? Is it possible for the scientist to work, not for fame or profit, not even for the gratification of gratuitous ‘curiosity’, ‘Reason’ with a capital ‘R’, or ‘science for science’s sake’; but as a bird makes a nest, as a tree bears fruit, as a beaver builds a dam, as bees make honey? Or is this one of the human activities where it bound to be more complicated than that? Is it asking too much? or indeed, too little?

What I am trying to ask is: whether the scientific pursuit can be without the alienation of labour, as in the Marxian analysis – after Karl Marx; equally in the Christian sense, can it be a vocation. That is to say, can a scientist say nowadays: I am doing this neither for greed nor for fear? The Prodigal Son, in our reading this evening, was first bound … spellbound by greed for the imminent inheritance; then bound by the threat of poverty; before finally finding his home again, where he started. Can a scientist say: this my scientific pursuit is where my deepest joy meets the world’s deepest need: this is truly my calling?

These questions are even more poignant nowadays. Giles Fraser, a radical Christian cleric from St Paul’s Cathedral in London, wrote in the Church Times last month: ‘As modern science is so extremely expensive to conduct, often even too expensive for governments, it becomes something done by pharmaceutical companies and those manufacturing weapons. These days, it is in places such as these that most scientists work, and not in universities. This means that science is now done mostly by big business and to make money.’ Some present in this chapel know well that even the research and teaching done in universities are now driven by the profit motive, by the drive for commercialization, by the requirements of UK plc, rather than driven by curiosity and education.

[Story about freshers’ first physics tutorial in Oxford – ad lib.]

I ask again: Can we, both as Christians and as scientists, learn from history? Almost ten years into the new century, I am still trying to understand the last one. (Can one speak of ‘coming to terms’ with the 20th century?) It is as if humanity, or at least a large part of it, after learning how to read, write, and take the square root, has now graduated from school and reached adolescence. This young man (allow me to be gender specific here, which is not entirely inaccurate) – this young man, he then proceeds to squander the inheritance which his parents and ancestors stored up, all in a very short time, spending it in a self-destructive way, however instantly gratifying.

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps, one day he will find himself down with the pigs and suddenly change his mind (μετάνοια) – change his mind – repent. I just hope it won’t be too late to go back to his dad. What would his brother, living in the South, out in the farm, say? ‘Dad, I have always worked for you, but you never cooked a little young goat for me. This chap, he spent all his money at the brothel, but now you give him all this bling-bling and throw a big party for him!’ Me – after thinking this through, I now know slightly better how the Prodigal Son will feel, upon hearing this.

If you remember the two strategies open to our species I mentioned earlier: which one are we to choose? Bob Marley sings in his song ‘So much trouble in the world’: ♪ ‘You see men sailing on their ego trips | Blast off on their space ship | Million miles from reality | No care for you, no care for me.’ ♫ Prodigal endeavours, such as space exploration, only become a legitimate exercise once we learn how to live sustainably, within the bounds of a planet. Rather than engineering ourselves to get out of this planet post-haste, we should first try to engineer ourselves to be able to stay in comfortably.

Maybe the Prodigal Son will eventually settle down, have a small family, and start thinking for his children. One can only hope. Amen.

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  1. On February 18, 2010 at 11:53 Mike said:

    The Pope: “Conversion is to swim against a current of lifestyle that is superficial, incoherent and illusory, a current that often drag us down, dominates us and makes us slaves of evil or at least prisoners of moral mediocrity.”

    Iafrate gets visual.

    River Sims: “The spiritual life is meant to be an adventure between the soul and God.”

    Msgr. Scollen said much the same thing during his Ash Wednesday homily at St. Peter’s parish in Worcester. He said that Lent is about dealing with the things keeping us from Jesus, and thus keeping our lives from being adventures.

  2. On February 28, 2010 at 15:45 michael pickering said:

    Could we discover how to be curious about the present instant, and maybe thus partially improve the inevitable human curiosity? So to discover the flickering initial condition of the stream of unpredictable yet determined events and interfere with it? At least almost to step in the same river once? Probably not. How can we know which river and where to step? But perhaps it’s worth thinking about.