Friday, 25 April 2014

Dancing with Dinosaurs – a spirituality for the twenty-first century

Dancing with Dinosaurs – a spirituality for the twenty-first century. Mark Patrick Hederman, the St. Columba Press, Dublin. 2011. pp 100.

This review was first written on October 1st 2011.

This is Mark Patrick Hederman’s ninth book, all in the last ten years or so and all in my own library. There is an introduction and five chapters.

To-day we have invented our own dinosaurs. Churches, banks and internationals are some of the modern breed of dinosaurs. Small may be beautiful but in the world in which we live it is not very durable. Unless any organisation becomes a dinosaur it will not survive the vicissitudes of history

Modern Hong Kong 
The first chapter of 18 pages deals with the history of the dinosaurs, the author’s concept of modern dinosaurs and his reference to historical aspects over the last 2,000 years which are germane to the evolution of modern dinosaur equivalents

The second chapter of 12 pages begins with a long quote from Snake by D.H. Lawrence and this is followed by a detailed description of the evolution of the human brain. The quote from Snake had to do, I think, with the gradual separation of humanity from the beasts. To those without some knowledge of medicine, of anatomy and physiology his concept of the brain will require a deal of concentration. To me his reference is a confirmation of the Darwinian proposal about the survival of the fittest and the continued progress of science in increasing knowledge of this life.  Despite his faith in the Holy Spirit as an integral part of the Trinity, I find it hard to accept on the current evidence that there is a different world than the one we live in. For me evidence is the keystone of conviction.

As far back as 13,000 years before Christ there was evidence of belief in the next world among the Hindus in India and the far eastern areas of Asia, and later among Buddhism 500 years before Christ. Judaism was first recorded about 1000 years before Christ, while Christianity was established 2000 years ago and the Muslim faith in the 7th century A.D. These beliefs are all with us to-day.

Most beliefs now include a bewildering number of sects which at times can be in clear conflict with each other in theological and secular matters. No doubt a belief in God and another world existed before these early years but it was the evolution of the written word which accounts for our record of past religions. And yet there are others, like the author of this essay, who firmly believes in the power and the ubiquity of the Holy Spirit and in the Trinity.

Chapter three of 36 pages, The Church as Dinosaur, is the kernel of the book and provides the greatest challenge to the reader, including to myself. The author goes in some detail into the history of Christianity during the two millennia and particularly of the Roman Catholic Church before and after the break with the Orthodox Church in the 11th century and the later Protestant upheaval in the 16th Century

It was not until the early 4th Century that Christianity was legalised by Constantine and later in that century it was declared the state religion of Europe marking not only the further spread of Christianity but also the beginning of the political power of the Church, particularly after the break with the Orthodox Church. Rome remained the head of the Catholic Church and was to remain not only a great spiritual influence in Europe but also an increasingly powerful political force with its extensive territory and military support, at least until the late 19th century when it was deprived of power by the Italian Government.

The slow advance of   Christianity during its first few hundred years was in striking contrast with the very rapid advance of   Islam which within a generation or two had spread widely along the eastern and southern coasts of the Mediterranean and deep into the western lands of Asia.  The slow extension of Christianity might possibly be one factor which is consistent with our doubts about the authenticity of Christ and his miraculous appearance on earth.

It is clear from Mark Hederman’s narrative that Christianity continued to evolve in terms of beliefs and dogma during its entire history with the support of Rome and its leaders. If Christians proclaim to have the one unique truth, one might ask why have so many sects worldwide  spawned, particularly in America and in Europe, and why has the Catholic Church needed so many additional opinions and emendations during the centuries?

The belief in God and a hereafter is widespread throughout the world. The Jews, the Buddhists, the
 Hindus, the Muslims and the Christians are only some of the religions which share a belief in God and the next world. It is apparent that we cannot accept in its finality our departure from this earthly existence although the question of our existence before being born to this world is never raised.  Was the creation of the soul a first and spontaneous event that is designed to continue ad infinitum?

Christianity may have some historic basis for the virgin birth, the incarnation, resurrection  and the miracles attributed to Christ but the evidence would hardly stand up to the very strict criteria  of scientists, statisticians and most historians nowadays.  Nor do these claims impress most Christians if we are to judge by the little impact many have on religious observance. The stated miracles claimed in later years hardly stand up to serious scrutiny. I might change my mind on the latter issue if somebody lost a leg and the exact same limb was to reappear and be functionally normal a few weeks later. 

I believe we have more than enough problems in trying to understand the world we are living in. When did it start and when is it likely to finish? And how big is it in terms of space and its trillions of stars and planets, all continuing to increase in numbers as we develop more efficient spectroscopes. It is likely that we shall never understand the world’s limitations of space, content and time. If there are limitations of time and space, what exists beyond? Is it possible that scientific progress will continue until Homo sapiens have learnt all there is to learn? Might this be our concept of Heaven?

The theists say that our ignorance and our dilemmas about the nature of life are surely evidence of God and another world. Would not such an additional world require the same enquiry and the same understanding? Of course it depends on what we mean by God. God may simply be the totality of knowledge or the totality of existing space but these concepts are beyond our understanding.

One wonders about the author’s views about the history of Christianity and the many social, political and theological changes which have taken place over these many centuries.  In the short introduction he states that his task is to clarify the landscape between this world and the next.

Others have the job of explaining everything else that exists. Mine is simple and straightforward and how we relate to God.’’

I believe that Mark Hederman’s most significant comment may have been expressed on television when he advised us to 'keep in direct contact with God.’ Does he circumvent the problem of the Vatican and the more secular aspects of Catholicism when he speaks directly to God? Perhaps he assumes it was unnecessary for the faithful to be reminded of the Holy See in the affairs of our spiritual world. To the doubting Thomas’s, one might ask need we accept the many changing theological and secular policies imposed on the faithful by the Church over these many centuries.

His subject of linking the real world around us with his deep spirituality might not be easily understood by the less enlightened laity, although I do respect the sincerity of his faith and profess high admiration for his scholarship and for his analytical mind.

Science does not deal with belief. It deals with things that you can prove. And since we cannot disprove the existence of God, the question of whether or not a person believes in God is surely a personal matter. I daresay that the gradual loss of religion, or at least religious observation, during the last two or three centuries can be correlated with the improvement in the education of the masses and not necessarily with reduced personal and moral behaviour

We have no prospect of solving the nature of God or to understand the next world if it exists. Why all this fuss about dogmatic formulations on God’s nature? It seems to me that God should be simply interested in our moral actions and intentions. I suspect that the author’s view of religion reflects the great mystery of God and that much of the secular changes which have been introduced by the Church have little relevance to his spirituality nor to my fate

My own view about God and the next world is clear. I am an atheist. I believe that God’s advice about human behaviour was crystallised by the Stoics and their secular philosophy a few centuries before the time of Christ. It was based on humility, love and forgiveness. And surely those who profess no religion and who may not believe in a next world do not differ in their morals and in their behaviour from those of the religious. Indeed some of the worst forms of bigotry, cruelty and destructive behaviour have been committed over the centuries in the context of religion. Is our concept of God and His goodness as evoked by the Church consistent with the extermination of the Cathars in Languedoc, the fanaticism of the Crusades and the horrors of the Inquisition? And the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick 1 forcibly converting the Eastern Orthodox Slavs to Roman Catholicism?

The progress of science is inexorable. If humanity survives the rapid destruction of the planet’s environment, on which we, together with all living beings, depend for our existence, we may reach a state of full knowledge and wisdom, a state perhaps not unlike our concept of Heaven.  But I have little hope in the meantime of avoiding nemesis.

James Lovelock, world environmentalist and leader in the earth sciences, spoke to a packed audience at University College Dublin about four years ago when the world population was just reaching 7 billion (it was 2.5 billion in 1950). He was asked to guess the likely population of the world in the year 2100. He proferred the figure of one billion. He may have been right but he may have been over-optimistic. Can humanity survive another hundred years with the rapid deterioration of the environment on which we depend, a deterioration which is accelerating in its course and with our population approaching 8 billion in another decade? I hardly think so with our politicians’ fixation on our standard of living, with an electorate spurred on by the same philosophy and with the constant shadow of the nuclear bomb.

Graveyard of airplanes
Our immediate survival requires more than the current cosmetic solutions advocated, even by to-day’s most radical environmentalists. It requires dramatic interventions such as the banning of the private car, stopping unnecessary national and international travel, reducing the huge use of energy by the population and the manufacturing industries, a return to community living and, above all, drastic population control. These and other necessary drastic measures are, of course, not likely to be adopted by a complacent public nor by their leaders and political representatives.

The great Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov defined health as a state of being in equilibrium with Nature. Certainly, we are dependent on harmony with Nature, a fact which should compel current generations to avoid nemesis by ensuring that we care for our natural surroundings as assiduously as we care for ourselves. Humanity’s current obsession with material acquisitions, its gross neglect of our natural surroundings on which we depend on our welfare and survival, its waste of Nature’s limited resources added, above all, to its burgeoning human population, does not bode well for our immediate future.

Going up or down Sir?
Human equivalents may, of course, be present in other planets. It may not seem likely but we now know that there are billions of solar systems in the world and that each of these has billions of stars and planets. There may be no end to other planets, some of which may have the same physical features of our earth such as water, oxygen and appropriate temperature. Some may be inhabited by equivalents of Homo sapiens. Hopefully they will have a better insight into their relationship with the environment than we can claim on Earth.

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