Sunday, April 26, 2015

Celebrating the Hubble

Deep Field Hubble Picture from Hubble Site
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard."  
Psalm 19A (KJV)
Ordinarily I don't do short posts, or just cite other articles, but the New York Times (and I despise that paper) has done something wonderful--published an album of images celebrating the Hubble Space Telescope.   Here's the link:   Unforgettable Hubble Space Pictures.


Monday, April 13, 2015

The Theology of Science-fiction: I. Some SF* gospels.

Jesus Sorrows (from The Transforming Cross of Christ)
"...when I was not prey to the temptations of this world, I devoted my nights to imagining other worlds. ... There is nothing better than imagining other forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn't yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one."Umberto Eco, Baudolino .


For the past weeks we Catholics have been celebrating the central tenet of our faith as Christians, the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. While I was meditating about this my thoughts strayed, and I recalled some of the science-fiction stories I had read before my conversion. It then struck me that there are different ways of contesting the reality of the Passion and Resurrection. One way is to deny the historical reality of these events; another, taken by non-believing science-fiction authors, is to transform these events into an alternative, what-if, type of reality.

In this post I propose to explore (not in depth) how Jesus, the Passion and the Resurrection have been transformed by science-fiction to conform to a theology of non-belief.   In subsequent posts I'll discuss how science-fiction regards the intelligent non-human and its (his/hers?) possible relation to The Church, and what science-fiction has to say in general about a deity, the afterlife and the Eschaton.     My survey will not be exhaustive, but references are given below to fill in gaps.    (See for example the Wikipedia article about religious science-fiction.)


"From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day."  Matt: 16:21
 A favorite mode of science-fiction is the alternative history, "what-if?" ...  This should really be called "speculative fiction" since the science component is usually negligible--only a different possible world is envisioned.     Such are the SF  stories ("SF" standing here for "speculative fiction")  in which Jesus is not crucified and therefore is NOT resurrected.  (So much for Christianity, the Son of God, etc.)  

Some of these stories invoke time travel as a way to get around Christ's Passion.  The time traveller either takes the place of Christ or attempts to prevent it by other means.    I don't regard time travel as a worthy device in SF because of paradoxes of the "you can't kill your own grandfather before he sired your parent" sort.   That is to say, if you alter the past, the present in which you were born no longer exists and then where are you?    The only SF story I know of that successfully deals with such paradoxes is Heinlein's "All You Zombies" (warning: SPOILER!) in which a soldier of the future is his own mother and father.


There are more plausible alternative history approaches that still do no more than tickle the imagination (as is the case with most alternative history SF).   In a story called "Friends in High Places" by Jack McDevitt,  Jesus argues with God in the Garden of Gethesmane and changes his fate.    I'll quote from the description given in Holy Sci-Fi:
"Jesus waiting in the Garden of Gethesmane for the mob to take him. Jesus does not want to die, as we learn from his thoughts:     
'It sends the wrong message [Lord]. It will be a hard sell, persuading people You love them when you let this happen to me.'
'Why? Why must we do it this way? We create a faith whose governing  symbol will be an instrument of torture. They will wear it around their necks,  put it atop their temples. Is this what we really want?'
In this story, too, Jesus escapes (to become a librarian in Egypt!), and as he begins his journey to a new life he thinks 'how much better it was than a cross.'    What has happened is that God, apparently in answer to Jesus’ concerns about the Crucifixion, has changed the past."
I would review this as the Passion according to Saturday Night Live.  All the profound theological arguments about obedience to God,  Jesus suffering for our sins out of love for His brothers, the Crucifixion required for our salvation,  are swept away with the broom of a naive theodicy.

In another story an alternative history dispenses with the Crucifixion in a more plausible way. (Unfortunately this old guy can not remember the title or the author, nor have extensive online searches been helpful;   but he is sure about the story.)    Recall Matt 27:19
 "When he [Pontius Pilate] was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him."
in which Pontius Pilate's wife implores to set Jesus free.    In the  story her pleas are successful.  Jesus goes back to Galilee as an honored prophet, but is largely ignored in further history.    Ironically,  Rome accepts Judaism with the Emperor becoming the Chief Priest of the Sanhedrin and with a new Temple built in Rome.


An in-depth treatment of the Passion and Resurrection has not been given by science-fiction authors, not even by those who account themselves Christian.   Perhaps Scripture gives too little to elaborate, although I have always wondered--given the two natures of Jesus Christ--what he thought about dying and being resurrected.    As Scripture says, he knew of his resurrection, but was he sure?  What did  Jesus do when he was in Hell?   There are theological speculations, but only those.  Perhaps, as the Greatest Miracle, The Resurrection cannot be acknowledged by writers who don't believe, and by those who do believe, what more can be said.
"The New Testament writers speak as if Christ's achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the 'first fruits,' the pioneer of life,' He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so.   C. S. Lewis. Miracles, ch. 16


In the second of this series I'll discuss how SF treats intelligent non-humans (including robots) and their relation to the Church.   In the third,  I'll treat the SF accounts of deity, the afterlife and the Eschaton, including an in-depth discussion of one of my favorite SF books with a religious theme, that neglected classic, "The Lord of the World" (1907),  by Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson.

* In this title SF stands for "speculative fiction", not science-fiction.   There have been two books published with the title "The Gospel according to science-fiction" (see the references below);  I'm not trying to replace or supplant these.


Holy Sci-Fi , A comprehensive review written by a non-believer;  light in tone; weak on theology and more important authors--Walker Percy, C.S. Lewis, Robert Hugh Benson.

A Cross of Centuries--25 Imaginative Tales about The Christ (stories by believers, agnostics and hard-core atheists)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Fifth Commandment: The slippery slope of euthanasia

Is this God's decision? (from
“On the morning of February 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the law against assisted suicide was unconstitutional. Canada now joins a small, elite group of madly progressive countries in abandoning the most fundamental principle in all of nature.” Joe Bissonette, "Physician-assisted suicide and spiritual suicide" (Crisis Magazine)
 "He hath set fire and water before thee: stretch forth thy hand unto whether thou wilt. Before man is life and death, and whether him liketh shall be given him."Sirach 15:16,17 (KJV)
 "Sometime in the 23rd century...the survivors of war, 
overpopulation and pollution are living in a great domedcity, sealed away from the forgotten world outside. 
Here in an ecologically balanced world, mankind lives only
for pleasure, freed by the servo-mechanisms which provide 
everything. There's just one catch. Life must end at thirty 
unless reborn in the fiery ritual of carousel.  "Introduction to Logan's Run (the movie)

 Those of you of a certain age (55+) might remember the movie Logan's Run,  about a dystopic society that maintains equilibrium between population and resources by the simple expedient of killing anyone who reaches the age of 30.    I was reminded of this after reading a fine post, The Obligation to Die,  by Ben Butera, of the blog "Two Catholic Men and a Blog".    I will use much of his post, but I urge the reader to go to the original.     And then  I will show that Ben's projection is realistic by looking at some statistics for euthanasia in the Netherlands, where it has reached an advanced stage.


In his post Ben lists the following four stages for instituting governmental sponsorship and control of euthanasia:
"STAGE 1: Voluntary – Passive(Completely voluntary, but not applauded)...doctors may now lawfully help competent adults to kill themselves if they are terminally ill. Certainly, no one would be forced to do it, because that would be unthinkable. There should be no coercion either, since it’s such a personal choice between patients and their doctor.
"STAGE 2: Voluntary – Active (Completely voluntary and encouraged)...We need to think of what is best, not only for ourselves, but for our immediate families and the common good of society. ... we have an obligation to encourage what is “right” and promote the common welfare. The “right to die” can now slowly morph into the 'obligation to die'....Persistent pressure to do the “right thing” will break the will to live.
 "STAGE 3: Mandatory – Passive (Mostly voluntary with SOME EXCEPTIONS [emphasis added]) ...As our population rapidly ages and the health care costs consume ever larger proportions of government budgets, at least some legislation must be considered to help reduce the source of rising healthcare cost. Laws to guide the old and terminally ill through their final stage of life and their final obligation to the society just makes sense.
"STAGE 4: Mandatory – Active (Mostly required with some exceptions)  Physician assisted suicide need not be limited to only desperate pain. The very old, very sick and severely physically or mentally handicapped should all be considered for legal and mandatory euthanization once the quality of life has been properly assessed by professionals...Why allow these poor people to suffer for no reason, even if they choose to suffer?  ...Those in favor of such legislation will be called progressively “pro-health”. Those opposed will be said to have radical “anti-health” agenda."

Frightening, isn't it, especially for those of us over the Biblical allotted span of fourscore and ten?  Ben shows how morphing from rare and voluntary to usual and mandatory would take place.  As in abortion, Orwellian doublethink will be used to mask the moral shame: just as  "for killing the unborn" read "pro-choice", so "for compulsory killing of the 'unfit'" read "pro-health".


We have a crystal ball to see how Ben's forecast might work out in reality:  the story of euthanasia in the Netherlands and Belgium.   (I should note that three states--Oregon, Vermont and Washington--have laws that physician-assisted suicide is legal, corresponding to Stage 1, above.)   

A physician-assisted suicide was approved by a Netherlands judge in 1984 and legislation enacted in 2001 and 2002 that would approve physician-assisted suicide generally in the Netherlands.  Would these Dutch legislators have foreseen that in 2013 a 47 year old woman (with two adolescent sons)  would request and receive physician-assisted suicide because she could not live with tinnitus (ringing in the ears)?  (The clinic was reprimanded for being "careless" in not exploring other medical solutions!)

Statistics about euthanasia in The Netherlands and Belgium are truly frightening to those of us who hold that life is sacred and in God's hands.   To spare the reader,  I'll not go into the numbers in detail, but summarize conclusions and give links to original articles.


The position of the Church on euthanasia is clearly spelled out in the Catholic Catechism:

  • "2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable [emphasis added]. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.
  • 2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate [emphasis added]; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.
  • 2279 Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable [emphasis added]. "
Not much more need be said, but to emphasize that out of respect for life, we should not put to end the lives of the handicapped (whatever their age), the sick (physically or mentally), or the dying.   Note that the reasoning of "The Double Effect" is applied to "giving painkillers to alleviate the suffering of the dying....if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated."

In this post we have not, near the anniversary of Terry Schiavo's death, specifically considered the right to life of comatose or consciousness-impaired patients.   However, the framework of what we, as Catholics, should do is set forth in articles 2278 and 2279 above.


I don't have an answer to that question.  How about you,  readers?


Nicanor Austriaco, Biomedicine and Beatitude, Bioethics at the End of Life.

NOTE (added after publication).   Ben has another fine post on this subject, The Obligation to Live and Give,  which has a somewhat sunnier view on this topic than I have presented here.   Let's hope he's right!

About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.