Thoughts on Religion, Science, Morality and Atheism as prompted by the speeches of Pope Benedict XVI

I myself am a mortal man, like all others, and of the race of him, that was first made of the earth, and in the womb of my mother I was fashioned to be flesh.

In the time of ten months I was compacted in blood, of the seed of man, and the pleasure of sleep concurring.

And being born, I drew in the common air, and fell upon the earth, that is made alike, and the first voice which I uttered was crying, as all others do.

I was nursed in swaddling clothes, and with great cares.

For none of the kings had any other beginning of birth.

For all men have one entrance into life, and the like going out.

Wherefore I wished, and understanding was given me: and I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me:

And I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison of her.

Neither did I compare unto her any precious stone: for all gold, in comparison of her, is as a little sand; and silver, in respect to her, shall be counted as clay.

I loved her above health and beauty, and chose to have her instead of light: for her light cannot be put out.

Now all good things came to me together with her, and innumerable riches through her hands,

And I rejoiced in all these: for this wisdom went before me, and I knew not that she was the mother of them all.

Which I have learned without guile, and communicate without envy, and her riches I hide not.

For she is an infinite treasure to men: which they that use, become the friends of God, being commended for the gifts of discipline.

And God hath given to me to speak as I would, and to conceive thoughts worthy of those things that are given me: because he is the guide of wisdom, and the director of the wise:

For in his hand are both we, and our words, and all wisdom, and the knowledge and skill of works.

For he hath given me the true knowledge of the things that are: to know the disposition of the whole world, and the virtues of the elements,

The beginning, and ending, and midst of the times, the alterations of their courses, and the changes of seasons,

The revolutions of the year, and the dispositions of the stars,

The natures of living creatures, and rage of wild beasts, the force of winds, and reasonings of men, the diversities of plants, and the virtues of roots,

And all such things as are hid, and not foreseen, I have learned: for wisdom, which is the worker of all things, taught me.

For in her is the spirit of understanding; holy, one, manifold, subtile, eloquent, active, undefiled, sure, sweet, loving that which is good, quick, which nothing hindereth, beneficent,

Gentle, kind, steadfast, assured, secure, having all power, overseeing all things, and containing all spirits: intelligible, pure, subtile:

For wisdom is more active than all active things; and reacheth everywhere, by reason of her purity.

For she is a vapour of the power of God, and a certain pure emmanation of the glory of the Almighty God: and therefore no defiled thing cometh into her.

For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness.

And being but one, she can do all things: and remaining in herself the same, she reneweth all things, and through nations conveyeth herself into holy souls, she maketh the friends of God and prophets.

For God loveth none but him that dwelleth with wisdom.

For she is more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of the stars: being compared with the light, she is found before it.

For after this cometh night, but no evil can overcome wisdom.

Chapter 7 of the Book of Wisdom

the full text of the speeches of Benedict are here

There are three main themes that Pope Benedict has been addressing on his visit to the UK that are, and have been for some time, of particular interest to me. The first is ‘What is the nature of the spiritual quest and how does it relate to other spheres of life – or what is the proper relationship between science and religion?’. The second is ‘by appeal to what authority do moral dilemmas get resolved – or is it possible to completely remove the moral sphere from the religious sphere?’. The third question is one that has come to the fore more recently for me; in the Pope’s own words: ‘should the “tyranny of relativism” and “atheist extremism” be allowed to silence or reduce the role of religion to the completely private sphere?’.

These are obviously very important questions. They are not abstruse matters of theological dogma, but fundamental to the very way in which we live our lives, and they have certainly been debated by philosophers and theologians for a very long time. For me, the wisdom evident in the speeches of the Pope on these themes came as something of a surprise to me! Even though I had read his book Jesus of Nazareth and was aware of what a great teacher he was, I still think the power, wisdom and clarity with which he set out his stall will provide some of those who doubt the value of religion with food for thought for a good time. Is it possible I am mistaken here? Am I just Pope-worshipping? After all I am an RS teacher in a Catholic school. I’m biased surely?

I can only say I have no interest in presenting the Pope as an infallible sayer of eternal truth, and I like many other Catholics, have quite major reservations about many of the things that are said by the Vatican.

But the speeches of the last few days have been to me not the empty apologetics of the withered head of a decaying and irrelevant sect, not some charged polemical battle-cry against the modern world by someone living in the past, but the “still, small voice” of truth; warm, human, compassionate, connected to the world, wanting to engage with the world and seeking humbly to lead us in the direction of wisdom.

1.What is the nature of the spiritual quest? Simples. Strive to become holy! How do we do this? For Benedict it’s rooted in love – God loves us and wants us to discover and unfold the potential hidden within us – to have life to the full – to have the courage to place our deepest needs in God means entering into a relationship with God – and in the generosity of God’s love we find we learn to keep less and less back; we don’t need to grasp after praise or seek acceptance by others, seek riches or fame, pour everything into one way of living, we simply need to let love do its work, and then we find things like caring about injustice, trying to help others, become part of our lives.

For the rest of these three themes I will write distinct posts.

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