Vicar's letter for April Fowey News

Dear Friends

The question Stephen Hawking couldn’t answer…

When I was studying to become a vicar in Cambridge, I was attached to a local church and Stephen Hawking was a regular, familiar and already world-famous face on Sunday mornings with his wife and carer. It impressed me that such an eminent physicist was asking spiritual questions - and - although, like most others, I never read it - his book, A brief history of time, ends in such a vein:  “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? . . . Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”

The obituaries last month for arguably the most famous scientist since Einstein have rightly focussed on how Hawking refused to let motor neurone disease disable his prodigious scientific mind, and brought new understanding to the question of how the universe began.  However, the genius who was elevated to Sir Isaac Newton’s chair of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge at the age of 37, wasn’t able to give an answer to the question of ‘Why?’

Prof. Hawking returned to the mystery of existence in The Grand Design: “We wonder, we seek answers . . . Where did all this come from?” he wrote. “Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.”

Hawking restated the ancient philosophical questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? “Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way . . . We claim, however, that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings,” Hawking replied. Yet, his answer is not an answer: “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” In other words, we exist because we exist. But the question remains - Why?

Oxford mathematician Professor John Lennox observed in response to Hawking: “To presuppose the existence of the universe to account for its own existence sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland, not science.”

To limit our significance and existence to simply what can be measured and observed - the scientific worldview - is self-evidently reductionist. But it is also a dead end. ‘Why?’ is as important a question as ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ - if not more so.

However, there is someone who does claim to have answers to ‘Why?’ and uniquely backed up that claim the first Easter. Might be worth checking out…?

with every blessing, Philip de Grey-Warter, Vicar


Vicar's letter for March Fowey News

Dear Friends

There have been two blockbuster movie releases reworking some of my childhood favourites - Paddington 2 and Peter Rabbit. And strikingly they have received a very different welcome.

Peter Rabbit has been greeted by a howl of moral outrage. ‘Advocates’ for (young) allergy sufferers, are incensed that Peter Rabbit and his friends are seen to pelt Mr MacGregor’s nephew with soft fruit despite the latter’s known risk of an allergic reaction and anaphylactic shock. Only his EpiPen saves the poor lad. The mother of one child similarly afflicted questioned in The Guardian how she could possibly take her child to see such a film.

Yet Paddington 2 portrays a stereotypically white, middle aged, privileged and cantankerous judge who abuses the criminal justice system as a means of settling a personal vendetta against the bear. However, ‘advocates’ for the judiciary have not expressed outrage at the slight to their profession. Nor has there has been an uproar about the criminal justice system being portrayed as arbitrary and corrupt. Yet, arguably, encouraging wholesale disrespect for the rule of law amongst our children and youth is potentially far more serious than a fictional allergy sufferer being pelted with allergens.

The difference? Might it be that poorly children make good victims but judges do not? Given that  the movies both reflect and mould our culture, it may perhaps expose a worrying aspect of our public morality. For example, if the gravity of wrongdoing is only to be measured by the degree of public sympathy the victims can muster, that would be rather bad news if you were a black person in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s, a Jew in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, or a suffragette in the 1900s. In such a world it is the most vulnerable, the voiceless, the anonymous, who suffer and only the recovery of an objective standard of right and wrong - regardless of ‘victimhood’ - will protect them.

Some might say that the real difference between the rabbit and the judge is that the former is the hero of the narrative and the latter the villain. But that rather misses the point. Surely what we should be seeking to teach our children is that the world is not divided into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, but that, as the Bible repeatedly teaches with a long list of examples, the greatest of heroes may have clay feet and that even villains can have redeeming characteristics. Only such a more nuanced and realistic view of humanity will equip them - and us - to deal with the news that secular saints such as aid workers can also be the darkest of sinners. Indeed there is flawed and messed up shadow side to all of us which desperately needs the repair that only Jesus can bring.

with every blessing, Philip de Grey-Water, Vicar

(I am indebted to Dan Leafe for the idea for this letter)

Vicar's letter for February Fowey News

Dear Friends

Jordan Peterson, 55, is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. His book ‘12 rules for life’ has been in the news following a sold out associated lecture tour and a controversial Channel 4 News interview with Cathy Newman watched by over 3 million people. He is renowned for his blazing, outspoken opposition of political correctness, which he characterises as totalitarian, intolerant and a growing threat to the primacy of the individual – which is his core value and, he asserts, the foundation of western culture. His primary concern is the defence of the individual against ‘groupthink’.

Peterson’s worldview is essentially this: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.” In particular he highlights an unpopular but perhaps vital realisation: that we are creating a generation of men who (especially if they don’t belong to any ‘minority’ group) are without hope, foundation or purpose.

In all this, the thing that resonated with me is that Peterson is very realistic about the essential darkness of humanity. He points to the flood of hatred, abuse and rage that is now clearly visible on anonymous Twitter feeds and that historically it was “so-called normal people”, not sociopaths, who were responsible for the atrocities of nazism, Stalinism and Maoism. We must not forget, says Peterson, that we are corrupt and pathetic, and capable of great malevolence.

At the same time Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning and so we have a responsibility to pursue those. He suggests this is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. 

What ever you make of Peterson as a strange mixture of theologian, psychologist, conservative, liberal, wit and lay preacher, he is asking penetrating questions and exposing the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ in much of our cultural assumptions and discourse.  For what it’s worth, I think he’s right about humanity - both our essential flaws and our amazing capacity which is part of the bedrock of a Christian worldview and why, for the Christian, Jesus is such good news.

with every blessing

Philip de Grey-Warter, Vica

Vicar's letter for January Fowey News

Dear Friends

December saw a new series of The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond are back with their banter and outrageously expensive cars. But Top Gear long ago ceased to be a programme about cars. It is pure entertainment. TGT is essential a never-ending middle-aged road trip. The jokes are the same as ever, the outcomes predictable, but the locations are stunning.

What, though, is the secret of the appeal of The Grand Tour? I think it is because Clarkson et al are the court jesters of contemporary culture, or more precisely the jesters of middle-aged male culture.

The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal asked "Why do kings have jesters?" In human terms, they have everything anyone could want. The answer, according to Pascal, is that the jester prevents the king from thinking about the one issue he really needs to face up to – death.

Hugo Rifkind unconsciously recognised this when he reviewed the first episode of the new series of TGT in The Times. He wrote: “The presenters of The Grand Tour are not normal. They’re three florid multimillionaires in wallpaper shirts who only leave the Cotswolds for work… And yes, they are anti-PC, instinctively sexist and inclined to laugh at people for things like “being French”, but none of that is ever the point. They don’t talk like this because they mean it. They talk like this because life and existence is a gaping void of nothingness and we are all cold and lonely and going to die. All male conversation – cars, football, politics, woodwork, the merits of the M6 Toll, how you work a tank – is basically the same conversation. It is white noise. It blots out the fear… [it is] holding sadness and despair and terror at bay through the sheer power of inconsequential taking the piss… Weird, mad and pointless, but all the more real because of it. Bantering perennially into the void.”

In the end, if there is no hope beyond death, this makes logical sense. We need our jesters to help us make it through. Our culture craves entertainment to divert us from reality. But these entertainments cannot provide a real hope.

Jesus, however, does.  He is the answer to the deep angst we feel. “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15v20), so that death has been defeated and can be faced head on with confident hope. There is no need to ignore it, or to just try to make the best of life before the inevitable. We are not condemned to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15v32). We can look forward to being with Christ the other side of death, which is better by far (Philippians 1v23).  

So rather than a banter-full 2018, I pray you a truly Happy New Year founded on the solid hope that Jesus offers. (with thanks to John Stevens)

with every blessing

Philip de Grey-Warter,  Vicar