Sunday, February 21, 2016

Birds, Gravitons and the reality of God

Maarten de Vos (attrib) - catalogued as
"Jesus compares Jerusalem to a Hen"(!!)

Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18,

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
‘Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward.’But Abram said, ‘Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’

Sky at night (courtesy Wikipedia)
Then the word of the LORD came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

He also said to him, ‘I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.’
But Abram said, ‘Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?’So the LORD said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.’ Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the LORD said to him, ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and ill-treated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.

Luke 13.31-end

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.’He replied, Go and tell that fox, “I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.”In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a bird hen gathers her brood chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is forsaken left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Sermon 21 Feb

Gladstone, the great Victorian Statesman, had many virtues but was not very interested in Science. While he was Chancellor of the Exchequer he reportedly  attended a talk by Michael Faraday, probably about electricity, and his only remark was ‘but, after all, what use is it?’  Faraday was really interested in discovery for its own sake but he had a shrewd appreciation of his audience. So he replied ‘Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!’

On Feb 11th this year the LIGO experiment officially announced the detection of the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein 100 years ago, which came from two black holes colliding billions of light-years away . Kip Thorne, the inspiration behind this work, is almost certain to share a Nobel Prize for the discovery. A colleague of Thorne’s sent me the calculation that the number of gravitons emitted from this event (gravitons are the “particles” associated with gravity waves) was about 1080 which is more than the number of atoms in the observable universe.  And about 1030 of them would have passed through each human being – that’s about as many atoms as there are in the human body, a thousand billion billion billion.  According to current understanding, gravitons were there from the beginning of the universe, but we have only just become able to detect them. And now that we can detect them, they begin to open up a window on the universe that we have never seen before. Please don’t forget the gravitons!

The world is full of amazing unseen realities of which we are completely unaware. And that’s why it’s hard to find a first-rate scientist who is a dogmatic atheist. Kip Thorne for example says "There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God [...] There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God.”
In our readings today we begin with the most influential person, in human terms, who has ever lived: Abraham or as his name then was, Abram. He was not, of course, a scientist in the modern sense. But he performs a curious experiment.
Abram has just rescued his nephew Lot. He’s been blessed by the Priest-King Melchizedek and given tithes to him – an event to which the writer of the Hebrews attaches great importance. He has refused gifts from the King of Sodom (so that he couldn’t say “I made Abram rich”).  Now The LORD appears to Abram for a second time, and this time Abram answers back- It’s astonishing how often the patriarchs argue with God!  The New Jerusalem Bible translation is better here than the NIV:
Do not be afraid, Abram
I am you shield
and shall give you a very great reward
And Abram replies “what use are your gifts, as I am going on my way childless?”
But God shows him the stars in the sky and says that his descendants will be greater in number than these (there are about 2,500 stars visible to the naked eye on a clear day ). Abram believes God on this without question and it is “credited to him as righteousness” . But when told that he will take possession of the land he asks God for proof. So he brings this set of animal sacrifices (Leviticus 1:14 says “a dove or a young pigeon” are the acceptable birds to offer, and indeed when Jesus’ parents offer a sacrifice in the Temple it was “a pair of doves  or two young pigeons.") and God visibly accepts them.  This is the second time a bird appears in the Bible, after the dove in the Ark.

The dove is sometimes used as an image of Israel (Psalm 68, 74, Isaiah 60) and another image that is used heavily in the Psalms is of sheltering under God’s wings. “Hide me under the shadow of your wings!” (Ps 17:8)  and there are 4 other passages (36:7, 57:1, 61:4, 63:7) .  The Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 uses the image of an Eagle who watches over his brood
So now we come to Luke. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and some sympathetic Pharisees warn him that Herod is after him. Jesus sends back a stinging put-down of Herod - to call someone a “fox” (shū‘āl in Hebrew) is to say that they are second-rate, as opposed to a “lion” (“Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.” says the Mishnah).

And then – the hen. A fascinating saying which is also recorded in practically identical language in Matthew 23.37-39.

Jesus is specifically likening himself and God to a mother bird. Almost all translations have “hen” but the Greek word doesn’t specifically imply any particular species of bird. It’s ornis from which we get ornithology, the ordinary word for bird, although in 3 early MSS  it’s ornix which specifically means a female bird. However we can be sure the bird is female from the pronoun.

I don’t want to go off on a big riff on feminist theology at this point – for which I am anyway quite unqualified. Although there may well have been some excesses in this movement as in all theological movements, it should have been as plain as a pikestaff from Genesis 1:27
And God created man in His own image
In the image of God he created them
Male and female he created them.
Not to mention the application of basic common sense that both male and female qualities are derived from God, have their perfection in the Trinity, and that all of us – male, female or indeed those for whom “it’s complicated” are called into loving union with Christ. That this wasn’t so clear as recently as 40 years ago is deplorable    In 1 Corinthians (3:2) Paul speaks of feeding the infant Christians “milk, and not solid food.” The author of Hebrews, who is clearly a pupil of Paul’s and I think is probably Priscilla, says “You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” (Heb 5.12-13). Peter also says “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, (1 Peter 2.2). The early Christian apocrypha 2 Ezdras speaks of God as mother and nurse.

God loves us perfectly – He is both the perfect father and the perfect mother, and although there are many contexts where it is useful to use gendered imagery (the Church as the Bride of Christ for example) this must not obscure the fundamental fact that In Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” (Gal 3:28).

And then Jesus says something curious. “your house is forsaken”. The NIV is highly misleading here. The Greek word is aphietai which is a form of aphieemi which basically means let go or leave. Just 3 times in the NT is this used to mean forsaken: here, in the parallel passage in Matthew, and when “all the disciples forsook him and fled” in Mat 26:56. By far the most common use of aphieemi and its derivatives in the gospels is in the context of sins or debts being aphieemi - that is, forgiven.

For the Jews the Temple was God’s dwelling place on earth. In Ezekiel 10:18 the glory of God is seen leaving the temple because of Israel’s sins, and then the first temple is destroyed. Herod’s father rebuilt the Temple, but Jesus is saying that the Presence of God is no longer in the Temple, but with him. Only when Jesus comes into the Temple will God’s presence be there.  The Temple will be destroyed, but Jesus remains, and for those who turn to Him, God is truly present.

So what does this mean for us?
  1. We can trust God’s promises, even when they seem impossible. Abraham has well over a billion descendants, because in Christ we are all sons and daughters of Abraham. Reality is not just what we see – remember these billions of Gravitons?
  2. God loves us as a father and mother and we are all equally called into a loving relationship with God. Sadly there are an awful lot of people in this country who have very little personal experience of a father’s love – though they know the love of their mothers. The early Christian apocrypha 2 Ezdras depicts God as saying this: “Have I not pleaded with you as a father with his sons, as a mother with her daughters or a nurse with her children?”
  3. However much we may feel forsaken, we are loved. At all stages in our Christian journey, from the very beginning to (almost) the very end, we can go through periods when we feel forsaken. We thought we knew where God was, and then we feel that God is no longer with us.  St John of the Cross teaches about the Dark Night of the Soul . CS Lewis has Screwtape speak of “the law of undulation”.  The Psamlist knows this - listen to the end of Psalm 88:
                              your terrors cut me off.
    Like water they surround me all the day
    And altogether I'm encircled round.
    My loving friends you've distanced all from me
    And darkness is my only company.
But God is there, God is with us, and God loves us, whether we perceive this or not.  It’s fascinating how, in Greek, forsaken and forgiven are so close. Jesus does not give up on his people.  Even after he pronounces that their house is forsaken, he goes to them in love, offering his life on the cross, for them, and for us, prophesying that “when I am lifted up I will draw all people to me.” To adapt the words of the psalmist: the gravity waves are mighty, and weave wonderfully, but yet The LORD, who dwelleth on high, is mightier and more wonderful, because His mercy and love endure forever.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rowan Williams on Living with Others

Seen coming out of the
Jerusalem Chamber
Rowan Williams gave a fascinating lecture last night at Westminster Abbey about the implications of the Benedictine rule for modern governance.

He points out that the key Benedictine virtue is Stability and this is not based on the idea that things won't change but on the very fundamental point that other people won't go away.  He suggested, wisely in my view, that much of what is wrong with modern political discourse can be summed up by the view that if only [X group of people] would just go away everything would be much better.  The group X is of course a group of people you disagree with or disapprove of.  But when you accept that X won't go away and that you need to find some way of living with them despite your disagreements and disapproval (which is very probably mutual) then real progress can be made.

He drew out the themes of Honesty, Peace and Accountability and suggests that these created the conditions under which this kind of stability could flourish.

And he quoted a writer of whom I was shamefully unaware, Donald Nicholl as saying that a priest visiting a university to conduct a mission had listened carefully to what academics talk to each other about to find out what kind of verbal currency they exchanged and found that the common currency was grievances.

He wondered about how we could engage more effectively with others at a national level without just expecting them to go away, what could be done about the massive financial instability, and whether we could get more honesty about the inevitable fallability of leaders?

The talk made me realise how my work on financial stability connected with my Benedictine spiritual background (how very obtuse I have been not to notice this!) but also suggested to me that the G20 could be seen as a kind of Benedictine Community with a rotating Abbot: we all have to live with each other despite our radical disagreements and get along. This was a new thought to me and to Rowan and worth pondering!

Afterwards there was a small reception in the Jerusalem Chamber and I spoke with Rowan briefly about the G20 but he rightly had more time to speak with Daughter who knows him much better having won the inaugural Peter Peckard Prize which he awarded.

Monday, February 15, 2016

As you Like It + the Problem with Freud

Curtain Call
To a wonderful production of As You Like It at the National Theatre on Sunday - a perfect choice for Valentine's Day!

It was slightly odd to being in an Open Plan Office but the point was revealed when all the office furniture took off and turned into suspended trees in the Forest of Arden, complete with suspended humans who made forest noises to eerie and powerful effect.

Joe Bannister, a fairly recent Cambridge graduate, was a delightful and convincing Orlando and Rosalie Craig a captivating Rosalind - even though only occasionally was much effort put into her being masculine as Ganymede. Pasty Ferran (who I think was the maid in the Angela Lansbury/Janie Dee Blythe Spirit) was a fine Ceila and the company as a whole was fine except for a couple of slighly poor line-speakers.

Polly Findlay the Director deserves enormous credit and she looks very young - certainly someone to watch!

An additional joy was the programme notes which contain Ken Dodd's wonderful remark about Freud on Comedy; "the problem with Freud is that he never had to play the Glasgow Empire second house on a Friday night"!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

St John at St John's

Final bows at St John Passion in St John's Smith Sq
To a magnificent performance of the St John Passion last night at St John's Smith Square, by the combined choirs of Winchester and Eton, with the Academy of Ancient Music and soloists and conductor all with connections with the schools.

Winchester and Eton were founded over 350 and 250 years before the first performance in 1724 - and St John's Smith Square was built in 1728 so pretty much contemporary.

Stephen Layton (a chorister at Winchester Cathdral, Choral Scholar at Eton and now Director of Music at Trinity) was the conductor and James Gilchrist (Winchester, worked as a Doctor but became a full-time musician in 1996) - Masters at the height of their powers - were the conductor and the Evangelist. But apart from one lapse (I think he might have had a cold) the other soloists were excellent: I would particularly single out:
  • Andrew Staples (Eton) Tenor
  • James Birchall (St George's Windsor Castle and Winchester) Jesus - and especially 
  • Ashley Riches (Scholar Winchester, English at Cambridge, Jett Parker Young Artist) who sung Pilate with consummate musicianship and intelligence and is definitely one to watch! He's doing:
    • The world Premiere of  A Prussian Requiem at the Festival Hall on the 6th March
    • Matthew Passion with John Eliot Gardiner on European Tour incl 26th Mar Barbican.
Young Angus Benton (Winchester) - currently BBC Young Chorister of the Year was also excellent in the heart-rending Zerfliesse, mein Herze.
One minor bugbear: the translations of the Arias and Chorales that they published use rhyming versions as found in libretti, which often do violence to the words that Bach so exquisitely sets.  To give just one example:
Ach, mein Sinn,
Wo willt du endlich hin,
means (as given in this useful translation) something like:
O my conscience /sense - Sinn is difficult to translate. It can even mean mind
where will you flee at last,
and not - as given in the programme:
O my soul
How futile is your goal

Thursday, February 11, 2016

More evidence of the evolutionary benefits of (some) religion - in Nature

Fig 1 of  Purzycki et al. People who believe in moralistic
gods seem less likely to cheat their co-religionists.
I can't get too excited about the (claimed) detection of Gravity Waves. This is partly becasue we've been here before with a false report, partly becasue (almost) everyone expected them to exist and partly becasue the detection seems to be such a rare event that it will be some time before it has any practical applications. Unless (?) these waves rule out things like a Milne-Dirac Universe.

However the paper "Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality" by  Purzycki et al has just been published online by Nature and seems rather more interesting. They use a modified the random allocation game in which participants play in private with 30 coins, two cups and a fair die with three sides of one colour and three sides of another colour. They mentally choose one of the cups and then roll the die. If one coloured side comes up, players are asked to put the coin into the cup they mentally chose. As cup selection occurs only mentally, participants can overrule the die in favour of one of the cups without anyone else observing their decision. If people play by the rules and thereby allocate the coins impartially, the mean number of coins in each cup should be 15, and the distribution around this average will be binomial. This allows us to test for systematic deviations from this distribution.

People who believe in a moralistic god who punishes wrongdoing are significantly more likely not to cheat than those who don't (Log odds ratio 1.26 +0.16 P less than 0.001) and this is the same whether the recipient is a local co-religionist or a distant co-religionist.  None of the other experiments has a really low P value.

What is remarkable about this study is that it was not conducted amongst the usual WIERD subjects but in Tanna, Hadza, Mauritius, Pesqueiro, Tyva Republic, Yasawa and Lovu (both places in Fiji).  So it is rather more persuasive of the idea that believe in such deities encourages the evolution of eusociality.

As I have long said, Dawkins and co refuse to acknowledge the obvious fact that religions like Christianity offer a clear evolutionary advantage.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51

Christ in the Desert by Ivan Kramskoi Courtesy Wikipedia
To local church for a moving Ash Wednesday service conducted by the very talented and spiritual Associate Vicar who is now in charge becasue there is an interregnum.

The traditional worship, hymns, ashing and communion is deeply eloquent, and the liturgy is really pointed. Interestingly they have Isiaih 58 with the critical line "To send out the captives, set free" that is interpolated by Luke into Isiaih 61 in Jesus' sermon at Nazareth.

The concluding hymn Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow is by Bernhard Severin Ingemann (1789-1862) - I was completely ignorant of him and didn't know if he was Danish, Swedish or Norwegian. He is an older contemporary of one of my great heros, Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) though I can't find any direct interaction between them.

We had Psalm 51 and here, FWIW, is my translation:
Have mercy on me, God, in your kind love;
     in your great mercy wipe away my sins.
Thoroughly wash me from iniquity,
    and purify me from my sinfulness.
For I acknowledge and admit my faults,
    and permanently before me is my sin.
Against you, all alone, have I transgressed,
    and have done what is evil in your sight,
so that you’re in the right to sentence me
    and blameless as your judgments you decree.
Lo, I’ve been sinful from my very birth,
    and from my mother’s womb I’m steeped in sin.
Lo, you desire truth in the inward parts;
    and teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop , and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I’ll be whiter than the snow.
Let me hear joy and happiness again;
    and let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
O hide your countenance from all my sins,
    and wipe away all my iniquities.
Create within me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
O cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your holy spirit from me.
Return to me the joy of your salvation,
    and in a willing spirit hold me up.
Then I will teach transgressors your true ways,
    and sinful people will return to you.
Save me from blood, O God, God of my help,
    my tongue will sing of your deliverance.
O Lord , I pray you open now my lips,
    and my mouth will with joy proclaim your praise.
For you do not desire a sacrifice;
    and my burnt offering would not make you pleased.
The sacrifice of God: a broken spirit;
    a broken contrite heart, God won’t despise.
Do good to Zion in your gracious will;
    build up the ramparts of Jerusalem,
then you’ll delight in rightful sacrifice,
    burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
    then oxen on your altar they will bring.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Reproducability and corrections in the scientific literature

Illustration by David Parkins from Allison et al
Excellent though somewhat depressing review article by Allison et al in Nature called "Reproducibility: A tragedy of errors" about how difficult it is to get retractions or corrections in papers which are full of errors.

Although they managed to get one paper retracted when they found that the analysis applied a mathematical model that overestimated effects by more than tenfold (after some months) they have found it very difficult/impossible to secure retractions in over 25 other cases.  They find that:
  • Editors are often unable or reluctant to take speedy and appropriate action
  • Where to send expressions of concern is unclear
  • Journals that acknowledged invalidating errors were reluctant to issue retractions
  • Journals charge authors to correct others' mistakes
  • No standard mechanism exists to request raw data
  • Informal expressions of concern are overlooked
This is pretty worrying. It also agrees with my limited experience when Science published an absurd review article by Thomas Piketty. I wrote to the editors to the effect that:
Although Piketty and his co-author Saez admit that the data on which they draw are highly uncertain, there are no error bars in any of their graphs and no discussion of statistical significance. Claims in the paper (eg that wealth concentration in Europe “has been rising since the 1970s-80s”) are “supported” by just 3 data points in Fig 2 differing by much less than 10% so cannot be significant even at the 5% level. Furthermore Piketty’s key thesis, that r>g is “supported” by Fig 4 which shows the two most recent data points where g >r and then two made-up points depending entirely on assumptions.

It now emerges that the data on which Piketty claims to have based his conclusions were not “official data and tax surveys” but data from these surveys to which manual adjustments were made to support his conclusions (Chris Giles, FT, http://blogs.ft.com/money-supply/2014/05/23/data-problems-with-capital-in-the-21st-century/) and, for the UK, using an official statistic specifically stated to be “not a suitable source” for this and declining to use the data collected for this purpose. If the correct figures and official statistics are used a significantly different picture of wealth distribution in the UK emerges.

Piketty responded to these criticisms admitting that his choice of data is questionable though defending his decisions since the official data “does not look particularly plausible”.  It may well be that the official data give estimates which are too low, and for a popular book that may be OK. But can we allow a paper to stand in Science where the data have been massaged thus? People assume that a Science paper meets the highest scientific standards. Any other paper with such problems would be retracted. Does the author of a fashionable best-seller get special treatment?
But they just said that they would take no action, and to leave a comment below the article. This bogus article has since been cited over 100 times.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Back from HK and Beijing

W Window of Beijing South Cathedral
Back from a fascinating and largley un-bloggable trip to HK and Beijing. Attended the Asia Global Dialogue in HK, particularly because my friends Andrew Sheng and Mike Spence were key figures in it, and what they said was very thought-provoking.

On Sunday I sang in the South Cathedral English Language Choir in Beijing - just as well I turned up becasue I was the only tenor!  As always it was a joyful and uplifting occasion. The sermon was about how we should not fix our eyes and hopes on worldly success.

Weather in Beijing was remarkably good - clear blue skies and not too cold.  Lots of very productive meetings that sadly I can't talk about.

Although China is fascinating it's great to be back home!