Thinking Anew – Faith and the seeds of change

 Photograph: Shelly Au/iStock

Photograph: Shelly Au/iStock


In a recent radio interview marking his 75th birthday, Prof Stephen Hawking contemplated the future of the human race with some concern. He suggested that humankind had a hereditary and instinctive leaning towards greed and oppression; that any hope of conflict lessening was misplaced and that technology could in fact make it worse. He suggested that the only hope for human survival would be in independent colonies living in space. Not for the first time this brilliant and courageous man encourages us to think.

His recognition of flawed humanity echoes the old Christian doctrine of original sin but his suggestion of a promised land in outer space overlooks one simple fact. If human nature is flawed, as Prof Hawking suggests and Christians believe, then our imperfections remain wherever we are, on planet Earth or in space. We cannot run away from self.

Jesus Christ had no illusions about the frailty of humankind; he was challenged by it all through his ministry but he also recognised potential in many ordinary people that he met. While he acknowledged the reality of the human greed and aggression that troubles Prof Hawking, he also pointed to our God- given capacity to love and proved its transforming power by his actions many times. Christians believe that God is love and wherever love is experienced God is present and active. This enables us to speak of hope not only in the here and now but also into the future.

Tomorrow’s gospel reading reminds us that there are choices to be made when we are confronted with such matters. The parable of the sower explains some of the choices people make. Some are simply not interested; some engage for a while but give up; some are preoccupied with what is going on in their lives: ”...the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things (that) enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful”.

This is a fair reflection of society today and the challenges facing the church, challenges that are exacerbated by the aggressive secularism that seeks to remove religion from every aspect of public life. We see this in the current debate on education and the political and other pressures being exerted against church-owned and church-supported schools. It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a valueless system of education.

Those who seek to eliminate or diminish the role of religion in education and other areas of civil life would do well to note the conclusions of the author George Orwell, who, as an atheist, had campaigned for much of his life to remove religion from public life. In later years, however, he had second thoughts: “For 200 years we have sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than we had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded and down we came. But unfortunately, there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all; it was a cesspool of barbed wire . . . it appears that amputation of the soul is not a simple surgical job, like having your appendix out. The wound has a tendency to go septic.”

The parable of the sower emphasises the importance of roots.

The values we cherish in Ireland and indeed throughout Europe are Christian values deeply rooted in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Failures to live up to those values in the past both as individuals and as churches do not invalidate them; we need to deepen our roots, not abandon them.

Fr Michel Quoist made that point when he wrote: “If your roots are firmly planted, be sure you know what you’re doing before pulling them up and moving on. A plant always suffers when transplanted; it needs time to grow more roots and time to develop before it can bear any fruit.”