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The future of reproduction: where do we draw the line?

The Anatomy lecture theatre on the 6th floor of the King’s Building was the location for two presentations in  KCL’s Ethics series, with Professor Bronwyn Parry talking about paid surrogacy in India and Professor Rosamund Scott talking about pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). The presentations were introduced by Dr Annette Rid, Senior lecturer in Bioethics and Society at KCL.

Professor Parry’s presentation corrected misconceptions held by many people about paid surrogacy in India. Far from it being principally undertaken by Westerners, or even ethnic Indians living in the West, 80% is commissioned by resident Indians. There are several reasons for this: rapid professionalisation in the Indian middle classes is leading women to delay childbearing, also infertility arising from disease is much more common than in the West.

Women who offer to be surrogate mothers normally have very limited life choices, making surrogacy a very attractive option. These women primarily use the money to educate their other children. Seen from this angle, if we deny them this option, are we also perpetuating inequality? There are also side-benefits for the surrogate mother in that her nutrition and medical care is better than it would be otherwise, as the donors, surrogate mother and the hospital or clinic have a common interest in ensuring a good outcome (a healthy baby).

Professor Scott’s presentation, in comparison, addressed an area that is of particular interest in the West at present. PGD is still a relatively rare procedure and is used almost exclusively for conditions where a previous child has had a serious defect, or there is a familial history of the defect, or where there have been certain types of miscarriage. As for abortion on medical grounds, the criterion is to avoid a baby being born with a significant risk of mental or physical disability, or another serious condition. The use of the word serious is indicative rather than objective and different doctors may draw the line at different points.

PGD based on gender is not permitted in the UK, except for serious conditions like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, where the defective gene is on the X-chromosome and boys only have one copy of this from their mother. Professor Scott shared the results of a survey on the quality of life for Duchennes boys: their parents rate their quality of life lowest, the boys themselves rate it highest (and almost the same as unaffected boys), while clinicians rate it in between. Clearly, whose opinion we choose to put most weight on will have an effect on decisions whether to use PGD in cases that are less clear-cut.

Professor Scott also mentioned PGD in preventing cases of Tay-Sachs disease and this led to a question from the audience about the New York rabbi, who set up a programme to prevent this and other recessive genetic diseases in his community after he had four of his own children die from the disease. This approach raises an interesting ethical question: is it better to test people before marriage and tell them if they are incompatible (1% of all tests for this community) with their prospective partners; or to allow people to marry freely and deal with the resulting problem through PGD? In this case, being in a close-knit community with many shared ancestors and a reverence for the authority of the rabbi, it worked effectively.

Choosing modules

One of the features of the King’s Graduate Diploma in Theology and Religious Studies (TRS) course that I particularly liked was the the freedom to choose which modules to study. Nominally, all the modules are taken from level 6 (the third year of the BA Theology course), but the rules allowed me to choose two modules from the second year (level 5). For anyone who is interested in the modules that are available, here is the link.

I had decided that I wanted to study the two periods that were of most interest to me: the early church and the Reformation. So ‘”what is Christianity” patristic perspectives’ with Allan Brent (author of A Political History of Early Christianity) was a natural choice, while I added ‘Principles of Systematic Theology’ with Susannah Ticciati as my second module in the autumn term. Patristics covered Christianity from the early persecutions under Nero and Domitian up to Christianity becoming the Roman State religion under Constantine, while Systematic Theology ran from Augustine, through Luther, The Council of Trent, Calvin, Wesley, Barth and Bonhoeffer with the emphasis on how each treated ideas like grace and predestination.

At the same time, I have been attending two sets of AKC (Associateship of King’s College) lectures. As a Theology student, I registered for the AKC for TRS  students, which had the Medical Humanities as its topic in the autumn term and will cover Climate change in the spring term. I have also attended the AKC for General students, because the autumn term is on biblical interpretation; I will probably dip into the spring term lectures on art in religion, without trying to go to all of them.

For next term, my modules are Religion, Culture and Society in Reformation Europe and The Historical Jesus. Because I wanted to take the English Reformation module next year, the former is strongly recommended. The Historical Jesus, is being taught by Joan Taylor, who directed the enormously successful ‘Jesus and Brian’ conference at King’s earlier this year, so I am sure that it will be fascinating.

My 2500-word essay for Patristics is already submitted, but I will also have an examination on it in the Summer term; for Systematic Theology I have to write a 5000-word essay for early January, so I will be working hard throughout December. The AKC exam is on the last day of the spring term, so I haven’t given that too much thought yet, apart from writing out my lecture notes into a more coherent form.

Confronting violence in the name of God

Rabbi Sacks gave a talk last night at the Greenwood Theatre of the KCL Guy’s campus, for which the phrase “tour de force” could have been invented. Dealing with one of the major threats in the world today, he discussed its origins and ended with an outline of how it can be overcome. Rabbi Sacks will be posting the text of his talk on his own web site but here is a short summary of the talk.

He started by identifying the issue as requiring a multi-disciplinary approach, not just a theological one, and split his response into seven steps.

Step one, three routes to the same fundamental question:

Charles Darwin on natural selection – ruthlessness should win; altruism should have gone extinct. How do selfish genes produce selfless people?

Moral philosophy – many different philosophers have created moral systems. If it is so straight-forward to be moral, why are so many not moral?

Theology – why do people hate in the name of God of Love.

Step 2, the answer to the question:

We pass on our genes as individuals, but we only survive as groups. This explains two sets of emotional responses wired into our brains. Altruistic reactions are needed for survival of the group; fight or flight reactions apply to non-group members. This is part of our biology.

We are both angels and demons; the reason for the failure of universalism is that humanity is divided into groups and any group is defined by those whom it excludes. This is part of biology and culture. If we were all Kantians, Benthamites or Humites (for example) we would all get on. What unites us simultaneously divides us.

Step 3, where, when and why does religion enter?

Start with the smallest group (our kin); even the atheist JBS Haldane would have been prepared to sacrifice his life for two brothers or 8 cousins. Kin selection is the first reason for altruism.

Larger groups depend on reciprocal altruism; game theory shows that “tit for tat” is more effective than any pure cooperation or non-cooperation strategy. The only better strategy turns out to be generous “tit for tat” (tit for tat with forgiveness). It is notable that there is more trust in villages than in cities. Robin Dunbar thinks that we have big brains to work out who to trust. The limit for brains our size is 150 people. This is still a small group.

The problem with cities is how do you trust strangers – if you don’t meet the same people repeatedly then reciprocal altruism doesn’t work. Organised religion began at the same time as the first cities. Religions didn’t stop clashes between groups, but made the groups clashing bigger. Conflict is indivisible from humanity, but less than 10% are based on religion.

Step 4, what is the occupational hazard of monotheism?

It is not atheism, whatever, Dawkins and people like him think; it is dualism. At the birth of both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism there were dualistic variants, for example Manicheanism from Iran and Gnosticism from Greece. Dualism leads to a whole series of dichotomies ending in God/Devil and saved/damned. Dualism arises at moments of cognitive dissonance when the difference between what is and what should be becomes too great. Good people suffering while bad people thrive expresses crisis. Suffer too long without hope and monotheism breaks into dualism. Dualism turns divisions between groups into permanent divisions: children of God against enemies of God.

Step 5, why is dualism so dangerous?

Dualism gives rise to three phenomena:

1) it demonises your opponents. If you demonise your opponents, you dehumanise them;

2) it defines me and my group as victims. Defining yourself as victims removes all responsibility for your actions;

3) it creates altruistic evil. It lures decent men and women and turns them into suicide bombers and terrorists because they see themselves as ridding the world of God’s enemies. Not just in a religious context, we see the same behaviour in the Nazis, Communists and Hutus to take just three of many examples.

Step 6, where are we today?

The last time we faced this problem was in the 17th Century. At that time there had been a great increase in communications as a result of the invention of the printing press with movable type in Europe (1450). This led to bibles being published in the vernacular and hence many more people being able to read them for themselves instead of being dependent on their priests. But this did not develop without opposition; Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for the crime of translating the Bible into English. The century of religious wars across Europe was only ended by the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that set up the foundations of the modern nation state.

We can see some of the same features in 21st Century developments; for example the Arab Spring in which religion was a key feature in empowering people and overthrowing authoritarian regimes. The real danger is that some of this is dualistic.

Step 7, what is the solution?

We can learn from the 17th Century that what won the wars were weapons, but what won the peace were ideas from people like Milton, Locke, Spinoza and Hobbes. Ideas like: the social contract, moral limits of power, human rights, toleration, and liberty of conscience.

The same ideas that worked then will not [necessarily] work now. People had become disillusioned with organised religion, principally with the Roman Catholic church of the day, and over the next four centuries we saw a process of secularisation:

in the 17th Century, knowledge – Newton and Descartes;

in the 18th Century, power – the American and French revolutions;

in the 19th Century, culture – art galleries and museums; and

in the 20th Century, morality – the move away from the Judeo-Christian ethics beginning in the 1960’s.

The real dissatisfaction now is with nation states. These have worked in Europe [although imperfectly] but were imposed on Africa and the Middle East. There is also disillusionment with liberal market-driven cultures where maximum choice is combined with a minimum of meaning. Durkheim said that anonyme leads to an increase in suicides; people will sacrifice their lives if they have no meaning.

If religion cannot provide the solution then it will be part of the problem; we must emphasise that dualism is not monotheism. As Nietzsche said “Evil in the name of God is desecration of the name of God.” [I have not been able to source this quotation]. Religious extremism demands a religious response; we cannot rely on secular governments to keep the peace. We must be able to see a trace of God in the face of the stranger. Love God; love your neighbour else, in destroying our enemies we will also destroy ourselves.

Another Beginning

I am now a student again at King’s College, London, studying (part-time) for a Graduate Diploma in Theology and Religious Studies after a career working as a research physicist. King’s is a fascinating college; founded in 1829 under a Royal Charter from King George IV, it was a response by eminent churchmen and politicians to what they saw as “the godless college in Gower Street”. At that time it was just the fourth University in England (although Scotland was well ahead in this regard).

Before KCL began to award degrees with the foundation of London University in 1836, the first award was the Associateship of Kings College (AKC) which is still an optional award for students to take today. Students attend one of two courses of lectures: one for General students and the other for students of Theology and Religious Studies. Needless to say one still has to pass one’s regular degree course as well as the AKC exams to be able to apply for the award.

For me on the Graduate Diploma, the topics this year are Medical Humanities and Climate Change; next year there will be two different topics and another two topics in the following year, although as a student on a two-year course I will be able to apply for exemption for the last year’s topics.

KCL is also quite a widely spread college, so I have one lecture this term in the Virginia Woolf building in Kingsway; one in the basement of the Strand building; one on the second floor of the King’s building (the original college building next to Somerset House, which contains the college’s beautiful chapel) and one in the Waterloo Bridge Wing of the Franklin-Wilkins Building, south of the river. Fortunately, it is possible to walk from one end of the Strand campus to the other in around ten minutes. There are three other campuses in the college: Guy’s, St Thomas’ and Denmark Hill, but all of these are medicine-oriented, so the student in all the other faculties finds their life revolving around the Strand.

The Student’s Union is adjacent to the King’s Building and its Waterfront Bar provides a view of the Thames that you would need to pay a large sum of money for were you to go instead to the Savoy Hotel just along the Strand. So far, I have not made use of it, but that is as much because I realise how much work I have to do to catch up with the undergraduate students (who have already been studying theology for one or two years before taking the modules that I am taking at the beginning of my course).

I will discuss the modules I am taking in my next posting.

[Those who have the patience to search Google for the film with the title of this posting, will discover that it is the story of the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, which after the death of Serge Diaghilev, went to Australia. I saw the film once in London back in the 1980’s and the metaphor of the ballet company travelling to the other side of the world seemed an appropriate one for my journey from being a physicist to studying theology.]

Jeff Zweerink at St Peter’s, West Harrow

On Sunday evening, I had an invitation from one of my colleagues on the Course in Christian Studies to listen to an American speaker, Jeff Zweerink, at St Peter’s Church, West Harrow. Jeff is an Astrophysicist at UCLA as well as being a Christian from childhood and was having difficulty reconciling his faith with his knowledge of science until he heard Hugh Ross speak on Science and Christianity. From him he learned about the Reasons to Believe group, based in California, for which he now speaks.

Jeff’s presentation began with him talking about his own life and how he came to move from the Mid-West, where he was brought up, to California and how he came to see that conflict between scientific ideas and Christian thought was apparent rather than real. In this sense, it was more a personal testimony than a rigorous examination of the interaction between Science and Religion although he did mention his own book on the Multiverse and answered questions on a range of scientific areas.

You can find more about Jeff and Reasons to Believe here.


Was “Life of Brian” blasphemous, intentionally offensive to Christians, or just a masterpiece of parody?

This was a theme that ran throughout the Conference, being touched on in the discussions between Richard Burridge, John Cleese and Terry Jones on the first evening; in Richard Burridge’s comments on Bishop Mervyn Stockwood’s response in the 1979 TV debate where he and Malcolm Muggeridge took issue with John Cleese and Michael Palin; in David Tollerton’s presentation Blasphemy! On Free Speech Then and Now, and in the final discussion with Julian Doyle, Film Editor of Life of Brian. Certainly, the Pythons today do not believe that they intended the film to be offensive, although there is evidence that at some time in the past, some of them had such an intention. We note that the the original working title of the film was Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory; a riff on the film title Patten – Lust for Glory about the Second World War General. Also, cut from the released film was the “Otto” scene where Otto (Judean People’s Front) is portrayed as a Hitler-like character wearing an insignia based on the Star of David with swastika-like extensions. This scene is needed to make sense of their appearance at the end of the film where the suicide squad kill themselves in front of Brian on the Cross.

John Cleese also referred to the Pythons principal target being 1970’s Britain with the Judean People’s Front, the People’s Front of Judea and the Popular Front of Judea (all one of him) representing the various left-wing groups; the Roman Centurion who corrects Brian’s Latin grammar as a prototypical public school teacher; and the civil servant, just doing his job “line on the left, one cross each”. One character that Cleese was coy about was Pontius Pilate, who had a speech impediment that prevented him from uttering the “r” sound with it coming out as “w” instead. One does not have to look far to find the origin and the reason for Cleese’s coyness. Roy Jenkins, who was at the time the first (and still the only) British President of the European Commission, had exactly this manner of speech, to the extent that his nickname was “Woy”. One can see the Common Market (as it was then called) with its founding principle of “ever-closer union” as being the inheritor of the Roman Empire and bringing about a modern-day Pax Romana to the countries of Western Europe. Cleese was close to the founders of the SDP, even making a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1987 so it is quite understandable that he would want to avoid any such suggestion, particularly whilst Roy Jenkins was alive.

Richard Burridge’s take on the behaviour of Mervyn Stockwood, then Bishop of Soutwark, and Malcolm Muggeridge over the film and particularly the brilliant parodying of them by Rowan Atkinson and Mel Smith in their Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch, illustrated the amount that British life has changed since the 1970’s and how much out-of-touch with modern life  that establishment figures like Mervyn Stockwood were even in the 1970’s. One should not forget that here was a man who also sat on the red benches of the House of Lords and who by his arguments could affect public policy.

Marx said that “history repeats itself; first as tragedy, second as farce”. If Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s enquiry of Thomas Huxley in the 1860 debate on evolution at Oxford, as whether he claimed his descent from a monkey through his grandfather or grandmother was tragedy (at least for the standing of the Anglican church); then Stockwood, shaking his pectoral cross at Michael Palin and averring that he had got his thirty pieces of silver, was undoubtedly farce.

David Tolleton devoted the whole of his talk to the question of blasphemy and free speech from 1st Century Judea through the 1970’s to the present day. In the stoning scene the (bearded) women are preparing to stone a man for uttering the word “Jehovah” and John Cleese plays the Priest reading out the charge, with the expected results when he, perforce, has to utter the word. This would be in line with Lv24:16 although there is evidence that the Saducees and Sanhedrin had a looser understanding of what constituted blasphemy more in line with Ex22:27 and both Philo and Josephus understood blasphemy in the latter context.

In Britain, the modern Blasphemy Law dated back to the Restoration and even as early as 1949 (the later Lord) Denning pronounced that there was no such danger to society and in effect the law was a dead letter. It was, however, revived in the Gay News trial of 1977 when Mary Whitehouse was given leave to bring a private prosecution against the magazine. This was part of a wider campaign by Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light against what they perceived to be a loss of Christian values in Britain. Tollerton suggested that John Cleese’s character and the “women” could be seen as a group of crazed Mary Whitehouses. In 21st Century Britain there is no blasphemy law (repealed 2008), but some may see the Racial and Religious Hate Act (2006) as a replacement. Without this being tested by the courts it is not possible to be sure, but there has certainly been no surge of cases brought under it.

If there is no God to blaspheme, then can blasphemy exist at all? In Durkheim’s philosophy, the individual becomes sacred and any attack on his life, liberty or rights is equivalent to blasphemy. Blasphemy can then be seen as censorship; banning the unacceptable. It is in times of rapid change, like 1st Century Judea or 1970’s Britain that the limits of what is acceptable become unclear.

So the conclusion of the Conference was that Life of Brian was not blasphemous and, while it had upset some Christians, it had not been intentionally offensive. The only positive conclusion was that it was indeed a masterpiece of parody.

Jesus and Brian, first reactions

This was a very impressive conference with a tremendous amount of information about the search for the historical Jesus and the representation of 1st Century Judea in “The Life of Brian”. I shall be commenting in more detail within the next few days, but there were so many links between the different talks that I will have to spend some time structuring my comments.

Pythons at Kings

Pythons at Kings

Terry Jones and John Cleese in conversation with Richard Burridge on the first evening of the Jesus and Brian conference

Jesus and Brian: or what have the Pythons done for us?

A provocative title for a serious conference at King’s College, London. The conference will be looking at the historical Jesus and first-century Judea, The conference runs from 20th-22nd June and further information is available from the link below.

I shall be covering the conference in this blog.


Mary Magdalene and the case of missing Magdala

A fascinating discourse from an expert in both biblical texts and the archaeology of the Holy Land that answers some questions but poses others.

According to traditions that can be dated back to the Byzantine Empire (6th Century), Mary Magdalene came from a town called Magdala, meaning “Tower” north of Tiberias on the shores of Lake Galilee. From the 8th-9th Century this was an established pilgrimage site and is associated with a pre-1948 Palestinian fishing village (al-Majdal) near to the modern Israeli town of Migdal. Professor Taylor questioned this identification as neither Eusebius nor Jerome mention Magdala and it would be strange for it to be passed down orally for centuries without being written down by church historians. Also, if we look at the original Greek text (Nestle-Aland), the word between Mary and Magdalene is the Greek letter eta with an aspirated breathing mark over it, which means the, not of. So the reference to her is Mary the Magdalene (or as we might say, Mary the Tower). Now why did Jesus call her this? She might have been particularly tall; she might have been far-sighted (in the sense of a tower as a watch-tower q.v. Habakkuk 2:1), she might have been a source of strength to the other apostles (in the sense of a tower as a place of refuge). Jesus certainly gave nicknames to many of his disciples: Andrew’s brother Simon became Peter (the rock), James and John became “sons of Thunder” (or noisy men), iscariot meant “choked up”, while zealot meant “striving man”, not necessarily a member of the group called the Zealots. Furthermore, “tower” is a symbol in inter-testamental Judaism and also occurs in early Christian writings; the Shepherd of Hermas uses the word for the Church, strengthening the interpretation of it as a place of refuge.

But if Mary was not from Magdala, where did she come from. Certainly, if we look at Mt 15:39 we see that after the feeding of the 4000, Jesus crossed Lake Galilee to the vicinity of Magadan (Mark 8:10 has the region of Dalmanutha) and there are Byzantine variants of the text where Magadan has become Magdala. Often this is linked to the small city of Tarichaea, but Josephus identifies Tarichaea as south of Tiberias, rather than north, where the city of Homonoia is on the civil boundary between lower and upper Galilee. It is possible that Mary came from Migdal Nuniya (‘Tower of fish”) about 1 mile north of Tiberias, but as this has not been excavated we do not know if it was populated in Jesus’ time, so the question of where Mary Magdalene came from remains open. But even if we cannot say where she came from, we can identify one highly significant fact: she is always referred to as Mary Magdalene, never defined through her relationship to a man, such as Mary mother of Joses (Mk 15:47).