The Probability of You Existing at All is Almost NON-Existent. A Brief Reflection on the Contingency of our Being and the Glory of God, Based on a Recent Math Article.

I was alerted to a fascinating article by Ali Binazir who sets forth mathematically the odds of you or I existing, just as we are genetically. It turns out that, when taking into consideration the astonishing number of possibilities of parents meeting, grandparents before them and on and on going back the generations, and adding also the vast numbers of sperm and ova in possible combination over a the lifetime of the marital acts, of all those generations, it would seem that the odds of me existing just as I do, are 1 in 102,685,000. That’s a number so huge it hurts to think about it.

To say that we are contingent beings, is a vast understatement. To say that some one or something is contingent is to say that the existence of same is not inevitable, but can only come about based on any number of previous things being true in a chain of being or causality. Hence I would not exist if my parents had not existed and met. Further, they would not exist if the parents had not existed and met, the chain going back many generations. Thus, my existence depends on a vast number of “meetings” going just right, or I am not here.

Consider some of the contingencies and requirements for your existence as set forth by Mr Binazir. Some of the numbers are based on hunches, but generally those numbers are on the conservative side. I am only publishing a small amount of his musings here. You can read his full article here: What are the Chances of You Being Born? and see how he comes up with these numbers.

So here are listed some of the probabilities of required events for you to be born:

  1. Probability of boy meeting girl: 1 in 20,000.
  2. Now let’s say the chances of them actually talking to one another is one in 10.
  3. And the chances of that turning into another meeting is about one in 10 also.
  4. And the chances of that turning into a long-term relationship is also one in 10.
  5. And the chances of that lasting long enough to result in offspring is one in 2.
  6. So the probability of your parents’ chance meeting resulting in marriage and kids is about 1 in 2000
  7. So the combined probability is already around 1 in 40 million
  8. Now things start getting interesting.  Why?  Because we’re about to deal with eggs and sperm, which come in large numbers. Each sperm and each egg is genetically unique because of the process of meiosis; you are the result of the fusion of one particular egg with one particular sperm.  A fertile woman has 100,000 viable eggs on average.  A man will produce about 12 trillion sperm over the course of his reproductive lifetime.
  9. Let’s say a third of those (4 trillion) are relevant to our calculation, since the sperm created after your mom hits menopause don’t count.  So the probability of that one sperm with half your name on it hitting that one egg with the other half of your name on it is 1/(100,000)(4 trillion)= 1/(105)(4×1012)= 1 in 4 x 1017, or one in 400 quadrillion.
  10. But because the existence of you here now on planet earth presupposes another supremely unlikely and utterly undeniable chain of events.  Namely, that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age we must also go further presuming 150,000 generations going back to man’s origin.
  11. Well then, that would be one in 2150,000 , which is about 1 in 1045,000– a number so staggeringly large that my head hurts just writing it down.
  12. But let’s think about this some more.  Remember the sperm-meeting-egg argument for the creation of you, since each gamete is unique?
  13. Well, the right sperm also had to meet the right egg to create your grandparents.  Otherwise they’d be different people, and so would their children, who would then have had children who were similar to you but not quite you.
  14. This is also true of your grandparents’ parents, and their grandparents, and so on till the beginning of human time.  If even once the wrong sperm met the wrong egg, you would not be sitting here noodling online reading fascinating articles like this one.  It would be your cousin Jethro, and you never really liked him anyway.
  15. That means in every step of your lineage, the probability of the right sperm meeting the right egg such that the exact right ancestor would be created that would end up creating you is one in 1200 trillion, which we’ll round down to 1000 trillion, or one quadrillion.
  16. So now we must account for that for 150,000 generations by raising 400 quadrillion to the 150,000th power: That’s a ten followed by 2,640,000 zeroes, which would fill 11 volumes of a 250 page book with zeroes.
  17. For the sake of completeness: (102,640,000)(1045,000)(2000)(20,000) = 4x 102,685,007 ≈ 102,685,000
  18. Probability of your existing at all: 1 in 102,685,000

Now, there are some assumptions you may quibble with. I would certainly add in (sadly) some probabilities related to being aborted, or miscarried. But even a simpler analysis yields astonishing numbers. One of my brothers made his own calculation regarding one of Binazir’s numbers:

My numbers are more simplistic.  But assuming 100,000 eggs/woman & 12T sperm/man, that creates 1.2 x 10^18 combinations for every man/woman pairing (i.e., signficantly more combos than 400T or 4 x 10^14 mentioned in the article).  If you assume 3B women on earth & 3B man, that means 3 x 10^14 eggs and 3.6 x 10^22 sperm currently on the planet, for a total combination of 1.1 x 10^37 pairings.  If you assume current population is 1% of the history of humanity, total combos go to 1.1 x 10^39.

Not only are you and I contingent, we are very improbable! Yet here we are! Mirabile visu! (wondrous to behold).

Theologically of course we are no accident or happenstance. God has always known us, intended us, loved us and planned for us. Scripture says,

  1. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jer 1:5).
  2. Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, in the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world (Matt 25:34)
  3. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:13-16)

Yes, you’re here alright, and math can barely account for your existence, so tiny are the odds. But God has overseen every detail and knew you long before you were born. In fact he has been preparing a place for us in the kingdom, from before the creation of the world. Not only has he always known us, but he has known everything we would do, for every one of our days have been written in his book before one of them ever came to be.

The great mystery of our existence stretches back in time into the very heart and mind of God who has always known and loved us, has prepared for us and made a way for us. You are wonderfully and fearfully made and God has done a marvelous thing. You’re not just one in a million, you’re one in a 102,685,000

Photo Credit: Portland Glass

This video makes a moving point, but attributes our existence to luck. But you are not here by luck, you are here by the grace and will of God.

Faith Comes Through Hearing – As Seen in a Beautiful Video


blog7-31 - babyBelow is a touching video of a hearing-impaired infant who, after being fitted with a hearing aid, hears the voices of his parents for the very first time. Initially, the child fidgets, afraid of what is happening. But as the voices of his parents reach his soul, a smile of joy and recognition blossoms on his face.

In the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil is a beautiful line regarding an infant’s first recognition of his mother. In this case it refers to seeing, but the same could be said of hearing.

Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem.
Begin, little boy, to recognize the face of your mother with a smile.

Spiritually, this video speaks to those of us who may have fidgeted as we were introduced to the voice of our Heavenly Father and Holy Mother Church. At first, we objected to the voice of truth and resisted those who sought to help us to hear. But, prayerfully (and I am a witness), many of us adjusted and began to smile at the beautiful voice of truth.

Faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17).

Enjoy the video!

God’s Plan will Stand – A Word of Encouragement to the Fainthearted

122214Advent is a season of waiting, waiting for God to fulfill his promises. We know that most of His promises from the Old Testament were fulfilled magnificently by Jesus. But as St. Paul reminds, we have received but the first fruits of his work in our soul (cf Rom 8:23). The created world and our physical bodies still await the full implications of what He has done. We still await a new Heaven and a new earth where the justice of God will reside (cf 2 Peter 3:13). We still wait for that time when God will renew and restore all things in Christ and will vanquish the ancient foe of mankind, Satan, and his followers, the demons and the wicked, so that they can no longer cause harm.

There are times—times like these—when many may be discouraged. There are times when evil may seem to triumph and the victory of Christ seems very far off. For indeed we live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures.

But as Advent ends there comes a word of encouragement from Isaiah, who has been the main prophet of reference during this season. It is addressed to the fainthearted, and is an unambiguous declaration that God is working His purposes out and that nothing in this world can ultimately prevent His plan from reaching its fulfillment and victory.

It is God who speaks through Isaiah. These words are worth reading aloud if you are in a place where you can do so as you read this: 

I am God there is no other. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it and I will do it. Listen to me you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give my glory to Israel (Isaiah 46:12ff).

Consider three conclusions for us to take to heart.

1. THE PLAN –  In Heaven there is no panic, no puzzlement about what to do, just plans. And God says, “My plan shall stand.” The foolish and the self-described “wise and learned” of this world may well scoff and think they have found something greater than God’s wisdom and knowledge. Many seculars may dismiss God as a myth or as irrelevant. The wicked may think they can mock God forever. But God’s plan will stand. The plan and works of evil are going nowhere. Scripture says in Psalm 2,

The kings of the earth rise up,  and the rulers take counsel together,  against the Lord and his anointed, saying, 3 “Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;  the Lord has them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “I have set my king  on Zion, my holy hill.” … Now therefore, O kings, be wise;  be warned, O rulers of the earth.   11 Serve the Lord with fear,  with trembling 12give homage to his Son,  lest he be angry, and you perish in the way;  for his wrath is quickly kindled.  Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

 Yes, God’s plan will stand, no matter the plans of man. And those who mock God, or build their Towers of Babel, or lead others to sin are going to be surprised, and they are going to answer to God.

2. THE PARADOX – God speaks of the “fainthearted” as those who feel far from the victory of justice. To them He says simply that His justice IS near and that it will not tarry.

It is true that God often accomplishes His purposes in paradoxical ways! Simply go to the foot of the Cross to see that. What sort of King is this? What sort of triumph is this? And yet it is a masterful inversion of Satan’s scheme. It is a stealthy action. And just as Satan is making his victory dance, Christ is emptying out Sheol.

Christ conquers by refusing Satan’s terms, by refusing to impress the world on its prideful and vengeful terms. For indeed, darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. And hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot conquer pride; only humility can do that.

The world demands that Christ become merely a bigger version of Satan: bold, brash, arrogant, and disobedient. It demands that Jesus fight the fight on Satan’s terms, using Satan’s techniques. But Jesus will have none of it and He cancels Satan’s pride by humility and obedience. And to all the prideful, the disobedient, and the braggarts of today the message still goes forth: My plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose!

And to the fainthearted goes the message that God’s justice is near. But we must also learn that it comes, paradoxically, through the Cross. For just as the first victory came on a Sunday after Good Friday, so too the second and final victory will rise in the wake of the Cross. But it WILL come—not on the world’s terms and not by Satan’s tactics, but by the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

3. THE PERSPECTIVE – There are many today who like to announce that the age of faith is over, that God is but a myth and faith a superstition. People who speak like this know little of history.

For indeed, the Lord’s Church has been here for over 2000 years, more than 5000 if you count the Old Testament years. And during this time, empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, heresies and philosophies have waxed and waned. Self-declared enemies have said that they would bury the Church, but the Church read the funeral rites over them. Where is Caesar now? Where is Julian the Apostate? Where is Napoleon, or Hitler, or Stalin, or the USSR?

When the Muslims wiped out the North African cradle of the Church, Europe lit up with converts from the barbarians. Just when two million Europeans walked out of the Church during the Protestant revolt, nine million entered in Mexico following the apparition at Guadalupe. And now that Europe is largely divorcing from Christ, Africa has lit up again like a great wedding feast with a 7000% increase in the number of Catholics over the last fifty years.

People who say that the age of faith is over, or that the Church is doomed, have not read history. They lack perspective because they do not know God, whose plan will stand. That the powers of Hell will strive to destroy the Church is evident. That they will fail to prevail is revealed in Scripture (Matt 16:18) and has been shown all these centuries now. When the current scoffers are dead and gone, the Church will still be here preaching the Gospel. The Lord does not guarantee that we will always be numerous, but we will be here for as long as the sun shall shine and until the Lord comes again.

To the fainthearted the Spirit says, “Be strong. God’s plan will stand.” And so the Lord Jesus says, Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away (Lk 21:33). These are difficult days, even inside the Church. But the Lord is still the Head of His body. God’s plan will stand.

Atheism is Acquired, and recent studies show it is not natural to the human person

"Chartres Cathedral” by Tony Hisgott. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Chartres Cathedral” by Tony Hisgott. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen once remarked that atheism was not natural to the human person and that it was acquired. He used as his reference St. Paul’s words in Romans:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened (Romans 1:18-21).

And thus the Holy Spirit, speaking through St. Paul, says that the ungodly  suppress a truth that is plain and available to the human intellect, namely that God exists and is to be honored and thanked. Our capacity to perceive the existence of God is activated by the evidence of God’s power and divinity that is itself perceivable in creation. Hence, to choose to live in an ungodly (atheist) stance is not natural to us, but must be acquired through suppression of the truth and the evidence.

Since this suppression requires effort and an overriding of truth and evidence naturally available to us through our reason, those who engage in this suppression are, as the text says, without excuse. The term suppress is a present active participle in the Greek (κατεχόντων (katechonton), literally “suppressing.” Hence the text implies that atheism requires an ongoing effort to maintain the suppression. 

Now of course none of this would mean a thing to an atheist, since I am quoting a sacred text. However, for us who believe, Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. In other words, it tells us what is really going on. Atheists are suppressing the truth in an ongoing way. The reference to their “wickedness” need not be taken to mean that all, or even many atheists are living wicked lives in a comprehensive sense. Rather, it can simply mean that the suppression of the truth of God’s existence and the evidence for it in creation is itself a sin, a form of  wickedness. As such, atheism is not seen by Scripture merely as evidence of bad luck, poor upbringing, or ignorance. Atheism is sinful because it resists what we are naturally equipped to do: perceive God’s existence. And this resistance is described as on ongoing, sinful state since the verb form used is a participle, indicating ongoing action.

A recent article at Science 2.0, describes some recent studies on the capacity of the human mind to perceive and ponder the metaphysical. The term “metaphysical” refers to concepts and realities that are beyond (meta) the physical world. Hence, concepts and realities such as justice, fairness, mercy, and so forth are not seen under a microscope but as real concepts that we not only debate, but which can both cause war and launch great humanitarian acts. Radical materialists deny metaphysics anywhere in the definable world. However, truly radical materialists are very rare, partly because it is so unnatural for humans to “think” this way, or to suppress the truth of metaphysical reality, which so clearly affects us.

I’d like to highlight excerpts of the article in the usual way, using black, bold italics, and include my own remarks in plain, red text. I do not vouch for the credibility of the Science 2.0 site, and I limit my comments simply to what is written in the column. But even if the science of studying this topic is nascent and is disputed by some, it nevertheless remains interesting that some in the field are beginning to discuss whether the human person is naturally wired to perceive and ponder the metaphysical. The full article is here: Atheism Unnatural?

Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged … We are born believers, not atheists, scientists say. Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting. “A slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith,” writes Pascal Boyer in Nature, the science journal, adding that people “are only aware of some of their religious ideas” …

And this is just what Fulton Sheen once observed: atheism is unnatural to us and is acquired only through effort. There is also reference here to a kind of “meta-narrative” about justice, to which all human beings seem oriented no matter the culture or the era. We have a sense of justice, of right and wrong. I recently featured an article describing the discovery by brain researchers that this sense is apparent even in the youngest children. You can read that article here: Even the youngest children know right and wrong

While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey by Theos, a think tank, found that very few people—only 13 per cent of adults—agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. For the vast majority of us, unseen realities are very present … In the US, only 20 per cent of people have no religious affiliation, but of these, only one in ten say they are atheists. The majority are “nothing in particular” according to figures published in New Scientist

And this makes sense, since the rejection of God does not necessarily imply a wholesale rejection of the metaphysical, as is proposed by the radical adherents of “scientism.” Scientism is the claim that the physical sciences can and do explain the whole of reality, that there is nothing beyond the physical.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person … the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work

This is what I referred to above as a meta-narrative, which is essentially the set of archetypal stories that illustrate the basic human longing for justice and truth, and the triumph of what is good and true. This is a consistent theme in every culture and in every epoch of recorded human history. It is a remarkably consistent theme that points to its being placed in the human heart and soul, not merely as a learned preference but as an infused attraction to what is good, true, beautiful, and just. Biologists and anthropologists may wish to attribute this merely to a learned biological mechanism that helps survival. But the question still remains as to how the physical can produce the metaphysical. Further, it seems puzzling that this would be a necessary adaptation for survival, since none of the other animals seem to need a meta-narrative, or archetypal stories assuring final triumph of justice, in order to survive. 

But if a belief in cosmic justice is natural and deeply rooted, the question arises: where does atheism fit in? Albert Einstein, who had a life-long fascination with metaphysics, believed atheism came from a mistaken belief that harmful superstition and a general belief in religious or mystical experience were the same thing. 

In other words, atheism arose as a response to spiritual extremism and unbalanced or inaccurate notions of God and faith. But they overcorrected by dismissing good faith along with bad or flawed notions.

But as higher levels of education spread, will … atheism sweep the field, as some atheism campaigners suggest? Some specialists feel this is unlikely … The need for periods of contemplative calm in churches or temples or other places devoted to the ineffable and inexplicable will remain. They appear to be part of who we are as humans.

Yes, it is unlikely that we will outgrow what is a fundamental human trait. Faith is not a lack of education; it is a fundamental human quality that may at times go in wrong directions intellectually, but which is innately correct and essential to who and what we are: spiritual as well as corporeal persons.

When looking at trends, there’s also population growth to consider. Western countries are moving away from the standard family model, and tend to obsess over topics such as same-sex marriage and abortion on demand. Whatever the rights and wrongs of these issues, in practice they are associated with shrinking populations …


Africans and South Asians, on the other hand, are generally religious and retain the traditional model of multi-child families—which may be old-fashioned from a Western point of view, but it’s a model powerfully sanctioned by the evolutionary urge to extend the gene pool.

The power of the womb and the noticeable dying of the culture of death and selfish decadence; faith will out!

“It’s clearly the case that the future will involve an increase in religious populations and a decrease in scepticism,” says Steve Jones, a professor in genetics at University College London, speaking at the Hay Festival in the UK recently … Bad news for pro-atheism campaigners.

Indeed, I frequently get atheists, and also some non-Catholics, who predict the demise of the Catholic Church. I always respond to them that they must not have not read history. In the 2000 years of the Church, empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, theories, heresies, trends, and fads have all sparked and then faded. But the Church is still here. Many have predicted our death, and to quote Chesterton, “We have buried every one of our undertakers.” Where is Caesar, where is Napoleon, where is Stalin, where is the USSR? They are gone, but we are here. I do not write this triumphantly; the Church is ever in need of reform and our numbers may rise and fall, but by the Lord’s promise, the power of Hell will not prevail over His everlasting Kingdom, the Church.

Here’s a hymn by John Henry Cardinal Newman: “Firmly I Believe and Truly”

Couragio! A brief refutation of our cultural fear of being against things

092414One of the critiques that many make of the Church is that we are sometimes known more for what we are against than what we are for. This critique, and fear, exists even within the Church. A similar critique is made of God’s law, wherein some wonder, “Why are the Ten Commandments generally worded as negatives: ‘Thou Shalt not …’ ?”

It is a fact that, at least in modern culture, many prefer to say what they are for rather than what they are against. Somehow, being “positive” is valued over being “negative.” Thus, even in the tragic conflict over abortion, both sides declare that they are “pro” something, either life or “choice.” I am certainly “pro-life,” but as to the matter in question, I am anti-abortion. But most of us who do any media work are strongly cautioned to avoid the prefix “anti-” altogether.

In fact, even when a group gathers to denounce something (e.g., war, poverty, or taxes) the participants are called “protesters” (a word that refers to those who stand up for or witness to something) rather than “contesters” (a word that refers to those who stand or witness against something). Frankly, “contester” more accurately describes what is going on in a “protest.” If I am protesting higher taxes, I am against the idea, not for (“pro-“)  it.  But we are funny this way, and very sensitive about it. We don’t like to be perceived as being against things.

And of course this is problematic for a preacher of the Gospel, who needs to engage a culture that is increasingly heading to some very dark and sinful places. At some point we simply have to be willing to say that we are foursquare against many things and endure the “terrible” charges that we are “negative,” even if our overall goal is to affirm something that is better than the practice we are against. Thus we are against abortion because we are for life and the potential and dignity of the unborn. We are against fornication, pornography, adultery, and homosexual acts because we are for chastity and God’s vision for sexuality. We are against euthanasia because we are for the wisdom of the Cross and the glory that our life brings to God. We are against greed because we love the poor and think our excess should be shared with them in appropriate ways.

But at the end of the day, we DO have to be willing to say that we are against certain things. We will not always have the luxury of being able to give elaborate speeches that attempt to show how we are really “for” something else and therefore are not bad people or sour-faced “downers.” Our ego needs to be a little stronger so that we do not feel the need to always seem nice, pleasant, positive, and affirming. These all have their place, but they can also be pernicious enemies of the truth.

And this leads us back to the Ten Commandments, wherein eight of the ten unapologetically use the formulation “You shall not …” God is not all that worried that He might be perceived as being “against” something—and neither should we be.

But there is another reason for the negative formulation that is worth exploring as well. Simply put, it is often easier to say what something is not, than to describe what it is. The commandments are depicting love, but if I ask you to wholly and completely define love you’re going to have a difficult time, since love is so comprehensive and multifaceted.

Thus, if you ask me, “What does it mean to love God?” I could go on for pages and pages trying to describe it and its implications and I would barely scratch the surface. Alternatively, however, I could say, “Well, to love God is to stay faithful to Him by not sleeping with other gods or giving them my love and worship. To love God means that I will not disrespect His precious name, but will honor it for its precious dignity and for the sign of intimacy it is. To love God means that I will not fail to spend time with Him on Sunday and enjoy His blessings.

If you ask me “What does it mean to love my neighbor?” I am going to have a hard time saying all that it means. But surely I can say that if I love my neighbor I will not kill him; I won’t use her sexually; I won’t steal from or lie to him; I won’t covet her; I won’t greedily seek to possess what he has.

And thus God begins by telling us essentially what love is not, and then enriches the “shall nots” with examples that help to fulfill the vision. Thus “not killing” is more than merely not taking a life. It is letting go of all the things that lead to murder such as hatred, bitterness, mercilessness, ridicule, extreme competitiveness, and so forth. The “shall nots” lead to positive implications and a summons to freedom wherein one is set free from anger, hatred, bitterness, fear, and so forth.

This is essentially what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, His great moral treatise in which He speaks of fulfilling the law. To fulfill the law means to fill it full, to consider all the implications of the commandments and precepts.

It is also what I try to do in my new bookThe Ten Commandments, wherein each commandment, though precise in its formulation, is seen in its richer implications. Pardon the shameless plug, but this blog post has its origins in a radio interview I did today with Matt Swaim on the Sonrise Morning Show. I go on the show about every two weeks, but today Matt was kind enough to interview me about my book.

The bottom line though has to be this: we need to expose the lie (or at least the fear) in our culture that being against things is always a bad thing. We need to have the courage to admit and even to be bold in saying that we oppose things. This, of course, does ultimately mean that we are also for some other thing. But even if we cannot fully proclaim all that we are for, which admittedly is hard to do, it is necessary to say what we oppose.


As for this video, I happened upon it as I was looking for the song “Signs” (Sign, sign, everywhere a sign …), a “protest” song against rules that was so typical of the rebellious ’70s. I found it, but it also has this humorous collection of strange signs. So enjoy the funny signs even though the song is emblematic of today’s “be nice,” and “don’t have any rules” mentality.

A 4th of July Meditation on the Paradox that Freedom can only exist within limits

070314On the Fourth of July in the United States of America we celebrate freedom. In particular we celebrate freedom from tyranny, freedom from government that is not representative, and freedom from unchecked power and unaccountable sovereigns.

Yet as Christians, we cannot overlook that there are ways of understanding freedom today that are distorted, exaggerated, and detached from a proper biblical, Christian, or Natural Law context. Many modern concepts of freedom treat it as somewhat of an abstraction.

Yes,  many speak of freedom in the abstract and have a hard time nailing down the details. So let’s talk about some of the details.

Most people like to think of freedom as pretty absolute, as in, “No one is going to tell me what to do.” But in the end freedom is not an abstraction and is not absolute; it cannot be. As limited and contingent beings, we exercise our freedom only within limits, and within a prescribed context. Pretending that our freedom is absolute leads to anarchy. And anarchy leads to the collapse of freedom into chaos and the tyranny of individual wills locked in power struggles.

One of the great paradoxes of freedom is that it really cannot be had unless we limit it. Absolute freedom leads to an anarchy wherein no one is really free to act. Consider the following:

  1. We would not be free to drive if there were no traffic laws. The ensuing chaos would making driving quite impossible, not to mention dangerous. The freedom to drive, to come and go, depends on us limiting our freedom and cooperating through obedience to agreed-upon norms. Only within the limited freedom of traffic laws and agreed-upon norms can we really experience the freedom to drive, or to come and go. (See photo upper right.)
  2. Grammar or Goofy – Right now I am writing to you in English. I appreciate the freedom we have to communicate and debate. But my freedom to communicate with you is contingent upon me limiting myself to the rules we call grammar and syntax. Were there no rules, I would lose my freedom to communicate with you. And you also would not be free to comprehend me. What if I were to say, “Jibberish not kalendar if said my you, in existential mode or yet.” And you were to respond: “dasja, gyuuwe %&^% (*UPO(&, if sauy ga(&689 (*&(*))!!” We may be exercising our “freedom” to say what we please, but our insistence on that freedom in too absolute a way really cancels the experience of freedom, for communication shuts down and nothing is really happening. When we demand absolute freedom from the limits of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and so forth, we are really no longer free to communicate at all. Anarchy leads not to freedom, but to chaos.
  3. Music or mumble – When I finish writing this post, I am free to go over to the Church and play the pipe organ (which I think I’ll do). But I am only free to do that because I once constrained myself for many years of practice under the direction of a teacher. I am also only free to play if I limit myself to interpreting the musical notation within a series of rules and norms. Within and because of these constraints and rules, I am free to play the instrument. I may wish to refuse to follow the rule that one must first switch on the power, but I am not going to get very far or really be free to play unless I obey.

So the paradox of freedom is that we can only experience freedom by accepting constraints to our freedom. Without constraints and limits, we are actually hindered from acting freely.

This is a very important first step in rescuing the concept of freedom from the abstract and experiencing it in the real world. Absolute freedom is not freedom at all. Since we are limited and contingent beings, we can only exercise and experience our freedom within limits.

This is also an important lesson to our modern world. For too many today push the concept of freedom beyond reasonable bounds. They insist on their right to act, but without accepting the reasonable constraints that make true freedom possible. Many today demand acceptance of increasingly bad and disruptive behavior.

But in rejecting proper boundaries, we usually see not an increase of freedom but a decrease of it for all of us. Thus our culture becomes increasingly litigious as burdensome laws are passed by a “nanny-state” seeking to regulate every small aspect of our lives. Among the sources of growing and intrusive law is that some refuse to limit their bad behavior; some refuse to live up to commitments they have made; some abandon self-control; some insist on living outside safe and proper norms. Many insist that the solution to protecting them from others who abuse their freedom is more laws. And many are successful in getting increasingly restrictive laws passed.

Again, the lesson is clear: without some limits, freedom is not possible. And when reasonable limits are cast aside, the paradoxical result is not more freedom, but far less of it. Freedom is not absolute. Absolute freedom is not freedom at all; it is the tyranny of chaos and the eventual erosion of freedom.

Alexis De Tocqueville said, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” In America today, we are seeing the erosion of all three in reverse order. Those who want to establish freedom in the abstract will only see that freedom erode.

Jesus and Freedom – This leads us to understanding what Jesus means when he says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

There are many people today who excoriate the Church and the Scriptures as a limit to their freedom. And sadly, quite a number of these are Catholics. To such as these, the Church is trying to “tell them what to do.” Christians are trying “to impose their values on the rest of us.” Now of course the Church cannot really force anyone to do much of anything.

Yes, many claim that the announcement of biblical truth threatens their freedom. But Jesus says just the opposite: it is the truth that sets us free. Now the truth is a set of propositions that limits us to some extent. If “A” is true then “not A” is false. I must accept the truth and base my life on it in order to enjoy its freeing power. And the paradoxical result is that the propositions of the truth of God’s teaching do not limit our freedom, they enhance it.

Image – As we have seen, absolute freedom is not really freedom at all. It is chaos wherein no one can really move. Every ancient city had walls. But these were not so much prison walls as defending walls. True, one had to limit oneself and stay within the walls to enjoy their protection. But within the walls there was great freedom, for one was not constantly fighting off enemies, or distracted with fearful vigilance. People were freed for other pursuits, but only within the walls.

Those who claim that the truth of the Gospel limits their freedom might also consider that the world outside God’s truth shows itself to be far less free than it seems.

  • Addictions and compulsions in our society abound.
  • Neuroses and high levels of stress are major components of modern living.
  • The breakdown of the family and the seeming inability of increasing numbers to establish and keep lasting commitments is quite evident.
  • A kind of obsession with sex is apparent, and the widespread sadness of STDs, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood (absent fathers), and abortion are its results.
  • Addiction to wealth and greed (the insatiable desire for more) enslaves many in a sort of financial bondage wherein they cannot really afford the lifestyle their passions demand, yet they are still unsatisfied.

The so-called “freedom” of the modern world (apart from the truth of the Gospel) is far from evident. These bondages also extend to the members of the Church, to the extent that we do not seriously embrace the truth of the Gospel and base our lives upon it. The Catechism says rather plainly,

The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (CCC # 1733)

In the end, the paradox proves itself. Only limited freedom is true freedom. Demands for absolute freedom lead only to hindered freedom and outright slavery.

Ponder freedom on this 4th of July. Ponder its paradoxes; accept its limits. For freedom is glorious. But because we are limited and contingent beings, so is our freedom. Ponder finally this paradoxical truth: the highest freedom is the capacity to obey God.

This video is one of my favorites. It shows a “Jibberish interview.” It illustrates how we are free to communicate only within the constraints of grammar and the rules of language.

Photo Credit: G.Krishnaswamy in the The Hindu

What CATegory are you in? A Meditation on why the Lord”needs”our faith.

“Kittyply edit1” by David Corby, Edited by: Arad – Image:Kittyplya03042006.JPG. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the main threads that ran through Sunday’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus was faith, the need for faith and the Lord’s desire to draw others to a deeper faith. Jesus permits the illness and subsequent death of Lazarus, and even delays coming in order to increase their faith. He persistently questions both Martha and Mary about their faith and prays aloud that the crowd will come to come to greater faith. Yes, Jesus wants to grow everyone’s faith. This is something about which he is passionate – but why?

Simply put, faith is the door that must be opened by us in order for the Lord to go to work. And while faith itself is a grace – a gift – it is a grace that interacts with our freedom. Faith is the supernaturally granted, assisted, and transformed human element that opens the door for every other work of God.

Over and over again, the Lord Jesus links faith to his saving work. Either it is something he inquires about before a miracle, or he announces it after a miracle. Sometimes, due to the lack of faith, he “cannot” work a miracle. Consider some of the following texts that link faith to the work of Jesus:

  • When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” (Mt 9:28-29)
  • But Jesus turning and seeing [the woman who touched his garment] said, “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well.” At once the woman was made well. (Matt 9:22)
  • Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment. (Matt 8:13)
  • Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matt 9:2)
  • Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matt 15:28)
  • • “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mk 10:52)
  • Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Lk 17:19)
  • Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:25-26)
  • • Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.” And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He wondered at their unbelief. (Mk 6:4-6)

So in these and many other places, the Lord is absolutely insistent upon and needful of our faith in order to go to work. Faith is our “Yes.” Faith is our opening of the door to the Lord, who stands outside and knocks (cf Rev 3:20).

But why is this so? Perhaps an image or analogy will work. It is a humble one to be sure, but it may help to illustrate why the Lord “needs” our faith.

I have lived in the city for most of my twenty-five years as a priest. Now cities have streets, streets have alleys, and alleys have alley cats. And I have discovered that it is a very good thing to take care of the alley cats. It is because of them that there are very few if any rats in our alley. And this is a very great blessing. In gratitude, I take care of the alley cats – or at least I try to.

I say “try” because I have learned that there are three different categories of alley cat (get it? “CATegories…?). And depending upon which category they fall into, I am more or less able to help them.

The first category contains those alley cats that greatly trust me. They are the ones who come up onto the back porch when I return home and greet me. They rub up against my leg and arch their backs. They let me rub their necks. Among these alley cats have been Ellen Bayne, Jenny June, Katie Bell, Gracie Allen, and Oscar Wilde. (Yes, I name them all.) So trusting are these cats that I’m able not only to feed them, but often to get them necessary medical help. Because of their trust, I am able to help them greatly. Their trust, you might say their “faith,” opens the door and allows me to be a great help to them.

The second category contains those alley cats that stand at a distance and will not come close to me. They will allow me to put food out on the back porch, but they wait until I close the door to come up and partake of it. However, they usually only get the leftovers after Ellen Bayne and the others have already had their fill. This second type will not allow me to touch them, so they never get their necks rubbed, nor am I able to help them when they are injured or need medicine. Because they trust me less, I am able to do less for them.

The third category contains those that will have nothing to do with me simply because I am a human being. The very scent of a human being means that they will have nothing to do with anything carrying that scent. These cats will never come up the steps of my back porch, and any food that I would put out would go uneaten because it carries that human scent. Because they do not trust me at all, there’s nothing I can do for them, absolutely nothing.

And in all of this, there is a lesson. Trust opens the door, and then I can help the cats. A lot of trust yields a lot of help; a little trust yields a little help; no trust yields no help. And it is this way with us and God. Jesus needs our trust and our faith in order to be able to go to work, in order to “be able” to help us. What CATegory are you in?

While it is true that God could simply overrule us and force his help upon us, he does not generally do this. He needs our faith, our opening of the door, our trust to be able to go to work.

And this is why Jesus is so insistent in yesterday’s Gospel, on drawing out faith from those who lament Lazarus. This is why, all throughout the Gospels, the Lord connects his greatest works with faith and trust. He looks for faith, demands faith, needs faith in order to work miracles. And when he works them, he commends the faith of those who receive them. It is faith that opens the door.

Yes, what CATegory are you in? See how important faith is and how it opens the door? Lord increase our faith! I do believe Lord; help my unbelief!

Photo at upper right: “Ellen Bayne”

Jesus and Christian Faith in the Public Square? Yes! And Proclaimed by a Military Band!

Maybe I’m just not listening to the news enough, but I haven’t heard a lot about the Christmas wars this year. These are the annual wars wherein a Christian seeks to put up some display of Christmas, be it a creche or Christmas tree, and soon various atheists or civil liberties groups lodge protests or initiate lawsuits to stop the practice; even going so far as to ban the colors red and green in public schools during the Christmas season and banishing Santa, (a secular Christmas feature but somehow tied to Christmas nonetheless).

Anyway, I haven’t heard a lot of it this year. Perhaps some of you will correct me on that.

Much to my pleasant surprise, a Facebook friend sent me the video that is below of a “flash mob” by the United States Air Force Band of which she is a member. They surprised people that the Air and Space Museum here in Washington DC with the surprise Christmas concert.

What makes the event significant to me, is that the United States Air Force Band did not simply play some secular tune like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” or “White Christmas.” In fact, they didn’t really even play what most people think of as a Christmas song as the main piece. As you will see, and hear, the opening strains sounded by the cello are of the familiar Bach piece Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. “Wow,” I thought!

Well of course, as the other instruments began to join from various parts of the museum, I figured that no words would be sung, rendering it less “offensive” to seculars.

But then, I began to see singers appear prepared to sing! “Would they dare?” I thought. As the first singers opened their mouths to sing, they did not pronounce the words, rather they hummed the melody. “Ah! that’s what they’re going to get away with it,” I thought.

But then, Lo and behold! They began to sing the words:

Jesu Joy of man’s desiring!
Holy wisdom love most bright.
Drawn by thee our Souls aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light!

Wow, a military band and choir, sponsored by the United States Government, singing of Jesus Christ, in a public museum largely funded by federal money. Wow!

And then things got even more explicit with the words of the Carol:

Joy to the world, The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room,
Let heaven and nature Sing!

Joy to the world, the savior reigns.
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

The choir ends by singing Jesu! Jesu! Joy!

Thanks be to God! I’m glad to know that among average people, this is still acceptable and pleasing. As the camera pans the crowd I see delight, and reflective joy. Perhaps someone did walk out, maybe even to file a lawsuit, but I did not see it.

In my own parish last night, the United States Army Band came and played a Christmas concert. And here too, many of the works were sacred. At the height of the concert, the beautiful young soloist led us in singing O come all ye faithful, a song inviting us to adore Jesus. And we also sang Hark the Herald Angels Sing, glory to the newborn King! As of today, I received no threats of lawsuits and, as far as I know, neither did the Army Band. Again, I say, praise God!

And yet I know, some are in fact deeply disturbed by any affirmation of faith by the military, or any part of our government. How would I feel, they ask, if instead of singing about Jesus, the Air Force Band or the Army Band sang of Allah and trumpeted the Muslim call to prayer.

I’d like to think, that I could find room for that in my world. I admit it would be hard, because like anyone else, I’m comfortable with what is familiar, uncomfortable with what is unfamiliar. I will say, that I am neither offended or angered when I see a menorah or Hanukkah candles, or the star of David, or other Jewish things in the public square during the time of Hanukkah or other Jewish feasts.

As for things Muslim, I suppose I could get used to it, but I will say that are a few things that hinder my appreciation of things related to Islam. Certainly, among these are the great persecutions suffered by Christians throughout the world, largely at the hands of Muslims. So I admit, I would have more trouble with the celebration of things related to Islam.

That said, I know Muslims, I have even work with several Imams in matters of social policy here in Washington. I do not personally dislike Muslims that I know or see. I am not angry when I see Muslims at certain times of day on their prayer rugs. In fact, I see what they do as honorable and a good witness to others that there is a God to whom we must answer one day. Even if their understanding of God is not mine, we are certainly allies when it comes to resisting secularism and anti-theistic movements.

But I do admit I would be uncomfortable, at least at first, seeing a United States Military Band play a worship song related to Islam.

But for those who will simply excoriate me and say, “Aha! Then away with all religious traditions, it must all leave the Public Square; the government must have nothing whatsoever to do with faith including the Jewish and Christian faith.”

To them I will say that part of the heritage of this country, and the genius behind our constitutional and governmental system, is the Judeo-Christian faith. Like it or not, liberal democracies emerged from the Christian tradition. The founding fathers all referenced the Scriptures frequently, and found inspiration in them for the form of government we enjoy today.

I would therefore argue that references to the Jewish and Christian faith do have a certain pride of place in the American experience, at least at this point in our history. For United States Military Bands to play music from this tradition is qualitatively different than if they were to play something from Buddhist, Druid, or Islamic traditions.

Like it or not, the holidays, Christmas as I would call it, are times of tradition, where our religious heritage is celebrated and appreciated. This is just reality, and it is reflected on the faces that you see in the video below. People were not shocked, or horrified, or angered. The vast majority, if not all, were both pleased and moved.

Those who would wish to remove all references to this cultural heritage of the faith, or just substitute other traditions merely for the sake of diversity, seek to placate a small number who can be acknowledged at other times. And they are willing to offend the vast majority who still believe, or at least appreciate the great cultural heritage to our faith has bestowed.

So, admitting that some do not appreciate this sort of thing, and also admitting that I would not exactly be pleased to see our Christmas tradition either ended, or be crowded out with many other things for the sake of diversity, I simply asked my fellow countrymen and women who do not exactly appreciate these things to make room for us in your heart.

What a beautiful moment took place in the Air and Space Museum. Thank you USAF band!