Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for April 2012

Two years ago the American molecular biologist-cum-venture capitalist Craig Venter and his research team made a spectacular breakthrough. After years of painstaking work, they assembled in the laboratory a complete DNA molecule, consisting of about one million nucleotides of a micro-organism, and then inserted the synthetic DNA molecules into cells of another micro-organism from which the DNA had been removed. Those cells functioned, grew, and divided as if they were the species represented by the synthetic chromosome. Venter gave the name Synthia to this new life form, and went along with the excited media hype that he had “created life”.  This was not, of course, creatio ex nihilo, as the experiment required there to be pre-existing cells into which to transfer the DNA. However this did little to dampen the popular media’s enthusiasm for claims about the “creation of life”.

I was in London at the time Venter’s results were announced and I was greatly bemused to hear on BBC Radio, not only about the “creation of life” by Venter and his team but also a moral philosopher claiming that this was a resounding “proof of evolution”!  The philosopher had evidently forgotten that this self-replicating cell had not arisen through random mutations but by purposeful experiments planned by super-intelligent forms of life that were already on the scene! The BBC also went on, with its typically mischievous bias, to state that religious thinkers would bemoan this act of “playing God” (a much misused term) without giving a single instance of a respected religious leader or theologian in Britain who had indeed done so. (And I couldn’t find anyone who did so).

Walk into any major bookstore in a Western city, even in university centres, and you will find more books on Gnosticism or the occult on public display than Bibles or serious works of Christian theology. Open a major astronomy or physics journal and you will occasionally find a discussion about “multiverses”- the possibility of an infinite number of universes of which our universe is only one. This is metaphysical speculation, strictly non-science as it is beyond empirical observation and testability. Yet if somebody joined the conversation to suggest that seeing our universe as a creation also accounted for the “fine-tuning” of its physical properties that render the emergence of carbon-based life-forms possible, she would be derided and excluded for bringing “religious metaphysics” into physics.

Ignorance and its close cousin, arrogance, are found on all sides; and this is what makes talking about such matters in the media difficult. On the one hand there is a popular Christian media in the USA, with well-endowed institutions and publishing houses that still vilify evolution and promote either six-day creationism or Intelligent Design. Many evangelical churches in the non-Western world are influenced by them, partly because serious works of theology that distinguish the doctrine of creation from “creationism”  (and evolution from “evolutionism”) are not well marketed. Also, just like the BBC reporters, most Christians too prefer “sound bytes” and easy answers to complex questions. Writers like myself who have dealt with these subjects at length (in both my Gods that Fail and chapter five of Subverting Global Myths), or the websites of the Faraday Institute (UK) and the Biologos Foundation are competing in a popular church culture that is largely anti-intellectual and fearful of dialogue. So much easier to just lob grenades over the church fence, even at other Christians, than engage in serious study and genuine conversations.

On the other hand, this defensive and hostile posture is an understandable reaction to the kind of mass media hype described above, or the aggressive rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett and others who have become the poster boys for Darwinism. A biochemist friend of mine in Cambridge once told me that his biggest complaint against Dawkins was that he had made many Christians reject evolution simply because he had tied it to his militant atheist project. Some scientists think that their competence in one field qualifies them to speak with authority about other fields.

Exaggerated claims for science and the authority of scientists produce equally exaggerated defensive reactions. Creationism is a product of exaggerated claims for biblical authority (treating the Bible as if it were a sourcebook on biology or geology, something it never claims to be); while Intelligent Design is simply poor theology disguised as science and thus gets whacked by mainstream theologians and mainstream scientists. But I would still defend their right to say what they believe in universities and elsewhere, provided they also welcome and listen to criticism from their fellow Christians and secular scholars.

It is a great pity that the language of creation has come to be focused today on debates about cosmology and biology. This muddies the waters. Men and women in the arts and humanities are unlikely to confuse different levels of causation, or ontological dependence with chronological origin, or think that creation implies determinism and control. However, as the British theologian Frances Young has proposed, with echoes of Karl Barth, a better analogy for God’s creative agency is not that of a master-craftsman or sculptor producing a perfect work of art, lying entirely passive in the creator’s hands; rather, “It is the father letting go, allowing the son to go to a far country, abandoning power over all that has come into existence, while waiting and encircling and enfolding it all in love.”

All such models and analogies are limited. What are the better ones that you have come across to describe the Triune God’s creative agency?

I found myself last week in the unusual position of defending in public the United States government. The latter was the prime mover behind a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council calling on the Sri Lankan government to improve its human rights record and launch a credible investigation into war crimes. Some members of the ruling regime and their acolytes have been vilifying the resolution which was carried by a majority of nine votes in the Council, with China predictably defending us against “interference” in a nation’s “internal affairs”. (How China and even Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba can occupy seats on the UNHRC is another of those contradictions that makes the UN such an ineffective agency today- see my last Blog post).

The behaviour of the Sri Lankan regime before, during, and after the UN Resolution was carried only illustrates the necessity for such a Resolution. Such was the main substance of a newspaper article of mine which was carried by two leading English-language dailies. (No Sinhala- the majority language- newspaper will carry it).

We have been treated to the pitiful spectacle of a foreign minister wasting huge amounts of public funds in desperate last-minute trips to Africa and Latin America to canvass support; and the continued use of the state media to whip up frenzy against local and foreign critics, instead of explaining to the populace the content of the UN Resolution; and the manipulation of schoolchildren as well as religious leaders, among others, who were bussed into the capital by the ruling party to stage noisy protests outside the American and Indian embassies. Local human rights activists who went to Geneva to support the resolution have been threatened.

At the same time as we counter state terror, we expose the hypocrisies of those well-to-do Sri Lankan Tamils in Western lands who rejoice over the UN Resolution but who don’t call for the arrest of those within their ranks who continued to pay for arms shipments to the Tamil Tigers when the latter were using civilians as human shields and forcibly conscripting child-soldiers during the dark days of the war. So-called “diaspora” Tamils in the US, like many of their Indian and Pakistani counterparts, carry American passports and very few of them will return to live in Sri Lanka, even if we had a just peace. You will not find any among them joining George Clooney to protest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington; or challenging the US government to bring all those Americans responsible for torture and war crimes abroad to face trial. What brings “human rights” language into disrepute is the use of it against our enemies, and not our own ethnic group and nation-state.

I don’t find these articles, letters and Blog posts easy to write. I can handle the hate-mail, it is silence that depresses me. Even on this Blog, whenever I write on some traditional “mission” or “apologetics” topic, the comments flow thick and fast. However, mention the state of American politics and a deafening silence sets in. Try appealing to American Christians to write to their national newspapers or do what George Clooney or the Occupying Movement are doing – getting out there and protesting, for instance, the inhumanity of Iranian sanctions (a violation of international law, given that no evidence has been put forward to show that Iran has breached the nuclear non-proliferation treaty), and you will find the shutters rapidly coming down.

In the current New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff superbly sums up what I have been trying to say in recent posts about the US and global politics: “Since Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in setting up the United Nations and the Nuremberg trials, the US has promoted universal legal norms and the institutions to enforce them, while seeking by hook or by crook to exempt American citizens, especially soldiers, from their actual application. From Nuremberg onward, no country has invested more in the development of international jurisdiction for atrocity crimes and no country has worked harder to make sure that the law it seeks for others does not apply to itself.”

Most Christian pastors are unprepared by their seminaries to think globally about local issues, which is surely what employing a Christian mind entails. To those who say, even before they try anything, that they are “powerless” to effect change, there are many stories one can tell of how little actions of faithfulness by ordinary people have led to social and political transformations on an unimaginable scale. Every community has such memories.

However, I prefer to recall this medieval fiction from the pen of the great Jewish writer, Elie Wiesel, tireless campaigner against crimes against humanity and himself a survivor of Auschwitz. It probably explains why I cannot keep silent.

“One of the Just Men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin and punishment. Night and day he walked the streets and markets protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listened and smiled amicably. Then they stopped listening;  he no longer even amused them. The killers went on killing, the wise kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst.

One day a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words. ‘Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it’s hopeless?’

‘Yes, I see’, answered the Just Man.

‘Then why do you go on?’

‘I’ll tell you why. In the beginning I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.’”

(From One Generation After)



April 2012