Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Letter to the Hebrews 2:14-15.)
Recent Bulletins Regarding Impending Catastrophes.
Towards the end of last year, as I was gathering materials for my monthly discussion on World Affairs at two local retirement residences, I found these two items, one day apart: “ESA’s satellite Swarm launch to map Earth’s magnetism, BBCNews, November 22, 2013”, and Gordon Chang, “China’s One-child Change Doesn’t Avert Demographic Collapse,” BBCNews, November 21, 2013.
The first item advises us that three European Space Agency satellites had just been sent aloft and deployed in a polar orbit at an altitude of 490km. This expedition is going on now because the Global Magnetic Field is weakening while, at the same time, the North Pole has for some time been moving out of place at an increasing rate. In light of this, “the Earth may be on the cusp of a pole reversal.” The magnetic field would flip-end-to end. North would become south, and vice versa.
Scientists tell us that this recurring maneuver last occurred about 780,000 years ago. The Swarm satellites will study “the convection of molten iron within the planet’s outer liquid core… as well as the magnetism retained in rocks … and movement of salt water ocean currents.” The object of the exercise is not to halt this inevitable process, now scientifically adjudged to be “overdue,” but simply to understand it better.
The second item is a report from the recent meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee (China), where “a highlight of 60 proposed reforms” was a change in the One-Child Policy, in effect since 1979. Under this policy, introduced when Deng Xiaoping was Number One, every young married person (with some exceptions) was required before doing the deed that leads to babies to receive permission to have a baby from the local party operative. From the perspective of what used to be our civilization, the mere thought of having to consult a political operative in this context would be an abomination.
Yet, I recall discussion in the faculty coffee room on the announcement of this policy in which the loudest voices were those applauding the humanitarian insight of China’s authorities and comparing this wisdom with the mindless absence of firm direction from our own politicians. All this was taking place as non-fiction best-sellers here were screaming about the coming global winter – yes, global chilling — and the catastrophe that must follow.
The mood of those days is captured in the opening words of a widely-read scientific study published in 1968 by Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (1968), which opens with the clarion: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
Things Can Go Wrong.
The Chinese campaign was conducted under the banner: “Have Fewer Children. Raise More Pigs.” What friend of mankind would quarrel with that? Back then, our own leading lights were so bedazzled by the Chinese social revolution that no one had the foresight to anticipate what fingers-and-toes arithmetic, taken together with some primary sociology, could have foreseen.
Today, the vast majority of Chinese under the age of forty are “singletons”: No siblings, no cousins, no uncles, no aunts. Boys are a visible majority (117.7 boys to 100 girls, according to official figures) — the prime reason for this being the lingering effects of ancient Chinese superstition about needing a male descendant to pray for one’s departed soul, combined with the advantage that the parents of boys have of being on the receiving, rather than the giving, end of dowries. Abortions take place on an even greater scale than among us and with the same strident contempt for life, as girl-children are routinely cleared out of the path of the family’s happiness so that “another try” might produce a boy. Thus, there are simply not enough women of marrying age.
The ever-enlarging pool of unmarriageable young men is already producing harmful social effects, including the flourishing of gangs and malcontents. The fertility rate (the number of births per female) has fallen to around 1.4 – well below the reproductive level. The age-distribution has been affected predictably; the rate of increase of population has begun to decline, so that the population will actually begin to decline absolutely before the end of this decade. And when it does, one worker will have to support two parents and four grandparents. [See, “China Vow to Relax One-child Policy Faces Reality Check,” New York Times, November 17, 2013.]
The all-wise Communist Party cannot admit publicly to responsibility for these conspicuous demographic and social outcomes of its policies; instead, it deals with the situation by announcing changes in a perfect policy to make it more perfect. These changes are modest so far, very complicated and full of exceptions. But the bottom line is to allow couples to have two children if either the husband or the wife is an only child.
Governments in our part of the world are constantly studying issues around the indubitable fact of absolute growth in population, but they have so refrained from announcing heroically inhuman exercises along the line of the One-Child Policy. But our governments are constantly vigilant and constantly active on other fronts.
Conspicuous here is the ongoing struggle to head off out-of-control diseases. Every few months or so a previously unknown strain of an invincible flu germ is discovered, in Tasmania or somewhere, and stop-the-press bulletins go out from governments. Production starts up on a crash basis for production of million and millions of dollars worth of new serums. The need for these entirely new programmes of immunity is trumpeted on all the six-o’clock news shows. Urgent memoranda go out, outlining steps that all public agencies and all private agencies receiving government money or patronage must take to join the fight.
Church organizations have been particularly fanatical on this front. About three years ago, there went out from the denominational HQ of the church that I attend detailed and explicit instructions (taken from an Ontario Ministry of Health ukase) for washing of fingers and hands and wrists by the presiding Celebrant during Holy Communion. These must be enacted conspicuously before the congregation. For several months recital of liturgy took second place to recital of governmental instructions and, for a time, the Sharing of the Peace was discontinued, just to be safe. I remember suggesting to a Member of Council that the liturgy be amended to read: The Body and Blood of Our Lord, but don’t anybody touch anybody. My suggestion was not well received.
But just recently has come the discovery that these anti-bacterial juices were doing no good at all, and may well have been doing more harm than good.
The [U.S.] Food and Drug Administration …. [now] says there is no evidence that antibacterial chemicals used in liquid soaps and washes help prevent the spread of germs … An estimated 75% of the anti-bacterial liquid soaps and body washes sold in the United States contain triclosan, a germ-killing ingredient. The only problem is, the Food and Drug Administration has no idea whether it actually works – and there’s some evidence it may pose health risks. (U.S.A. Today, December 116, 2013.)
It was of course, not a plot, but who is going to answer today for the costs of all the hand-sanitizers attached at twenty-foot intervals along the hallways of every hospital, every school building, every government building? Who is going to answer for all that hysteria about the lethal effects of such of life’s hazards as Holy Communion?
Some Utterly Hopeless Prognostications Deriving From the Very Highest Scientific Sources.
Today, everywhere in the world, people are being bowled over by advice from the most highly-certified sources that things are out of control and must be fixed or we are all doomed. Most of us remember the Y2K hysteria that took hold in the last months of the last century (which was also the last millennium.) This grew out of discovery that the Faustian geniuses who had written the programmes for computers of that generation, on the very eve of the new Millennium, had not anticipated the need for more than four-digits in encoded references to date. Suddenly doomsayers were announcing that all the computers would have a collective aneurism, not knowing what to do when their computers registered 31/12/99 and then had nowhere to go.
My favorite instance of catastrophes that appeared inevitable but turned out not to be is illustrated by this item from the New York Times Magazine, October 31, 1982:
Scientists have discovered a quantum leap in the global population of termites, accompanied by a corresponding increase in the prevalence of termite flatulence. It is anticipated that this could reach a point soon where it would threaten to blow away the ozone layer. (New York Times Magazine, October 31, 1982.)
Two Basic Kinds of Ultimate Catastrophe.
If we look carefully (and calmly) we see that there seem to be two distinct kinds of absolute calamity. One is the kind represented by the research into the Global Magnetic Field and the termite flatulence menace. In these cases, no solution is offered, the only question being whether the catastrophe will be total and immediate or less than total and gradual. In the latter category, there is hope that after countess interim calamities, things will right themselves again, and somehow life could be rebuilt – but with the poles reversed and the pace of termite reproduction (somehow) halted.
My favorite exhibit under the Heading of Utterly Hopeless Prognostication Deriving From the Highest Scientific Source is one that I found about twenty years ago in the opening lines of a College textbook on Geography:
PLANET EARTH. It is wholly remarkable that our planet is habitable at all. A few miles beneath our feet, a nuclear-powered inferno rages. Another impact with a mile-wide meteor and a new ice-age might ensue. A little closer to the sun, or a slower spin, or a few percentage points more of oxygen in the atmosphere and all living things would burn to ash. (Bruce Marshal, (ed.), The Real World (Houghton Mifflin, 1991.)
The other kind of imminent catastrophe is the one on which the One-Child policy in China was posited. Here, the hypothesis is that the problem is entirely man-made and can be fixed by enlightened human decision – provided sufficient political force is employed. But in that matter it is clear that the effort to fix the alleged problem has made things worse.
There Are Things That Cannot Be Fixed.
I am not some troglodyte science-smasher. But I do assume until I learn better that even the most zealous scientist accepts that life cannot be made immune from hazards. For example, no one seems ready to step up and offer guarantees for a programme protecting us all from the meteorites, asteroids and space debris of all kinds – even though lots of money is being thrown in that direction. These hazards belong near the top of the category of things that we cannot change.
That being so, we should be directing our thinking towards the possibility that so long as we continue to be spared the inevitable outcomes of things that we cannot change it must be by other than human agency that we look to for our salvation. The most ancient philosophical systems all allowed that the cosmos was sustained in their day by Divine Concern, always at work reversing effects that otherwise tended irresistibly towards disaster. The preferred concept here was Providence. Plainer men preferred to speak of GOD.
The fact is that we cannot defeat everything that we imagine must be defeated. We certainly cannot defeat death. At best, by consulting the best science and speaking calmly among ourselves about what is possible we can individually postpone death. But what is the point of postponing death if we are just getting more and more anxious about everything and less and less capable of living?
All the religions have their theologies. And all the theologies start from the proposition that there are things that cannot be fixed. Not now, not ever. This wisdom has just gone out of the world. Today, the smallest minds have command of the largest audiences, and these largest audiences have been made to believe that whatever needs fixing can be fixed. If not today, then some day soon. Entertainment personalities put on long faces and urge us to send in money to Defeat Cancer Now.
Our own religion starts from the same proposition as do all the others. In fact, it is the religion that speaks most loudly and most boldly about death – precisely because it believes that it has the answer to death, the only answer – that death has already been defeated in Eternity. Reinhold Niebuhr, the last of the great theologians who had an audience among intelligent secularists, said: “There are ultimate problems of life which cannot be stated until the answer to them is known. Without the answer to them, men will not allow themselves to contemplate the full depth of the problem, lest they be driven to despair” (Nature and Destiny of Man, Volume II:75-76.)
At the top of this category is death, and always closing in on it is senescence (that is, the inevitably of declining strength in advance of senility.) In fact, Niebuhr suggested, we could never state the frightening question that is at the centre of our existence unless we believed that we already had the answer. This is the same theologian who taught the prayer that most readers will already know – some better than others: “God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can change; and wisdom to know the difference.”
The faith that is shared by all the contributors to this electronic journal is all about the answer to death – and to fear – and to anxiety. It is not about how to fix things. This should be particularly conspicuous in the commentary that you find here on political affairs. This faith follows from the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a helpless infant, in a stable in Bethlehem; the story proceeds through His raising as a child, His teaching, His ministry of healing, the many proofs of His divinity in His power over sickness and death and insanity and all the rest; it ends in His Ascension and His Promise to Return.
But the second-last stage in that story – the one following His Death – was His Resurrection. This is the answer to the unspeakable question. This was God at work overcoming all the effects of human meddling with all those exercises in trying to deny, to avoid and to undo death. Any contemplation of Death apart from the Resurrection is only a let’s-pretend exercise, one that gets down to double-talk about living on in the memories of your friends, or living on in the good deeds that you have done.
Christian faith lifts us above imagining that everything can be fixed by us. It lifts us above the fanaticism of imagining that if we get right the scientific facts about the ozone layer and if every week we sort out scrupulously our recycling boxes we can live forever.