Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas DNA

Happy Christmas Everyone! Since it's Christmas and I've been reading a book on religious philosophy, here's a Christmas thought. We're told that Jesus was born to Mary even though she was a virgin. That is to say, she had never had sex, and so no sperm had ever entered her uteris to fertilise the egg. Yet the teaching of the church (both Protestant and Catholic) is that Jesus was fully human - hence that he grew from an embryo into a human baby like the rest of us.

Now we know that in normal circumstances an unfertilised egg is barren - it doesn't divide and grow, it just decomposes. We also know that even if it did begin to grow of its own accord, unfertilised, the outcome would be a girl, since it is the man who provides the Y chromosome. So, in the absence of male sperm, how did her egg get fertilised, and the required male DNA enter the ovum?

This problem leads sceptics, particularly those of a scientific persuasion, to dismiss this story as a "mere myth", a logical impossibility. We know of no way that a fully human person (or indeed any sort of person) can grow from an unfertilised egg. Within the bounds of science they are clearly right. How, then, is it that highly intelligent people, who know how babies get made, continue to believe this story? I think there are a number of possible answers - take your pick, some or all may be true.

  • You could just say "I don't understand it but I believe it happened because I believe in the Bible (or the teachings of the church) and God will make it all clear in heaven". I think this is fair enough - no doubt a god who created the whole universe could solve this little problem too - but I find it a little too glib.
  • You could say that God fertilised the ovum himself, so that Jesus carried God's DNA. This could be what is suggested by the angel's words in Luke, "the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you". This raises some very interesting questions - does God have DNA? I could speculate about this for pages but I won't.
  • You could apply the traditional Catholic reasoning about the communion to the virgin birth. The Catholic church teaches that at communion the bread and wine actually become (as opposed to merely representing) Jesus' body and blood. They do not change their appearance - they still look, feel, smell and taste like bread and wine - but their essence changes. Perhaps something like this happened with Jesus - he still looked, smelt and sounded like a human but in essence he was God. Essentially, it's a mystical technique for believing two mutually exclusive things which pretty much describes the dual nature (God/man) of Jesus - so it could just be right.
  • You could work backwards - Jesus showed himself to be God's Son in many ways, not least through his death and resurrection. How then could he just be born in an ordinary way? The story of the virgin birth is then a way to illustrate Jesus special relationship with God - the writers may not have intended us to take it literally (other great figures in history, like Alexander the Great, have also been given virgin births by their biographers for this reason) but they intended it as a way of saying right at the start of the story that this is someone out of the ordinary.
The point is that we are in a different realm of reasoning to the purely scientific. If only scientific knowledge can be admitted we could never know how to live, we could never come together as a community, we would never know to show compassion for one another, or reach out to the poor and lonely. These things all come from the realm and reasoning of religion, and for Christians from the teaching and example of Jesus and his followers. That's why we continue to celebrate Christmas, because without it our lives would just be an (ultimately fruitless) struggle for survival. Have a merry and compassionate Christmas, and don't take science more seriously than it deserves.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Steinbeck's Despair and Hope

Each semester in High School English we would study one main novel, and in Grade 11 we "did" John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I loved it (as I loved most of what we did in English) despite the curriculum. I was moved by the way the Joad family maintained their dignity in the face of the crushing poverty of the Great Depression and the absurdity and cruelty of their society. As a result I read quite a few other Steinbeck books in my youth, and they were just the thing for a sensitive young man.

Coming back to some of these stories as a supposedly mature person provides some interesting food for thought. Take, for example, The Pearl. This little novella, a kind of meditation on Jesus' parable of the pearl of great value, features Kino, his wife Juana, and their infant son Coyotito, a poor Indigenous Mexican fishing family. One day Kino goes pearling and discovers an amazingly beautiful, enormous pearl, a find that should enable him to live out his dreams. Modest dreams they are too - new clothes, a proper church wedding for he and Juana, schooling for Coyotito, perhaps his own rifle. This, I think, is Steinbeck's version of the Kingdom of God - a simple decent life free from want.

However, the pearl buyers in his town, all agents of the one ultimate buyer (perhaps a stand-in for God) collude in telling him the pearl is of little value and offering him a token price. He knows they are trying to cheat him, and refuses to sell, planning instead to try his luck in the capital. When their attempts to trick him into handing it over fail, the buyers resort to violence, sending men in the night to take the pearl from him. Instead of acheiving his dreams he has his fishing boat destroyed, his grass hut burnt down, and becomes an outlaw after killing one of his attackers. In the end he and Jauna despairingly throw the pearl back into the sea.

Nothing relieves the despair of this tale. Its message seems to be that the wealthy - with God on their side - will conspire to prevent the poor from rising, will always allow their greed to triumph over their humanity. The best course for the poor, he seems to say, is to make the best of their lot and keep their heads low.

If this is the problem as described by Steinbeck, the solution may be found in his comic novels, especially Cannery Row and its sequel, Sweet Thursday. These books centre around a group of characters in a run-down street called "Cannery Row". There's the semi-homeless men of the Palace Flop-House and Grill; the prostitutes of the euphemistically named Bear Flag Restaurant; the successive proprietors of the local grocery store; and the hub around whom the action of both stories revolves, Doc, the owner of Western Biological, a supplier of specimens to educational institutions. Not all of these people are in the depths of poverty and none of them are trapped in it - if they are poor it's because they choose to be. Their low-level and transparent swindles, their clumsy and often disastrous attempts at doing good, are told with a wry humour and a sharp eye for the unexpected twist.

Yet for all the romanticisation of poverty there is a core here of what Steinbeck obviously sees as the good life - the community of Cannery Row is bound together by its members' care for each other. They often fail to do right by each other, but they try. When Doc's loneliness has all the residents worried, and Suzy, the new girl at the Bear Flag, is so obviously unsuited for the work, the community push them together. Their attempts are misguided, they almost succeed in driving the pair apart, but ultimately love blossoms.

This is Steinbeck's hope, and ultimately I guess its the same for all of us. We have comfortable lives. None of us is in the depths of poverty. But our comfort doesn't make us happy and depression and anxiety are at an all-time high in our community. As Larry Norman says "without love you aint nothin'".