It seems our quest for human understanding on the nature of the universe and life in general is still determined through politics, science and religion. Three recent events are a testament to this claim. The Princes of the Roman Catholic Church attired in their customary red, elected a new Pope to lead the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics. About the same time as this event captured media imagination, physicists working on the Haldron collider in Switzerland confirmed they may have found the Higgs Boson, affectionately referred to as the God Particle. Meanwhile, juxtaposed with the election of Pope Francis 1st was the installation of Xi Jinping and his court to lead the Chinese nation for the next decade. The rise of the new ruling elite, the Princes of the Chinese communist party, attired in their customary black suits and coiffured dyed black hair seemed sombre in comparison to the red and white dress of the priestly class in Rome. Yet, notwithstanding its current socio-political constraints, China enjoys an esteemed cultural and philosophical tradition going back to antiquity. It includes among its most influential, intelligent and inspirational thinkers Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, Huineng and Zhou Dunyi all who have influenced modern western political and philosophical discourse.
The Pope and his retinue have been around for around two millennia give or take a few years and for much of that time have been embroiled in scandals of one sort or another. From the early days of the Bishopric of Rome to the height of its rule during the Renaissance, and more recently with the resignation of Benedict the XVI, it has been beset by political infighting, nepotism and corruption (also found in the Chinese communist party). Seldom has it placed its own spiritual wellbeing, and that of its members above its on grasp for material wealth and political power. Yet, in amongst the clamour to control the spiritual, social and biological behaviour of populations, and in its often incoherent justifications for control of body and mind through its decrees, dogmas and papal bulls on sainthood, Marian theology, human life, contraception, homosexuality and general sexual behaviour, it too has produced some of humanity’s most influential, intelligent and inspirational thinkers.
For example, St Valentine a priest was martyred in Rome in AD 269. He promoted marriage among Christian couples and it was for this breach of Roman law that he was executed. Today his life and work have been appropriated by secularism as a celebration of romantic love. Francis of Assisi, had a vision in a dream and attempted to reform Catholicism in the Middle Ages, through living a more authentic Christian life in which materialism was seconded to compassion, love and understanding for all of nature and humanity. His pantheistic version of Christianity founded an order of celibate Monks called Franciscan friars and a large secular following still relevant today. The spirit and vision of St Francis has been an inspiration for causes as diverse as environmentalism and liberation theology. Mother Theresa of Calcutta also offered an alternative vision of Catholicism to the world through her work with the poor and destitute of India. She humbled Bishops and Popes through her authentic imitation of the way of Jesus Christ. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Philosopher, Palaeontologist, and Jesuit priest offered an intelligent theological basis for evolution and perhaps out of all the Catholic thinkers since the inception of the Church-aside from Galileo- has contributed the most to the reconciliation of science and religious world views. The point is, situated amongst its scandals; brocaded clergy and their aristocratic lineage founded upon outdated rituals, there are genuine examples of how a religious world-view is inspirational and relevant in the modern world. It remains to be seen whether in adopting the name of Francis of Assisi the Pope is engaging in a cynical exercise of rebranding a corrupt, outdated and largely irrelevant Church or genuine attempt at reform and making the Catholic version of Christianity relevant in the turmoil and uncertainty associated with life in the 21st century.
The Chinese president rules over about the same number of people as the Pope, give or take a few hundred thousand. Both Rome and China have around a quarter of the world’s population at their behest. There are a number of similarities between Chinese Communist dogma and Roman Catholic doctrine insofar as they are founded upon ideologies which want to control people biologically, socially, morally and intellectually. Each has been responsible for the deaths of innocent men, women and children throughout their respective histories. Scholars suggests Roman Catholicism has been directly responsible for up to a quarter of a million deaths (this excludes deaths by civilian governments and Kingdoms in their own right) throughout its two thousand year old history. On the other hand in the short space of 90 years the Chinese communist party has been responsible for up to 60 million deaths of its own people through various purges and pogroms. China’s unique brand of communism flavoured with 21st century advanced capitalism, offers a materialist utopia if you can struggle out of poverty and make it to the top of the heap. Euphemistically called a meritocracy Chinese communism offers a utopian vision of a world devoid of spiritual values despite its strong spiritual and philosophical traditions, justice and compassion. Consolidation of Military power, tighter control over media and press freedoms, and no political reforms are indications that nothing will change in China in the near future.
Perhaps science offers a glimmer of hope for humanity having announced recently that through its work on the Hadron collider in Switzerland it has discovered the God particle-the Higgs Boson. What does this exactly mean? That akin to the character in the movie Bruce Almighty science is able to answer everyone’s prayers and create a better world where truth, peace and justice will prevail? Science has created a theory for everything? Not really. It may help science to piece together the components of the universe from its early emergence to the present day. As an aside it could be a way to find more evidence to support Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s arguments in his insightful work The Phenomenon of Man.
In the meantime, the Catholic Church and Chinese Communists control around a quarter of a million of the world population. Science struggles to find cures for Malaria, HIV, and the increasingly drug resistant strains of viruses and bacteria which threaten the health of the planet’s population.
In the opening pages of his definitive work entitled Magic, Science and Religion, Malinowski makes the point that in every society since the emergence of humankind a distinguishable domain has been made between the sacred and the profane. He elaborates further, pointing out that however rudimentary these demarcations between the observable and unobservable world are; they help us establish control over a world which for the most part we don’t understand all that well. And it is within this context that the election of a new pope, the elevation of a new Chinese president, and the discovery of the Higgs Boson are given meaning.