Sunday, 27 October 2013

Negation, and Running

In mid-October, a discussion evening took place, attended by five seminarians and eight others of varying backgrounds and religious beliefs. The topic was the origin and development of man, whether Darwinian evolutionary theory offered the best explanation for it. Like most Catholics, I’m not an opponent of physical evolution per se (Pope John Paul II called it ‘more than a hypothesis’), but I do think that the breakthrough of humanity is not adequately explained by Darwinism. The minor differences in DNA between humans and chimpanzees do not account for the vast difference in rational capacities.

In the course of the discussion, I brought up a point that has fascinated me for some time: negation. This seems to be a phenomenon beyond the reach of animals. They have signals to indicate that something is edible or dangerous, but they cannot express that something is ‘not-dangerous’.

The point was missed by people who argued that animals were quite capable of designating something as not dangerous, or indicating that they themselves posed no threat. The point is that animals have no negative particles or prefixes. The debaters seemed to think this a matter purely of symbolic conventions, but I think it goes deeper than that. Human reason is capable of understanding that something can be or not be: this is pure abstraction. They understand that a thing can have properties or lack them – which is different from the manipulation of the properties of things, which animals do every day.

Animals make boundaries for their territories, but only man can conceive the un-bounded, the in-finite. Man reaches up to God not only through his imagination or his memory (remembering divine interventions, supposed or real), but also very powerfully through his capacity of negation.

This capacity is powerfully exercised by anyone who reads the Summa theologiae, First Part, Questions 3-13, with comprehension. For me, a time of sustained wonderment, a revelation – with the emphasis on ‘revel’.

On Saturday, I went running with a priest and a friend of his. We started at 6.30am with a cup of coffee, then ran just over 8 km (5 miles) in 50 minutes, not without conversation.

The priest in question found it difficult to remain hopeful about the Church’s future. Whole dioceses were being reorganized, but very little was done to bring lost sheep back into the fold. There were (almost) no vocations, and the priests whom he had seen coming out of seminary were remarkably unproductive and stressed out after five or ten years. He had hoped that the new generation of priests would forge a new connection with the youth, because the young, including young priests, are naturally approachable and non-threatening (oh our capacity for negation!). Besides, they were the peers of the youth, they came out of the same world.

(I thought: me, out of the same world as today’s youth? Really? Of the seminarians who actually were in touch with youth culture, almost all were dismissed or ran into problems towards the end of their studies.)

Part of the problem he blamed on seminary formation. We were still being prepared for an orderly situation, for parishes as they existed a few decades ago. Instead of learning to administer the sacraments and preach the Gospel to ever-dwindling communities, much more focus should be on establishing relationships (of the ‘mustard seed’ type: no poorly-disguised, result-oriented ‘conversion projects’, but actual friendships). Our missionary drive, though patient, should be urgent.

He gave me food for thought, and for breakfast he baked us an egg. When I got up to make tea, my legs hurt. I limped for the rest of the day. Next week I might go again, but pay more attention to the cooling-down.

Physical exercise is actually good for the spirit. It gives one renewed vigour.

Later in the day I went to Confession. Also known as the Sacrament of Truth. The truth makes us free indeed.

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