Interview with Fr Gerald O'Collins SJ

Following is the transcript of the interview Tom Scott conducted with Prof Gerald O'Collins on Friday, 13th August 2004, at St Thomas More College, University of Western Australia.

Tom Scott: You wrote: "God created the world, but always respects the laws of nature". Would you be prepared to accept that the laws of science humankind is gradually uncovering give us some insight into the laws of nature and "the mind of God"? The argument I am putting forward here is that the "laws of science" are indeed, laws of God's own creation. And would you therefore be prepared to accept that God might also respect the laws of his own creation? I was surprised when I saw that statement written down at the lecture the other night.

Prof Gerald O'Collins SJ

Gerald O'Collins: That was an objection, that was an objection — a background theory of some people — the Deists — that God created the world and rigidly sticks to these laws. There are no exceptions. I was just raising the objection of other people. It's not what I hold…

TS: I'm interested in what you hold, and particularly what the Church is getting at. It seems to me as we look at the Western world today and 85% of the people — it ranges between about 75% and 90% percent depending on where you're measuring it — 85% of the people to take some sort of mean have walked away from the Church. There are a whole lot of reasons for that. I would submit to you that one of the reasons seems to be this science versus religion view where a lot of people no longer believe in "miracles" and want credible evidence. You are involved in this controversy today in having to constantly "prove" as it were, that the Resurrection did happen. The title of your lecture was "Faith in the Resurrection — Is It Credible?"

GO: About the laws God put into the Universe: there's no reason for them to be exactly the way they are. There's no reason. I mean Gravity could be a bit different and so on. — there's no reason these laws should be this way rather than that way inherently. I mean philosophically, they are there, but God didn't have to create the world, he didn't have to create the world with these laws precisely the way they are. What I am saying is: the creation of the world and the ways these laws work — they're all free acts of God. They're wise acts of God but there's no rigidity. You can't say "they could have only been this way". There's no philosophical reason to say that.

I went to Cambridge University with a guy by the name of Brandon Carter, he's half-Australian and half-Scot. He invented what we call the Anthropic Principle about the Universe. He did the mathematics about the Universe being "finely tuned" for our emergence. If the laws had been slightly different, we would not be here. He worked on that in the 1970s and there are stronger and weaker forms of the Anthropic Principle. I always found listening to him fascinating that the God who guides the Universe wisely through these laws with the particular shape God gave them. Philosophically you cannot say that it had to be that way. It could have been a bit different. It's not impossible to imagine gravity being a bit different to what it is.

TS: I think scientists would accept that the laws could have been different. But once we have discovered a law — and I not talking about laws that are in the realm of thesis or hypothesis — I'm talking about the fundamental laws of science that have been proved in areas like thermodynamics, the laws of motion, laws in the realm of electro-magnetism, gravity, or in Quantum Physics. Once we can see those laws my question comes down to this: would God break those laws of his own creation?

GO: Suspend them, suspend them — not violate or break — but suspend them. In this instance for good purposes. For example, I can suspend the law of gravity by holding my arm up in the air…

TS: But the law of gravity is still operating even when you are holding your arm up there, surely?

GO: It's still operating. But I can suspend it in this individual instance. The law is still operating. God doesn't play games with these laws. It would be a ridiculous view of God if he were forever making exceptions and suspending the laws. But, for good reasons, he might occasionally suspend the laws. I find that, for loving, good reasons … otherwise you've got a picture of God who's created these laws and now is totally bound by them. So totally, rigidly bound that he cannot … That's an image of God that I find … you know, God is all powerful, all loving and all wise and for good reason I think he can occasionally suspend the operation of his laws.

TS: How often might he do this?

GO: I'm not saying often at all. I'm saving myself from saying he'd doing this all the time — just playing games like parents that is capricious who have made laws for the home and are forever making exemptions. The kids can get very upset by that, and rightly so. But occasionally the parent might suspend the laws for some understandable or loving reason. I can understand that … I don't know if it's once in a million times. I couldn't give a statistic, but God occasionally — fitting in with this analogy of parents in a household — occasionally and for good reason, he might suspend the operation of the laws.

TS: [Explanation of personal experience of so-called "miracles" at the Bullsbrook Shrine in Western Australia deleted from transcript. See full story HERE.] If God creates these laws surely he has to be bound by them? What's the relationship between God and the laws of his creation?

GO: Always bound, no — generally speaking, yes. You know you've got to generally distinguish … if you say "always bound", you know, I find that funny. I use the analogy again of parents — they have these laws of the household for the good running of the household, based on things that the kids understand like them being home at ten o'clock at night, and there is flexibility for different ages and so on. But parents occasionally make an exception and that figures. That's what I mean by "good reason". These exceptions are not applied arbitrarily or stupidly or everyday but occasionally. I can't define what occasionally is. I couldn't accept a model of God that always makes exceptions and frequently but generally respecting.

If God was bound rigidly, totally, absolutely, always bound by the laws then that's a problem with a picture of God like that. Has God lost his omnipotence? It's implying that God is no longer free to do this…

TS: As a scientist I think you could have a proposition where God could be bound by the laws of his own creation, as is creation itself. That's really at the heart of what I'm trying to get to…

GO: What kind of model of God is that though…

TS: Let me explain why I've put the argument. I think a lot of people, particularly in the scientifically educated sectors of society, have become sceptical of religion — the Lourdes, "trinkets and miracles", sort of stuff — the "magic" Jesus coming down with the fairy wand to solve our problems. There have been television programs and books showing how ancient "miracles" like, for example the parting of the Red Sea in the story of the Exodus, can be explained by climactic events…

GO: ...tides and weather and all that. I'm not going to be gullible. A lot of people are very gullible and I don't want to buy into that at all. I don't buy into that at all. I don't want to call the Resurrection a "miracle" — let's bracket that off for the time being — but "miracles" … I remember seeing on English television a program called "A Working Miracle". This is an Anglican woman — not a gullible Catholic — where a kid pulled a chair out from under her at the school where she was working and she fell and broke her back. She was in a wheelchair. She was angry at God, angry at everything, the only thing going for her was her husband who just happened to be a male nurse. This was in Sheffield and she was explaining this on television. And a man came to see her one day, he was dressed in a brown habit and spoke to her in a foreign language and gestured to her to "get up". She got up and she was cured. She went to a service — a Eucharist — and she said "he was with you when he came". And this was Padre Pio. And he said "I came by myself to pray with you". And she spoke about the miracle and how she was cured. She spoke of how her heart had been changed and "that's what matters" and so on. She couldn't have said it better about how her HEART had been changed. So, what are the odds here? That she wasn't a paraplegic? That is was all a fake? I think it just becomes preposterous to factor in all those things about the minister, herself, the television crew — that the whole thing is a fraud. It's much easier to say "she was cured".

Why would God grant that favour? She spoke wonderfully about how the physical cure was one thing but changing a person's heart is something more difficult.

I remain sceptical about that, but could I say, that the doctors got it wrong or that she imagined her back was broken … I mean there were so many people involved in that. It's much easier to say that God had made an exception. Why? It was called "a Working Class Miracle", incidentally, it was in Sheffield. She spoke about what mattered — her heart — she had been bitter, angry, rejecting God, rejecting human beings. So, if I say, it looks to me as though it was a miracle there, I don't think I'm being gullible. I read Hulme a great deal once and even if a million people witnessed to something — you know it becomes stubborn resistance — there could never be enough evidence. You don't say there couldn't be miracles — let's bracket that off — he said there could never be enough evidence — never be. But why? How do you know? This has become so stubborn … you know that these things… I mean once he said in the presence of Boswell, he made a most unfortunate statement about some highland poetry, he said, "I still wouldn't believe this if I was told this by thirty bare-arsed Highlanders!" This sophisticated city man, sitting there with these bare-arsed Highlanders, it was to do with poetry and miracles…

TS: It reminds me of the line of Pascal: "I wish I had the faith of a Breton peasant!"

GO: So, a God who having done something is unconditionally bound by it. I don't know. That's a bit too much for me to swallow. But unconditionally bound with even though he could suspend these laws in a given case could do good things. I just find that a rigid Deist universe of the 18th Century. That's pure, straight Deism — the Clockwork Universe — that having wound it up God just goes away on Sabbatical Leave. It just ticks away by itself. God cannot … it's even more than that — he couldn't even come back and change the clock.

I've got serious difficulties with all of that kind of image of God. It is so rigid — you know, having done this, even for the very best reasons and for wonderful results God could not, could not … he's no longer in a position to … could not … it's not a question of good or evil. God could not do something that is morally evil. But that God could not suspend, over ride, these things for very good reasons. I can't factor that into my image of God.

TS: I want to turn to the Christology question now. With 85% of the population of the Western world abandoning the Church but interest in spirituality on the rise, do you think one of our (the Church's) problems is that people are confused over the picture we paint of who Jesus Christ is and what he offers us? In short, is the Western world today hungering for a new Christology — a new picture, or mind-view, of who Jesus Christ is and what he models?

GO: Oh, I think it's a hungering for clergy and ministers who serve their spiritual needs better. That's what I think. There's nothing wrong with Jesus.

TS: But what about the picture of Jesus?

GO: So many people say "Jesus Yes, Church No, or Church Question Mark". I don't know, just read the Gospels. I mean, I don't think you need to turn into a Buddhist guru or something. I mean, just read the Gospels. Why do so many millions of people go out to see "The Passion of the Christ"? Critics pan it but the people seem attracted to it.

TS: But as you said at your lecture the other night, millions also are attracted to Dan Brown's book, The Da Vinci Code.

GO: Well, it's a good read. I don't deny that. It's a "page turner" but it operates as a "who done it?". It's not just a book about the history of Christianity. It's primarily a book about murders and who's the villain and he throws in all this historical information as his setting. It's not quite the same thing. I mean, it's a "page turner" with these incredibly small chapters…

TS: But there seems to be an appetite for this sort of thing at the moment…

GO: There's a lot of gullibility out there. The gullibility's gigantic — the Gnostic Gospels and people lose their hard, critical, scientific sense. They do. Just take the stuff about Jesus growing up in Kashmir. Jesus in India was something created at the beginning of the 19th Century by two characters.

TS: Just back on this Christology question: I'd argue that people are searching for a new image of Jesus. They are confused today between the infant Jesus in a manger image of Jesus and the image of the mature Jesus — the sort of hard image we see in The Passion of the Christ. That's reflective of the change…

GO: The New Testament had something like 130 images of Jesus — you know, Suffering Servant, the Good Shepherd, Teacher. The New Testament had a plurality of images, as though no one image does justice to him.

TS: Do you think our Irish-Catholic heritage influenced this… the sort of image of Jesus I was brought up with as a little kid was a very plastic Jesus He was "nice", "fatherly"…

GO: …it was a form of kitsch…

TS: ...yes, it was kitsch sort of thing. Now I look at Jesus in a far different light. My image of Jesus has changed and matured over my lifetime…

GO: When I grew up we had images of him as the Good Shepherd, Holman Hunts image was still around of him being presented as "The Light of the World", there was the Sacred Heart. There was a plurality of images even in our homes as well as in the Church. So we're not faced with one image. There was the Sacred Heart, the image of Jesus on the Cross, the baby Jesus in the manger. There was a plurality of images and that reflects the New Testament. Christian tradition has never presented just one image to the exclusion of others.

I had a student once involved in a big survey in the Philippines — and they're supposed to love the El Nino, the baby Jesus. It was amazing the plurality of images there, including the Good Shepherd. There are no sheep up there — amazing. So, long live the plurality of images. Mel Gibson's one is the Suffering Servant — that's what's lurking behind that film. But I think they want to see Jesus in others — in people who serve the poor, the sick, the Mother Teresas and Jean Vaniers' of this world. That moves people a great deal. Why is it in France that for something like the seventeenth time last year the favourite Frenchman in a public poll was Abbe Pierre of the Ragpickers? He wasn't this year because he said to them "please do not put my name down!" And who was the favourite Frenchwoman for the third time: Mother Emmanuel who worked with the poor in Cairo. This is a survey of the general population. I don't know how many millions of people go in for it but for the seventeenth time the favourite person was Abbe Pierre and now, for the third time, the favourite Frenchwoman is Mother Emmanuel. That says something — they see Jesus in the Jean Vanier's…

TS: What was your reaction to Mel Gibson's film, the Suffering Christ image I'm referring to here. Do you think it was overdone?

GO: I think two things. In the United States a lot of Protestants never look at the image of the body of Christ on the Cross. It has an astonishing effect on them. Catholics are used to seeing the image of Christ on the Cross. The Protestants have had plain crosses without a body. Catholics have been forced to think Sacramentally — his body going through this terrible suffering.

And in Russia it has had great success there supported by big Orthodox leaders. They said maybe it's not the last word but it shocks people and wakes them up from their stupor. That's in Russia. It was a big success there.

So, images of Jesus ... Jean Vanier recently had an excellent series on Canadian television on the Fourth Gospel — breaking open the Scriptures for people, beautifully done. Helping people appreciate what is there. William Barclay did that back in his own generation. And Martini does that — the way he breaks open the four Gospels and helps people feed on the Word of Life. We've got to help people get to know him in ways like this — through Scripture, through better liturgies, much better preaching, opening up of Scriptures. That's the challenge.

TS: Why are we failing in getting vocations? What's turning people away? When you first answered this question you said the problem was a failing in the Church rather than with the image of Jesus…

GO: We've never had it as good economically...

TS: You're not going to turn that back are you?

GO: No, that's another question. Why is Catholic identity not that important to people today? I mean 79% of the people in Spain say they're Catholics but it doesn't mean that much to them obviously. In England a similar thing. A lot of people have never had it as good economically — the United States is a bit different — but why is it there is this incredible practice in Africa? It's just amazing that despites AIDS, famines, wars, etc. etc., etc., — incredible things happen down there — but despite all that there is this incredible devotion to the faith. I'm going up to Singapore after I leave here and that's fairly wealthy but here's a minority Catholic population that is very organised. And women playing a big role in it. I love the Catholic Church up in Singapore. Or the Catholic Church among the tribals — Cardinal Troppo. It's a Western problem — not one in Asia, Latin America or Africa. We've never had it as good economically.

TS: But we can be fairly confident the direction the world is taking that in another hundred or two hundred years time the people of the third world will be experiencing the prosperity we take for granted in the West.

GO: I won't be around them. I'm just talking about the problem now. I see my role as trying to tell people about Jesus. He offers a very satisfying, worthwhile life. You know there's a beautiful phrase in the Preface to the Mass, "it is our duty and salvation". We are created by God. We'd just drop out of existence if God didn't keep us in existence. It's our duty as a community to honour God and worship God. But it is also our salvation right here and now. It's something very satisfying. I don't see the other way of living providing the same satisfaction — I mean people get neurotic. The Brave New World hasn't come to them.

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Posted: 17Aug2004 2:15 AM

Tom Scott

"In spite of all that might be said against our age,
what a moment it is to be alive in!" James McAuley