Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Arthur Peacocke

I came across an essay today by one of my favorite authors involved in the science-religion dialogue, the late scientist and Anglican priest Arthur Peacocke. Soon after he was diagnosed with cancer around July of 2004, Peacocke, realizing his death was immanent, wrote his Nunc Dimittis (Lord, now let your servant go) and left behind him a letter of comforting words letting us know God is real. When you read his Nunc Dimittis down below you'll know that you need not have interest in the science-religion debate to appreciate a good Christian. It's a long read but well worth it.

Nunc Dimittis
Arthur Peacocke 2006
Up until July 2004 I was blessed with a long, healthy and fruitful life. In July 2004, in my eightieth year I was diagnosed not only with prostate cancer, but having it in an advanced form. This was an enormous shock to myself and my wife who was with me in all the medical consultations.

The hormone therapy which I was prescribed was of the simplest form and limited my public activities very little. However when I visited St. Petersburg in the spring of 2005 to attend a conference I was finding walking very difficult, even for very short distances. Consequently I had to cancel two holidays, many conferences and lectures which would have taken me abroad. It was only during this time that the enormity of what I had to face up to gradually dawned on me and this catalysed me to finishing off "An essay in interpretation" concerned with a more naturalistic understanding of the Christian faith which I hoped would be congenial to more orthodox believers as well as those who are seriously challenged by the scientific world view as the norm for their thinking.

I was also happy to see the fruition of my co-operation with Ann Pedersonin "The Music of Creation" which was published in November 2005 with an accompanying CD to give musical illustrations of the text . Meanwhile I was much less mobile but not so much that I could not spend Christmas with my daughter in 2005. By this time I was taking an enormous range of pills, bouts of nausea were becoming frequent, and it was becoming less and less possible to envisage a normal life of any kind.

I was trying to be stoic and trying not to inveigh against God for what was clearly going to be my fate - a fate I had not really envisaged or imagined. However I did manage, with the help of my wife and daughter, shuffling me between cars, hotels and view points to visit for a few days my beloved Cairngorms and Strathspey, but clearly life was rapidly changing. And not only in this regard. It became clear - during a short stay in hospital where I was treated(unsuccessfully) for excessive swelling in my legs- that the house we had lived in for a long time would be impossible to manage with one person an invalid. Hence the house was sold and we bought a small flat that would be suitable for the two of us. The move, especially clearing out the accumulation of over twenty years would have been impossible without the energetic and willing help of my grandson David who gave up his summer vacation to do this.

I had only a week living in the flat before the cancer struck again,totally immobilising me to the extent that I was taken to Sir Michael Sobell House. This is a wonderfully caring hospice that brought me through near fatal kidney failure. I was cared for there for five weeks and then moved to a nursing home from which I am at present writing and where one day is very like another. I experience discomfort as I am washed and hoisted by carers, for I am paralysed from the waist downwards. This alternates with relatively pain-free periods when I can read, listen to music and enjoy the company of friends and family who faithfully and regularly visit me. I have long been one of those who have been unsure about the role and efficacy of intercessory prayer. My view of it was that the intercessor by placing him or herself in the presence of God, with the person prayed for very much in mind, enabled that person to experience the enfolding presence of God. I felt that the person prayed for was being taken up in the loving arms of God enhancing the divine presence. I can honestly say that this is what I have experienced. Many many people from the science-religion community, a wide circle of friends and of course my family have assured me that they are praying for me. It seems that my suffering has evoked a response from friends and colleagues which has revealed to me (surprisingly) how my words and actions have been a positive influence in their lives. This kind of prayerful support I had not expected; it was, and is a great help. Uniquely through all of this the mutual love of my wife and myself has been enriched and deepened in her daily visits and the knowledge that we share the same prayers and the conviction that death will not part us.

Over the years I have given much thought and spilt much ink on the nature of God and God's interaction with people. Not surprisingly the subtler nuances of my deliberations have fallen away before the absolute conviction that God is love and eternally so. This remains the foundation of my prayers and thoughts for "underneath are the everlasting arms." This is not always easily experienced and it needs much concentrated meditation- the "black dog" of depression is sometimes difficult to expel. Another of my concerns over the years has been the recurrence of what theologians call "natural evil" I have often attempted to illustrate the ambivalence of this concept, for example showing that what we call natural evil is a consequence of a divinely created law-like structure implementing the divine purpose to bring into existence intelligent persons. The irony is that one of the examples I took was the role of mutations in DNA which are the basic source of evolution, and so of the emergence of human beings, - and also of cancer. This is a new challenge to the integrity of my past thinking. I am only enabled to meet this challenge by my root conviction that God is Love as revealed supremely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

However the fact remains that death for me is imminent and of this I have no fear because that belief. This conviction was not available to the non-Christian audience who, according to Bede, were addressed concerning the mystery of life. "Such", he said, "O King, seems to me the present life of men on earth, in comparison with that time which to us is uncertain, as if when on a winter's night you sit feasting with your ealdormen and theigns,- a single sparrow should fly swiftly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly fly out through another. In that time in which it is indoors it is indeed not touched by the fury of winter, but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to your eyes. Somewhat like this appears the life of man; but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant."

Thanks to the revelation of God through Jesus the Christ we do not share this ignorance. I know that God is waiting for me to be enfolded in love.
Death comes to every one and this is my time.

Nunc Dimittis

Arthur Peacocke 2006


Jaimie said...

What a beautiful post Tom. I love it when people, though full of faith, are not afraid to consider new and/or heavy ideas and then have a dialogue about them. Whatever becomes of them the church does not become stagnant. For ILM I am currently reading "Consider Jesus" which presents some very interesting ones. My mind just got blown on the chapter about Jesus' self knowledge. How much did he know about himself? Was it revealed to him or did he have to figure it out? Fascinating!

Katie Alender said...

Faith of that kind is lovely.

Adrienne said...


Tracy said...

Absolutely wonderful Tom!

Catherine said...

This is amazing and gorgeous...thanks for sharing it. I share his beliefs on God, as well as his thoughts on "evil" - it was very refreshing to hear, though saying that sounds much cheaper than what I mean. Thanks.

Rita said...

I had not read this before. Thank you for posting it. His writing seems to represent all the is good within Anglicanism: openness, honesty, optimism and humility.