Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Catholics Debate Atheists

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As is widely reported on the Net, Intelligence Squared had a debate on the topic: "The Catholic church is a force for good in the world." Speaking for the motion were Archbishop John Onaiyekan (of Nigeria) and Ann Widdecombe MP, a convert. Speaking against the motion were the ubiquitous Christopher Hitchens and the gay actor Stephen Fry. Before the debate, 678 were 'for' the motion; 1102 Against; 346 Don’t know. After the debate: those who were 'for' went down to 268. 'Against' went up to 1,876, and 'Don’t know' down to 34. The consensus of both Catholics and non-Catholics seems to be that Hitchens and Fry thoroughly outperformed the Catholic team.

I watched the shorter, 40', version of the debate. It was a pity that the Catholic team put up an African Bishop, for whom English was a second language, and a woman whose voice was so squeaky that it took some time getting used to. The Catholic team addressed the issues reasonably well, but failed miserably as communicators or charmers of the audience, especially when pitted against the smooth-tongued media professionals Hitchens and Fry. Also they were no match for their opponents in shooting arrows or hurling mud, especially in rebuttals.

People have their freedom to engage in whatever debates they like, but it looks to me that Catholics debating atheists like Hitchens engage in not only a futile but also a counterproductive enterprise. Even if they are matched in wit and oratorical skills, the atheists will be at an advantage. The atheists have nothing to lose, no position to defend, no history to identify with, and no responsibility to anyone except to themselves. Hitchens and the whole 'against God/Religion/Catholics' gang have only to be against something; they don't have to be for anything whatever except themselves. That gives them great freedom to attack without getting hit. It is like an invisible man punching a hapless boxer. So the Atheist can say, 'I don't approve of people forgiving one another,' 'I hate my enemies and my friends too,' 'I don't see what the problem is with x sleeping with y, regardless of the mutual relationship, as long as they are consenting adults,' 'Yes, I'll kill if I can get away with it,' and so on. He can attack every position his/her opponent takes as restricting his freedom or as out-of-sync dogmas.

Above all, a religious person comes with a baggage, a history, a heritage, which has proud as well as embarrassing elements. That is simply the fate of every one who places himself with a group, for all institutions, religious as well as secular, are made up of fallible humans. So he cannot but leave himself open to attack. The theist cannot return the attacks of an atheist in kind even if he wanted to, for an atheist has no history, has no group membership, has no commitment. Hitchens, for example, can totally distance himself from all the evils that the other atheists had done before him, for the 'atheists' don't have a Church or a history or a group identity. There is no way a theist, who comes with a group identity and heritage, can ever match wits with an atheist, who has no accountability to anyone except to himself! At least if a Hindu and a Jew or a Christian and Moslem debate, there may be some sort of equivalence of 'historical baggage'; whereas a 'loner' like the atheist can always come one up against a theist.

Another major problem with these debates is that they are simply exercises in 'impressing' people rather than in delivering truth or in searching for truth. Recent debates have become a form of entertainment, so we need entertainers rather than scholars to debate. Truth? That can be dispensed with in the context of the debate. Whatever the atheist says or the theist says, there is no way to verify immediately or even later on since they are neither footnoted nor referenced! Even if statements were footnoted, we would only have a case of X quoting Y, and Y quoting Z, without being able to ascertain whether X, Y, and Z know what they are talking about. As anyone who has gone through the books Bad Science or Who Stole Feminism? or Scientific Blunders or How to Lie with Statistics would agree, it is hard to take at face value the statistics and so-called scientific statements. Winning a debate requires entertainment appeal and quick wittedness rather than veracity or knowledge.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Kandhamal Videos

Here are three video clips about the sad events that took place last year in Kandhamal, Orissa, India. Those unfamiliar with the events may explore this Wikipedia article to know what happened. Basically, it was a case of extreme violence, one religious group, the majority, attacking another, minority, religious group. It is unthinkable that such events take place in 21st century India, a country that can rightfully boast of religious tolerance and magnificent mainstream Hinduism. Several Jesuits were involved in assisting the affected Christians.

According to All India Christian Council, the 2008 violence affected in 14 districts out of 30 and 300 Villages, 4,400 Houses burnt, 50,000 Homeless, 59 People killed including at least 2 pastors, 10 Priests/Pastors/Nuns injured, 18,000 Men, women, children injured, 2 women gang-raped including a nun, 151 Churches destroyed and 13 Schools and colleges damaged. The violence targeted Christians in 310 villages, with 4,104 homes torched. More than 18,000 were injured and 50,000 displaced and homes continued to burn in many villages. Another report said that around 11,000 people are still living in relief camps. Some of the tribals even fled away to border districts in neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh and took shelter in churches of those districts.

On October 14, Cuttack archbishop Raphael Cheenath moved the Supreme Court seeking Rs 3 crore as compensation to rebuild the demolished and vandalized churches in the communal riot-hit areas. He also sought Rs 5.5 lakh for the kin of those killed in the riots and compensation of Rs 60,000 to those whose houses were damaged or torched by miscreants. [From Wikipedia]

Here are two more clips continuing the same video story:
Kandhamal Part 2

Kandhamal Part 3

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Uwem Akpan: A Jesuit story teller

Uwem Akpan, S.J. Heard of Uwem Akpan? Perhaps not, but soon you will, not only here from me, but also from the general media. He is one of the brilliant young English writers from Nigeria, having already won many awards for his writing. As he has published at least two stories and a column on “Faith and Doubt” in The New Yorker, he is well-known to literary buffs of contemporary fiction. Since mid-September, when Oprah Winfrey, the undisputed Queen of talk-shows, announced that she has selected his book Say You're One of Them as Oprah’s Book Club Selection, Americans and many English-speakers around the world have come to notice him. Oprah’s Book Club is said to be the largest in the world, and her selection is guaranteed to boost any book’s sale to millions.

One of Uwem’s stories, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” was published in The New Yorker on June 13, 2005. "Ex-mas"-->"X-mas," as you can guess, is Christmas. After getting to know that Uwem was a Jesuit priest from Nigeria, I read it two days ago with great interest. The story is quite touching, and Uwem’s deliberate use of Africanisms interesting. The story, narrated by a young boy, is about his extremely poor family and his 12-year old elder sister, Maisha, who is the main money maker. How she earns her money, what she does with it, and how the whole family is affected by her form the meat of the story.

Uwem was born in Ikot Akpan Eda in Nigeria, and was educated in Nigeria, United States, Kenya, Benin, and Tanzania. He is fluent in his own mother tongue Annang, English, and several other language varieties. He was set on becoming a Jesuit even as a high school student, and he is currently working as a Parish Priest in Africa, spending most of his time in pastoral duties and writing usually at night.

In USA, he studied philosophy and English with the Jesuits at Creighton and Gonzaga universities. After studying theology for three years at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and receiving ordination to the priesthood in 2003, he pursued his English studies at the University of Michigan and received his MFA in creative writing.

Cover_Go to Official Site
Some of the awards that Uwem has won are:
Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction
Nominated for the Guardian First Book Award
Nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing
Nominated for the Story Prize
Nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award
Selected for Oprah's 2009 Book Club
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, African Region

As you can see from the video clip below, he is a very cheerful and easy-going person—clearly reaching for the stars (and the Divine) while solidly keeping his feet on the ground. As he himself says, he is not too fond of abstract theologizing but likes to communicate his core beliefs in an intelligible language. No wonder he follows in the footsteps of the great story tellers: the Buddha and Jesus. Uwem seems most concerned in his fiction to give voice to the children of Africa and thus let the world know of their day-to-day concerns.

Here is an interesting interview with Uwem, which will make you laugh with him:

Here are some links for you to discover more about Uwem.

Read Uwem’s "An Ex-Mas Feast" in The New Yorker
Watch Oprah Winfrey, the talk-show Queen, comment on "An Ex-Mas Feast," the first story in Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them. "This little family not just broke my heart, but opened my heart."
Watch Oprah explain why she chose Uwem's book.
Visit the official site to read more about Uwem and buy his great book of stories!

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Pope in Vatican Observatory

Here's a short video clip of Pope Benedict XVI visiting the new premises of the Specola Vaticana, the Vatican Observatory, on September 16. See him welcomed by the Jesuit Superior General Fr. Adolfo Nicolas (former profesor at Sophia University), Jesuit Fr José Gabriel Funes, the Director of Vatican Observatory, and Jesuit Brother Guy J. Consolmagno (He is the one with a beard!). Fr. Funes and Br. Consolmagno are both highly qualified scientists.

Br. Consolmagno, S.J. was at Sophia last year, when he came to Japan to attend a conference on meteorites. After his B.A. & M.A. at MIT, he obtained a Ph.D. in Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona. He did further research and taught at Harvard College Observatory and MIT, then worked as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. He joined the Jesuits in 1989, preferring to be a 'Brother' (i.e., to be a member of the Society of Jesus without being ordained a 'Priest'). He has been at the Vatican Observatory almost since he began his Jesuit life. He is an author of several books--both scientific and religious--and he writes regularly for many journals and periodicals (including The Tablet). See a short list of his books by clicking here.

Gonsolmagno, Photo from his site.
Fr. Funes, S.J. is another scientist of note, having received his Master's degree in Astronomy from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina and a doctorate from the University of Padua in Italy. He has also a bachelor's degree in philosophy from University del Salvador in Argentina. He taught astrophysics at an American university before being appointed Director of the Vatican Observatory, in place of another Jesuit scientist Fr. George Coyne. Fr. Funes was in the news last year when he suggested that the existence of ETs cannot be ruled out. "Vatican astronomer cites possibility of extraterrestrial 'brothers'," wrote The New York Times, introducing Fr. Funes' remarks.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Lama Osel and Jiddu Krishnamurthy

Lama Osel Courtesy of FPMT
Just last Friday (May 29), I was talking with a group of women about the case of infants who are dramatically identified as the re-incarnations of some Buddhist Lamas and groomed to mature as adult Lamas. And today (June 1) I accidentally came across the heading “El niño lama se hace agnóstico” in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. The Lama in question is Lama Tenzin Osel, who was chosen by Lama Zopa and the one and only Dalai Lama, as the reincarnation of the well-known Lama Thubten Yeshe. Lama Zopa is the direct disciple of Lama Yeshe, the founder of FPMT [Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition], who died in 1983, aged 49.

Lama Zopa temporarily succeeded Lama Yeshe and was on the look out for the reincarnated Lama Yeshe. He first set his eyes on the Spanish toddler Osel Hita Torres (born on 12 February 1985, in Granada, Spain) in the fall of 1985 and immediately recognized him to be the incarnation of Lama Yeshe, based on several dreams and signs. Osel’s mother Maria, a fervent disciple of Lama Yeshe, is supposed to have given birth to Osel painlessly, and Osel himself seems to have exuded excellent qualities highly suitable for a Lama. After being enthroned officially as the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, the new Lama Osel, received the respect and obeisance of even senior Lamas although he himself was still a child.

Lama Osel’s formation seems to have been very strict and cloistered, but at the same time reasonably liberal as he was given opportunities to learn languages like English and Spanish and to engage in secular studies. What triggered a change in the young Lama is not clear, but according various news reports yesterday, the Lama has explicitly disowned his Lama-ness and confessed to having become an agnostic. The Guardin of May 31 says that “he bemoaned the misery of a youth deprived of television, football and girls.” Interestingly, the Lama had no exposure to movies other than the Eddie Murphy action thriller The Golden Child, which deals with an infant Lama trying to escape from ruthless villains. Lama Osel’s comment: "I never felt like that boy."

OselToday_Courtesy FPMT
Lama Osel’s case reminds one of the dramatic break that Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) made with the Theosophists in the late 1920s. Krishnamurti too, like Lama Osel, was discovered when he was still very young and was expected to become the undisputed spokesman for the Theosophical Society and a “World Teacher.” After a highly programmed education, however, Krishnamurti received the enlightenment of disillusionment, and eloquently uttered memorable sentences like the following:
I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path.

Krishnamurti, as may be clear, confronted the Society that groomed him, not only because of disillusionment but also because of his sincere quest for Truth. After leaving the Theosophists, JK lived for many years as a much admired philosopher, spreading his message around the globe. In accordance with his own teachings, he ordained no disciples--though it won't be a surprise if many claim to be his disciples--and established no monasteries. "I do not want followers,” he had said.
The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.

Not much is known—at least as of June 1—about Lama Osel’s formal reasons for snapping his ties with the Buddhist tradition that formed him. He is currently in Madrid studying mass media. According to reports, he seems rebellious and critical of the Buddhist circle that elevated him to a position of sanctity and authority: "They took me away from my family and stuck me in a medieval situation in which I suffered a great deal." Looking back on his monastic education, he has said, "It was like living a lie."

Until June 1, the FPMT site ( had many pages dedicated to Lama Osel, giving an account of his birth, selection, enthronement, education, and activities. On June 2, all the links to Lama Osel were inactive.

Although the stories of Krishnamurti (Hindu) and Osel/Torres (Buddhist) are different, they raise the same questions about human reliability, trustworthiness, freedom, and the meaning of Truth, Commitment, Permanence, etc. It may be insignificant if an individual changes his/her mind arbitrarily, say, with regard to which ice-cream s/he prefers. When the individual holds a position of authority, however, there are all sorts of implications. Supposing the Dalai Lama or the Pope were to assert tomorrow in public that they would give up their current status of teaching others and go humbly in search of Truth… Although no such dramatic events have occurred—as far as I know—history seems to have enough number of cases of authorities who have misused their power or have lived a double life, essentially conceding that they could not reconcile their life with their stated beliefs. There have been also cases of respectable theologians and less well-known religious leaders who have made an about-turn. The case of an Australian Jesuit Provincial who left the Jesuits and wrote a book on “searching for truth” comes to mind. So, perhaps, we are forced to reflect along with Pilate, Mahatma Gandhi, Herman Hesse, and others, “What is Truth?”

Follow-up (June 5, 2009)
The FPMT site currently shows the pages related to the birth, selection, and activities of Lama Osel. Also, there is a page of explanation from Osel himself on his current status and state of mind (See Although he says that "certain media find ways to sensationalize and exaggerate an unusual story," he doesn't point out any significant media errors. He seems to confirm that he is no more a Lama, but also asserts that he keeps his friendly ties with FPMT. In a few phrases, he does sound like J.Krishnamurti, of whom he must have surely heard during his long education in India: "Personally, my job is to find new ways in which to discover the true nature of our being."

(References, in no specific order)
1) El niño lama se hace agnóstico
2) The Birth, The Search, & The Enthronement of Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche
3) Rachel Helyer Donaldson, Reincarnated Lama goes off the rails.
4) Fuchs, Dale. Boy chosen by Dalai Lama turns back on Buddhist order.
5) J. Krishnamurti Online
6) J. Krishnamurti in Wikipedia

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Obama at Notre Dame

Obama at Notre Dame
Catholics around the world may have heard of the recent controversy surrounding the honorary degree given to the US President Obama by Notre Dame, a Catholic University like Sophia. The controversy concerned Obama's track record and position on abortion & stem cell research, which, some Catholics maintained, made him unfit to receive an honorary degree from a Catholic university. The critics didn't like him to deliver the key note address at the graduation ceremony either. Some Catholics, of course, didn't see any problem at all. Whatever group you may belong to, you may find Obama's speech at Notre Dame worth listening to.

This is one of his most religious speeches as he frequently refers to God, faith, and Catholics, acknowledging gracefully the good Catholic influences he has received, e.g., from the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago and the former Notre Dame President Fr. Ted Hesburgh. Without advocating any stand pro or con abortion, Obama calls on all opposing parties to strive for mutual understanding and accommodation in a civil manner. He supports his call for mutual accommodation by pointing out that it is an unavoidable option and that it is in fact a Christian mission. Note also his final 'May God bless the United States of America,' a phrase that some atheistic intellectuals want abolished.
So here is the video: (CNN video, about 30 minutes).

For a brief description of the controversy, see
(1) CBS News: Inside The Obama Notre Dame Controversy
(2) PBS: Obama Notre Dame Controversy

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Obama at Georgetown, and the hidden IHS

The IHS log draped from viewHere's a topic for conversation, especially among Sophians, as Sophia University is a Jesuit (also Catholic!) University like Georgetown. Compare the picture above with the picture below... Do you see any difference in the background/setting?

The IHS Logo as it normally appearsWhen President Obama recently visited Georgetown University to give a lecture on the state of the economy, the university was told to cover the famous Jesuit logo IHS that is prominently displayed behind the podium in Gaston Hall. Many dignitaries give lectures and conduct workshops in this ancient hall, and the distinctive Georgetown University eagle and IHS logo with a Cross have been there for all to see. For whatever reason President Obama's Office had requested that the IHS logo be covered up and Georgetown University graciously complied.

Perhaps there is nothing sinister or significant in all this; but several bloggers and media pundits have criticized Georgetown University for being unchristian and denying its Jesuit identity. Critics of Obama too have taken this as a sign that he is not a 'true' Christian. As a matter of fact, his lecture did contain indirect references to some New Testament passages, but the critics point out that he did not mention Jesus by name.

As seems to be routine whenever a Catholic 'issue' comes up, some in the media immediately called up Thomas Reese, S.J., the former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, for his opinion about the case. His response to Julia Duin of The Washington Times was quite straightforward: "It is more for camera quality than anything else... They don't want distractions that would make the eye wander. I don't think this is motivated by theology, but by communications strategy."

Perhaps Sophia University will have nothing to worry about when inviting dignitaries like President Obama, for it doesn't have any Jesuit logo, statue, or symbol to cover up! Although Sophia clearly asserts its Jesuit and Catholic identity in PR materials, the university itself is bereft of Christian icons and symbols.

Leaving aside the Jesuit logo controversy, you can watch President Obama's full address at Georgetown University by clicking the picture below.

Click here to watch Obama's Lecture at Georgetown University
For more on the story, see
Baier, Bret. Religious Symbols Covered Up When President Obama Spoke at a Catholic University. Fox News.
Duin, Julia. Obama at Georgetown: The mystery of the missing sign. [The Washington Times]
Eden, Dawn. UPDATED?Obama's messianic jargon hits 'rock' bottom ...
and G'town removes the Holy Name to accommodate The One.
[The Dawn Patrol]
Houston Chronicle, The. Georgetown's Cover-Up

[Thanks to a Washington correspondent for bringing this story to my attention.]

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Harvard has ended Edward Green's Research Program

Pope answering Questions
(Thanks to Dr. Green who has entered below in the "comments" section that the closure of his research program at Harvard was decided prior to his coming out in defence of the Pope. In other words, although Wikipedia and the Crawley article highlight the closure of the Research Program, the closure itself was not triggered or caused by his agreeing with the Pope. Added April 3)

The latest news I read in the Pope-condoms controversy is that the illustrious figure who defended him has lost his position at Harvard. According to William Crawley of BBC,
Dr Edward Green, director of Harvard's HIV Prevention Research Project, who came to the defence of Pope Benedict during last week's international row over condoms in Africa, says Harvard University has ended his research program.
The Crawley-Green interview in its entirety is very illuminating, and again raises the communication issue. Do people really listen to each other? Try to understand each other? Or simply read a few lines and take off into expressing their own views related to a single word or phrase--ignoring the context or what was actually said? We know that our attention span in listening is very limited; it surely seems our attention span in reading too is limited. But coherence demands some continuity with what is said/written. That coherence seems lacking in many discourses; or the coherence is held by a single word or phrase rather than by the content or theme.

The case is very similar to an old man, who on hearing, "How are you feeling today?" says, "Oh, feeling is bad. People should stop feeling and start acting. These days too many people spend all their time on feeling and expressing feeling. The world demands action. You must concentrate on what you do. Do not waste your time on feeling. I have suffered for many years thinking about my feelings only to realize that they are empty..." etc., etc. Is this a coherent conversation? Is the old man communicating as a proper interlocutor? The question was one of concern about the old man; but he picks up the word "feeling" and rambles on about unrelated issues!

Now in the case of Pope-condom news, precisely such a phenomenon is happening as if that is normal. The Pope says something in which the word "condoms" occurs, and immediately the media take him to task elaborating on all sorts of things that he said nothing about. And wise guys comment online like this one writing in the Washington Post: '[Y]ou [referring to Green] begin by writing that "the Pope was right" when he said that condoms don't prevent aids and that they make its spread worse.' The Pope absolutely said nothing of the sort, but this writer has somehow got that into his head from the single word "condoms" that the Pope used!

Green, as a scientist, is a much more careful reader and he reacts to what the Pope actually said. Read, for example, this answer of his to Crawley:
Edward Green: What the Pope said was the distribution and marketing of condoms would not solve the problem of African Aids and that it might even exacerbate the problem. And I think it was that second comment that really set the critics off, really upset a lot of people. I can understand that, because I have worked in Aids prevention for a long time. In fact, I worked as a condom and contraceptive social marketer at the beginning of the pandemic--I was working in family planning. I am part of a group of researchers that have been looking for the behavioural antecedents to HIV prevalence decline in Africa. We now see HIV going down in about 8 or 9 countries in Africa and in every case we see a decrease in the proportion of men and women who report having more than one sex partner in the past year. So when the Pope said that the answer really lies in monogamy and martial faithfulness, that's exactly what we found empirically.
Green interprets the Pope precisely as I had commented on my previous blog entry.

Here is a segment that shows how Green finds himself misquoted or selectively quoted, leading to miscommunication:
William Crawley: The Lancet has described the Pope's comments, which you agree with, as a distortion of scientific evidence.

Edward Green: That's because The Lancet is not thinking about the generalised epidemics of Africa. I hasten to add--and I have tried to do this in all of my interviews, although sometimes only part of my interviews are quoted--I point out that at national levels, we see condoms working in epidemics like those of Thailand and Cambodia. But in the generalised epidemics of Africa--well, there was a UN Aids study done in 2003 by Hearst and Chen, it was actually published in the peer-reviewed journal Studies in Family Planning in 2004, and they conclude that there is not a single country in Africa where HIV prevalence has come down primarily because of condoms.
Here the importance of context becomes evident. The Pope's comment was about Africa, not about Thailand or Cambodia, a point that Green pays attention to. Reporters who ignore the context tend to exaggerate what the Pope said. What the Pope may have said about Thailand or Cambodia is unknown, but that is not relevant to evaluating his comment on the distribution of condoms in Africa!

Regarding UNAids, which disagreed with Green, here is a segment:
William Crawley: We shouldn't trust the UNAids organisation on this?

Edward Green: I would be very careful about trusting the UNAids organisation for anything scientific, anything having to do with, for example, statistics about Aids. They have had to back-pedal and retract a lot of their basic statistics. It may seem pretty shocking for somebody like me to disagree with UNAids, but the fact is that UNAids is changing its thinking on this matter. As a matter of fact, in a very few days, there is going to be joint statement released by our Harvard programme, the Southern Regional Office of UNAids, and the Southern Regional Office of the World Bank, saying that the primary intervention for Aids in Southern Africa should be to discourage multiple and concurrent partners and that condom promotion is a secondary backup strategy.
The Crawley-Green interview is a must read in full. Crawley is very pointed and plays the devil's advocate to perfection. Thanks to his sharp questions, Green is able to articulate point by point why he defended the Pope's statement. Note especially Green's opinions on the Lancet and the UNAids, which came out strongly against him. Still, the disappointing point is that Crawley himself repeatedly talks as if the Pope had said, "Don't use condoms"! He is one of the many who still haven't got the significance of why the Pope spoke of "distribution" rather than "use." He should read the previous entry of this blog!

I only hope that Green will continue in his relentless pursuit of truth and stand up for his convictions even if it were to go against the teachings of Church X or University Y. It is the media's irresponsible message that religion is against truth or science. As Gandhi ably put it, God is Truth. Sincere religions have nothing to be afraid of truth. But to spread alarm and panic without adequate evidence or by misinterpreting facts is irresponsible science.

BBC: William Crawley's interview of Edward Green
Washington Post prints Green's defense of the Pope.
Edward Green in Wikipedia

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Pope, Condom, and Discourse Analysis

The Cardinal Era
As one interested in language use and communication, I was pretty excited about the recent pronouncement of the Pope about condoms and the way newspapers, blogosphere, and even friends and acquaintances interpreted it.

When I recently asked a friend about what he thought about the Pope's comment, he said, "Oh, very embarrassing! For a Pope to say in public to hundreds of thousands of Africans that they shouldn't use condoms..."

I said, "But actually, he didn't make his comment in public to thousands of Africans! He was with some reporters on a flight, and while inside the plane, he tried to answer a few questions that the reporters posed. And that's how he happened to say what he said."

"But still, it doesn't seem sensible to say that people shouldn't be using condoms!"

"Well, maybe he personally thinks people shouldn't be using condoms... but in that response to a reporter he didn't exhort people not to use condoms... he was simply answering how he saw the problem of AIDS in Africa and what he thought was the solution."

"But didn't he quite explicitly say that using condoms increases AIDS rather than decreasing it?"

"No! The Pope was talking about condoms being widely distributed like ad leaflets, and said that mere distribution of condoms was not going to solve the AIDS problem, but might increase the problem! His comment was not about use but about distribution."

"Oh, well, whatever he said, he was wrong!"

Obviously, my friend is not the only one who got the impression or who made up in his mind after following the media reports that the Pope was blatantly preaching to the masses, "Don't use condoms! Using it will only increase cases of AIDS!" Readers and hearers got that impression since the media frequently omitted mentioning the context of the Pope's comment and the fact that the Pope was reacting to the distribution rather than to the use of condoms.

What's baffling is that even major newspapers like the Washington Post misinterpret the comment just like my friend. The Post wrote:

Pope Benedict XVI said, "You can't resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem." In a perfect world, people would abstain from having sex until they were married or would be monogamous in committed relationships. But the world isn't perfect -- and neither is Pope Benedict's pronouncement on the effectiveness of condoms in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The evidence says so.

Now if we examine this paragraph, we see that the Post explicitly states that the Pope reacted to "the distribution of condoms" and that the pronoun "it" in "it increases the problem" refers to the distribution [singular], not to condoms [plural]. And yet, the Post continues, "In a perfect world, people would abstain from having sex until they were married or would be monogamous in committed relationships. But the world isn't perfect...," implying the Pope spoke about "use" rather than "distribution."

What is the Post reacting to? That is the linguistic, rather the sociolinguistic, question. Whatever it is reacting to, it is definitely not to what the Pope said in this interview or to anything he has said previously, for according to reports this Pope has said so far little about condoms!

Now the next paragraph in the Post goes:

Are condoms foolproof protection against infection by HIV, which causes AIDS? No. Sometimes they break, and sometimes people put them on incorrectly. Still, doctors on the front lines of the fight against the AIDS epidemic established long ago that the use of condoms greatly diminishes the transmission of HIV, the cause of a disease that has no cure.

Here the Post is trying to give the impression of being objective, by conceding that condoms are not foolproof since they are misued and break sometimes--addressing an issue which has nothing to do with what the Pope said. The Pope spoke of 'distribution,' but the Post completely ignores it and goes after what happens when condoms are 'used'. Improper use and breakage of condoms have nothing to do with the massive distribution of condoms, which is the target of the Pope's criticism. The Pope definitely doesn't state or imply that condoms are ineffective because they break or because people misuse them!

What is paradoxical is that the Washington Post tries to be so very commonsensical and enlightened by insinuating that it is not so unrealistic as the Pope, while failing to realize that in fact, it is even more unrealistic than the Pope in assuming that the mere distribution of condoms leads to reduction in AIDS, when not even in Washington, D.C. such a causal correlation has been established.

Moreover, as is well-known, condoms must be worn consistently and correctly in order to be effective; but "the world isn't perfect" as the Post wisely reminds us, and so the Post is as unrealistic as, if not even more unrealistic than, the Pope in presuming that most people wear the condom consistently and correctly and thus contribute to reducing HIV. "The evidence says so," says the Post confidently contradicting the Pope, but the evidence actually is against the Post! Surveys show that most people do not use the condom correctly or consistently--and hence the reduction of HIV due to condom use is negligible [See Dr. Green's interview below]!

The distinction between "use" and "distribution" is not mere semantic nit-picking! In the given context of Africa, the "distribution" that the Pope criticized has been identified as a major problem by even secular researchers. No one disputes that under laboratory conditions condoms help reduce HIV; but the wisdom of spending millions of dollars on buying and distributing condoms as if they are the panacea for AIDS has been questioned by many researchers, the most notable being Edward Green of Harvard University. As an academic, the Pope must have read Green's writings and those of others like him, and that was what prompted him to criticize the distribution. Benedict, a life-long academic, is too smart to say that condoms must not be used because they break sometimes!

Discourse-wise it seems obvious that the Post and many other newspapers like it are simply reacting to some stimulus that is not in the given discourse. There is clearly some misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or failure of communication. What triggered the failure can only be speculated.

Perhaps they see the Pope--the representative of a religion that is known to discourage extramarital liaisons and the use of prophylactics in marital unions-- saying something about condoms for the first time, and immediately react to what he might have said or intended. They ignore the immediate context and the actual sentence, because they have nothing to say about it, and jump to a related topic about which they have much to say.

It could be that they create a straw man in order to attack him and push their own pro-prophylactic values. As is obvious, it is the strawman, not the Pope, who said anything about the actual use of condoms.

Or it could be that they are not aware of the debate among African experts on the merits and demerits of distributing an excessive amount of condoms!

If even classy newspapers misinterpret the Pope, one can imagine what goes on in blogosphere! I read a few blogs, and they are hilarious. They offer lots of fodder for miscommunication research. Most critical bloggers simply give AIDS statistics as if the stats alone are enough to prove their point that the Pope is wrong (a strategy adopted by the Post too!). They conveniently ignore the statistics related to condom distribution and the fact that the Pope has no dispute with statisticians. Most tend to criticize the Church's anti-prophylactic stand, but that's an entirely different issue unrelated to what the Pope said about the African situation. The condom use policy is not the one under discussion. Blogosphere also reveals that there is no shortage of 'wise' men and women who enjoy giving the Pope derogatory titles wholly based on their own ignorance and subjective interpretation!

Setting the study of miscommunication aside, I shall leave the readers with this thought-provoking quotation from National Review Online:

“The pope is correct,” [Edward C.] Green [Director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies] told National Review Online Wednesday [3/18], “or put it a better way, the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments. He stresses that “condoms have been proven to not be effective at the ‘level of population.’”

“There is,” Green adds, “a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the U.S.-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys,’ between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.”

Green added: “I also noticed that the pope said ‘monogamy’ was the best single answer to African AIDS, rather than ‘abstinence.’ The best and latest empirical evidence indeed shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behavior change associated with reduction in HIV-infection rates (the other major factor is male circumcision).”
Readers who may like to pursue this topic will find the following URLs of interest. Any Internet search on the topic will bring up many more links. I invite the readers, if they can, to keep track of anyone who has paid attention, especially in their criticism, to the fact that the Pope spoke of 'distribution' and not 'use' of condoms. My guess is the count will be zero!

NRO quoting Green on Pope

Wisom of Whores: Is the Pope a Scientist?

Washington Post: Condom Sense

UNAids and myth of condoms efficacy against Aids [Some behind the scene politics!]

Pope Benedict XVI

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cosmic God and Templeton Prize 2009

Bernard d'Espagnat
There was no report of the Templeton Prize recipient in today's (3/17) newspapers in Japan. It may appear tomorrow... At any rate, I was drawn to the news about the award since the recipient, Bernard d'Espagnat, happens to be a top-class scientist, a Catholic by upbringing ("he was brought up a Roman Catholic but did not practice any religion and considered himself a spiritualist," according to Reuters), and a bold thinker who reflects on the limits of science.

My interest in the award was also provoked by a Science and Religion Symposium that I watched on the Internet. This International Symposium was attended by leading atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, & Sam Harris, and a few pro-religion members including a representative from the Templeton Foundation. Several atheistic scientists criticized the Templeton Foundation and accused it of bias. There was even a proposal from one of the atheists that the award must be given to Richard Dawkins for his 'great' contributions questioning the very need for religion. The Templeton representative gave a soothing reply denying bias; however, he was in a rush and departed soon after his short talk, leaving the crowd to boo him behind his back and to continue complaining about the Templeton Foundation. Overall it looked like the atheist crowd didn't see any point in trying to link religion/spirituality and science. They were all out to have religion mercilessly 'executed' or at least put away among nonsensical superstitions.

In this context, it's interesting to see that the award this year (2009) was given to a practicing scientist and philosopher of science, especially since last year (2008) the Templeton Prize was awarded to a Catholic priest cosmologist, Prof. Michael Heller of Cracow, Poland.

D'Espagnat, 87, is French and professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Paris-Sud university. He studied or collaborated with some of the greatest scientists of the last century, including Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, and John Bell. His special research interests are quantum physics and its implications to philosophy. He wins one million UK pounds in prize money.

What does he say relating science and religion? Reuters gives the following summary:
Classical physics developed by Isaac Newton believes it can describe the world through laws of nature that it knows or will discover. But quantum physics shows that tiny particles defy this logic and can act in indeterminate ways.

D'Espagnat says this points toward a reality beyond the reach of empirical science. The human intuitions in art, music and spirituality can bring us closer to this ultimate reality, but it is so mysterious we cannot know or even imagine it.

"Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated," he said. "On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being."

In a sense, what d'Espagnat says seems identical to what ancient religious philosophers like Sankara of India [8th century]or Thomas Aquinas of Italy [13th century] have said. That God defies science, human knowledge, and human grasp is an essential theme of most religious thinkers. That's what led Sankara to posit Nirguna Brahman [the Brahman/God-without-attributes, i.e., God of whom we humans can say little or only in the negative] and Saguna Brahman [the Brahman/God-of-attributes, i.e., God as we humans try to understand and formulate, using inadequate language]. The "mystery" is simply the inability of a finite being trying to grasp the infinite being, or analogically of a cup trying to hold all the water of the sea, or of a well-frog trying to grasp the wonders of the world outside the well.

The following, also from Reuters, elaborates on d'Espagnat's thinking:
Some baffling discoveries of quantum physics led him to believe all creation has a wholeness and interrelatedness that many scientists miss by trying to break problems down into their component parts rather than understand them in larger contexts.

One of these is entanglement, the way that paired subatomic particles remain linked even if they move far apart, so that experimenting with one automatically effects the other without any apparent communication between them.

This view clashes with the materialist outlook widespread among scientists.

"Materialists consider that we are explained entirely by combinations of small uninteresting things like atoms or quarks," said d'Espagnat, whose latest book in English -- "On Physics and Philosophy" -- was published in 2006.

"I believe we ultimately come from a superior entity to which awe and respect is due and which we shouldn't try to approach by trying to conceptualize too much," he said. "It's more a question of feeling."

Although they cannot be tested, the intuitions people have when they are moved by great art or by spiritual beliefs help them grasp a bit more of ultimate reality, d'Espagnat said.

"When they hear very good music, people who like classical music have the impression they get at some reality that way. Why not?" he asked.

It looks to me that d'Espagnat's observations are very traditional and compatible with the views of religious thinkers. What's significant is perhaps that he, as a scientist, espouses and buttresses them with science-speak, encouraging the average believer who may be overawed by scientists who pooh-pooh religion, God, and faith.

Amanda Gefter, writing in the New Scientist, quotes the following lines of d'Espagnat as representative of the science-religion bond that he espoused and that drew the attention of Templeton Foundation:
There must exist, beyond mere appearances … a 'veiled reality' that science does not describe but only glimpses uncertainly. In turn, contrary to those who claim that matter is the only reality, the possibility that other means, including spirituality, may also provide a window on ultimate reality cannot be ruled out, even by cogent scientific arguments.

Gefter points out that d'Espagnat calls the "veiled reality" a Being or Independent Reality or even "a great, hypercosmic God".

Although Gefter believes "that drawing any spiritual conclusions from quantum mechanics is an unfounded leap in logic," she seems satisfied that the Templeton Foundation is not biased since d'Espagnat's views don't add much weight to any institutional religions.

It seems that d'Espagnat's views, like most philsophical views, are subject to numerous qualifications, modifications, refinements, and interpretations. It may be an error to take him as an advocate of institutional religions. However, religions are ultimately pointers to God--not an end in themselves--and in this broad view believers of all religions may find something inspirational in d'Espagnat... as they will also in Sankara and Thomas.

Here are the references for further reading

*Gefter, Amanda. "Concept of 'hypercosmic God' wins Templeton Prize."

*Times Online

*Reuters Report

*The Templeton Foundation

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sophia University in Cambodia

After paying a 20US$ admission fee and flashing the ticket to one of the numerous security agents scrutinizing foreigners (native Cambodians don't need a ticket), you are ready to enter the premises of Angkor Wat. The first view you get is of a magnificent causeway, constructed with large slabs of stone, over a huge 190-meter-wide moat that surrounds all the four sides of the Wat premises. As you step on to the causeway, you'll notice uneven edges, pits, chipped corners, and a few unwalkbable areas. When you have advanced almost half the distance, you'll see on the left a large board stating prominently that repair work is going on thanks to the involvement of Sophia University Angkor International Mission!

Sophia Mission Logo
Yes, our little university has a pride of place in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap, where numerous Cambodian cultural assets such as the Angkor Wat are. The board along the causeway shows photos of the opening ceremony after partial restoration, and you can see in them the faces of Yoshiaki Ishizawa, Sophia University President, and Toshiaki Koso, S.J., Sophia University Chancellor, along with the chief dignitaries of the country. The repairwork, whose planning began perhaps in the early 1990's, is only partially over and is being continued even now.

Prof. Ishizawa lectures
Thanks to the initiatives of President Ishizawa, Sophia University has been involved in Cambodian activities for many years. As he himself likes to acknowldege, he was introduced to Cambodia when he was a student by the jovial and affable French professor Fr. Paul Rietsch, S.J. Since then, he has become an avid researcher, and subsequently scholar, of Cambodia. According to rumors, currently he is the most knowledgable Japanese authority on Cambodia. He appears frequently on Japanese TV programs presenting his discoveries and introducing Cambodia, always with a face that exudes uncontrolable enthusiasm and cheerfulness.

Sophia Logo at Kdei
Currently, Sophia's name may be found not only on the causeway to the Angkor Wat, but also on several other Cambodian locations. Most notable perhaps is Sophia's name at the entrance to Banteay Kdei, another temple complex near Angkor Wat. Apparently Sophia Mission in Cambodia has been entrusted with the task of conducting excavations at this site--built by Emperor Jeyavarman VII in the late 12th or early 13th century--and the Sophia team has been busy digging, cleaning up, and inventorying there for several years.

Kdei Premises
It was here at Banteay Kdei that the Sophia team discovered quite unexpectedly in March 2001 an extraordinary collection of 274 Buddhist objects, including many ritually decapitated Buddha statues, a stone pillar with about 1000 carved Buddhist images, and several 'unbeheaded' Buddha images. This was such a rare and marvelous find that it was reported in several local and international newspapers, and those involved in the discovery also have written academic articles [see Marui, Masako. 'The Discovery of Buddhist statues at Banteay Kdei temple', _Journal of Sophia Asian Studies_, 19 (2001); Ishizawa, Yoshiaki. 'Special issue of the inventory of 274 Buddhist statues and the stone pillar discovered from Banteay Kdei Temple', _Renaissance culturelle du Cambodge_, 21 (2004), 2 vols.] Some of these statues are in excellent condition as if made only yesterday!

Kdei Sophia Discovery
Thanks to this remarkable discovery of Buddhist relics, Sophia became involved in putting them all in the specially constructed Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum in the northern province of Siem Reap. It is said to have been built at an expense of one million US dollars, with generous donations from Japan. In display at this museum are all the Buddhist objects that the Sophia team excavated at the Banteay Kdei Temple. The next time you go to Angkor Wat, make sure to visit the museum and appreciate the plaque honoring Sophia University! (Entrance fee 3 US$).

Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum
Sophia also has a rather luxurious (by Cambodian standards) research center in Siem Reap, close to the Spean Neak Bridge, by the side of the river. It has a nice front-yard, an altar for a guardian deity, a quiet watch-dog, generous office space, and several rooms for visiting researchers. Two academics represent Sophia's interests there, Mr. Satoru Miwa (Site Manager and Research Fellow of Institute of Asian Cultures) and Ms. Chie Abe (Researcher and coordinator). They welcome visitors generously and give them a guided tour of their offices and explain the kinds of work they do there. Given the large number of Japanese tourists and their own heavy workload, they can't serve as tour guides to temples in the city, but they really go out of the way to assist visiting Sophians...

One of the excavated Buddhas
Although I've examined several Sophia-related Websites, I can't find any single one in English giving a comprehensive picture of the history and activities of Sophia's work in Cambodia. There seem to be quite a lot of information in Japanese, for example, at the site entitled Sophia University Angkor International Mission: This page, in fact, has some English documents (see, some easily identifiable, but some hidden among pages with Japanese titles.

Here I list a few significant web-pages that may be of interest:

(1) Various English documents are listed among Japanese ones here at the official Sophia University Angkor International Mission site

(2) Here's an official document concerning Sophia University activities posted at APSARA, the Cambodian Government's Autorité pour la Protection du Site et l'Aménagement de la Région d'Angkor ("Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap").

(3) "Sophia University team finds Kannon pillar in Cambodia." An article reporting the discovery of Buddhist objects, published in _Yomiuri Shimbun_ (August 25, 2001) and currently preserved at _Buddhism Today_

(4) Sophia University Angkor International Mission: A Japanese/French webpage located at Sophia University. Although the text is not English, there are interesting photos of the excavation site and the fantastic finds.

[This blogger was in Cambodia for about three weeks and just returned to Japan.]

Saturday, January 31, 2009

John Nissel, S.J.: Life and Work [AUDIO added]

Farewell to Fr. Nissel.
Professor Gerard Barry, S.J., has been a life-long friend of Professor John Nissel, S.J. and both, originally members of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, worked together in the English Language Department of Sophia University. Although Prof. Barry was away from the Department for some years--while he founded and guided Sophia Junior College in Hadano--he returned to the Department and continued his teaching career with Prof. Nissel. Currently Fr. Barry is an assistant to the Pastor at St. Ignatius Church, the Jesuit Parish near Sophia. He was called upon to address the audience at the final parting celbrations for Fr. Nissel. Here, with his permission, are his words recalling the life and work of Fr. Nissel.

You can listen to Fr. Barry by starting the audio. For the convenience of Japanese visitors, about 70 seconds of Gospel Reading in Japanese precedes the English talk. If you prefer, skip the Japanese by moving the play button forward.
(1)Windows Media Player

(2) Flash Player, for those who don't have Windows Media Player. Click the menu item 01 to start playing.

Fr. Gerard Barry, S.J.
I will speak in English for several reasons. First, Fr. Doyle suggested that I do so. Second, a majority of those gathered here are graduates of the English Language Department, all former students of Fr Nissel, and because of his efforts you have mastered English. And finally, it makes my task much easier.

Fr. John Nissel was born on Oct 18, 1925; his mother, born Helen Sullivan, was of Irish descent, and his father, John Nissel, was of German descent. He went to parochial schools in Baltimore, St Benedict’s grade school and then on Loyola Jesuit High School. Upon graduation from Loyola HS he entered the Jesuit Novitiate at Wernersville, PA on 14 Aug, 1943. From Wernersville he moved to Woodstock College where he studied Philosophy from 1947 to 1950. In September 1950 he came to Japan and studied Japanese at Taura, Yokosuka, until July 1953. Then he returned to Woodstock again and studied Theology there until 1957. He was ordained priest on 17 June, 1956, at Woodstock. His last year of formation, tertianship, was spent at Auriesville, New York. From there he moved to Georgetown U where he earned a graduate degree in Linguistics. He returned to Japan in September 1959 and started teaching English Language in the newly established Faculty of Foreign Languages. He taught there for 32 years, until his retirement from Sophia U in 1992. During this period he held various positions in the University, Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages from 1967-1970, Dean of the International Division from 1971. In 1975 he taught English at the newly founded Sophia Junior College.

On retirement from Sophia he moved to Kagoshima, where he taught English language and literature at Kagoshima Junshin Junior College from 1992-2001. Then he moved to Rokko Catholic Church for pastoral work for a year. He returned to the SJ House in April 2002. Last year, 2008, he moved to Loyola House on November 11th.

Glimpses or vignettes into the boyhood of John Nissel

Catholic Boyhood
I caught a glimpse of his piety when Fr J’s sister Helen and his nephew Will visited Japan in May of last year. We went to Narita to pick them up and while riding back to Tokyo in the bus Will said that even though we had never met he felt he knew me. He certainly knew my name. I asked, “Why do you know my name?” It turns out that whenever the Dagenheart family said grace before meals, they would also ask God to help Jesuits working with Uncle Jack in Tokyo at Sophia. Will said we would pray for Fathers Forbes, Mason, Barry, McKeckney, etc. A litany of the names of those working with Fr Jack at Sophia. I was amazed and gratified to hear this. It gave me an insight into the piety that must have prevailed in the family of Fr Jack and his sister when they were children.

The second glimpse is related to Pimlico. The home of the Nissel family was near Pimlico, one of the more famous race tracks in the U.S. It was at Pimlico that on November 1, 1938, a race was held between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, two of the best race horses in the US. The race was called the "Match of the Century". It was one of the most anticipated sporting events in U.S. history. The Pimlico Race Course, from the grandstands to the infield, was jammed solid with fans. Trains were run from all over the country to bring fans to the race, and the estimated 40,000 at the track were joined by some 40 million listening on the radio. War Admiral was the prohibitive favorite (1-4 with most bookmakers) and a near unanimous selection of the writers and experts. Young Jack Nissel, then 13 years old, was not allowed inside the race track, but he did watch from outside the rails Seabiscuit’s stunning come from behind victory. He never forgot this and relished telling others about that day.

His character
Perhaps Fr N’s most productive work was done in the English Language Department. He was a member of the Department from its foundation and worked with Professors Noguchi, Koine, Forbes, Hattori, Mason, McKechney, Kishimura, Nakano, Graziano and others to establish and bring the Department to maturity. Besides his teaching duties, he always had some job in administration. Despite the endless rounds of meetings he always managed to have well prepared classes. What always amazed me was his popularity with his students. As an administrator he was strict and authoritarian. (He was the oldest child in his family.) But in the classroom he managed to have his students laugh several times during each session. As Professor Milward pointed out last night, he had an excellent sense of humor. Even after retirement he had a special rapport with younger Jesuits. He enjoyed teaching them English and they enjoyed his company.

Another characteristic he had was his quest for more effective teaching aids. Even before computers became popular he introduced into the English Language Department office things like the IBM Selectric Typewriter, classification using data or punch cards. When computers first came to Sophia he got one for the Department. We, any in the faculty who was interested, were introduced to Ichitaro, then TwinStar, then Word Perfect, etc. He also was instrumental in introducing Kurtzweil, the first scanner, to the department. He was instrumental in introducing the “reading card library” for student use in vocabulary building. He was always on the alert to find effective aids for teaching and administration. He was also quite zealous about keeping in touch with graduates of the department, for this reason he founded SELDAA, the journal of the English Language Department.

News of the death of Fr N came suddenly. He had entered Seibo Hospital on Saturday, January 24 and he died on January 25th. We were all shocked. When I heard the news the words Mark Van Doren said in his eulogy of Thomas Merton ran through my mind. Thomas Merton was orphaned at 16, at 23 he found Jesus Christ, at 26 he entered a Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky. He died suddenly in 1969. Mark Van Doren said something like this at his funeral:

'The best bottle of wine
tipped over and spilled.
Catch it! Save it! But nobody could.
Now, nothing’s left but the fragrance.'

All we have left of Fr Jack Nissel now are our memories of him. These memories are like the fragrant smell coming from a fine wine. We are saddened by his absence, by the knowledge that we cannot see him again, we cannot be with him, enjoy his warm humor, see his friendly smile. But we are consoled by his faith.

He firmly believed in the words of today’s scripture. As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians: (1 Cor 15: 51-57)

'The dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. This corruptible body will be clothed with incorruptibility, this mortal body with immortality. When the corruptible frame takes on incorruptibility and the mortal immortality the saying of Scripture will be fulfilled; “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Thanks be to God who has given us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.'

When faced with the death of a close friend the words of Hamlet may come to mind. In his “to be or not to be” speech Hamlet describes death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn, (boundaries) no traveler returns.” This phrase well describes the finality of death. Once dead, no one returns to this earth. And this is scary. But the faith John Nissel had counterbalanced this fear. True, he did not display his faith; he did not “wear his faith on his sleeve” as we say. But his life was a testimony to his belief in the words of the Gospel we just read.

Jesus, at his last meeting with his beloved disciples, at the last supper, Jesus, knowing that he was soon to be arrested, tried, condemned to death, executed and buried, assured his followers:

'Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Have faith in God
and faith in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places;
otherwise, how could I have told you
that I was going to prepare a place for you?
I am indeed going to prepare a place for you,
and then I shall come back to take you with me,
that where I am you also may be.
You know the way that leads to where I go.' (John 14:1-4)

Yes, Lord, the life of John Nissel has helped us to understand your words more clearly. The memory of his life is our treasure and his gift to us.

Father Nissel: Thank you ever so much! You did so much for so many in such a gracious way. Till we meet again. Sayonara.
Gerard Barry, S.J.
January 28, 2009. 13:30 St Ignatius Church, Tokyo

Monday, January 26, 2009

Former FFS Dean John Nissel, S.J.

Fr.John Nissel, S.J.
The founder and dean of Sophia University's Faculty of Foreign Languages, Fr. John Nissel, died on Sunday (1/25) early morning of a heart attack in Seibo Byoin, a hospital run by Sisters. He was 83 years old, and 65 years a Jesuit. A native of Baltimore, Fr. Nissel joined the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, and came to Japan as a missionary in 1950--at a time when, given the dire economic conditions, it was a challenge to work in Japan. After about three years, during which time he learned Japanese at the Jesuit Language School in Taura, he returned to Maryland to do theology at Woodstock. He was ordained a priest in 1956, and then spent a few years at Georgetown University to acquire the needed academic qualifications to teach at Sophia University, mainly in the field of English and linguistics.

Returning to Japan in 1959, Fr. Nissel plunged into an academic career that was to last until 2001. He was one of the founders of the Graduate School of Linguistics at Sophia University. An English learning series he authored with several others was a best-seller among the Japanese learners of English. He has a large number of former students who are currently English educators, including several at Sophia University itself.

Nissel's Ordination Card
After retiring from Sophia in 1992, Fr. Nissel went to work as an educator and administrator at Kagoshima Junshin Junior College. His work there lasted until 2001, when he proceeded to Kobe Rokko Jesuit Church to take up the career of a parish priest. His stint in the parish lasted only a year, as he moved to S. J. House, near the Sophia University premises in 2002. At S. J. House, he continued to teach individuals and small groups both English and religion. In 2008 November, he moved to Loyola House, the facility for Jesuit Seniors, as his memory was fading and his walking became unsteady. He seems to have been in good spirits until two or three before his death, but when he was moved to the hospital on Saturday (1/24), he was extremely weak.

Fr. Nissel was an efficient administrator, as the many positions he held--Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Chair of the Department of English Studies, Head of the Graduate School of Linguistics, etc.--testify, and an excellent communicator. Although he seemed uncomfortable in using Japanese, he was sufficiently competent, but whatever weakness he might have had in his Japanese language skills, he made up for it by his extraordinary social skills. Moreover, in Japan, monolingual English speakers are highly prized, especially if they are English teachers, and because he spoke English most of the time, the Japanese enthusiastically flocked to him. He had several groups of admirers and friends who frequently visited him and invited him to talk to them. One important reason for his popularity was his great sense of humor, which he used to loosen up even the most frightened Japanese. I attended the farewell lecture he gave on his retirement from Sophia, and the only thing I can remember now is that the audience was roaring with laughter as he filled his narrative with numerous jokes and puns.

Fr. Nissel was a very energetic and intellectually gifted man. Until quite late in his life, he used to go cycling and ice-skating to different parts of Japan, and was always very eager to challenge new musical instruments, computers, and other arts. If my recollection is right, he used to play the flute very well and used to practice it frequently with his close friend and colleague Josef Edelman, S.J. In the 1980s, he was at Georgetown University trying to study Sociolinguistics in order to teach it at Sophia. He was always captivated by computers and programming, having tried his had at programming in BASIC and PASCAL. He explored several Japanese computers--in the good old days when the Japanese PCs were 100% incompatible with PCs elsewhere in the world--and then shifted to the MS-DOS and Windows PCs, and finally settled down with a Mac. He was always curious to learn new techniques and do something creative. He was invaluable during his last years, as he patiently helped several young Japanese to improve their English skills. No doubt, many will miss him. R.I.P.

You are welcome to add your comments about Fr. Nissel in the "Comments" section. (Click the "Comments" button below this entry, type, and post!)

Wake: 1/27 (Tu) 19:00 at the main chapel of St. Ignatius Church
Funeral Mass: 1/28 (W) 13:30 at the main chapel of St. Ignatius Church
See here for directions

≪通夜≫ 1月27日(火) 19時より  聖イグナチオ教会
≪葬儀ミサならびに告別式≫ 1月28日(水) 13時30分より  聖イグナチオ教会

Fr. John Nissel, S.J.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Milward's "Eccentric Country" now Online

Jesuit priest and Sophia University Emeritus Professor Peter Milward's hilarious book "Eccentric Country: England" is now online. Based on his numerous travels to England with groups of Japanese, the book is a series of reflections on the eccentricities that struck him as he guided his charge through castles and cathedrals, mansions and meadows. There are 12 sections, each with 4 chapters, with such witty titles as: Ancient Eccentricities, Mysticism in Cows, Monuments of Madness, Mad Mansions, Holy Follies, Flying Horse, Fighting Cock, and Cowardice of Cows. The book also is beautifully illustrated with about 50 photographs taken by the author himself. Enjoy!
Click on the image or the link on the right panel to enter Peter's Eccentric Country!