Pieta (Michelangelo)Last year I took part in a conference organized by the Flemish Emmaüsforum. This forum is based in my hometown Aalst and I’m happy to be one of its members. The conference theme revolved around the way our identities and human self-understanding are shaped by “stories”. Hence the title of the conference, De Mens is zijn Verhaal – Man is His Story.

The aim of this meeting was to explore how human experiences receive meaning from age-old images, metaphors and story cycles, especially from the Christian tradition. We started from the observation that science cannot express the essence of an experience like grief, for instance. A merely scientific explanation of the origins of grief and the way it operates do not give you the experience itself. The age-old stories of mankind are a living rejection of scientism, allowing us to communicate, transmit and share the depths of the human condition.

We invited Nic Balthazar, a Belgian director whose movie Tot Altijd (Until Always) made use of several Christian themes to tell the story of Mario Verstraete. Mario Verstraete was suffering from MS and fought for a legislation of euthanasia in Belgium. In 2002, he was the first to make use of the new law on euthanasia.

Other speakers for the conference included Sylvain De Bleeckere (philosopher), Jens De Vleminck (philosopher) and Nikolaas Sintobin SJ.

I was reminded of some of the discussions during that meeting when I heard of a new proposal regarding the law on euthanasia in Belgium. The Guardian reported the news like this:

Baby Jesus and Mother MaryBelgium came a step closer to introducing the right to grant euthanasia for terminally ill children, breaking what is an almost universal taboo, when a parliamentary committee voted it through by a large majority.

The law, which still has to go to a vote of the full parliament that analysts say is likely to pass, would make Belgium the first country in the world to remove the age limit for the procedure.

Safeguards would exist, which include insisting parents approve their child’s decision to die. […] The Belgian law requires a psychologist to evaluate children’s ability to choose to die. Opponents have said it is impossible to determine whether a child is able to take such a decision. […] Belgium is already one of the world’s most liberal countries when it comes to euthanasia, making it available to adults who are not terminally ill.

I have to say that I believe this to be a very scary development in my country. I don’t want to judge. I just want to raise the question on whatever happened to our will to bear each other’s suffering. Adults who are not terminally ill, suffering – also merely psychologically – “in an unbearable way” can ask for euthanasia in Belgium. Can’t we, as a society and as individuals, do anything to prevent this desire for death? (Read more on this by clicking here).

Pieta (Jan Fabre)Pieta, the image of Christ held by his mother, is a powerful reminder of a motherly Love that desires life, even when everything seems lost and broken. Jan Fabre (born 1958) reinterpreted the famous Pieta sculpture by Michelangelo (1475-1564), calling his sculpture Merciful Dream. Maybe these images can help us to reimagine the tension between life and death, taking into account the horror of suffering as well as the miracle of love against all the odds. Maybe they can even inspire us to accept and be comforted by the caring hands of others when we feel lost… and broken.

To introduce the topic of the conference De Mens is zijn Verhaal I made a video with different interpretations of the Pieta, showing some fragments of the film Tot Altijd as well. Music is by Leonard Cohen, Come Healing (click the title for song lyrics). The image of the Mother and Child hopefully shows that we are not alone, and that others have walked similar paths before us…


Science Matters

RoboCopMichael Meuleman, one of my students, briefly talked about his passion for brain imaging and brain imaging technologies. It’s his dream to further work on speech reconstruction for disabled persons, using and developing brain imaging technology himself. Michael referred to famous physicist Stephen Hawking as one of many who could benefit from this research. As a matter of fact, Hawking already participated in attempts to convert his brainwaves into speech. Soon, RoboCop won’t be science-fiction anymore!

On my way home from school, I kept thinking about what Michael had said, and decided to do some reading on the subject matter. In amazing times like these, when valuable information is just a few worldwide web clicks away, I discovered the research my student was referring to quite easily: click to read it here.

Speaking of Stephen Hawking I remembered how Oxford mathematician John Lennox responded to some of Hawking’s philosophical claims in a book called God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? This again reminded me of something that same John Lennox said during a lecture – it actually blew me away at the time:

Applied to the research on brain activity for speech reconstruction, Lennox reasoning implies the following.

When we identify a person’s brain activity while that person is hearing or thinking about, for instance, the word jazz, we might see something like this:

brain activity

In order to enable people like Stephen Hawking to communicate more rapidly by using their brain activity, computers need to do two fundamental things (among many processes):

  1. Register the type of brain activity that is ignited by certain sounds – vowels, syllables, words…
  2. Interpret brain activity so it can be translated to certain sounds – vowels, syllables, words…

The thing is, brain activity as such does not give you any word. In other “words”, the full picture or complete reality of a word like jazz is not given in a scientific representation of brain activity. That activity needs to be connected to the word in question. Computers need to be programmed to decode certain brain activity and to recognize or interpret it as the word jazz. Brain activity itself is nor produces the word jazz. There already has to be meaning (and an entity which produces it) before we can ask ourselves what that meaning looks like in scientific terms. More broadly speaking, the things we can say in scientific terms don’t ever give us the essential reality of a particular phenomenon. Science can only begin to explore reality because of the mysterious fact that there is something to explore to begin with! It comes as no surprise then that science can be considered a highly spiritual activity, as it continuously refers to a reality which transcends its endeavors.

The tendency for scientism by the “secular fundamentalist” (see Chris Hedges) new atheist movement, as if science can answer all important or relevant questions, as if science can provide us full knowledge about the true nature of reality, should be discarded as a perversion of science. If phenomena would not reveal themselves to our eyes – whether we look through telescopes or microscopes -, we would not be able to gain any scientific knowledge at all. No scientific knowledge without the mystical realization of revelation. And no scientific or other knowledge that can ever “solve” the mysterious fact that there is something rather than nothing. In the words of theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman John Dyson (born December 15, 1923, only ten days before René Girard :)):

“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

Freeman John Dyson

It’s amazing what science can do, but it’s even more amazing that there is anything to do at all. Hopefully we, human beings, learn to use scientific and technological knowledge for some good. At least one of my students seems up to it :), and I’m sure most of them are. And while we’re at it: science can never answer the question what goals it should help to accomplish – those questions are and remain philosophical and draw from many sources…

I don’t need God!!

“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

Freeman John Dyson (born 1923).


I don't need youLast week, one of my pupils said something what countless others already said before him, and what countless others will repeat after him – it’s a cultural thing foremost, in our so-called secularized Belgian society:

“I don’t need any theological speculation. I’m an atheist. I don’t need God! I don’t need to go any further than psychology and the social sciences…”

In the same week, on Monday (April 15th, 2013), I read an article in the newspaper about a young professor who had tampered with data and search results (read the article here, in Dutch; for more information in English click here). He allegedly committed large-scale fraud, investigating the causes of epilepsy.

One might ask what one observation has to do with the other. Well, for one, it’s clear that the young scientist was especially interested in the things he needed to promote his career. His desire for recognition and for prestige became more important than science itself. He used scientific research as a means to another end, to satisfy his pride. In the end, he accomplished exactly what he was trying to avoid. Instead of promoting his career and his own future in academia, he ruined it. Jesus points to the tragic nature of attempts like these:

It is a strange desire... (Francis Bacon)For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24a-25).

But there’s more. According to Christian tradition, whenever we are guided by pride we not only tend to ruin ourselves. We also tend to ruin our surroundings. Indeed, the young ambitious scientist violated the scientific truth in order to protect his self-image, next to endangering the career of his co-workers. Once again, the Christian tradition is spot-on: the person who cannot love himself, and seeks comfort in the creation of an admirable image, cannot truly love others, for he is primarily interested in others insofar as they are useful for developing and recognizing that image. Our desire for mutual, social recognition – understood as the ultimate goal of our efforts, which is vanity – often gets in the way of our capacity to perceive what is actually happening. This truth is retold in a magnificent way by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Precisely because we very often approach reality from the perspective of its eventual usefulness, and from the question whether we need it or not, we remain blind for a fuller understanding of reality. This one’s for my pupils:



For instance, if we only focus on the aspects of another person that seem useful to us, we might miss out on other aspects that can actually turn out to be more fundamental than the ones we’re focusing on. More generally, we might get a better picture of reality if we not only focus on purely scientific questions and explanations, but also deal with more philosophical issues and questions.

Rationality should not be restricted to scientific rationality. Actually, we never do this on a day-to-day basis. For instance, scientific rationality might explain why we become jealous sometimes, but we need the more philosophical rationality of ethics to discuss whether or not and to what degree jealousy is a good thing.

Ian Hutchinson on ScientismAnother example: scientific rationality might explain how the universe came into being, but we need philosophical rationality to deal with the question whether or not there is an ultimate purpose of “all that is”, whether or not there will be some “perfection” of the universe. Scientifically speaking, there is none, but it’s logically very debatable that the scientific answer is the only meaningful or true answer to this question. The belief that only scientific claims are true or meaningful is known as scientism, which is problematic. From The Skeptic’s Dictionary: “Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.”

Again, in order to understand reality more fully – in its ethical, aesthetic, and mysterious (non-manipulable) aspects -, we might have to go beyond merely scientific concerns, and also go beyond our immediate “needs”. We might even have to pose theological questions. Moreover, it’s not because we can scientifically explain why we pose certain questions that these questions themselves can be answered by science. To “understand” reality is to contemplate it in all its aspects.

Science is but an image of the truth (Francis Bacon)It is no coincidence that, from a Christian point of view, there are prayers like the one ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi, containing the words:

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand…”

Although some consider it to be a sign of freedom to be able to approach reality from the perspective of their supposedly very own needs, desires and interests, this is actually a sign of enslavement…





“Need” is a complicated affair when it comes to humans.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) became famous for mapping our needs in a veritable Hierarchy of Needs – a five-stage model, originally. Once physiological and basic survival needs are met, other needs come to the fore. It is interesting to notice that Maslow characterizes the stages we normally associate with “human freedom” as “needs”. Although we might have the impression that we are free to choose whom we want to belong to, we didn’t choose the need to belong to a group or a person. The same goes for the two highest stages of human needs. We can seemingly choose the things that bring us self-esteem, status or prestige, but we can’t escape the desire for these matters. The biggest paradox, of course, is Maslow’s characterization of self-actualization as a need: we are bound to be free. In other words, reminiscing the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and other existentialist philosophers, we face the command to develop ourselves.

Several questions arise here, namely, how do we know who we are, who we want to be, how to gain prestige and self-esteem? René Girard’s answer is quite simple: we imitate others in modeling our desires, ambitions, and sense of self. More specifically those others we’ve (mimetically, i.e. imitatively) learned to appreciate and whose appreciation we’ve (again, mimetically) learned to desire.

As Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) pointed out time and again, we tend to approach reality as a whole and fellow human beings in particular from the perspective of our needs. We’re often interested in other people basically because they are experienced as “useful” one way or the other (as friends, as suppliers of security and/or happiness, as financial support, etc.). In fact, we tend to reduce others to their “usefulness”, and to apply this as a criterion to decide whether or not someone or something is valuable. Utilitarian ethics are actually an attempt to found morality on the tendency to focus on our needs. For instance, we should help the poor, not necessarily because we love them, but because not helping them could ultimately cause problems to ourselves. We “need” to help them because we – or the majority of human beings – benefit from it. On a collective level, helping the poor could be one of the roads to a more secure and safer world. On an individual level it could perhaps be a way to gain some status or prestige as “hero”.

Levinas fundamentally criticizes the utilitarian approach to reality. The Other, our fellow human being, our “neighbor”, transcends our needs and desires. If we reduce the Other to the question how he can be useful to us, we will never get to “know” anything about the Other. Moreover, before we can reduce the Other to his usefulness, the Other is simply there, and he might in no way answer to the demands of our actual needs and desires. On the contrary, the Other might reveal himself as a burden or even an enemy to our interests.

The same applies to reality as a whole. It is even said that “reality hits us” whenever we are confronted with aspects of it that we don’t need at all! Reality often reveals itself in shapes we failed to foresee or manipulate according to our needs.

The search for truth therefore begins with the question whether or not we can free ourselves partially from our immediate needs, and from the tendency to control our environment. Are we able to honestly face reality in all its fearful as well as promising possibilities? This is especially challenging in encountering the reality of other persons. For only if we become relatively free from our own needs, anxieties, interests, and prejudices, can we allow the other to freely approach us as “Other” – meaning that we don’t mold him according to the contours of our self-image and our desire for recognition.


It’s important to notice that, although Christianity reveals the pitfalls of our desire for recognition, it is not about sacrificing this desire. It’s about giving it the right place. I often explain this to my pupils by describing two basic types of students:

  • Student A is basically motivated by the desire to get good grades, because he believes these are his “ticket to paradise” (i.e. recognition by his parents and teachers, and all kinds of “rewards”). In other words, student A is only interested in his courses insofar as he can use them to gain an admirable self-image – which is his ultimate goal. He is guided by his pride. He has lost the capacity to enjoy many of the things he is doing, and that’s why he generally needs to be compensated for what he’s done. Kneeling to the idol of an admirable self-image, student A is no longer capable of loving himself, let alone love others (it’s the kind of student that will pay his teachers some respect because he expects some reward, but who will also tend to get angry if the reward is not granted – which means that his self-image is stained). He finds solace in the recognition for his good grades. However, while focusing on “getting to paradise” (or, in other words, while focusing on the desire to “save his life” and “get into heaven”), he’ll find himself less and less able to study properly, and his grades will go down (he’ll “lose his life” and “get into hell”).

G.K. ChestertonIn the words of the great and late Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the situation of student A can be characterized as follows:

“The moment men begin to care more for education than for religion they begin to care more for ambition than for education. It is no longer a world in which the souls of all are equal before heaven, but a world in which the mind of each is bent on achieving unequal advantage over the other. There begins to be a mere vanity in being educated whether it be self-educated or merely state-educated. Education ought to be a searchlight given to a man to explore everything, but very specially the things most distant from himself. Education tends to be a spotlight; which is centered entirely on himself. Some improvement may be made by turning equally vivid and perhaps vulgar spotlights upon a large number of other people as well. But the only final cure is to turn off the limelight and let him realize the stars.”

  • Student B is basically motivated by the desire to know and understand his courses. As a consequence, he’ll often get good grades (“get into heaven”), but this never was his primary goal. Precisely because he considers his courses as ends in themselves, he’ll eventually get and enjoy recognition. Of course, being proud of an achievement is not a crime. It becomes malicious, though, when it is the goal and not the consequence of one’s actions.

Whenever Jesus talks about heaven or hell in the Gospels, he presents them as possible consequences of one’s actions and not as goals. He even says that we shouldn’t do good and help our neighbor in order to gain some kind of heavenly reward and to avoid hell, but that we should help our neighbor because of our neighbor (as end in himself). Then we’ll get “heaven” as a quite unexpected reward, as a logical consequence. The same reasoning applies to his approach of reality as a whole.

gun lobbyFalse prophets or false messiahs (in religion, politics, health care, etc.) are people who try to tell us what we need to get to paradise (a nice house, a good career, a healthy body, a safe but entertaining life etc.), and also scare us with the evil dangers that could send us to hell. They are doctors who constantly produce the disease they supposedly liberate us from. But, of course, they never really liberate us, for they are dependent on the disease to be able to manifest themselves as “liberators” or “messiahs”. They produce one self-fulfilling prophecy after the other. For instance, the more a gun lobby convinces us that we should protect ourselves with weapons to keep safe in an “evil, ugly world”, the more people will get killed because of gun fire, the more we will feel unsafe, the more the gun lobby will be able to convince us of “the unsafe world”, the more we buy guns, etc.

Jesus, on the other hand, points out that “Satan cannot cast out Satan”. We cannot free ourselves and the world if the means we use to make this world a better place actually (and tragically) continue the diseases we try to cure the world from. Contrary to all kinds of false prophets, he advises us – as a fundamental attitude towards life – “not to be afraid” and “not to worry” too much.

I guess he is right, also in the case of the two types of students.

In short,

  • Student A becomes a SLAVE of an ambition he has learned to aspire for himself. The system of “getting good grades” is more important to him than anything else in class. Everything, including himself, is subjected to this GOAL. Student A might become a scientific investigator who uses scientific research to promote his career and thereby satisfy his pride.
  • Student B remains FREE. The system of “getting good grades” is not important in itself. It is a means to check whether or not the studied courses are sufficiently understood. Student B might become a scientific investigator who really gets a better scientific understanding of reality, and therefore gets his academic career going as a logical CONSEQUENCE.

Student B imitates Jesus’ approach to all kinds of laws and regulations (more specifically the Mosaic Law in the case of Jesus). Jesus says that he didn’t come to abolish the Law just like that, but that he came to fulfill it, meaning that rules should always be relative to the end they help to accomplish. A system of rules and laws should never be an end in itself. It should be considered a means to another end. What counts for Jesus is love for one’s neighbor, and if rules become obstacles in accomplishing this goal, they should be adapted or even suspended.

Student B uses the grade system to get more information on his knowledge of the courses he’s presented with, because he tries to respect what the courses are saying (without, however, automatically agreeing with their statements). This indeed is analogous to Jesus’ approach of the Mosaic Law. Jesus tries to create mutual respect between fellow human beings, thereby constantly evaluating if regulations allow others to live fully. Jesus criticizes any use of the Mosaic Law that justifies the sacrifice of others to satisfy one’s (or a group’s) pride or self-image.

Mark 2:23-27 puts it this way – and I’ll leave it at that:

Jesus Lord of Sabbath (grainfield)One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Questions for Stephen Hawking

In 2010, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking made a statement in his book The Grand Design (co-written by Leonard Mlodinow), which raised quite a few eyebrows:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Of course Richard Dawkins was among the first to welcome this statement, proving once again that his emotionally driven campaign against religion sometimes gets in the way of more rational judgments. Despite the overwhelming availability of objections, I’m still confronted with this issue from time to time, and with some misconceptions surrounding it. So I decided to summarize what I consider the main problems with Hawking’s statement, problems which someone like Dawkins doesn’t seem to consider.

Hawking’s statement implies that we don’t need anything else than a scientific explanation to present our world ‘as it is’. Moreover, it implies that a scientific explanation is the only valuable explanation, the only ‘true’ explanation so to speak.


1. The claim that reality is presented ‘as it is’ only in a scientific explanation can never be proven.

2. If we can never prove that science presents the world ‘as it is’, then the statement that ‘we don’t need God to explain the universe as it is’, cannot be proven either.

Hawking seems to forget that his variation of scientism concerning the origin of our universe is a philosophical position and not a scientific one. One can believe that science eventually reveals the complete and true nature of reality, but this metaphysical claim can never be proven. Moreover:

Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless. The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Maybe an analogy can broaden the discussion.

Applied to the phenomenon of sex, the implicit principle of scientism used by Stephen Hawking might raise the following questions:

1. Does a scientific explanation of sex present you sex ‘as it is’?

2. If so, why don’t we experience the same thrill of sexual intercourse during biology class?

3. Can it be proven that the only ‘real’ and ‘true’ goal of sexual intercourse is the one that’s scientifically revealed by biology?

4. Actually, we know that some things cannot be proven scientifically (e.g. the statement that science eventually tells you all there is to know). Doesn’t this fact show that there’s more to know than science can reveal? Applied to the phenomenon of sex: isn’t there anything more to ‘know’ about sex than what a scientific description can teach us – or any other description for that matter? Isn’t reality ‘as it is’ far more than what we can say about it, scientifically or otherwise? A mystery which transcends us, anywhere, anytime?

No explanation, scientific or otherwise, can ever resolve the mysterious fact “that there is something rather than nothing”, or “that there is something which came to be in such and such a way”.


I can imagine not needing God to practice science… I don’t need God to explain or describe the world (and its origin) scientifically. It’s like I don’t need my brothers to work at school, or to go to bed, or to enjoy a song one of them recorded, or to tie my shoelaces, or to breathe… But if I wanted to love them – specifically them -, I’d need them. By the way, I do, you guys… And if I desired life for a child who died at a very young age, because I experience this as something unjust, I couldn’t count on myself or any other human being to fulfill this desire. I’d need something or someone beyond our human capacities. Well, all I’ve got is a bag of hope, with some other matters of the heart

For more on the relationship between “faith” and “modern science” as distinguishable spheres, I recommend some articles by Joseph R. Laracy, mainly focusing on Georges Lemaître, a well-known astrophysicist and a Catholic priest who formulated the Big Bang hypothesis. Lemaître refused to mix “matters of science” with “matters of faith” and claimed he could not say anything about “God as creator (or not)” from a scientific point of view.


Priestly Contributions to Modern Science: The Case of Monsignor Georges Lemaître (pdf) 

Christianity and Science: Confronting Challenges to Faith and Reason in the Histrory of Philosophy and Theology

The Faith and Reason of Father Georges Lemaître