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“We Are Given Something Extraordinary to Pass On”

Fr. Andrew Pinsent

Fr. Andrew Pinsent

Fr. Andrew Pinsent

Diane Montagna - published on 08/18/15

Exclusive Interview with Father Andrew Pinsent, co-founder of the Evangelium conference
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OXFORD — For three years before he became a priest, Father Andrew Pinsent worked as a particle physicist at the CERN laboratory alongside Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the worldwide web.

But he eventually came to the conclusion that people are more interesting than particles and so — after a subsequent and successful business career in Brazil — he entered the priesthood.

Today Father Pinsent is Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University, a Research Fellow of Harris Manchester College and a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford.

Ordained in 2005, he is a priest of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton in England.

Father Pinsent is also one of the leaders of a flourishing conference to help form young Catholics — called Evangelium — that is held annually at the Oratory School in Reading.

Earlier this month, Father Andrew Pinsent sat down with Aleteia to discuss the Evangelium Conference as it enters its 10th year. 

He also spoke — as a scientist and a priest — about the Internet’s influence on the human mind; the Catholic origins of many of Western civilization’s greatest achievements; and what he considers the number one issue in the Catholic Church and Catholic theology today: grace, which has the power to take away our “spiritual autism.”

Father Pinsent, could you tell us a little about the Evangelium conference? What is it? Why did you start it?

It’s worth painting a background picture. The problem we have today is that education in the Catholic Church is almost exactly the opposite of what it should be.

We do a certain amount of pre-Communion preparation and maybe confirmation preparation and that gradually dies off into adulthood. If a student is lucky enough to have a good university and a good university chaplaincy, there’s a chance of getting input during university years. After that, in my experience, there’s almost nothing.

When you think about it, this is completely crazy. They expect young people to go out with pre-Communion training into the world, and be fruitful as Catholics.

Well perhaps by some miracle, some of them still go to Mass and some still practice their faith, study their faith and so on. But what we’re doing doesn’t seem very sensible.

The Evangelium Conference exists to provide an opportunity to give at least some intellectual input — quite high-level intellectual input — for people who are leading busy lives: at work, perhaps as teachers in schools, perhaps as parents of young families, to come for just a couple of days and receive intense input.

And as someone who worked in business myself, I know how busy people are just doing a normal job. I worked for a consultancy firm for 3 years and ran my own business for 4 years, so I know how busy it is. There’s very little extra time and so you have to use that time well. We have one weekend, but we try to pack a lot into that weekend by careful time management and making sure we have good speakers.

There’s something very powerful about someone who really knows his or her faith, and loves the Lord and His Church. If you’ve got a combination of faith, with someone who has good scholarly knowledge in some field, this is actually one of the most powerful witnesses in the world today.

I certainly experienced that to some extent even just starting seminary and hearing priests talk intelligently about the Faith, with reference to philosophy, for the first time in my life. One shouldn’t have to go to seminary to start to get that education; it should be available to every Catholic to have some kind of input.

The Evangelium Conference is an initiative — involving a group of us in England — to try to address that need, communicating to the intelligent non-specialist some of the extraordinary richness of the Catholic Faith.

What is the significance of hosting the Evangelium Conference at the Reading Oratory School?

The Reading Oratory School was founded with the vision of Blessed John Henry Newman, who was extremely keen on education of the laity. The school tries to follow those principles in its formation of its students. The Evangelium Conference tries to follow those principles as well.  

What would you say to priests in other countries who are interested in replicating the model of Evangelium Conference?

First of all, don’t neglect the intellectual formation. It shouldn’t need to have to be said, but we need to study as Catholics. 

Yet the amazing thing about the Catholic Church is that it is intrinsically interesting. Even an atheist who is thoughtful, looking at the history of the Church — the ideas, the art, the music, the interactions with world affairs, the foundations of nations — would say that this is the most interesting thing in the history of the world, apart from Jesus Christ himself. 

Given so much, we are given something extraordinary to pass on.

Would you say anything more?

I would just say two additional things. First of all, just the fact of having scholars who know their fields and who’ve got strong faith talking to young people is incredibly powerful.

It also helps protect them against the attacks in the world which misuse reason and sometimes try to attack the Faith. So it helps to show that the Faith is very intellectually respectable.

In fact, faith has been involved in some of the greatest breakthroughs and ideas in the history of the world, including the big bang theory and genetics, both of which, by the way, were invented by priests. We’ve got to recover our intellectual heritage and this is powerful for building faith in this world.

But the other thing: If I had to say something else to priests today in busy parishes, it’s that I would like to see every parish be a kind of college or mini-university. 

A university isn’t just a red brick complex down the road. You can turn a parish, which is often an amazing resource, into a whole training center. And today, with all the homeschooling initiatives and with all the resources available online, we have the opportunity like never before to have a kind of distributivism in education, very much along the Chestertonian lines of distributivism, where we can make every parish into a kind of dynamo of intellectual activity.

I saw an example of this just a few weeks ago at Harvard. I was visiting Harvard University — I was running a conference at MIT — and I visited the Catholic chaplaincy. After Mass, I saw some of the discussion groups. Some of the young PhD students or early post-docs and career researchers were meeting in groups to discuss different spiritual ideas, studying scripture, and they were exceptionally bright and exceptionally keen. 

That is an unusual situation, but there’s no reason why that model can’t be replicated on a wider scale.

Can you tell us a little about your own background, and how you entered the priesthood? 

My earliest career was in particle physics. I studied physics at Oxford and went on, also at Oxford, to study for a PhD, although at Oxford they are called DPhils. I then worked at CERN on the Large Electron-Positron Collider, which is a predecessor of the LHC [Large Hadron Collider].

While I was at CERN, a British scientist called Tim Berners-Lee who was also working there invented the worldwide web. So the Internet grew out of CERN at that time.

This was actually quite an exciting time at CERN, but after three years, I thought people were more interesting than particles, and so I first went into business for a few years, working for a consultancy firm — scientific consultancy work mainly. I was a bit dissatisfied with that, so I tried to find a way of combining some sort of vocational work with business.

I went to work in Brazil, in São Paolo, in electronics and computing. There was a great need for business people from Anglo-Saxon countries to spend some time working in the advanced developing countries to share some of the business skills to give an edge. It can make a significant difference in business.

After several years working for a large company in Brazil, I had a call to become a priest.

Being a businessman, I did a cost-benefit analysis and I decided this was the best return on my investment. Because in business we spend inordinate amounts of time and money and human resources developing marvelous products like the smartphones, which are little miracles of engineering design and aesthetic beauty, and they’re also obsolete within a few years. But if you invest in the human soul, that’s forever.

Would you care to say more?

On this issue of investing in the soul, I think what people really need to keep in their minds is that life is short, that we are not in this world very long. And an atheist and a Christian will agree that when we die we cease to change. So whatever we’re going to become it’s between now and the hour of our death. So we must be about our salvation.

The way that C.S. Lewis expressed it is that, in this life we write the title page of what we are to be in eternity, so we’ve got to write a good title page. And it’s not just a matter of being saved or not. If we become a saint one day, it’s the kind of saint we become. We can be small or big. God wants to give us a greater capacity for ultimate flourishing and happiness. But that’s part of what this life’s about, so we must be about the supernatural goal of salvation.

But curiously, the strange irony is: If you focus on heaven, you get earth thrown in for free. All the best things of Western civilization are a bi-product of the Catholic desire for heaven. You might think that’s a rather grand claim, but if you look back at the history of art, or music, or our legal system, many of the ideas that inspired our architecture, ultimately you find some supernatural focus at the core.

The building of cathedrals, or monastic chants, or a desire to represent the Incarnation; there’s something to do with the supernatural goal of heaven involved. All the best things that come out of our civilization are bi-products of seeking heaven. “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all these things will be given unto you.”

But if you focus on earth, which is the great mistake of the secular age, we’ll not only lose heaven but we’ll lose earth as well. Ultimately, we’ll turn what should be an altar into a tomb. You might say: that makes no sense, but the earth was meant to be an altar and it has become a tomb.

Can you tell us about the young people who come to the Evangelium Conference? 

The young people who come to the Evangelium conferences are first of all very impressive and encouraging for us clergy. They are devout, and this is very encouraging. They come from a very wide range of social backgrounds. One gets a real sense of the universality of the Catholic Faith.

They also seek knowledge. They are very hungry for knowledge. We do have a slightly self-selecting group of course, but some people come here come almost on an off chance for the first time, and we have had some changed lives over the years. There’s something for many of them: the encounter with intellectual depth and love of the Lord in the Church. That combination is powerful and it’s new for many of them. And to judge from the feedback, and mainly from the fact that they keep coming back, it is successful and good approach.

What are young people looking for that’s being satisfied or awakened at the Evangelium Conference?

The question here is: what are people looking for? The answer is: they don’t know, and not many people do.

Let’s paint a picture of modern life. It is highly fragmented. People’s ability even to think clearly is in decline. People are, because of the constant impact of the media and constant fragmentary sound and fragmentary images, it’s almost as if the continuity of human understanding is being broken up.

So because of what they’re being given, their appetites are being frustrated and they’re coarsened but they’re not entirely happy about that. They’re not given any guidance about the meaning of life. In fact, they’re encouraged not to think about these things.

This is very much the Brave New World predicted by Aldous Huxley. In his book, which was written in the early 1930’s, they control the world by keeping people busy, so they don’t have time to think about deep things, including God. That’s the situation we face today.

For many, there is a fundamental experience of emptiness today. They know something’s not right, but they can’t put their finger on it exactly. They’re not satisfied with what they’re given. And they don’t know what they’re looking for.

But we have to find a chink in the armor. We try to show them something different. An experience in 48 hours: a different perspective, beautiful liturgy, deep ideas, a chance to step back from the flow of sense impressions that they’re getting from the world around them, and that can trigger a change of life.

What are your thoughts on the Internet, as a scientist who worked at CERN at the time the worldwide web was founded, and as a priest?

The Internet is a tool. A tool can be used for great good or great evil. The lazy way it’s used at the moment does have an overall degrading effect on human intelligence and wisdom, I think.

The danger, and the experience of many people using the Internet, is simply going from one trivial thing to another trivial thing to another trivial thing. And so all one gets are fragments, like the shadows of the puppets of real things in Plato’s cave. And that’s enormously destructive for wisdom and insight. So there’s a bad use of the Internet and unfortunately that’s quite widespread. On the other hand, there are tremendous benefits from the Internet, and I would say for Catholicism.

What are the benefits?

I will list two of them. First, since the high middle ages, the cost differential between images and text has become very high. So after the illuminated manuscripts of the early Christian centuries, with the invention of printing, it became possible to print text extremely cheaply but images became expensive by comparison.

Now what’s curious about the Internet and the associated technology is that this cost differential has been reduced almost to zero. So images and text are comparable in cost, and one can have a multi-media experience, as it were.

That’s good for Catholicism, because the Catholic faith is incarnational. It has a very high premium placed on images, and holy images and texts together can be enormously beneficial. It can feed the different cognitive faculties of the mind very well.

In the Evangelium Course, which I co-authored with Fr. Marcus Holden about 10 years ago, we actually divided up the pages a bit like the television channels. So you have a kind of tickertape line at the bottom, and an image of art in the middle somewhere, and text broken up into text boxes. This would have been very difficult to do 25 years previously. But it’s a way people absorb information today, but it also gives a mixtures of image and text, which is actually rather good for Catholicism if we’ve got the right images and the right text. So I would say that’s a very hopeful sign of the Internet.

But the second thing, which is very useful and we haven’t fully exploited it yet, is the ability to manage the vast data that we have.

I’ll give you an example: in the year 1998, I had just started at seminary. Not long after, someone gave me a CD produced in California by a Catholic group. This Catholic group had scanned all the works of the Church Fathers of the first 5 centuries into a single cd and was selling the whole lot for 45 dollars. I almost trembled at the thought of all this wisdom; Augustine was there, Cassian was there, all this material was there accessible for pennies. It’s just extraordinary.

And because the Catholic Church has been around for a long time, we have rather a lot of information. So the Internet and associated technologies help us to manage this very well.

I’ve heard there is an interesting connection between the first digital humanities project and Catholic tradition. Can you tell us about this?

Yes. We have one theologian in particular who was extraordinarily structured in his thinking. He was so structured in fact, that the first digital humanities project in history was based on the digitization of his work, and that’s Thomas Aquinas.

Not many people know this, not as many as should know this: In 1946 Roberto Busa, a Jesuit, began to investigate the possibility of digitizing Aquinas’ work.

Quite early on he came into contact with IBM, and Thomas Whatson gave 30 years of funding to digitize all the works of Thomas Aquinas. It’s the first big digitizing project in history.

If you look at the way the Summa is set up, I would describe it as a king of fractal, or spider diagrams: it’s multiply connected in different dimensions. Aquinas has a kind of network in his extraordinarily well-trained mind, a linking together of all these different sources. Only with digital technology have we really been able to grapple with that and put it into a form where we can move from one point to another.

The next step, and I have to say I’d love to find a way of doing it, but I need some creative, artistic design, is to really improve the computer interface experience. We already have his work digitized, but we need to create an ascetically beautiful human computer interface.

I think we’re getting to the point where we can do that, and if I can be involved in that some way, I’d be very happy to try to catalyze that project.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

[After a pause] Yes, I’d like to talk about grace. A theme at the Evangelium Conference this weekend, in several talks and also in the Sunday homily, has been the theory of grace. And I’d like just to talk briefly about this.

Most of my life, since childhood, I’ve heard nothing about grace. I’d never heard a homily on grace right until going to seminary and even then very rarely.

Grace is actually the number one issue in the Church and in Catholic theology today. And the issue is really this: What is a Christian? In practice, in the minds of many Catholics today, a Christian is really just like anyone else, perhaps just trying to be a bit better. And this is not what a Christian is.

A Christian, by grace, becomes an adopted child of God, able to call God “Father.” That’s a unique privilege of the grace of Baptism, and people don’t know this. What we’ve got actually is not anonymous Christianity; it’s more like anonymous Buddhism with Christian language. That’s quite a common kind of spirituality today.

What I want to do is recover a healthy sense of the proper distinction and relationship between the life of grace and the life of nature.

Now this is a huge controversial area in Catholic theology, and we’ve all suffered from various controversies. It’s caused a lot of damage in many parishes and in the understanding of many Catholics.

As a metaphor, after many years of thinking about this issue and a lot of research, I think grace takes away our spiritual autism. I stress this is a metaphor, just as we use blindness as a metaphor sometimes, but grace takes away our spiritual autism.

The difference between the pagan notion of God and the Christian notion can be found, if in nothing else, in grammar. Aristotle describes God as good and holy and perfect and eternal and living, but he never addresses God as “You.”

Augustine, several centuries later, says several centuries later: “Late have I love you, Beauty so ancient and so new,” because in Christianity one sees the Face of God in the Incarnate Christ, and one lives in the hope of seeing the Face of God in heaven.

This is something that human nature, unaided, can never hope to achieve. So we need to understand our supernatural goal, this extraordinary gift we’ve been given of grace, and we need to protect and nurture it.

And if we seek the life of grace we’ll save nature as well. If you want to do real environmentalism, become saints.

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

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