Saturday 21 December 2019

Arian Controversy Part I

Nicaea: Not my type of party
If you are an orthodox Christian you must believe that God exists as a Trinity: three gods manifest as  one entity. All equally powerful, omniscient and omnipotent. This makes no sense, but this does not matter because it is a mystery not made apparent to our mortal minds. This is the view of the Catholic church and has been since the fourth century. It would be interesting to poll a random collection of Christians, both Catholic, and Protestant, to see if they could articulate their conception of the relationship between Jesus and God. It is my humble contention that we would be exposed to a diverse set of views, not all of them Trinitarian in any strict doctrinal sense; least ways as construed by the early church fathers. And in a way, this would reflect the notions concerning God and Jesus as held by early Christians of the first, second, third and even subsequent centuries.

As the Christian faith developed across the Roman world in the third and fourth centuries the church leaders became very concerned to adopt and enforce a dogma concerning the nature of God and Jesus, come, God, come man. The synoptic gospels (Mark, Mathew, and Luke) were of the mind that Jesus was begotten of God and a mortal woman. The role of Joseph in the whole affair is a thwart one over which much ink (and just a tincture of blood)  has been spilled over the intervening two millennia. Mayhap cuckold is too harsh a word? Thus, the concept of the Trinity did not exist in the minds of the first  biblical authors. The Trinity begins to raise its three divine heads in the writings of John penned at least seventy years after the crucifixion. The fourth gospeller seems to have been a philosophically savvy Greek-speaking Jew of the diaspora. As an aside, it is unlikely that his name was ‘John’. The gospel was written anonymously and we have no idea who authored this rather fascinating and often theologically bewildering tome. His gospel was an early attempt at interposing/imposing Greek philosophical ideology onto Jewish Christianity. Educated Greek Christians were not overly impressed with Jewish theology which they considered primitive and penned by barbarians. They felt a need to 'smarten up' the intellectual content and inculcate Greek superior philosophical learning. Hence John's gospel is completely alien in temper, timbre, and tone to the preceding gospels. The synoptic gospels are very Jewish in expression and outlook while John's gospel has been thoroughly leavened in concept and content by Greek philosophical and intellectual concepts. A very interesting document indeed, but spurious when considering the original message of Jesus and, in the aftermath, the stark message of Christianity.

The ‘Trinity concept’ was but one of a series of competing ideologies fulminating during the early centuries of Christianity. This inconsistency was recognised as a problem by the early church fathers and they felt a need to formulate an official Christian creed. A creed to be kept and followed by all  Christian clerics and laity. In 325 AD the Roman Emperor, Constantine, presided at a meeting in Nicaea attended by 300 bishops, mostly from the eastern Roman provinces. The meeting was called ostensibly to tackle the serious ideological and theological challenge of Arianism to the conventional teachings of the Catholic church. Constantine was not particularly motivated by religious zeal but was more concerned with theological and hence political unity and he genuinely favoured a compromise solution between the Catholics and Arians. Alas, a mutually satisfactory solution, through concession, was not to be forthcoming due to the intransigence of the adherents of the two opposing doctrines. The theological debate of the time was highly intense and acrimonious.

The Arian teachings were promulgated by Arius (who else), a presbyter from Alexandria. Arius (c AD 256-336) disputed the fundamental divinity of Christ. Thus, Jesus, unlike God, was not omnitemporal, or had always existed, but was born in time and as a son to a father was separate and subordinate to God. This was in contrast to Catholic doctrine, which stated that God existed as three entities, but is one being, having a single divine nature. The divine entities of the Trinity are equal in having all the omni attributes and importantly, they have always existed. That is the Trinity concept in a nutshell- makes a lot of sense, dun it?

At the council, the argument between the two doctrinal camps was fierce with Athanasius of Alexandria leading the Catholic camp. In the end, and after much maneuvering and underhand tactics, Athanasius' viewpoint won out and Arius and his small band of followers were exiled by Constantine. This was not the end of the story and Arianism would soon see a surge in its fortunes although Catholicism and its Trinitarian teachings would triumph in the end. But I will leave the story here for now and pick up the second installment in this thrilling saga at a future date........

As a digression:  With the advent of increasing secular power in the 4th century AD, the Catholic authorities began to use Roman power to impose dogma on wayward clerics. And those of a recalcitrant bent were branded heretics. Initially, exile and loss of property were deemed sufficient punishment for not towing the company line. Later, of course, when the Church's power and self-confidence had risen to increasingly dizzy heights, unrepentant dissenters were sent forth, from this world to the next to be judged by the ultimate arbiter, God. 

Arius: Seems a bag of laffs

Monday 16 December 2019

Torremolinos in the Dark Ages

Hurry up and invent sunscreen and DDT

Tis time for the annual war band excursion to Torremolinos in Iberia. Oh me and the lads do look forward to our two weeks away. We take a leisurely longboat, stopping off at a quaint little village on the west coast of France. There is a little patisserie which serves the most delicate and melts in the mouth pastries. The filo is divine and to die for. Which is just as well considering the exchange rate between the Tipton groat and the frank- I blame the Saracens and Blackamoors myself, and their ongoing strife contributing to worldwide instability in the international monetary markets. Not all bad news, because who wants to pay 40 francs for 12 sweatmeats? Being disinclined to pay we usually kill the owner and burn down the premises. Now you might think this represents the policy of folly considering we return to the same place every year. But you would be wrong. It seems that when one proprietor ascends/descends to Valhalla, another takes his place. Thus is the nature of commerce in the Dark Ages.

From there we cruise along the French and Iberian coasts, pass through the pillars of Herakles, before eventually alighting on the golden, flagon bestrewn beaches, of Torremolinos. After such an arduous/audacious journey, and after beaching the boat, we usually hit the local taverna: 'Mr Patel's Authentic West Saxon and East Jute, Pub'. Here we feast mightily on fish 'n' chips and quaff deeply on Tipton, best mead. Honestly, it's as if we haven't left home, except for the sun (and the flies). When folk, back home, ask me what it's like, I say it's hot, bloody hot.

Back to the taverna.......Usually, the place is filled with doe-eyed, lithe (wait to they get older), raven-haired wenches. For 20 groats they will gyrate on your lap and inflame your senses and manhood. The inevitable, merciful relief, will cost a further 20 groats or a brace of rabbits.

Next day, at noon, we plunge in the turquoise, turd bedecked, seas. In truth, the locals are well-advised to dig midden pits rather than squat and squeeze upon the headland overlooking our beach. Then we lie on the scorching sands to top up our vitamin D levels and to transform our livid forms into vivid purple. Some of the lads catch crabs, but nothing that can't be cured with DDT and paraffin. Then time for more Tipton mead. And so the cycle goes on, until on the final day we burn and pillage the environs. Lastly, we erect a pyre on the sands and immolate a snake-hipped bartender to Woden and Loki to appease the gods and ensure a fair wind for the passage home.

Next year, I think we might go to Margate. Torremolinos is attracting too many uncouth Jutes. Not only do they hog the sunbeds, but they have the annoying habit of talking loudly in restaurants. And they have the cheek to call us barbarians! No wonder we are driven to express ourselves by burning, pillaging and indiscriminating smiting.         

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Slash and Burn

Before the devastation

The previous owner of our property planted 138 eucalyptus trees spanning two sides of the boundary. The species is not a New Zealand native but hails from across the ditch in Australia. The original idea was that the trees would provide a renewable firewood resource. The only heat available for the single-story home is a wood burner fire and the idea was for the trees to be periodically sacrificed and laid out to dry for a couple of years before being consumed by the fire god, Moloch. It seemed like a good plan especially as the trees are full of resin thus making excellent firewood. The problem, however, is that Australian eucalyptus grows insanely fast and our trees have taken on epic proportions and continue to grow at three metres a year. As the tree is relatively shallow rooting it is prone to toppling in high winds. It has been a particularly prescient decision as New Zealand has just been hit by a series of storms. Possibly due to our inland position, our part of heaven has been spared the worst of the weather. And so I engaged a local arborist to chop down about 90 trees along one of our boundaries. As you can imagine the ‘west’ field has been transformed into a mired mess with foliage, branches and felled trees scattered akimbo. Also, the heavy machinery has churned up most of the pasture but, given time, and nature’s tender caress, the field will rise once more, thrusting forth green shoots anew. However, the boundary will need to be reconstructed and I’ll be looking to plant a number of native trees and large shrubs where the eucalyptus once thrived and was succoured by nature’s benign, Sylvian stewardship (stop being a ponce, Flaxen).     

It will take a while, perhaps the whole of summer and much of the autumn to process the timber and to burn the mountainous mound of foliage. I’m looking forward to the burning part of the proceedings. As my regulars are aware, I’m very fond of burning stuff. Flames are cathartic and cleansing and I intend to dance around the conflagration tastefully attired in a wolf skin. No doubt the whole ceremony will be accompanied by a liberal libation of honey mead: should give the neighbours something to talk about.

I’ll need some assistance and my son has promised to help, especially with the heavy lifting. The plan is to use a chainsaw to cut the timber into pieces amenable to further processing with a splitting axe. Hopefully, the field will eventually, after much diligent labour, be bestrewn with multiple ‘pyramids’ of wood adrying. I suspect it will take about two years before we can use the wood in the burner. Of course, there’s way too much wood for us and I’m hoping to sell most of the wood to the locals. This will provide a great revenue stream and I’m sure it will more than pay for the arborist's fee and the expense of buying a grunty chainsaw. Certainly, eucalyptus is a much sort after timber for home heating. As a premium wood, it commands a higher price than ubiquitous pine.

Sometime in the future, I will have to tackle the 40 or so trees on the adjacent boundary. This task will be a little troublesome due to the presence of my large shed. The boundary fence will have to be dismantled and the trees will have to be felled so that they fall in my neighbour’s field- perhaps next year. Also, it means I will have to consult, nay liaise, with another human being. One of the reasons I moved to a large plot in the country was to escape from any idle chatter/prattle with the great unwashed. The other advantage: previously when shooting my longbow on public land, the proles had the annoying and disconcerting habit of wandering in front of the action. The irony, of course, is that now, although I have plenty of land to hide the bodies, there is no one to ‘accidently’ feather with a yard shaft. Such is the ultimate tragedy of rural life.                     

There goes the neighbourhood

Tuesday 3 December 2019

Old Age and Sperm

Three tails better than one?

Unlike women, men continue to produce reproductive germ cells unto death. While the available eggs peter out some time in a women’s late 30s or even 40s, a man can still, if he has the stamina, sire a child when he is in his 90s: the pervert, Charlie Chaplin fathered a child when he was 75. This is not to say that the sperm of a 60-year-old man is of equal quality to a 16-year-old boy. Although it is said that wisdom comes with age- although to be honest, this attestation is open to doubt: there is nothing so sad as an old fool. Wisdom is perhaps the only human quality that is correlated with a hoary old chin. Sadly, our physical and mental attributes steadily decline as we age and sperm is no exception. I was made painfully aware of this problem several years ago when I had to ‘produce issue’ during the development of a genetic test for sperm. I was the only male in the department able to perform this duty as all other males in the lab had teetered toward vas deferens ablation: mayhap the teetering was post-op?  

Under the microscope, my sperm appeared ‘morphologically diverse’. Most appeared normal, but there was a significant minority exhibiting physical aberrations. Some appeared to have two tails; others were endowed with two heads. Others were devoid of content. A whole menagerie of freaks residing in plain sight. Needless to say, these aberrant sperm would be useless as vehicles for the transport of genetic material unto the next generation..

This is but the tip of the iceberg. A man’s sperm, especially after 35, declines in many other respects. Thus, not only is there a decrease in overall fertility but there is also an increased chance of miscarriage, stillbirths and birth defects: assuming of course that the sperm can summon enough strength to power through the birth canal. Continued exposure to damaging environmental factors and the failure of an ageing immune system to detect and remove defective sperm are responsible for the corresponding increase in defects with age. In addition, aged sperm accumulate deleterious gene mutations resulting in an increase in the incidence of dominant genetic conditions.

As I’ve discussed previously (see here) the sum of our genetics is more than our genes. Epigenetic factors also have a role in controlling gene expression. In addition to changes in DNA base sequences, structural changes affecting methylation and histone configuration can have dramatic and heritable consequences, often affecting multiple generations. Epigenetic changes within the germ cells of both sexes can be influenced by a myriad of environmental effectors. And it is therefore of no surprise, certainly not to a geneticist, that the depredations of time, mediated through epigenetics, can have a real and negative influence on genetic expression. Recent research indicates that changes in methylation patterns in aged sperm are particularly important in the development of neuropsychiatric disorders in subsequent offspring. This is a particular problem in the developed West where career-minded couples are delaying parenthood. A UK survey between 1993 to 2003 divined that the percentage of 35-54-year-old fathers had increased from 25% to 40% resulting in a corresponding increase in neurodevelopmental problems in their children. There appeared a strong correlation between epigenetic change and the development of autism and schizophrenia. Interestingly, this observation may be compounded over multiple generations giving rise to a synergistic mechanistic effect: aged father to aged father to aged father....... That said, the causal mechanisms with regard to epigenetic change and neuropathology are, as yet, poorly understood.     

No surprises for those who can see, especially those with access to a high powered light microscope. Making genetically healthy and robust children is definitely for the young and preferably the ‘genetically advantaged’ - read into this what you will. Ageing is relentless and unforgiving. It creases the brow and bends the back. Spun silver flecks once lush and vibrant locks. Rheumy eyes beseech an incomprehensible world. The prostate waxes great and protrudes thus facilitating a back and forth rocking motion. Our unique genetic code, manifest within sperm, bears the sticky and indelible mark of our increasing decrepitude. A decrepitude destined to bestride the generations and haunt our children and our children’s children unto the fourth or fifth generation.