Standing on the shoulders of giants

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You know what I love? Astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology. As part of my love for seeking to understand the universe I read about the history of the field.

Everyone from Aristarchus, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Einstein, Hubble and Lemaître are part of the rich history that has led the sciences to where we are today.

No physics department would advocate pretending that these exemplars of strict scientific discipline and observation should be removed from textbooks on the basis that others have different perspectives. No one would presume to suggest that where we are today had nothing to do with those who had gone before. For if we can see further than they did it is because we are “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Thank you, Sir Isaac Newton.  

Similarly, our heritage is rich with exemplars of morality, exemplars of heroic self-sacrifice and virtue, both women and men who went the extra mile for their fellow human beings, people who placed themselves at the service of others, often at a radical self-cost. These include saints and, yes, Jesus himself.

Modern atheists often remark that they take offence at the idea that they need God in order to know right from wrong. I agree that it is silly to insist that people must believe in God in order to be steeped in the moral norms of a given culture.

However, when that culture’s moral norms exist on the shoulders of giants that we are all too willing to deny, I worry about our future. They don’t remember that there was a time when all people were not considered equal and were, therefore, not considered to have equal rights.

Plato and Aristotle were smart guys, but they most certainly did not believe that all people were equal or that they had equal rights. Why should they? This idea, central to modern groups of humanists, secular and otherwise, has its roots in

Genesis 1:26-27 and was a distinctly Hebrew idea that was popularised by the success of Christianity in the western world.  

The entire canon of the Bible is constantly reminding the reader to “remember,” and the biblical writers did so for good reason. They knew that, as a species, we are prone to amnesia and prone to repeating the same mistakes over and over. It

tells the reader to remember God’s actions, as well as the actions of individuals in the stories (sometimes history), both good and bad, because they show us the way.

They are the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Joshua and the Israelites could not have entered the Promised Land without Moses. Similarly, St. Clare would not have been the moral exemplar that she was for the Sisters of Mercy, who opened a hospital in her name, without the giant of St. Francis. And St. Francis would be the first one to point us all towards Jesus of Nazareth.  

In today’s age of moral ambiguity and confusion, replete with rampant materialism and narcissistic individualism, when both corporate extremists and government bureaucrats are all too willing to exploit their fellow human beings, when we breathe a sigh of exasperation because someone in need places demands on our all too precious time, in times such as these we need the saints more than ever.

Why would we remove a statue or a crucifix when the mere sight of the level of self-sacrifice that is possible could lead an exhausted doctor to take an extra moment with a patient? Or a visitor to spend an extra moment with a stranger? Or when St. Clare can prick our conscience and remind us of what is really important at the most trying times in our lives? St. Clare is Catholic but she and all the saints exhibit love for all of us without regard to our personal ideologies, and embrace all of us despite our selfishness, indeed, despite our sinfulness.

What better examples are there to be upheld in hospitals for patients and staff?

What better way to remind ourselves and each other of how precious our time is, and that it therefore ought to be spent in selfless service to others to the degree that we are capable? St. Clare is a person, and she beckons us towards higher levels of love and service.  She is no mere symbol of a religion, let alone one that excludes. Neither is any other saint.

What will we do if we forget the moral exemplars who have gone before? To what extent could we sink again, after everything that was so hard won? Hard won by both Christ himself, and all the saints, including the first martyrs who were fed to the lions in ancient Rome and who, in moral imitation of Jesus, chose to die praying for their executioners rather than retaliate? Remembering that love and self-sacrifice transcend religious boundaries, I’m inclined to ask: what will we be left of us, morally, if we forget the levels of love and self-sacrifice that are possible?   

If Terry Loder is really concerned with the well-being of the patients at St. Clare’s Hospital, then he should ask himself, if we remove the giants below, whose shoulders will we have left to stand on?

Trevor Pomeroy

St. John’s

Geographic location: Promised Land, Nazareth, Rome

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Recent comments

  • Doug Smith
    August 17, 2013 - 21:30

    Mr. Pomeroy, you must have been suffering from heat stroke or some other malady when you wrote your missive. It is full of errors and when you try to admonish others you should know what you are talking about. It is clear you either don’t know or you are ignoring the truth. First of all, you claim that the saints and Jesus are, “exemplars of morality”. Nothing could be further from the truth. You will remember in Genesis that God committed mass murder with the Flood. There are at least 100 passages in the Bible where God causes the death of men, women and even innocent children. Mr. Pomeroy where is the morality in all that? The saints are a joke. The late Pope John Paul the second, is on the path to sainthood because he performed two miracles. Now get this Mr. Pomeroy, he performed these miracles not when he was alive but when he was dead. Does the Catholic church think everyone is an idiot? In another part of your letter you complain that some people today “… don’t remember there was a time when all people were not considered equal and were, therefore, not considered to have equal rights…” Mr. Pomeroy anyone who has studied history knows all people were never considered equal and never had equal rights. Slavery and the inferior status of women since day one, are the two best examples. By the way, even in this day and age the Catholic church still relegates women to second class status in the organization and the Church not only discriminates against women but gays and lesbians as well. Mr. Pomeroy , we the people, do not need any statues or crosses to remind us of the evil ways of religion. Finally, Mr. Pomeroy you complain that today there is “… moral ambiguity and confusion…” Once again Mr. Pomeroy you got it wrong. There is no moral ambiguity for the people, you must have been thinking about all those priests who abused little boys, all those bishops and cardinals who tried to cover up for the church. You must be thinking about the Christian Brothers and their evil ways. Mr. Pomeroy , the people know what those members of the church did was wrong. There is no ambiguity or confusion about that. We don’t need statues or crosses to remind us of the church’s evil ways. There is no confusion about that either. Doug Smith, Grand Falls-Windsor

  • Eliza
    August 17, 2013 - 07:57

    Thank you, Mr. Pomeroy, for a most insightful and worthy read.