Addresses and Statements

Iftar Dinner By St Mary’s Cathedral House, 14 March 2024

14 Mar 2024
Iftar Dinner By St Mary’s Cathedral House, 14 March 2024

ٱلسَّلَامُ عَلَيْ  As-salamu alaykum, Peace up upon you. Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral House for our 14th annual Iftar dinner, honouring especially our Muslim leaders and people, but bringing together people of many faiths for feasting and friendship. My sincerest apologies for not being there is person: I have a light dose of Covid, and didn’t want to risk giving it to any of you, so we must meet through the ether.

I thank Dr Lisa Buxton who heads our Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. Together with her I acknowledge the elders past and present of the Gadigal clan of Eora nation, traditional custodians of the land on which we meet.  

From the Islamic community I welcome: Imam Shadi Alsuleiman, President of the Australian National Imams Council; Sheikh Shafiq Abdullah Kahn, Founder of the Al Faisal Colleges, with many principals and representatives of those colleges; Imam Amin Hady of the Zetland Mosque; Kazi Ali, President of the Muslim Cemeteries Board; Prof. Mehmet Özalp, Director of the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilization at Charles Sturt University; Mehmet Saral and Gökhan Ozkan, representing the Affinity Intercultural Foundation; Madenia Abdurahman from ‘Together for Humanity’; and other leaders and representatives of the Muslim Community.   

We are joined tonight by Emmanuel Nathan, President, and Jolyon Bromley, Public Officer, of the NSW Council of Christians and Jews. Tonight we remember the late Mr Jeremy Jones, former director of the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, Australian Human Rights Medallist, recipient of other awards for promoting harmony, and a friend since university days, who attended these dinners every year. זכר צדיק לברכה  zikhrono livrakha May his memory be a blessing.

From the Catholic Church I acknowledge the presence of: His Lordship Most Rev. Richard Umbers, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, who is kindly hosting this evening in my place; their Excellencies, Most Rev. Amel Nona, Archbishop of the Chaldean and Assyrian Catholic Diocese of Australia and New Zealand; Most Rev. Antoine-Charbel Tarabay OLM, Bishop of the Maronite Eparchy of Australia, New Zealand and Oceania, with his Vicar General Mons. Marcelino Youssef; Most Rev. Robert Rabat, Bishop of the Melkite Greek Eparchy of Australia, New Zealand and All Oceania; His Lordship, Most Rev. Michael McKenna, Bishop of Bathurst and Chair of the Bishops Commission for Christian Unity and Inter-religious Dialogue, with Louise Zavone; Mr Chris Meney, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Sydney; Sr Giovanni Farquer RSJ, Director of our Ecumenism and Inter-religious Relations Commission, with Mr Michael Kenny and Commission members; Mr John McCarthy, Chair of the Anti-Slavery Task Force; Mr Anthony Cleary, Director of Mission and Identity for Sydney Catholic Schools; and leaders of other Church agencies, clergy, religious and lay people.

From other churches I recognise: His Excellency, Bishop Iakovos from the Greek Orthodox Church, representing His Eminence Archbishop Makarios, along with clergy, religious and lay representatives of the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox and Lutheran Churches and other Christian confessions.

From other faiths: leaders and representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist and Bahai communities. Representing the wider community, I salute: Prof. Dermot Nestor from the Australian Catholic University; and Ms Thida Yang from Multicultural NSW. Welcome also to all other community leaders and faithful. It’s great to have you all at my place once more!

Though hardly a household name, the English theoretical physicist Paul Dirac OM FRS (1902-84) was one of the most important thinkers of the past century.[1] His fellow theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam, thought only Albert Einstein ranked ahead of Dirac in terms of sheer influence,[2] a sentiment shared by Stephen Hawking.[3] When Einstein was asked who he’d like to recruit to chair the newly formed Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton in the 1930s, he considered Dirac the “best possible option”.[4]

Dirac was one of the founders of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics and is credited with laying the foundations of quantum field theory. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his work on atomic theory. His eponymous theorem predicted the existence of antimatter and his ideas helped advance general relativity, string theory, uranium enrichment, centrifuge technology and cosmology.

Dirac was, by all accounts, a strange man, if a genius.[5] His colleagues in Cambridge jokingly defined a unit called a “dirac”, which was one word per hour.[6] He was no friend of religion, declaring on one occasion that he regarded it as “a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality”, only useful for keeping the lower classes in check. But his colleague Wolfgang Pauli said he thought it ironic that Dirac had made himself the prophet of the God he thought didn’t exist.[7]

Later in life, Dirac had more sympathy for the god idea, without committing himself one way or the other. If the laws of physics suggest there is a next to zero chance of life emerging by chance, then the case for god was, he thought, all the stronger.[8] Awestruck by the “great beauty and power” of the mathematics behind the physical laws of the cosmos, he said it was as if God were “a mathematician of a very high order and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.”[9]

The idea of a sacred mathematics or geometry built into the very structure of reality is an ancient one. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Greeks, Romans and Aztecs all identified mathematical rhythms in the laws of nature and geometric patterns in natural phenomena such as snowflakes, seashells, plants and galaxies. All this order in creation seemed to be evidence of a divine Orderer. In more recent times, the double helix structure of human DNA has been shown nicely to follow the Fibonacci sequence of spirals.[10] Maths seems to be embedded in the architecture of life and the cosmos.

Many religious traditions throughout history have likewise used geometric patterns and mathematical regularities in their sacred art and architecture. Using awe-inspiring designs, mystical numbers, and almost hypnotic shapes, artists have sought to express something of God’s ineffable nature in the façades and walls, ceilings and floors, windows and decoration of synagogues, mosques, temples and churches. Their captivating beauty hints at divine unity, harmony, perfection.

In Islamic culture, as I understand it, the use of geometric shapes flows from the theological concept of توحيد‎ Tawhid, the diversity and interrelationship of created things, perfectly united in the one God.[11] Some parallel ideas are found in Jewish sacred art, which likewise eschews human and animal images, favouring instead geometrical designs; mystical numbers and mathematical patterns are especially important in Kabbalah.[12] Christian sacred artists have likewise used numbers, patterns and harmonies in many creative ways. And it’s not just the Abrahamic faiths that recognise the beauty, cohesion and order of creation, its underlying logic and mystical significance. In some of the great Eastern traditions, for instance, concentric circles and symmetrical patterns in mandalas are used as instruments of meditation and transformation.


God’s plan for a unified, harmonious creation is woven into the fabric of nature, and watermarks His revealed word in Scripture. शान्ति Shanthi, שׁלום Shalom, سلام Salaam, εἰρήνη Eirene, Pax, Peace: allthese words represent the idea, not just of an absence of strife, but of a more positive state of well-being or tranquility, both within people and between them. Our word “harmony” captures something of the correspondence of mathematical and artistic order with peace between people. For people of faith such divine harmony is unattainable on our own: peace is, above all, a grace from God, a sharing in the divine.

Thus, we have the Aaronic blessing: “The Lord bless you, and keep you. The Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance to you, and give you peace.” In the Torah the Lord offers a covenant of peace and promises to send His peace upon the land. The prophet Isaiah prophesies that perfect tranquility will be granted those who trust in the Lord and declares “Peace, peace, to the distant and to the close”. In the Psalms we learn to desire harmony, pray for it, pursue it.[13]

In the Gospels, Jesus’ coming is celebrated as the dawn of peace. He repeatedly blesses people with peace. And he commands it. He said to his apostles, “Peace I leave you, my own peace I give to you. A peace the world cannot give I bequeath to you.”[14]

According to the Holy Qur’an, Al-Salaam, Peace, is one of God’s names. When the Prophet received his first revelation near Mecca, inner peace came with divine insight. When his disciples were abused by pagan neighbours, the Qur’an praises “the servants of the All-Merciful, who walk humbly upon the earth, and when the ignorant taunt them reply, ‘Peace!’” The Prophet describes heaven as a place “where there is no bad speech or sinful talk, only the words ‘Peace, peace’.”[15]

But this peace so deeply craved by human hearts, this harmony written into the geometry of the cosmos, this shalom consistently called for in holy writings, can prove elusive. In our own time, wars in Ukraine, Sudan, Yemen, Armenia, Myanmar and most recently in the Holy Land amount to what Pope Francis calls “a piecemeal world war”, causing unimaginable misery to many populations and unspeakable damage to the harmony God intended for the world. To submit to God’s order and harmony is to love Him and our neighbour. But war prefers self-will to obedience, power to humility, hardness of heart to compassion, revenge to mercy. It offends against the divine geometry of the cosmos.

Peacemaking or harmonising is the will of God and responsibility of all who work in His name. Last month Pope Francis condemned all forms of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, as he has in the past anti-Islamic and anti-Christian feeling, speech and behaviour. Hateful attitudes and acts towards believers of other faiths are, he insists, a “sin against God”. The Pope said his heart was torn by the conflict in the Holy Land and the ill-will it reflects and magnifies. He prays constantly for peace and insists that his heart is close to all in the Holy Lands; Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, and his prayer is “that the desire for peace may prevail in all.”

Whilst we are blessed to live in a fairly harmonious community in Australia, we must never take it for granted. Hatreds can still be stirred up here as anywhere else, and boil over into conflicts. But in our part of the world, anti-religion is more likely to threaten the peace than religion. Next week an Australian Law Reform Commission report will likely recommend that faith-based schools lose the few protections that presently allow them to be true faith communities by staffing and enrolling accordingly. A Productivity Commission report has also recently suggested removing any tax breaks for building faith schools. And while successive governments have promised to protect religious liberties, so far the trend has been very much in the opposite direction. If a state or territory government can compulsorily acquire a religious hospital, as the ACT government did this past year, while the Federal Government sat on its hands, no religious institution or activity is safe, even in supposedly tolerant Australia.

Some blame religious differences for most of the world’s conflicts, and sometimes these differences are indeed co-opted to such bad ends. But rather than being part of the problem, we religious leaders can be part of the solution. Gatherings like this one, amidst all the tensions of this world, signify deep bonds of humanity and faith, reflect our determination to bring the peace of God to our community, and manifest the will of the divine mathematician and peacemaker!

May the peace of God, “that surpasses all understanding, guide your hearts and minds” (Phil 4:7).  جزاك   Jazāk Allāhu Khayran—May God reward you with goodness!

[1] Graham Farmelo, “Paul Dirac: The Mozart of science,” IAS: Institute of Advanced Study (2008); R.H. Dalitz and R. Peierls, “Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, 8 August 1902 – 20 October 1984,” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 32 (1986): 137-85; John Simmons, Simmons, John (1997). The Scientific 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Scientists, Past and Present (Secaucus NJ: Carol Publishing, 1997), pp. 104–108.

[2] Behram Kursunoglu and Eugene Wigner, Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 262.

[3] Michael Berry, “Paul Dirac: The purest soul in physics,” Physics World 1 February 1998.

[4] Farmelo, “Paul Dirac”.

[5] Graham Farmelo, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius (Faber, 2009).

[6] Farmelo, The Strangest Man, p. 89.

[7] Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (New York: Harper & Row, 1971); Farmelo, The Strangest Man, p. 87.

[8] Helge Kragh, Dirac: A Scientific Biography (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 256-57.

[9] Paul Dirac, ‘The evolution of the physicist’s picture of nature,” Scientific American 208(5) (May 1963): 45-53.


[11] “A manifestation of the divine: Islamic geometry,” Bayt Al Fann; Department of Islamic Art, “Geometric patterns in Islamic art,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001); Gülru Necipoglu, The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture (Getty Center, 1995).

[12] Ashley Lyon, “What makes art ‘Jewish’,” Israel Bible Center 9 August 2021; Rabbi Alan Zelenetx, “The geometry of Judaism,” Ideas: Institute for Jewish ideas and ideals

[13] The Aaronic blessing: Num 6:24-26. The Lord promises to send His peace upon the land: e.g. Lev 26:6. The Lord offers a covenant of peace: e.g. Num 25:12. The prophet Isaiah prophesied that perfect peace for those you place their trust in the Lord: Isa 26:3-4. Isaiah declared “Peace, peace, to the distant and to the close”: Isa 57:19. In the Psalms we are taught to seek peace, pursue it, and pray for it: Ps 34:15; 119:165; 125:5; 128:6 etc.

[14] Jesus’ coming is celebrated as the dawn of peace: Lk 1:79; 2:14,29; 19:38. He blesses people with His peace: Mk 5:34; Lk 7:50; 8:48; 10:5-6; 24:36; Jn 20:19,21,26. He commands peace: Mt 5:9; 10:13; 26:52-56; Mk 4:39. He said to His apostles, “Peace I leave you…” (Jn 14:27; cf. 16:33).

[15] Peace as one of God’s names: Qur’an 59:23. Revelation comes with inner peace: Qur’an 97. Praise of “the servants of the All-Merciful, who walk humbly upon the earth, and when the ignorant taunt them reply, ‘Peace!’”: Qur’an 25:63. Heaven as a place “where there will be no abusive speech or sinful talk, only the saying ‘Peace, peace’.”: Qur’an 56:25-26; cf. 36:54-56. See Jason Steinhauer, “The idea of peace in the Qur’an,” Insights at the Kluge Center 19 August 2016’an%2059%3A23%20discloses,the%20Omnipotent%2C%20the%20Supreme.%E2%80%9D