Saturday, April 18, 2015

Talk at Theology on Tap

Tomorrow afternoon I am giving a talk, “Why is Science so Awesome? at Theology on Tap in Brisbane.

The current version of the slides for the talk is here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Can mental illness be funny?

My family enjoyed watching the movie, It's kind of a funny story.
A teenager in New York is having suicidal thoughts and checks himself into a hospital psychiatric ward. Once in there he realises that he is much more “normal” than the other patients and
wants to get out, but is not allowed to.
The movie is somewhat humorous and entertaining. But, at times it is depressing, being confronted with mentally ill patients with little hope of healing.

On the positive side the movie does well raising the issue of mental health and the extreme pressures teenagers can be under, particularly those from families with upper middle class aspirations.
On the other hand, the movie is somewhat superficial and simplistic because the central character is “healed” by just learning to enjoy life, take up a hobby (drawing), appreciate his family more, and (of course since this is Hollywood) having a gorgeous girl friend.

An unrealistic aspect of the movie is that the star is able to check himself into the fancy private hospital without his parents permission and with no concern about payment for services.
Somehow I am skeptical this would happen in the USA.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why is science so Awesome?

This coming sunday afternoon I am giving a talk, “Why is Science so Awesome? at Theology on Tap in Brisbane.

There are many things I find amazing about science, leading to me to awe, wonder, and questions. The immense size of the universe, the complexity of life, successful scientific predictions, and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Why is the universe like this? Why can humans understand it so well? What does theology say about all this? The talk is intended for a general non-expert audience. 

 An earlier version of the slides for the talk is here.

This image of a pinwheel galaxy was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and is from here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Don't give your life to your employer

I think the movie The Company Men is worth watching. It is a moving portrayal of how several men respond to getting retrenched from a company they have given their lives to. One struggles with his self image and must deal with being massively in debt, because of an extravagant lifestyle. Another is betrayed by the CEO, who used to be his best friend. It also highlights corporate greed, which is driven by short term financial considerations and considers people as just "resources" to be exploited.

Overall it is depressing and there is little redemption and hope. Yet, this is realistic. Give your life to your employer and you will probably get hurt.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Three amazing and unbelievable things about Easter

Today I am giving a talk at our churches' Easter Eggstravaganza, an event for children and families. Here is the talk.

Just because something is hard to believe does not mean that it is not true. My experience as a scientist tells me that. Many scientific discoveries have been unexpected, surprising, and go against what people thought was common sense.
[Aside: for adults interested in science: examples include Schrodinger's cat (quantum entanglement), the Big Bang, Dark matter,...]
I still find some of these things hard to believe.

I will now do a simple science experiment to show this. Putting a skewer through a balloon and putting a flame on a balloon containing a small amount of water.

At Easter Christians celebrate the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
Here are three things that many people rightly find hard to believe about Easter.

Could an all powerful God die on a cross?
Can God really forgive sins?
Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is that possible?

I find these three things amazing.

1. Could an all powerful God die on a cross?

The Bible tells us that Jesus was God's Son. God the Father and Jesus together made the whole universe. They both rule over it. Jesus was powerful. He could heal sick people, know what people were thinking, and walk on water. He taught about what God was really like, because He really knew God as His Father.
Yet if Jesus was so strong and powerful how could he be so weak and powerless that he allowed his enemies to falsely accuse him of wrongdoing and to kill him on a cross, a terribly painful and embarrassing death? Couldn't he stop them? He could not save himself. How could he claim to save others?

2.  Can God really forgive any and every wrong that someone has done?

Jesus told an interesting story about this. In the Bible you can find it in Matthew 19. There was a rich young man who really wanted to go to heaven. He told Jesus all the good things he had done in his life. But, Jesus asked him to do something that was very difficult for him: give away all his money. This was too hard for him. He loved his money more than he loved God. Indeed Jesus has very high standards. He wants us to be perfect. Jesus disciples, his 12 closest friends, wondered if anyone could be saved. It seemed no one could be good enough for Jesus or for God. In response, Jesus said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26)
Jesus death on the cross makes this possible. His suffering covers all of our failings and wrong doings.
This is fantastic news for us. It does not matter what we have done, God can forgive us, if we want to be forgiven.

3. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is that possible?
That is a miracle. Can a scientist like me believe in miracles?

After all, history and experience tell us once people are dead they are dead forever. But just because we have not seen something happen does not mean that it can never happen. Again, God can make the impossible happen.

I then do the following simple science demonstration.
Consider an egg and a small bottle. Who thinks that this egg can fit in this bottle? Before I saw this happen I never thought it was possible.

Just because we think dead people stay dead forever, does not mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead. If God, the ruler of the universe, what it to happen it could. It did.

On Easter Sunday Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Jesus conquered death, came to life and appeared to many eyewitnesses, and now lives forever.

So, tomorrow on Easter Sunday when you are eating all your yummy chocolate eggs think about this egg in the bottle. It doesn’t look too yummy. But it does illustrate that something can be true even if we don’t expect it to be. God is not constrained by the laws of nature us scientists know all about. Jesus really did rise from the dead. He has power over death and sin. What is impossible for man is possible for God. God raised Jesus from death to life. We can be forgiven and we can have the gift of eternal life.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The idolatry of the nation state

In the theology reading group on monday we will be discussing Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William Cavanaugh.

I found it refreshing, stimulating and provocative.

Christendom and Constantinianism [the close identification of church and state] has declined in the Western world. Overall this is a good thing as the church should be on the margins and stand again power, coercion, and violence. On the other hand, the hope and worship of many has shifted from God and the church to the nation state. It is their hoped source of security, identity, protection, and prosperity. This is idolatry.
Some Christians "tend to assume that the only solution to any given cultural problem is state enforcement".

The first chapter relates to the classic quote of Alisdair MacIntyre
The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf . . . [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.
One chapter makes a highly creative analogy between the Richard Strauss' opera, Ariadne auf Naxos,
which combines tragedy and comedy simultaneously, with Augustine's City of God. (p.63, 64)
"The earthly city and the city of God are two intermingled performances, one a tragedy, the other a comedy. Thee are not two sets of props, no division of goods between spriticual and temper oral, infinite and finite. Both cities are concerned with the same questions..."

Some essays/chapters focus on the case of the USA. One "Messianic Nation" is a trenchant criticism of American exceptionalism, particularly the views of Stephen Webb, who attempts to justify this on (shaky) theological grounds. I found Webb's arguments pompous, bizarre, and scary.

The chapter "Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk: Identity and Mobility in a Global Age" provides some nice contrasts between the past (Pilgrims and Monks) and the present (Tourists) which is concerned with the exotic, escape, restlessness, pleasure for the wealthy, and lacks hospitality for the needy (Migrant). Monks have a vow of stability.

The best line in the book is in the following (p. 135)
Metz is concerned that the legitimate separation of the church from the political sphere not result in the mere privatisation of the church, the handing over of the gospel to the anemic embrace of bourgeois sentimentality. Metz's solution is that the church take its place in civil society as an "institution of social criticism"..
Overall, I found the book a bit depressing because I agree with it, and yet I feel the views therein, are so outside the "mainstream".  I think the book would have been more hopeful if some concrete examples were given of churches and Christian organisations who are living in the "intermediate" political spaces he advocates: combining local social action, community development, and political advocacy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Facing evil and moving on

There is a fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times
Can an Evil Man Change?The Repentance of Eugene de Kock by Antjie Krog

If more than 30 years ago you had told this story many would say it was a fiction or a movie script: that apartheid would end peacefully in South Africa,
that rather than violence and retribution, there would be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where perpetrators of human rights violation could confess and receive amnesty,
that one of most evil perpetrators, Eugene de Kock, would co-operate with the families on his victims, ...

Yet it is true.

The following is particularly disturbing.
After the famous black-consciousness leader, Steve Biko, died in jail in 1977, opposition to apartheid grew. The National Party government realized it could no longer afford the political and economic consequences of activists dying in police custody. So, to continue its dirty work invisibly, a secret counterinsurgency unit was established on a farm called Vlakplaas. In 1983 Mr. de Kock became its commander, and it was from here that he and his men planned the deaths, kidnappings and torture of many anti-apartheid activists. 
When former President F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela and lifted the ban on the black opposition parties in 1990, Mr. de Kock was secretly ordered to increase the appearance of black-on-black violence in order to discredit the liberation movements. His squad killed black activists with Russian weapons to implicate the military wing of Mr. Mandela’s party, the African National Congress. They captured black liberation movement soldiers, torturing them until they “turned” and could be used as hit men. This led to a sudden escalation of deaths of black people.
It worth reading the rest of the article to see what then unfolds.

Can such a person be forgiven? Should they ever be released from prison?

There are many complex issues here.

But, it brings to mind the most shocking "injustice" ever, something some can never accept, that God will forgive any sin or anyone.