Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The ambivalence of Christians towards the social sciences

Since I am a physicist and Christian, over the years I have thought, read, and written a lot about the relationship between the physical sciences and Christianity. I have a come to the view that, contrary to the claims of some, there is a positive relationship between Christian theology and the physical sciences. This is seen in many ways: the historical origins of modern science, awe and wonder inspired by scientific discoveries, the order in the universe found to be encoded in laws of nature, fine-tuning, the beginning of the universe, ....
But, what about the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, ...)?
They are sometimes used to argue for atheism and against Christian belief. Many beginning undergraduates encounter this in university classrooms. Indeed, one study in the USA found that studying the social sciences led to a decline in "religiosity", whereas studying the physical sciences did not.

Examples of common arguments are:
Religious belief is a neurosis reflecting personal insecurity (psychology).
Religious belief and morality result from social pressures to conform (sociology).
The unique claims of Christianity are not valid because there is a multitude of different religions in a multitude of different cultures (anthropology).

Thus, it is understandable that Christians may be critical, skeptical, or scared of the social sciences.
However, for several reasons I want to argue for a balanced, critical, and constructive engagement. This follows the perspective of John Stott about "double listening": listening to the world and to the Word.

I give my reasons in no particular order.

First, I find the social science arguments against Christian belief unconvincing. They are half-truths and are usually based on assumptions that lack empirical support. I find I can always come up with counter-arguments.

Second, in some social sciences, Christians have played an influential role. Examples include Peter Berger and Jacques Ellul in sociology, Malcolm Jeeves in psychology, Alan Tippett in Anthropology, and Kenneth Pike in linguistics.

Third, the social sciences are particularly relevant to Christian ministry and mission. One might consider this as in the vein of Augustine's idea of plundering truth from non-Christians as the Israelites plundered treasure from the Egyptians (Ex 3:22). (See Augustine, Confessions 7.9.15 and On Christian Teaching 2.40.60–2.42.63.)
Important insights can be gained from their concepts, discoveries, and techniques. Examples include mental health, cross-cultural communication, and social justice.
Mental illness is complex and has biochemical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. Psychology can provide significant insights into the causes of mental illness, prevention, and strategies for healing.
Christian mission involves introducing the Gospel to new cultures. This is now far beyond the old stereotype of a white Westerner going to an obscure African tribe. Most urban societies and universities are now complex, pluralistic, and multi-cultural. Anthropology can provide important insights into how to understand different cultures and how to communicate with them.
Another important dimension to mission and God's Kingdom is that of social justice. Economics and sociology can provide insights into how entrenched systems oppress certain people and promote inequality. A concrete example is the work of Cameron Townsend among indigenous people in Mexico.

Two books I am looking forward to reading are Psychology through the eyes of faith and Sociology through the eyes of faith.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Even a scrooge can be redeemed

My lovely daughter's Christmas gift to our family was an outing to see A Christmas Carol, the theatrical adaptation of the classic novella by Charles Dickens.
I am not sure I have ever seen it before.

The story brings together many substantial themes: economic inequality, the plight of poor children, joy, judgement, love of money, the meaning of Christmas, altruism, and redemption.
The Bible story it most reminded me was the story of Lazarus and the rich man that Jesus told.

Christmas is about Emmanuel: God with us. Jesus is God's great and generous gift to humanity. He reveals who God is and offers us free redemption. This generosity should inspire us to be generous, particularly to those less privileged than us.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The scandal of the evangelical mind

This is the title of an influential book, written in the context of the USA. Recently, I gave a talk with this title, based on Philippians 2:1-13. My argument is that although the book is important and has valid points there is actually a much bigger scandal.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Institutions, virtue, secularism, and human flourishing

A week ago I attended a fascinating meeting, on “Science, Philosophy, Religion and Human Flourishing” in Cyprus. It brought together about thirty scientists, philosophers, diplomats, people with a range of religious convictions and none.
The sessions were structured as follows. First, three or four speakers gave 7.5-minute talks around a common theme or issue. The talks were meant to stimulate discussion. Then we broke out into small groups of about six people for about 30 minutes of discussion, and then all the participants came together for group discussion. I will post later about some of the things I was challenged on.

Here are the slides for my 7.5-minute talk, ``The role of institutions in human flourishing: challenges and potential''. I was pleasantly surprised at how a range of people said the talk was helpful and stimulating.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

What is a lie?

Some friends recently asked me ``What does the Bible say about lying?" A quick survey of the whole Bible showed how the issue of lies and lying goes far beyond "telling fibs".

Furthermore, I feel that hypothetical questions such as "If a Nazi soldier came to your door and asked if you were hiding Jews in your basement, would you lie?" derail the discussion.

Lies are in contrast to truth and faithfulness, qualities that are integral to the character of God and Jesus. Here are my notes.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

What is "double listening"?

This phrase was coined by John Stott in a book, The Contemporary Christian: An urgent plea for double listening, published in 1998.

Double listening concerns Christians listening to what the Bible says while also listening to what the world says. The world is interpreted, affirmed, and critiqued in terms of what the Bible says, while the Bible is interpreted in light of what learns from the world. Everyone does this, whether or not they acknowledge it. However, the challenge is to do it consciously, intentionally, humbly, diligently, creatively, consistently, and constructively.

The idea is helpfully reviewed by Alister McGrath in this lecture.

Here is some of the key text from the Contemporary Christian (p. 27-9).
How, then, can we be both conservative and radical simultaneously, conservative in guarding God’s revelation and radical in our thoroughgoing application of it? How can we develop a Christian mind, which is both shaped by the truths of historic, biblical Christianity, and acquainted with the realities of the contemporary world? How can we relate the Word to the world, understanding the world in the light of the Word, and even understanding the Word in the light of the world? We have to begin with a double refusal. We refuse to become either so absorbed in the Word, that we escape into it and fail to let it confront the world, or so absorbed in the world, that we conform to it and fail to subject it to the judgement of the Word. Escapism and conformity are opposite mistakes, but neither is a Christian option. 
In place of this double refusal we are called to double listening, listening both to the Word and to the world. It is a truism to say that we have to listen to the Word of God, except perhaps that we need to listen to him more expectantly and humbly, ready for him to confront us with a disturbing, uninvited word. It is less welcome to be told that we must also listen to the world. For the voices of our contemporaries may take the form of shrill and strident protest. They are now querulous, now appealing, now aggressive in tone. There are also the anguished cries of those who are suffering, and the pain, doubt, anger, alienation and even despair of those who are estranged from God. I am not suggesting that we should listen to God and to our fellow human beings in the same way or with the same degree of deference. We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathise with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it. . . . 
‘Double listening’, however, contains no element of self-contradiction. It is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission. 
Two other books by John Stott that McGrath mentions are Issues Facing Christians Today and Christian Mission in the Modern World.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Looking forward to the party

I recently shared with some friends some thoughts on The Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14.
Here is the outline.