Saturday, April 19, 2014

The unique positive contribution of Christian universities

Hunter Rawlings is a former President of Cornell University, which is avowedly secular, and was co-founded by Andrew Dickson White, notorious for promoting the conflict thesis: that science and religion are at war with one another. Rawlings is currently the President of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 60 of the leading North American universities.

The Princeton Alumni Weekly recently published a talk by Rawlings, Universities on the Defensive. In it he gives four essential reasons why the colleges and universities in the USA are the best in the world. I want to reflect on
2) they are a crazily unplanned mix of public and private, religious and secular, small and large, low-cost and expensive institutions, all competing with each other for students and faculty, and for philanthropic and research support; 
I wonder why Rawlings thinks this.
Why might universities based on Christian values play a positive role that complements secular ones?
Here is what I think.

First, regardless of what you think of Christianity its influence is central to understanding much of the history, literature, and philosophy of the Western world. Yet, in secular universities there can be a tendency, both in teaching and research, to "censor" this or paint Christianity in such a negative light that it is not possible to appreciate this important influence. This leads to slanted and inaccurate knowledge.

Second, secular universities can be easily swayed by commercial interests and a functional view of education and research. Rawlings discusses this in his talk. It is all about training graduates so they can get high paying jobs and research should have commercial benefits. In contrast, Christians should view scholarship and education as having intrinsic value. Furthermore, education is not just for the gratification of the individual but is equipping the student to serve others and broader society, regardless of renumeration or acclaim. These competing perspectives can push secular universities in a more positive direction.

I don't want to gloss over that Christian universities have their own deficiencies. For example, scholarship and teaching can be hindered by narrow doctrinal perspectives and a fear of new knowledge. Here, secular universities put them under healthy competition and can complement them well. Hopefully, Christians in secular universities also help move them in these more positive directions too.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Exposing our homelessness

This month in my new theology reading group we are reading Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh.

It is a rather long and wide ranging book but enjoyable and challenging. I am about one third of the way through.
The authors intersperse chapters on home and homelessness from a wide range of perspectives (global, local, social, political, theological, economic, ...) with chapters of meditation that look at particular Biblical passages through the lens of the home and homelessness.

The book begins with the fascinating contrast of Kenny and Kenneth, who co-habit the same neighbourhood in a large North American city. Kenny spends his days pan-handling at a street corner and takes some meals at a homeless shelter. He sleeps in an illegal makeshift "shack" in a park. He struggles with drug addiction and is often in conflict with others. But, Kenny does have a community of sorts. Kenneth drives his luxury car past Kenny each day on the way to his office. He is only in this city a few months of the year, living in an exclusive high security condominium. The rest of the year he is travelling or living in other cities. Kenneth has never met his neighbours. So who is homeless?

Both Kenny and Kenneth live in a very broken world.

The flavour of the book is in this earlier article.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why would an academic believe?

On wednesday night I will be participating in a panel discussion Why three academics believe
organised by Evangelical Students at University of Queensland and Unichurch.

Some of the material I will present was featured last year on a website Why I believe?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The problem with popular science books

Most really are not about science.

It used to be claimed that distinguished scientists writing books for the general public would provoke the snobbish disdain of their colleagues. It was considered to be intellectual shallow to take ones research to the masses. However, all that changed with Stephen Hawking's bestseller A Brief History of Time. It made him a lot of money and a celebrity. After that many scientists got in on the act. Now there is a steady stream of popular science books.

I think scientists should write books for popular audiences. My problem is that I think in the end most really aren't about science.
There seem to be two common agendas of authors. Both are extremely ambitious and filled with hubris.

One agenda is that the topic of the authors research is THE big thing in science. It doesn't just revolutionise a particular specialised field of science but will revolutionise all of science. The author promotes their specialisation [chaos theory, string theory, complex adaptive systems, quantum information, self-organised criticality, systems biology, evolutionary biology, emergence, cosmology, …..] as THE most fundamental and important sub-discipline of science, because it has such profound implications for all of science.

The second agenda goes even further. The work of the author and her/his field is THE answer to the meaning and purpose of humanity and the universe. Only when we accept this will we truly understand why we are here, where we are going, and how to tackle the grand challenges facing humanity.

I illustrate the latter by giving quotes from the end of several highly acclaimed and influential popular science books. I have featured these quotes in earlier posts.
``Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism? Only, we suggest, in the sources of science itself,..... it is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity necessarily leads. The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immmensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.''
Jacques MonodChance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modem Biology, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Knopf, 1971), p. 167
But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (Basic Books, 1977), pages 154-155.
If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, .... Then we shall all ...[discuss] why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would truly know the mind of God.
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

This post was stimulated by reading an excellent paper by Ian Hesketh about Big History where he discusses the whole genre of popular science writing. More on that later….

The tragic comedy of the Church of England

This episode of the British comedy Yes Prime Minister has some pointed digs about leaders of the Church of England and the process of appointing bishops.

Yes Prime Minister 1.7 - The Bishops Gambit

Monday, March 31, 2014

A model Christian scholar: Nicholas Wolterstorff.

I recently read two short and helpful articles by Nicholas Wolterstorff.

The Grace That Shaped My Life is a short autobiography. Several things stood out to me.

First, the influence of his childhood in a Dutch Reformed community: characterised by simplicity, sobriety, and measure.

Second, the influence of Abraham Kuyper and his Reformed view of life and scholarship.
"The scope of divine redemption is not just the saving of lost souls but the renewal of life - and even more than that: the renewal of all creation. Redemption is for flourishing".

Third, his introduction to justice as "one of the fundamental categories through which I view the world." This occurred through encounters with Palestinian Christians and black South African pastor Allan Boesak.

Fourth, through the grief of the tragic death of his son he came to understand the suffering love of God.

 The second article is a brief address he gave marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. He addresses the distinctives of true Christian scholarship: a love of learning and understanding. The following paragraph summarises the main idea.
The orientation that I have all-too-briefly been describing, of meditating with awed and reverential delight on God's works of creation and redemption, seeking to discern the wisdom embodied therein, has virtually disappeared from the modern world, rejected by secularists, neglected by Christians who have turned it into one among other religious beliefs that they hold. So I invite you to do some imagining. Imagine that we have recovered this vision, and that for us it truly is an orientation toward reality rather than one religious belief among others. Then we would see it as the point of the natural and human sciences not just to produce theoretical constructs worthy of admiration but to enhance our understanding. And we would regard the object of our understanding not as something just there but as a work of God, infused with divine wisdom. Love of learning, so understood, would lead us to reverence these works of divine wisdom and to praise their maker, some of whose wisdom we had now glimpsed. Cell biology of the past fifty years is an extraordinary scientific construct--admirable both for its intrinsic worth and for its technological utility. But more than that, it has revealed to us some of the astounding intricacy of the divine wisdom embedded in creation.
Following a challenge from Terry Halliday, it was this approach that inspired my last post Awe and wonder in the face of science. That is my first feeble attempt to take up this challenge.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Awe and worship in the face of science

Since we are surrounded by it and so used to it we can take science for granted and not reflect on how amazing it truly is. Things that regularly happen today in science would have been inconceivable decades ago, let alone centuries ago.

Below I list some of the things I think we should be in awe of.

The immense scales of the observable universe.
Our sun is just one star of two hundred billion in our galaxy, which is just one of almost two hundred billion galaxies. It takes light from the most distant galaxies tens of billions of years to travel to us.

Length scales of many orders of magnitude.
This is nicely illustrated in the wonderful movie Powers of Ten.

The universe exhibits a diversity of rich and complex behaviour. Yet it can understand much of it in terms of simple universal laws that are easy to state, e.g., the laws of thermodynamics, Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, Schrodinger's equation of quantum mechanics, the genetic code, ....

Nature appears to be fine-tuned.
This covers not just the values of fundamental physical constants that lead to the notion of fine tuning and the anthropic principle, but the unique properties of water, and

The intricate and subtle "machinery" of biomolecules.
Proteins have very unique structures that are intimately connected to their specific functions.

We can measure precisely.
Scientists have created incredibly powerful and specialised instruments for making very precise measurements: telescopes, microscopes, the tension in a single strand of DNA, the magnetic moment of an electron [to one part in a billion billion, .....

We can predict the outcome of new experiments.
Scientists construct mathematical theories in their minds, on pieces of paper, in equations, and sometimes in computers. Their success is measured by the extent to which they can propose new experiments and predict the outcome. Last weeks announcement that BICEP had made observations that were predicted by the theory of inflation concerning the rapid expansion of the universe, just one millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the beginning of the universe is just the latest in a long list.

We can understand the material world.
Einstein said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." 

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.
Eugene Wigner received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963. In 1960 he published an essay "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences that concludes
The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. 
We can manipulate and control nature.
Scientists and engineers can move single atoms, design drugs, make computers, atom bombs, heart pacemakers, mobile phones, manipulate genes, ......

Why is the universe like this?
Why are human brains capable of such a grand endeavour?
Why do we have such power over the material world that we can create intricate instruments to measure detailed properties of the universe?

Science has no answer.
Christians should be in awe and worship the Creator of it all.