Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Does science have all the answers?

Sam Harris, the atheist author, has an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Science is in the Details, arguing that Francis Collins is not a suitable choice to head the National Institute for Health in the U.S. because of Collins' Christian beliefs. I recommend reading the full article and wikipedia page on Harris. But, the essence of his argument seems to be that Collins has written “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and Harris concludes:
Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?
Science has many answers but it does not have all the answers. Having someone head NIH who acknowledges this seems like a good thing to me. Particularly, when that person has already successfully led the largest research project that NIH ever embarked upon.

Answering tricky questions

We all have questions. Others challenge us with their questions. It is fascinating for me to see how Jesus dealt with peoples questions. Some he answered. Some he did not. Jesus always seemed to get to the real issue behind the question. This morning I read this account in Mark 11:
And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28and they said to him, "By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?" 29Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me." 31And they discussed it with one another, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' 32But shall we say, 'From man'?"— they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Grey goo or great God?

Previously I discussed some issues in Christians evaluating new technologies. I later remembered that a few years ago while on sabbatical in the U.K., Andrew Briggs (Professor of Nanomaterials at Oxford) and I gave a couple of talks on a Christian view of nanotechnology. One version of the talk is here (without the video clips from the movie Agent Cody Banks). We gave the talk at the 2004 London Conference of Christians in Science and at St. Andrews church in Oxford. Later, Andrew gave a public lecture at the Faraday Institute in Cambridge.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Debt leads to slavery


On a recent plane trip I watched the movie The International, a thriller about an international banking scandal which includes an amazing shoot-out in the Guggenheim Museum in New York (actually a replica built for the movie). But on a more serious note there is some very profound dialogue as the heroes try to figure out what the bank is up to and why it is financing all parties in the international arms trade. Finally, they realise
He who controls the debt, controls the power

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Atheist fundamentalism?

In an earlier post, I mentioned an article in Nature by Philip Ball (one of my favourite science writers) . He is an atheist but critical of the New Atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. His article drew a very negative reaction from Sam Harris and an extended debate between the two. This blog posting describes Ball's perspective on the debate. The end of the post is illuminating:
The fact is that this is all indeed a minor matter, and could have been easily dealt with by a brief acknowledgement that would allow us to move on. But Sam seems to have a real fear of making any concession whatsoever – a sign of a brittle position? – which regrettably turns this into an issue of intellectual honesty.

However, however. The truly sad thing about this exchange is that it has turned into adversaries two people who are unambiguously atheist, deplore the encroachment of creationism and fundamentalism, and are deeply opposed to the oppressive and anti-intellectual practices of some religious groups. I entered into this debate believing that we would find some way of agreeing to disagree. I leave it feeling that the kind of hardline atheism Sam espouses is, in its unyielding purism, potentially undermining of the very aims it claims to have.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Order in the physical world reflects the faithfulness of its Creator

Science shows us the physical world is ordered, obeys laws that hold everywhere and at all times. This is an amazing thing; something that has taken centuries for us to understand and codify. Why is the world that way? Does it tell us anything about God?

Yes. The order in creation reflects the faithfulness of its Creator. Jeremiah 31 says:
35Thus says the LORD,who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the LORD of hosts is his name:
36 "If this fixed order departs
from before me, declares the LORD,
then shall the offspring of Israel cease
from being a nation before me forever."
It is important to note the context of these verses; they follow declaration of the New Covenant, looking forward to our redemption in Christ:
33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,'for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."

This idea if the order in the natural world reflecting the covenantal faithfulness of YHWH is repeated again in Jeremiah 33:

20 "Thus says the LORD: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, 21 then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers. 22As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the offspring of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me."
The same faithful sovereign God who made the world, kept his promise and redeemed the world through sending his Son.
This theological perspective on the created physical order resonates with a previous post on Genesis 1.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Justice, righteousness, and the love of money

Reflecting more on my affluence, sweat shops, Fair trade, capitalism, and more, I realised that yesterday on a subconscious level I was thinking of the challenge of James 5:
1Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the righteous person.
This alludes to Deuteronomy 24 which discusses how in the Promised Land, God' s people are to deal with debt, poverty, and justice:
14"You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The economy of grace

Today my wife and I went to a "Money and Christian Discipleship Seminar" sponsored by TEAR Australia and the Bible College of Queensland.

A few random thoughts and things I learnt:

When is enough money, enough?

By law in Australia superannuation funds (IRA's in the USA) are required by law to maximise profit. Hence, it is actually hard for them to make "ethical" investments.

CHOICE reports that many investment funds that are advertised as "ethical" or "sustainable" still invest money in dubious enterprises.

Fear and greed is what drives the stock market.

Corporations are based on the separation of ownership and management.

Institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and GATT are sometimes actually counter-productive and working against the goals for which they were set up.

I need to be better informed about globalisation and fair trade.
"Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical"
Desire of the Nations, Oliver O'Donovan, formerly Regius Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

"Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite."

John Kenneth Galbraith
US (Canadian-born) administrator & economist (1908 - 2006)
We need to combine ethical consuming, ethical investing, and direct advocacy.

16 of the 38 parables Jesus told are about money.

The Torah instructs Israel how to not live like the surrounding nations, especially how not to live in slavery like they did in Egypt.

The account of the manna in Exodus 16 illustrates how what God provides is to be distributed equitably rather than being accumulated.
The Sabbath is to be kept to proscibe work and be reminded of the economy of grace.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Who are we to Judge?

At church we have just started a sermon series on the book of Judges in the Old Testament. This is a fascinating and challenging book. It is tempting and easy to let our own questions and problems with the events it describes (e.g., Holy wars and foolish vows to the LORD) to completely shape how we read the text. Even worse, we can use our questions and problems to justify dismissing the text and not engaging with it. As always, we need to make sure we don't sit in judgement over the text (and God) and see what questions and problems the text has with us.

A few thoughts stimulated by last sundays sermon include the following:

We see both God's mercy and judgement at work in the events of the book. The LORD is patient with his judgement (2 Peter 3):
8But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
The LORD was patient and did not let his judgement come upon the Ammonites until their sin had reached its full measure (Genesis 15:16). God is merciful and gave them many years to repent. This got to the point that the surrounding nations were performing child sacrifice.

A key passage to understanding the book is the last verse of the book (Judges 21:25):
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Why did the Israelites get a king?
The Israelites justed wanted a King to be like other nations.
(1 Samuel 8). They rejected YHWH as their King.
Who is the real King anointed by God? It is Jesus (2 Samuel 7:14).

Without King Jesus we do what is right in our eyes.
This often means us rationalising our own sinful behaviour.
Instead we need to let Jesus commit to destruction our sin.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Barth on astronomy (seriously this time!)

I previously posted a humourous anecdote about the theologian Karl Barth and an astronomer.
This post is more serious.

I was reading some of Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation where Barth exegetes Genesis 1:14-18
14And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth." And it was so. 16And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.
Here is an extract (p.159-160) concerning "the heavenly bodies"
the unmistakeable stress laid in Gen. 1 is upon their purposiveness. It is to be observed that with the exception of the very last creation - that of man himself - this does not occur in any other creation in so blatant a way as it does at this point where it gives great offence not merely to our modern conceptions but also to those of antiquity. The modern view of the sidereal world, with its reckoning in terms of millions of sun systems and thousands of light years, and the ancient view which found instead very powerful ruling deities, are comparable in the sense that they both seem to exclude, with a kind of magical respect, the question of any purpose in this cosmic system, and especially of its realtionship to the earth and its inhabitants, i.e., the view that man is the purpose of this world. But the present passage says nothing concerning the sidereal world which is not relative to its purpose for the earth, and properly and finally for man. In the last analysis the nature of the heavenly bodies may be stated in terms of their purpose.....

.... the heavenly bodies are no longer deities and lords to whom man owes and shows respect, worships and service, nor, according to modern interpretation, representatives of the infinite universe which absolutely detremines man. On the contrary, they are helps given by God to man. Gunkel is right: "Faith in Yahweh has triumphed over the worship of heavenly bodies." But do we realise what this means? A more radical volte-face cannot be imagined. The author accomplished this in the framework of the pre-Copernican conception of the world. But even the Copernican discovery only means a readjustment within the view which is here questioned not only in its pre-Copernican but also in its Copernican form.
The meaning and purpose of Genesis 1 transcends any historical context or scientific world view. It is not addressing these specifically, but rather, what is the purpose of the universe? what is the purpose of man?

Later chapters of Genesis show the purpose of both is for man to live in covenant relationship with Yahweh.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Recommended books on science and theology

In a comment on a previous post Barry Wallace asked about books I would recommend on science and theology.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of books of debatable quality... I find that many treat either science or theology (or both) in a simplistic manner.

I list here below some books I am quite familiar with and would recommend.
I know of others which are probably very good (or perhaps better) but since I have not read them I should not recommend them.

I list the books in order of roughly increasing sophistication (and difficulty of reading):
  • Mike Poole, A Guide to Science and Belief (Lion, 1990)
  • Kirsten Birkett, Unnatural enemies: an introduction to science and Christianity (Matthias Media, 1997)
  • Malcolm Jeeves and R.J. Berry, Science, Life, and Christian Belief (Apollos, 1998)
  • Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: an introduction (Eerdmans, 1963) [Although this is strictly only about theology it does talk about theology as a "science" and provides a good framework to relate science and theology]
  • Alister McGrath, The Science of God (T&T Clark, 2004)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Barth and North American evangelicals

On Ben Myer's blog, Faith and Theology, there is a guest post from Christian D. Kettler, which is an obituary for Ray S. Anderson (1925-2009), a long-time Professor at Fuller Seminary.

There was one paragraph that really got my attention and I would like to learn more about:
Anderson provides an interesting case study of American evangelicalism at mid-twentieth century when some were trying to provide an intellectual alternative not only to fundamentalism but to the rationalistic theology that was presented by such early Fuller Seminary professors like Carl F. H. Henry. Anderson’s critique of Henry is very telling and insightful. Anderson’s place, and often a controversial place, in the modern history of Fuller Seminary modern American evangelicalism, is very much worthwhile for further study, when he and Geoffrey Bromiley sought to present Karl Barth’s theology to a Fuller evangelicalism often more interested promoting a Christian “worldview” or church growth techniques than to learn from Barth a radical evangelical theology and to build upon it.
This partly got my interest because in my AACC talk/paper I characterised Henry and Cornelius van Til as reductionist because of their emphasis on reason and propositional statements and it was suggested to me that this was a "cheap shot". It is true I need to read them more carefully. Afterall, I get upset about the way people who have not really read Barth characterise him...

Friday, July 10, 2009

A new job for Francis Collins

The New York Times reports President Obama has nominated Francis Collins to be the next director of the National Institutes for Health. Collins was formerly the director of the Human Genome Project and recently founded the Biologos Foundation.

The NIH distributes $30-billion a year in federal money, making it the single largest source of funding for scientific research in the USA.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

I don't know

I am quite comfortable giving this answer to many theological and scientific questions. Why shouldn't I be? There are so many things we do not understand and what I personally do not understand is an even longer list....

How do we reconcile free will with predestination?
Why does God allow suffering?
Why do the evil sometimes prosper?
When is war just and right?
Should Christians support capital punishment?
What happens to people who have never heard the Gospel?

It is fine (and to some extent good and appropriate) to wrestle with questions such as these. But part of the life of faith is accepting that I will never have completely satisfactory answers and trusting God anyway...

Living with both certainty and ambiguity and confusion is something I do as a scientist which helps me live in a similar way as a Christian.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bella: true love goes beyond romance (and sex)

Last night my wife and I watched the movie Bella, one of the most highly rated movies of 2007. I strongly recommend it. It is a very moving portrayal of life: treasuring it, saving it, enjoying it, and living it. The cinematography is beautiful, particularly capturing the hustle and bustle of New York City and the hardness (and tenderness) of some of its residents. The relationships are warm and intense. It is a great argument for the importance of family and simple acts of kindness.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A test of faith to be launched at The Royal Society

The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge will launch a new video Test of Faith (the trailer can be viewed here) at The Royal Society London next monday July 13th. The launch will feature a talk by one of the contributors to the documentary Professor Sir John Polkinghorne FRS. Other contributors include Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, and Sir John Houghton.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Can the Bible help evaluate new technologies?

The previous post about theoblogging prompted me to think more about Christians evaluating technologies. It seems to me that almost all technologies are morally neutral. The question is how we put them to use. What potential do they have for good? for evil?

It is striking to me that most of the criticisms of theoblogging that are given in the comments section of Ben Myers post (n.b. the irony of people using blogs to spread the message that theoblogging is bad!) can be made of most media: books, sermons, conversations at church, Christian TV, DVD's, websites, sermons downloaded from blogs,....

All media have their strengths and weakness, limitations and problems for theological discourse. I don't think the most important issues with blogs are necessarily that different from other media. The real issue is how people use these different media and what mix they use and in what context.

I should stress that I am far from advocating a "laissez faire" attitude or trying to minimise or ignore problems associated with theoblogging. Some might consider me a bit of a "ludditte". My family does not have a TV. I am not an active mobile phone user. I get the bus to work and walk home. I don't pick up the phone in my office if I am meeting with someone. ..... But, these are purely lifestyle decisions based on what I think works best for me personally.

The broader issues of superficiality, tribalism, lack of accountability, and poor content are not particularly new or unique. But, the Bible does provide a framework in which to consider them. Consider for example what the Bible says about speech and about money:
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

James 4:7-12
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

1 Timothy 6:10
On a related issue some might be interested in a post on my work blog, Think twice before you send that email!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Theoblogging at its best?

Last night, at the AA-CC conference, Ben Myers gave a really stimulating presentation, "Theology 2.0: Blogging as theological discourse". What was fascinating for me was to hear the paper and just now to read the blog post (AND the following 17 comments) he wrote last week as he was preparing the talk. I could really see how the quality and depth of the paper was arguably enhanced by feedback he received before the talk.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The balancing act

Today I am giving a short talk at the AA-CC conference (to an audience of theologians and Christian academics) on Balancing research, teaching, administration, family, church, rest,...

I am thinking of making the following points:
  • Accept your creatureliness and mortality
  • Set clear and realistic goals
  • Just say NO!
  • Use tools such as google calendar to manage your time.
  • Plan the week together with your wife (if married).
  • Read books such as Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
  • Empower your staff (if you supervise others).
  • Block out times for specific tasks
  • Don't get isolated.
  • In teaching and research get a mentor.
  • Protect your mental health.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Calvin's theology shaped his involvement in education

At the AA-CC conference last night Peter Adam, Principal of Ridley College, gave the opening address (after a very nice dinner at Emmanuel College),
Loving and Learning: Calvin's theology and the practice of education.

Peter's talk had three main points, quoting extensively from John Calvin (1509-1564):

1. We are created to love to learn

2. We must learn to love the truth

3. We must love our neighbours as we help them to learn

Calvin was actively involved in promoting education (at every level) and establishing relevant institutions. A major goal was making the Bible accessible to all.

Here are a smattering of notes:

The goal of education is to teach students to learn for themselves (Dorothy L. Sayers).

Calvin considered that a knowledge of the arts and sciences could (in principle) lead to a greater knowledge of God, but because of our sinful nature, it does not.

Today, education and exposition is being overwhelmed by entertainment (Neil Postman).

Teach students to "concentrate, think, evaulate" (John Fowles novel?)

I need to learn to teach others to be learners.

Calvin had respect for whole texts. This is a reason why he reintroduced expository preaching. i.e., preaching systematically through whole books of the Bible.

Our current education system teaches students to answer questions, rather than teaching them how to ask important and relevant questions.

Christians (especially educators) need to recapture the Reformed tradition of using their vocations to "love their neighbour". How?
-love and care for colleagues and students
-respect and accomodate teaching to the needs of students

Respecting human beings requires a respect for their texts.

Calvin was not a man of "just one book" but promoted a broad liberal arts education. A the academy he founded (now the Univeristy of Geneva, the second largest university in Switzerland) theological students attended 37 lectures each week. Several were in the sciences and only 3 were in theology.

Calvin taught the "timeless truths" of the Bible in his local and historical context.
His teaching was contextualised, adapted, applied, and goal-centred.