Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Heal the sick and bind up the broken hearted

On Mike Bird's blog there has been some interesting discussion about a Christian perspective on the question of the government providing health care.
One issue that gets debated is about the quality of the current US system versus government systems elsewhere in the world.
I thought I might add my own limited personal experience and perspective. My wife is from the US and I lived for 10 years in the US. We had one child in the US and one in Australia. I would be the first to acknowledge that the US has the best university system in the world and that Australia's health care system has serious problems. Hence, I am not America bashing!

However, I find claims that the US health care system is the best in the world debatable, even for middle class families. When we had our first child in the US most decisions did not appear to be motivated by what would be best for the mother and baby, but rather what procedures and practises would minimise the chance of litigation (e.g., unneccessary proceduces and precautions), what could make the hospital money (e.g., billing for unnecessary services and products), save the insurance company money (e.g., discharge from hospital after 24 hours, incredibly breif consultations with the obstetrician where she stood with her hand on the door knob the whole time!) . Having the second child in Australia was completely different and so much more laid back.

The above issues only pertain to the efficiency and quality of the provision of health care to middle class families. The much more serious questions and issues are those about access and quality of health care for the poor and uninsured.

"The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them."

Ezekiel 34:4 (English Standard Version)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Can Hollywood make history?

Given that I think there is a paucity of good movies, I like to post about any good ones I see.
My family just watched Thirteen Days, a Hollywood production, staring Kevin Costner, about the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

A natural question about such a movie is, how accurate is it historically? For an answer, I found a helpful and balanced piece, by Ernest May, a Harvard Professor, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, drawing on secret White House tapes JFK made.

May concludes:
Thirteen Days is not a substitute for history. No one should see the movie expecting to learn exactly what happened. But the film comes close enough to truth that I will not be unhappy if it is both a big success now and a video store staple for years to come, with youths in America and around the world getting from it their first impressions of what was probably the greatest international crisis in all of human experience.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The miracle and mystery of Christmas

Here is a talk, A Scientist looks at the miracle and mystery of Christmas, that I gave two years ago to a group of parents at a school Gingerbread House making event.

I have a wonderful wife who is enthusiastic about my merits and accomplishments. (This week was our nineteenth anniversary!). The other day she told me I really should post the talk here.

Some of the main ideas in the talk, included in the title were inspired by Karl Barth's discussion of Christmas in chapter 14 of Dogmatics in Outline, which he summarises (in his usual dense prose):
The truth of the conception of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirt and of His birth of the Virgin Mary points to the true Incarnation of the true God achieved in His historical manifestation, and recalls the special form through which this beginning of the divine act of grace and revelation, that occurred in Jesus Christ, was distinguished from other human events.

The nativity painting below was painted by Bruegel in 1564.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The role of research in theological colleges II

I sent my previous post on this topic to several colleagues in theological colleges asking for their perspective. Geoff Thompson sent me some very thoughtful comments, which I reproduce below (with his permission, stressing these are just his own private views). I found Geoff's perspective particularly helpful.
Theologians engaging in research commit themselves to certain protocols of argument which are often absent from the populist theological debates which occur in the church. Involvement in research is, at the very least, a commitment to the academy’s culture of debate where protocols such as the following would (hopefully) apply: the sifting and weighing up of evidence, a humility to see the weaknesses in one's own position and to be corrected by one's critics, care in the construction of arguments, a willingness to employ persuasion rather than dogmatism, and (therefore) a refusal to be dominated by the immediate. All in all, this ought to produce an expectation that if you have something to say, it needs to be well-grounded (in whatever sources/evidence happen to apply) and said both well and with conviction.

Obviously, that might reflect a rather romanticised view of the academy but at its best I think the academy still stands for some such values and practices.

Sometimes theological discussion in the churches is illuminating and inspiring. Generally, however, the culture of theological discussion in the churches has little patience with the kinds of protocols noted above. It is frequently reactive, often trapped in denominational and geographical parochialism, and seldom well-informed. It is often driven by the pragmatic and the contingent, and is thereby distanced from any patient quest for the truth which intentionally draws on a larger horizon of theological wisdom. All of this is intensified by the underlying theological and biblical illiteracy which characterises so much contemporary Christianity.

Of course, for an alternative model to be recognised and appreciated, it would be necessary to break through the prevailing culture. The work and witness of the research-oriented theologian might not of itself be sufficient to effect that break through. Nevertheless, a research-strong faculty might become something of a benchmark within the life of the church for more patient and theologically-richer discussions within the church at large.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Scientists discover atheist gene!

I am waiting to see such a headline.

The Times (London) has a silly article, "You are born to believe in God," about the latest "research" that "shows" that people can't control their irrational tendencies and just have to believe in God..... The artilce makes dubious claims such as:
Such work is supported by other researchers who have found evidence linking religious feelings and experience to particular regions of the brain. They suggest people are programmed to get a feeling of spirituality from what is nothing more than electrical activity in these regions.
One could also say:

"Atheist thoughts are just nothing more than electrical activity in certain "rational" parts of the brain."

"William Wilberforce's passion to end slavery was really nothing more than electrical activity in certain "compassionate" parts of his brain."

"Terrorists anger and hatred is really nothing more than electrical activity in their brain".

So why don't these "scientists" make such claims?

This is reductionism and speculation run amok. Let us not consider this as real science.

All that glitters is not good

Previously, I wrote a post about the wonderful movie Bella. I just came across this interesting article in The Times (London) about the handsome male star, Eduardo Verastegui"Mexico's Brad Pitt," who is forsaking the trappings of Hollywood in order to live out his Christian convictions.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Being and becoming

The sermon at church this morning was entitled, "Holiness: Being and Becoming." The texts were Exodus 19:1-6 and Romans 6. Last week we look at the holiness of God: he is set apart and morally perfect. We are not. But in Christ, we are holy and perfect, in God's sight. But despite this position/status/qualification, we do not experience life that way and we are called to live holy lives in accordance with our position.

Being: we are holy in God's sight.
Becoming: God is making us holy as we co-operate with him.

Clearly, there are some "logical" tensions and paradoxes here, similar to those I have discussed before about free will and predestination.

I could not but think of two scholarly books which also have similar titles and are not completely unrelated.

From Being to Becoming, is a book about the foundations of physics by Ilya Prigogine, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977. He considered that determinism was not a valid scientific or philosophical position because of the subtleties associated with irreversibility and chaos. Furthermore, he considered that the question of the relation between Being and Becoming was "the central problem of Western ontology." He also discussed these ideas in a popular book, Order out of Chaos.

The second book is Becoming and Being: the Doctrine of God in Karl Barth and Charles Hartshorne by Colin Gunton, one of the most influential English theologians of the second half of the twentieth century. It is an expansion of his Oxford D. Phil thesis.

I mention these books just to illustrate how these questions do not have simple resolutions.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The faithfulness of God

At the end of World War II in a bombed out German seminary, Karl Barth gave a series of lectures, expositing the Apostles Creed, later published as Dogmatics in Outline.

With the holocaust fresh in his mind, Barth asked:
Do you know the story in which the significance of the Jewish nation is best summarised? Frederick the Great [a Prussian emperor in the 18th century] asked his personal physician, Zimmermann: ‘“Zimmermann, can you name me a single proof of the existence of God?” And Zimmermann replied, “Your majesty, the Jews!”’ ..... Hundreds of little nations in the Near East have disappeared, ....., and this one tiny nation has maintained itself. For in the person of the Jew there stands a witness before our eyes, the witness of God's covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and in that way with us all.....

Repeating the history of the mistakes of historical criticism

Why should we be skeptical about the nineteenth century historical criticism of the Bible that led to liberal theology?

In Theology of the Old Testament, Bruggemann, writes (page 47):
In order to understand the crisis of biblical theology at the end of the twentieth century, we must pause to understand what was entailed in this singular preoccupation with the historical, as it enthrallled Old Testament scholarship. It is best perhaps to recognize Hegel's articulation of "absolute history", which reflected a convinced Eurocentric view of all human reality. That is, history, in any practical reckoning, consisted in European history and reflected the uncritical hegemony of the writers of that history. Two other facets of history are readily noted in the work of Old Testament scholarship in the nineteenth century. First, history was considered as moving in a single, developmental line, again reflective of a hegemonic perspective. Second, in a mood of positivism it was widely believed that an objective investigation could recover history "as it happened," with no ambiguity. And indeed, there need be no interpretive playfulness about "what it meant".
I hate to say it, but this does help me understand better how in such an intellectual climate many theologians could end up supporting Hitler.

It also seems how some conservatives today are letting these "historical" preoccupations set the agenda for their reading and interpretation of scripture.

Brueggemann then starts to discuss the value (and some limitations) or sociological approaches and rhetorical criticism. However, much of this seems to be making the same reductionist mistake: trying to reduce theology (or at least Biblical scholarship) to a different discipline (history, sociology, literature, ...). But, as Barth emphasized, the subject under study (the triune God whose revelation Scripture bears testimony to), by its very nature, is not amenable to
such reductionism.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Bill of Rights or a Bill of Responsibilities?

In Australia there is considerable public debate about whether we should have a Bill of Rights in addition our constitution. I wonder why there is not also a discussion about a Bill of Responsibilities?

On his blog, Ben Myers has a really nice post On Calvin, Hobbes, and rights. Here are some extracts:
Early modern politics took up one particular thread from Calvin’s thought – not his overarching vision of a rightly ordered society, but instead his “minor theme” of the subjective rights of citizens. In the history of political thought, this doctrine of subjective rights – rights that I possess, rights that are my entitlement – produces an increasingly individualising understanding of politics. Politics becomes more and more a contest between competing individual freedoms and rights. My relation to society is defined no longer in terms of our mutual responsibilities and obligations, but in terms of what society owes me as a private individual.

I think the extraordinary expansion in recent years of a culture of litigation in western societies is simply a further step in this direction: my place in society is defined by the rights I possess, by what the rest of society owes me. A society of litigation begins to look frighteningly like what Thomas Hobbes called the bellum omnia contra omnes, the war of everyone against everyone else. This was exactly Hobbes’s point: a society in which everyone asserts their own rights will necessarily descend into violence and chaos; what is needed, Hobbes argued, is the relinquishment of such rights for the sake of a good and peaceable common life.

Regarding subjective “human” rights, I myself think Alasdair MacIntyre is entirely correct: “The truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns…. Natural or human rights … are fictions.” You are not born with rights; you are born into communities and traditions that make such rights possible. Subjective rights, therefore, cannot be the foundation of politics, since these rights can only be the result of a well ordered common life.

In our time, I think a responsible theological reflection on law and politics might still have a lot to learn from Calvin’s understanding of rights. Calvin poses some uncomfortable critical questions to our liberal individualist assumptions; and he might provide a critical resource towards a contemporary theological reconfiguration of the very nature of politics.

What would a political order look like if we understood rights not as inhering naturally in individuals, but as “that which is right” for the order of a society?

In this perspective, the political order is defined in terms of virtue, duty, obligations to one another and to our collective flourishing as a people. Here, my own identity is defined not in terms of what I am owed, but in terms of my obligations and commitments to the whole social order. What I’m inviting you to do here is to re-imagine politics – not as something that arises from the need to preserve individual rights, but as an order designed to establish the basic conditions within which a community of virtue might flourish. In such a society, the fundamental political question would no longer be what are my rights?, but rather, what is right?

Ben also has a follow up post on this topic.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

An invitation to the classics

This morning at church I did a brief book review of An Invitation to the Classics: a guide to books you have always wanted to read, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guiness. Each chapter is a brief introduction to a classic work of Western literature. Authors covered include Plato, Shakespeare, Goethe, Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot, ....
Each chapter is written from a Christian perspective by an expert, has beautiful pictures from classic art, discussion questions, and recommended translations and editions.
I would be a great basis for a book club.

I wonder whether a more realistic (and cynical) subtitle would be "a guide to the books you always felt you should have read or at least have a passing knowledge of".
Even if you don't end reading the actual books, it does provide a very accessible summary. I have found it quite helpful when I have wanted to engage with my kids on the books they are reading for English at school.

Liberating Old Testament scholarship from reductionism

More from Brueggemann's, Theology of the Old Testament (page 28)
Walther Eichrodt seeks to do in Old Testament study what Barth undertook in dogmatic theology, against his liberal antecedents....

Eichrodt's program is to explore how all of the variations and developments of Israel's religion can be seen to be in the service of a single conceptual notion, covenant. It is impossible to overestimate what a singular intellectual achievement this project is.....
....In our current parlance, we might say that Eichrodt polemicises against the categories of modernity that critical study had imposed on the text; these categories feature individualism and autonomoy and resist articulations that are dialogical and therefore complex, ambiguous, and unsettled. The fundamental relatedness of all of reality, which is most charateristic of Israel's faith, makes the Old Testament inimical to the categories of modernity.
As an aside, I found this interesting because it confirms a point (Barth liberated theology from the limitations of reductionism imposed by liberal 19th century theology) I tried to make in my paper, Emergence and reductionism in theology and science, that is forthcoming in the Scottish Journal of Theology.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The rise and fall of historical criticism

I am really enjoying and learning a lot from reading Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, and Advocacy, which I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts. In the first chapter he discusses how Old Testament scholarship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was largely shaped by ideas from Bacon (science), DesCartes (rationalism), Locke (empiricism), and Hegel (history). On the latter he says (page 12):
history had acquired a very different dimension and significance from all previous understandings. First, history had taken on a positivistic character, so that events came to be regarded as completely decipherable, to the exclusion of any inscrutable density. This change entailed that events have a simple, discernible, unambigious meaning from which all mystery can be squeezed out. Second, in the nineteenth century the idea of history as development came to be crucial, so that events came to be seen as progressively arranged in sequence. Events without inscrutable density but with progressive sequencing leave nothing for theology to do. And so history could and did become an autonomous enteriprise, without reference to any larger or coded significance.
He credits Barth's publication of Der Romerbrief in 1919 with the recovery of Theological Interpretation of not just the New Testament, but also the Old.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Reconciliation: past, present, and future

A story [maybe apocryphal?] is that Karl Barth told Billy Graham that he should not be telling people to "Be reconciled to God" but rather than "You are reconciled to God."

To illustrate these issues, it is interesting to just focus on one verse, Romans 5:10, and see how it includes past, present, and future tenses:
10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
I take this as a caution to not be too rigid in my thinking about these profound issues, and particularly not importing "logic" from other areas of life and thought.

John Webster has said that a significant achievement of Karl Barth's Doctrine of Creation is that he liberated the doctrine from a pre-occupation with questions of causality. This preoccupation was arguably due to the influence of scientific concepts, from both Newton and Darwin. In science, (well at least in Newtonian mechanics) notions of causality (i.e., cause and effect) are well defined, meaningful, and helpful. But are they here?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A peaceful death for a famous scientist

Sir William Perkin (1838-1907) became famous for (accidentally) discovering the first organic dye, mauveine and then producing it in industrial proportions.
[This is of some interest to me because as some of my research involves using quantum physics to understand why such dyes have the colour that they do and how they can be used in LED's and solar cells...]

I was just browsing in the U. Washington bookstore [I am giving a theoretical chemistry seminar there tomorrow] and stumbled across a nice book,
Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World, by Simon Garfield (Faber, 2000).

Perkin was a Christian, active in a Wembley Anglican parish church and a generous supporter of various educational and mission activities. [In the 1860s Perkin started an inter-denominational church for his German workers in an old barn. In 1875 he paid for this to be replaced by a hall in Harrow Road, the New Hall].

Pages 136-137 describes Perkin on his death bed, aged 67:
Near the end, Lady Perkin told her husband that they must be separated for a time. According to The Christian newsletter, his reply was: 'May you have much of the joy of the Lord.' An attendant then told him, `Sir William, you will soon hear the "Well done, good and faithful servant"' Perkin observed: "The children are in Sunday School. Give them my love, and tell them always to trust Jesus.' He then let out the first verse of the hymn `When I Survey the Wondrous Cross', and when he reached the last line, 'And pour contempt on all my pride', he said, 'Proud? Who could be proud?'

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A lawyer speaks the truth

Just in case, because of my last post, readers may think I don't like or respect any lawyers. I draw your attention to a moving and challenging article, Three gifts for hard times in Christianity today, by William J. Stuntz, a Professor at Harvard Law School. In the midst of incredible personal suffering and pain, he describes three lessons:
  • God usually doesn't remove life's curses. Instead, he redeems them.
  • Amazing as the greatest of all gifts is, God the Son does more than save sinners. Jesus' life and death also change the character of suffering, give it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty.
  • Our God remembers even his most forgettable children.
Other Choice quotes include:
In the Bible, remembrance usually combines two meanings: first, holding the one who is remembered close in the heart, and second, acting on the memory. When God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember that he brought them out of Egypt, he is saying much more than "get your history right." A better paraphrase would go like this: "Remember that I have loved you passionately. Remember that I have acted on that love. Hold tight to that memory, and act on it too."
Philosophers and scientists and law professors (my line of work) are not in the best position to understand the Christian story.....

Friday, September 4, 2009

Imperfect human justice

I am on holidays (vacation for US readers) in the San Juan Islands of Washington state, the home of my lovely wife. Yesterday, we saw a seal eating a salmon. This morning we spent a restful time kayaking around a bay.

My holiday reading is The Associate by John Grisham. I am a big fan of his legal thrillers, but have a real dislike of his attempts at other genre's. It is amazing how Grisham paints parts of the legal profession (particularly corporate lawyers) in such a terrible light. I am struck by how dehumanising many big practices are and how so much youthful energy, idealism, and talent of top law school graduates gets wasted on dubious ventures. The novels highlight greed, infantile macho competition, deceit, arrogance, ....
The law is meant to protect the weak and punish evil. Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes it is used instead to protect the powerful and evil from being punished.

My favourite Grisham novel is The Testament, in which the protagonist, a hard-drinking lawyer becomes a Christian.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Will scientific truth set you free?

Max Delbruck (1906-1981) started his career as a physicist but switched to biology, and shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contributions to genetics.

About 20 years ago I heard a speaker refer to a commencement (i.e., graduation ceremony) address by Delbruck at Caltech in 1978, entitled the Arrow of Time: Beginning and End. I always wanted to track down a copy and a few years ago via a web searchI was delighted when I found that Delbruck's son Tobi has a site with an annotated copy of the original text of the address.
It is really worth a read. A particularly fascinating aspect of the address is where Delbruck deconstructs the Caltech motto, "The truth shall set you free," pointing out how the Caltech founders took this saying of Jesus completely out of context. Overall, Delbruck gives a balanced view of what science can and cannot do.