Tuesday, April 28, 2009

End the University religion department as we know it?

In today's New York Times the most e-mailed article is an Op-ed piece, End the University as we know it, by Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University. The article is worth reading and raises issues worth considering. The opening sentences are provocative:
Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues),
I disagree. I think overall US graduate education is the envy of the world and is one of the most effective institutions in the USA (besides the car industry, compare research universities to health insurance, public schools, immigration, banks, Wall street, welfare, public housing, ....). Most graduates, particularly in science and engineering are highly sought after by industry... (and until recently Wall St.)... There are certainly things to improve. I did a Ph.D in physics at Princeton and am very familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. system. But overall, I think Taylor's views and arguments are coloured by his own experience. He states:
In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
Unfortunately, I fear this may be an apt description of much research that goes on in religion departments. I certainly would not describe research in the physics department at Columbia in these terms. A return to academic theology, in the tradition of Karl Barth, would go a long way towards addressing the problems of irrelevance plaguing religion departments.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The heavens declare the glory of God

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Psalm 19:1 is sometimes used to justify natural theology. However, it needs to be read in the context of the whole Psalm. I have given this talk a few times. The two parts of the Psalm nicely contrast the differences between God's limited revelation through nature and his much clearer revelation through his Word.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Myers and McGrath on natural theology

On his blog, Faith and Theology, Ben Myers has an extremely interesting review of the book associated with Alister McGrath's 2009 Gifford lectures. The comments and Ben's responses are also particularly informative.

The role of Natural theology

This week I hear a nice talk by Andrew Brown at UniBible Talks on 1 Corinthians 2. This together with the hospitalisation of Stephen Hawking prompted thoughts about natural theology. How much knowledge of God is available to all human beings without recourse to faith and special revelation? This issue is often intensely debated by those with an interest in the relationship between the natural sciences and theology. Earlier this year I read a nice article, "Karl Barth and the legitimacy of natural theology" by Rodney Holder (now at the Faraday Institute, Cambridge). It drew a critical response by John McDowell (who is now the Foundation Professor of Theology at the University of Newcastle, Australia; I am really looking forward to meeting him).

A key issue is the exegesis of Romans 1:19-20:
19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.
which is often used (along with Psalm 19:1) to justify natural theology. Holder makes an important point which I think is often overlooked by advocates of natural theology:
"In Romans 1:19ff also, we read that human beings are without excuse because they could know God from creation, but in practice turned to idols and perversion. There is natural knowledge of God, but God's revelation in Christ is essential for salvation."
This is clearer when one reads the above verses in context:
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Thus, sin corrupts our ability to reason and so from what is revealed in nature it is not possible (without a redeemed mind) to know the real truth about God.

As an aside, Holder mentions an article, "Natural theology in Paul? Reading Romans 1:19-20" by Douglas Campbell that I need to read.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The laws of thermodyamics in my family

So what are these laws C.P. Snow said we should all know? A couple of years ago my daughter gave me framed version of this which sits on my office desk and often attracts attention from visitors.

The McKenzie family law's of thermodynamics.

1. The more energy the kids have the less energy the parents have.

2. If you don't clean up your room it just gets messier and messier.

3. The McKenzie house will never be completely clean. Even if it does almost reach the state of complete cleanliness but before it does it will always get messed up again.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How educated are you or what culture are you from?

"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question -- such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? -- not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had."

C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Who will be the Master?

In a lecture on C.S. Lewis and scientism, Fritz Schaefer recommends reading the novel The Masters, by C.P. Snow for insights into the internal politics within Oxbridge colleges. I finally read it on my most recent holiday. The novel is part of a series, Strangers and Brothers, chronicling the life experience of Lewis Eliot as over course of several decades he moves from law office to university to industry to government. Some of the series parallels Snow’s own diverse life experience: he began his professional life as a molecular physicist, turned to writing novels, and eventually became a Baron and held high positions in the U.K. government. He is probably best known for his 1950 Rede lectures: The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. ( A book I really want to re-read).
The novel, the Masters, describes the political struggle amongst Fellows in a Cambridge College as they position, posture, and politic in anticipation of the election of the next Master of the college, while they wait for the current Master to die, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Snow is perceptive about human nature and paints an intimate portrait of his characters. Here is a random selection (page numbers are from the Penguin 1983 edition):
“I had known for miutes past, that this was coming: I had not wanted to talk of it that nigh. Jago was longing for me to say that he ought to be the next Master, that my own mind was made up, that I should vote from him. Had had longed for me to say it without promopting. It was anguish to him to make the faintiest hint without repsonde. Yet he was impelled to go on, he could not spotp. It haradssed me to see this proud man humiliating himself.” (p. 15)
The Master says, “Do you remember the trouble we had getting him [Calvert] elected [as a Fellow of the College], Eliot? Some of our friends show a singular instinct for preferring mediocrity. Like elects like of course. Or between me and you,” he whispered, “dull men elect dull men.” (p. 20)
Nightingale “was intensely suspicious, certain that there was a web of plans from which he would lose and others gain….. He had once possessed great promise. That was his bitterness. … By twenty-three he had written two good papers on molecular structure… but the spark burnt out… Often he had new conceptions: but the power to execute them had escaped from him. ……It would have been bitter to the most generous heart. In Nightingales’s it made him fester with envy…. Each job in the college for which he was passed over, he saw with intense suscpicion as a sign of the conspiracy directed against him…… as March came round each year, he waited for the announcement of the Royal Society elections in expectation, in anguish, in bitter suspicousness…” (p.46,47)
“Chrystal wanted to be no more than Dean, but he wanted the Dean, in this little empire of the college, to be known as a man of poer. Less subltle, less freflective, more immediate than his friend [Brown], he needed the moment-by-moment sensation of power. He needed to feel that he was listened to, ……, that his word was obeyed.” (p.61)
This is both comical and tragic. It shows the vanities and trivialities that academics (and maybe anyone in any close community) can become so absorbed with. Unfortunately, it also portrays accurately how often administrative decisions (including some very important ones) in universities are often not made with the same rational detached objectivity and impartiality that we would like to claim we apply in our scholarship.

Who will be the next Master?

"Sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” Genesis 4:6

"For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under lawy, but under grace.” Romans 6:14

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The importance of being wrong!

One of the sermons at our church last year had quite an impact on our family. In many social, family, and professional contexts "being right" and winning arguments is incredibly important to most people. Admitting we are wrong just is not an option. Yet the Gospel goes against this. After all, repentance is admitting we are wrong and radically changing course. But the Gospel even goes further. Even when we may be sure we are right, we should not necessarily push points to the limit, especially when it is detrimental to relationships. The verse we were really challenged by is 1 Corinthians 6:7,
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged?
As an aside it is interesting that some of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century have been willing to change their minds and reject positions that they previously held. Several examples that come to mind are Karl Barth, Anthony Flew, and Hilary Putnam.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Jesus vs. the Easter bunny

I saw this item on Brisbane's newspaper website.
I hope you believe this really is the first time I have read that blog!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Conference on the church and the academy

I am really looking forward to the first Annual Australasian Conference for the Church and the Academy (AACC) to be held at the University of Queensland on 30th June-3rd July. Its goal is to stimulate research and publication by evangelical christian academics. The AACC has two Tracks. Track 1 provides biblical and theological scholars with an opportunity to present research in the areas of biblical studies, systematic theology, ethics and church history. Track 2 provides a forum for academics working in the Humanities, Sciences and Engineering to explore issues at the intersection of Christianity and their specific discipline. I hope to see you there!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Barth on Easter Sunday

Just after World War II, Karl Barth gave a series of lectures in the semi-ruins of a castle in Bonn, in which the University was being re-established. Each lecture gives a detailed exposition of a phrase from the Apostles Creed. This was later published as Dogmatics in Outline.
Today I re-read chapter 19, ``The third day he rose again from the dead,''. An extract:

the Easter message ... is a proclamation of a victory already won. The war is at an end - even though here and there are troops still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet of the capitulation.... The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though .... the battle were not fought, we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them anymore. If you have heard the Easter message you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humourless existence of a man who has no hope... only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the victor.

K. Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, (SCM, 2001 Edition), p.114

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dreams from my father

My dear wife, Robin (an American) bought me this autobiography, Dreams from My Father: a story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama, published in 1995, before he entered politics. I loved it. It is a beautifully written and engaging account of Obama's struggle to define his identity. Obama barely knew his Kenyan father, while being brought up by a white mother and grandparents in multi-cultural Hawaii. It is fascinating to read of his experience as a community organizer and activist on the south side of Chicago and the story of how he came to a personal faith and joined a church.

Because of Obama's personal history and struggle he has significant empathy with the needy and down-trodden, he is secure in himself, he honestly sees politics as a means to serve others and make a difference (rather than as a vehicle for self fulfilment), he sees churches as playing a key role in developing communities and being agents of social change, and he is not sympathetic to simplistic ideological "solutions" to deep seated social problems such as poverty and racism.

I found it incredibly encouraging (and still a little unbelievable) that this guy is now president of the U.S.A! A helpful and interesting 1995 review, A Promise of Redemption, of the book is in the New York Times. Finally, the book underscores the significant role that fathers (both present and absent) play in our lives. I consider myself blessed that when my father died last year, I was able to give the eulogy at his funeral. Preparing the text really helped me come to terms with who he was, who I am, and all the joys, blessings, disappointments, and regrets of our relationship.

A theology of Led Zeppelin?

As a teenager, a song me and my friends played again and again was the Led Zeppelin classic, "A stairway to heaven." I had no clue what it was about. On his Faith and Theology blog Ben Myers has a great post. Ben provides a great Christian example of being able to enjoy popular culture, but also graciously critique it, and beware of its dangers and failings.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Why history does (and does not) matter?

In the preface to the first edition of Der Romerbrief (1918) [which has been described as a hand grenade lobbed into the world of academic theology!], Karl Barth began:
Paul, as a child of his age, addressed his contemporaries. It is, however, far more important that, as Prophet and Apostle of the Kingdom of God, her veritably speaks to all men of very age. The differences between then and now, there and here, no doubt require careful investigation and consideration. But the purpose of such investigation can only be to demonstrate that these differences are, in fact, purely trivial.
The historical-critical method of Biblical investigation has its rightful place…. But, were I driven to choose between it and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper, more important justification. The doctrine of Inspiration is concerned with the labour of apprehending, without which no technical equipment, however complete, is of any use whatever. Fortunately, I am not compelled to choose between the two. Nevertheless, my whole energy of interpreting has been expended in an endeavour to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit.

Some things are very different today than two thousand years ago and even twenty years ago. Whether, it is the internet, medicine, the end of the cold war, postmodernism, global warming, crime, divorce, ..... we live in an era of rapid change. But, we should not lose sight of the fact that who we are (our humanity, our sinfulness, our creativity, our sexuality, our desire for relationships and community,...) has not changed in two thousand years. And who God is has not changed either. These are the issues that the Bible speaks to in a timeless manner.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What do we really know?

A video and book that has received considerable attention
over the past few years is What the bleep do we know?
The protagonist, Amanda, played by Marlee Matlin, finds herself in a fantastic Alice in Wonderland experience when her daily, uninspired life literally begins to unravel, revealing the uncertain world of the quantum field hidden behind what we consider to be our normal, waking reality.
The video contains a strange mix of quantum physics, pop psychology, and new Age mysticism. A main thesis of the video is that there is a connection between
quantum physics (Schrodinger's cat and all that), and how we think. Indeed, by thinking quantum thoughts we can create our own quantum reality and control our destiny. Since I am interested in science and theology several people had recommended it to me. A teacher at my daughter's school was enthralled with it, and encouraging students to watch it. When I finally watched the video I was alarmed. It completely misunderstands and misrepesents quantum physics. (The macroscopic quantum coherent (Schrodinger cat) states it claims to exist will be destroyed by decoherence within less than a millionth of millionth of a millionth of a second...). None of the scientists interviewed in the movie is actually a bona fide quantum physicist (i.e., someone who regularly publishes research papers in international refereed journals).
Recently some colleagues and I published a detailed scientific critique of some of the key ideas of Stuart Hameroff (featured in the video) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). You can read his response here.

So what do we know? There are many things we don't understand. Quantum physics and consciousness are both strange and poorly understood. However, that does not mean they are related. There is a reality which is independent of what I think about it (a major theme in Barth's theology). How I think can have a significant effect on my perception of that reality, but it won't change that reality. This is psychology, but has nothing to do with quantum physics. Weird quantum effects such as interference, wave-particle duality, entanglement, tunneling, occur at the microscopic level (i.e., involving atoms and molecules) but do NOT occur with macroscopic objects such as basketballs and brains.

Good holiday listening

I am looking foward to hearing a live performance of
St. John's Passion, composed by J.S. Bach, this coming friday.
This week I am on holidays with my family at Bribie Island (this is where the photo in my blogger profile was taken! The dog is the family pet, Elsie). I am enjoying
listening to a CD recording of the English translation. Bach had such a rich and profound theological and Biblical knowledge that he was able to illuminate in such an emotionally engaging way by setting it to music. The narrative of Jesus arrest, trial, and crucifixion alternates with chorus describing our response to these events. It begins:

Sire, Lord and Master, unto thee be praise
and glory evermore. Ah, by thy loving sacfific, thou, Lord, the only Son of God, are risen on high from deepest woe and bittter pain, triumphant over death.

A great testimony to human creativity and expression. But as Bach, signed the score SDG (soli deo gloria).

Friday, April 3, 2009

An Easter egg? Can we believe the "impossible"?

I was recently asked to give a short talk to a ecumenical Easter service for a group of children at a local primary school (grades 1-7). Here is my talk:

Just because something is hard to believe does not mean it isn't true. My experience as a scientist tells me that. Many scientific discoveries have been unexpected, surprising, and going against what people thought was common sense.

At Easter Christians celebrate the death and the resurrection of Jesus. But did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is that possible?
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. Jesus said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26)

I then did 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.

What does this have to do with Easter? Next Friday we have a holiday to celebrate Good Friday. Even though Jesus died we call it Good because Jesus died on our behalf. He died so we could be forgiven for all our sins (for all the many ways we have ignored and disobeyed God). He died so we could have the offer of the free gift of eternal life. But he didn’t just die. On Easter Sunday we celebrate his resurrection. Jesus conquered death, came to life and appeared to many eyewitnesses, and now lives forever.

So on Easter Sunday when you are eating all your yummy chocolate eggs think about this egg. 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 we know 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.