Sunday, June 28, 2009

Emergence and reductionism in the dialogue between science and theology

At the AA-CC conference I am giving a talk, The interplay of emergence and reduction: implications for the science-theology dialogue. Here is the current version of the slides. It is based on a paper that will appear in the Scottish Journal of Theology.

Balancing specialisation with the big picture

Due to a committee responsibility I am being forced to think more about research in theological colleges. Why is research important? What kind of research should colleges encourage and support? How is this best done?

Leigh Trevaskis recommended to me a Forum piece at the Society for Biblical Literature, with Michael Bird and Craig Keener, The Case for Generalist Scholars in Biblical Scholarship.

The article is a nice succinct summary of the importance of balancing specialisation with the broader context.
I would only add a couple of points.

* this balance is important in any area of scholarship, particularly in the sciences. I say this as someone who might be called a generalist working at the interface of physics, chemistry, and materials science.

* it is stated, "historically many of the scholars of anicient or modern times with the greatest impact have been generalists" and several are listed.
Surely, Karl Barth should be on that list. I would contend that he was a generalist and that his influence extended way beyond dogmatic theology to Biblical studies. For example, read Brueggemann's introduction to his Old Testament theology.

*Six concrete practical suggestions are made as to how younger scholars can achieve the healthy balance. One suggestion I would add is:

Talk to colleagues in different areas.
Go to seminars and conferences in different areas.
Organise and attend conferences that cover a range of topics and areas (not just say textual and cultural approaches to the New Testament) : theological, historical, Old Testament and New Testament. This is a very efficient way to get "up to speed" on areas outside your specialisation.

Some of these broader considerations are behind the program at this weeks AA-CC conference.

Evangelical Biblical scholarship: the legacy of F.F. Bruce

As a prelude to the AA-CC conference this week I enjoyed reading this post on Mike Bird's excellent blog, F.F. Bruce on evangelical scholarship.

F.F. Bruce was clearly a model Christian academic, with a commitment to Christ and to:

* intellectual integrity and real scholarship
* engagement with the secular university
* mentoring a new generation of scholars

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Looking forward to Elijah

Jesus said:
"To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? 13But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him."
Mark 9:12

This mornings listening was the end of Mendelssohn's Elijah. In the libretto below I intersperse some relevant Biblical references/allusions:

Then did Elijah the prophet break forth like a fire; his words appeared like burning torches. Mighty kings by him were overthrown. He stood on the mount of Sinai and heard the judgments of the future, and in Horeb its vengeance. And when the Lord would take him away to heaven, lo! There came a fiery chariot with fiery horses, and he went by a whirlwind to heaven.
[2 Kings 2]

Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in their heavenly Father's realm. Joy on their head shall be for everlasting, and all sorrow and mourning shall flee away for ever.
[Revelation 21:4]

Behold, God hath sent Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children unto their fathers; lest the Lord shall come and smite the earth with a curse.
[Malachi 4:5,6; These are the last verses in the Old Testament]

But the Lord from the North hath raised one, who from the rising of the sun shall call upon His Name and come on princes. Behold, my servant and mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth! On him the spirit of God shall rest: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of might and of counsel, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord: ‘I have raised one from the North, who from the rising, on My Name shall call.’
[Isaiah 9]

O come everyone that thirsteth, O come to the waters: O come unto Him. O hear, and your souls shall live for ever.
[Isaiah 55:1, John 7:37]

And then shall your light break forth as the light of morning breaketh: and your health shall speedily spring forth then: and the glory of the Lord ever shall reward you.
Lord, our Creator. how excellent Thy Name is in all the nations! Thou fillest heaven with Thy glory. Amen.
[Psalm 37:6, Isaiah 58:8]

The painting is by Pieter Pauwel Rubens, The Prophet Elijah Receiving Bread and Water from an Angel. It was painted between 1625 and 1628.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A famous Queensland scientist

Peter Doherty won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996.

[He also graduated from Indooropilly High School (a few blocks from my house) and the University of Queensland (where I work) and he made his prize-winning discoveries at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU (where my father worked for almost 30 years)].

An article/interview with Doherty in The Australian newspaper stated:
He said it continued to surprise him that there remained "a lot of confusion" about science and religion. "Scientists can be very arrogant, and religious people don't often get what science is. But being a committed Christian and being a scientist is not mutually exclusive." ’
The Australian, August 27, 2005

C.S. Lewis on the basis of his atheism

"You will understand that my rationalism [atheism] was inevitably based on what I believed to be the findings of the sciences and those findings, not being a scientist, I had to take on trust, in fact, on authority."

C. S. Lewis
Surprised by Joy, p. 168
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Revised edition (November, 1995)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The deaf will hear and the blind will see

On saturday I went to a production of the play, The Miracle Worker, about Helen Keller. It centers on the period when Helen was 8 years old and first meets Annie Sullivan, who became her tutor and eventually lifelong companion. Helen was blind and deaf from 18 months old, and so when the play starts is unable to communicate with the outside world. Her parents pity for her and bewilderment at this incredibly difficult and painful situation has resulted in Helen becoming completely out of control. Annie introduces "tough love" to discipline Helen so she can start to learn to communicate. The big breakthrough occurs when Helen learns that for each object she encounters in the world there is a corresponding word for which Annie teaches her the corresponding hand sign.

It was a fantastic production from Crossbow Productions. I really enjoyed and was challenged by their previous productions: Anne of the Thousand Days and Mrs Klein.

It was a good reminder that there are many people in our world who struggle with basic things (e.g., hearing and seeing) that I take for granted. Most activity in the world excludes them.
Signing was incorporated beautifully in the performance so that the deaf in the audience could follow AND enhanced the actual experience for others.

After each performance Crossbow conduct a "symposium" where audience members can give feedback and ask questions of some of the actors. This time was particularly effective because the deaf (and one blind!) members of the audience gave feedback about how much they were moved. Caroline Beck, one of the actresses, recently completed a Ph.D at UQ on the role of these symposia in helping engage audiences in theatre.

There were various illusions to God and Annie demanding "a resurrection" of her dead brother? but I struggled to integrate this into my understanding.

The wikipedia entry on Helen Keller and the New York Times obituary that it references are worth reading.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Establishing the boundary of water and land

I am slowly and intermittently reading through Karl Barth's, Church Dogmatics, vol 3.1, The Doctrine of Creation.

Today I read some of his exegesis of Genesis 1:9-10:
And God said, "Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
Barth argues this is concerned with much more than the real material world of water and land but with the sovereignty and immeasurable greatness of God, is a presentation of the grace in virtue of which God sustains and protects man for Himself and His purposes for him, and of the patience of God by which man is constantly upheld. If the processes and relationships of nature are to all appearance the primary things considered in this and the other passages, it must be added at once that the primary things which they really have in view are not the billows of the Mediteranean Sea, nor the frequently mentioned sand of the Palestinian shore which forms its boundary, but the miraculous passage of Israel through the Red Sea, as depicted in Exodus 14 and frequently extolled in later writings (cf. Isiaish 43:6f, Psalm 106:9, etc.), and its repetition at Israels' entrance into the land promised to their forefathers.
It is the same sovereign YHWH who brought the universe into existence, who parts the Red Sea and the Jordan River.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Order out of chaos

The doctrine of creation shows how God brings order out of chaos and something out of nothing. Things are not as we or the Bablyonians perceive them to be. When we see chaos and futility, there may actually be order and purpose. It took centuries for man to realise that there is an underlying order and predictability to the physical world. There is a significant discontinuity between our perceptions and prejudices about the world and the actual reality.

The mathematisation of nature frees us from the limitations of our perceptions and prejudices.
Science only advanced when ``pure reason'' was abandoned and experiment embraced.

Given that the Creator of the creation is not like we might think we should not be surprised that the Creation is also quite different to what we might expect (e.g., quantum weirdness).

What colour is the equator?

A strange question. It is in the book that I am currently reading with my son. The authors ask the question just to make the point that often when reading the Bible we can be asking silly or at least trivial or insignificant questions.

One thing one (hopefully) learns after years of scientific research is that asking the right questions is crucial to progress in increasing knowledge and understanding.

The questions a modern (or post-modern) reader may be asking of the Biblical text may be completely different from an ancient Israelite in exile in Babylon or an early Christian meeting secretly in a house church in Rome.
Furthermore, modern readers tend to demand answers to their questions on their terms.

Scientists who are Christians; Christians who are scientists

In 1991, R.J. Berry, a Professor of Genetics at University College London edited a nice book, Real scientists, real faith. Each chapter was written by a British scientist and contained their personal Christian testimony and some discussion of how the they see the relationship between their scientific and Christ lives. Of the 16 authors several were FRS and three were knighted for service to science.

I was pleased to see in the latest newsletter of Christians in Science that a new edition has just been published. Real Scientists, Real Faith: 17 Leading Scientists Reveal the Harmony Between Their Science and Their Faith

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Keeping up with the news

Christians should be well-informed citizens and active participants in the democratic process (when they live in a democracy). The Bible instructs us to pray for governments and those in authority over us. Yet, I struggle to keep up with the news. I believe that Karl Barth would begin his mornings by reading the newspaper and listening to Mozart. He considered this excellent preparation for working on the Church Dogmatics!
My lovely wife Robin reads the New York Times online. But, I don't like reading stuff online.

However, I found a really nice solution, thanks to my friend, Keith Birchley. He recommended subscribing to The Week. It contains a nice summary of the events of the week, with extracts from major newspapers and websites from around the world. I really like it is so compact and manageable and it gives a range of perspectives.


It is only two weeks until the Conference on the Church and the Academy, hosted by Queensland Theological College. On the website you can see the great list of speakers. It is not too late to register.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Expect the unexpected!

The Gospel of Jesus confronts our innate desire to reduce life and
God to simple formulae that "make sense" and conform to our expectations and prejudices.
If we just read through the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament we are confronted with with a multitude of paradoxes such as:

``Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’’
(Matthew 5:5)

``But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’’
(Matthew 5:39)

``Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’’
(Matthew 5:44)

``For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’’
(Matthew 9:13)

``Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’’
(Matthew 10:34)

``Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’’
(Matthew 10:39)

When Jesus predicted his death, Peter rebuked him, to which Jesus responded:
``Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.’’
(Matthew 16:23)

``Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’’
(Matthew 18:4)

``So the last will be first, and the first last.’’
(Matthew 20:16)

``But whoever would be great among you must be your servant’’
(Matthew 20:26)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Obama's story

On the plane to Hong Kong last week I watched a BBC documentary, Obama: His Story . Having read Dreams from my father, it was fascinating to see pictures and video clips of his earlier life. There was a great TV news clip of Obama leading a student protest at Harvard Law School, interviews with his high school teachers and his Kenyan relatives, fellow community organisers in Chicago, and a home video of him playing basketball for his high school. It was also very moving when Obama was interviewed about the influence of his mother, father, and grandparents.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Suspending our "common sense"

Following up on my previous post about the strangeness of the physical universe confronting our "common sense" about miracles, I thought I should quote someone much more distinguished (and more eloquent) than me. The Revd. Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS has written extensively about the relationship between physics and theology.
In his book, Reason and Reality he concludes a chapter on the complexities and conundrums of quantum theory, particularly the quantum measurement problem:
``[Scientists] have learnt that the world is strange beyond our prior expectation, but also rationally satisfying in its idiosyncracy. The doctrines of a tripersonal God and of him making himself known in personal terms, have about them those elements of surprise and intellectual profundity which are characteristic of the best scientific theory. Our investigation of the physical world has stretched our minds and enlarged our notions of the conceivable. It would be surprising indeed if our encounter with God did not do the same.
I am not saying anything as ridiculous as asserting that after quantum theory anything goes I simply say that our experience of the quantum world prepares us for accounts of reality which will submit to no undue tyranny of common sense but which will seek, however difficult the task, to respect the nature of that with which we have to deal.’’
John Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality: The relationship between science and theology (SPCK, London, 1991), p. 98

Friday, June 12, 2009

Can the Bible tell us if the universe began as a quantum vacuum fluctuation?

I really like Walter Brueggemann's commentary on Genesis, first introduced to me by Ben Myers, and some of the comments below were heavily influenced by Ben (but I take full responsibility!).

Bruegemann suggests that Abraham is called to trust in a God who can:
"violate religious conventions (cf., 18:16-32) shatter normal definitions of reality (18:14), and bring about newness (21:1-7).... There are in the Bible three primary ways of speaking of such radical, unextrapolated newness:
(a) creation out of nothing,
(b) resurrection of the dead, and
(c) justification by grace through faith (cf. Rom. 4:17).''
[Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 111]

This brings me to make the point that the doctrine of creation ex-nihilo is primarily a theological statement, rather than a statement of the nature, timing, or mechanism of the creation act. The doctrine was formulated in response to Gnostic views that God was constrained to work with existing materials. But, the God of Abraham is not constrained in any way, neither in the manner in which he created, nor in his ability to give an heir to a barren couple, nor the ability to make a great nation from some nomads, nor to raise from the dead.

Hence, it is not clear to me why some interested in the dialogue between science and theology are so concerned with constraints that the doctrine may (or may not) put on scientific views about the beginning of the universe. [e.g., Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration]

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Be still and know that I am God, says the LORD

One thing I really enjoy and appreciate about Mendelssohn's Elijah is how the libretto does not only follow the narrative from 1 Kings but also makes allusions to many other Biblical texts.
I give an example below which draws heavily on Psalm 121 and Psalm 46. I also intersperse with the libretto what I believe to be the references for other Biblical allusions.

Elijah has been discouraged in his mission, even to the point of wishing that he would die. To which angels respond:
Lift thine eyes to the mountains, whence cometh help. Thy help cometh from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
Elijah still complains to God: "O Lord, I have labored in vain; yea, I have spent my strength for nought!"
25. Aria: O Rest in the Lord

An Angel

Oh rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him, and He shall give thee thy heart's desires. Commit thy way unto Him, and trust in Him, and fret not thyself because of evil-doers.

[Psalm 37]

26. Chorus: He that shall endure


He that shall endure to the end, shall be saved.

[Matthew 10:22, 24:13]
Elijah then asks that God not hide his face. The LORD then reveals himself,
not in the dramatic (earthquakes, fire,...) but ...

And in that still voice onward came the Lord.
29. Recitative & Chorus: Holy is God

Above Him stood the Seraphim, and one cried to another:


Holy, holy, holy is God the Lord, the Lord Sabaoth! Now His glory hath filled all the earth.

30. Chorus & Recitative: Go, return upon thy way/ I go on my way


Go, return upon thy way! For the Lord yet hath left Him seven thousand in Israel, knees which have not bowed to Baal. Go, return upon thy way! Thus the Lord commandeth.


I go on my way in the strength of the Lord For Thou art my Lord; and I will suffer for Thy sake. My heart is therefore glad, my glory rejoiceth; and my flesh shall also rest in hope.

31. Arioso: For the mountains


For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but Thy kindness shall not depart from me; neither shall the covenant of Thy peace be removed.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Science can naturally lead people to grapple with their existence, and questions of meaning and purpose.
John Archibald Wheeler was one of the most influential theoretical physicists of the 20th century. He was a collaborator of Einstein and Bohr, and the Ph.D supervisor of Richard Feynman. He coined the terms "black hole'' and wormhole. Wheeler both began and ended his autobiography with these questions:
How come the quantum?
How come existence?"
Geons, Black Holes, & Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics
by John Archibald Wheeler with Kenneth Ford: W.W. Norton, 1998

Wheeler came to some strange conclusions, whether they are viewed from a scientific, philosophical, or theological perspective. But, his life clearly illustrates how science (success, failures, and paradoxes) drives us to ask "Why?" questions.

Why does science work so well?

It is amazing to me that science (and especially theoretical physics) works so well. We can think things, write down abstract mathematical equations, and then predict the outcomes of experiments. Why does what goes on in our brains have anything to do with the physical world.

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 which is often referred to. The concluding sentences are:

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 should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.
I think the doctrine of creation provides a natural explanation for this miracle and gift. God made us in our image. He made the physical world. He wants us to engage with that world, enjoy it, and marvel at his work. Please note, I am not claiming that the success of science proves that God exists and made us and the world. Rather, just that the Bible's picture of who God is and who we are provides a coherent perspective on these issues.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Living with both certainty and ambiguity

Some would claim that a "scientific" world view forces them to to dismiss out of hand Biblical events such as miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. But should we? One thing we have learnt from modern science is that things that sometimes what we think ``makes sense’’ or what we may intuitively think is ``rational’’ or ``reasonable’’ can actually be false.

Sir Arthur Eddington was the most influential astronomer in the early twentieth century. J.B.S. Haldane was an incredibly influential geneticist and evolutionary biologist. Both are credited with saying that,
the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
It is striking to me that this statement was made so long ago. The universe is indeed even stranger than what Haldane and Eddington knew 50 years ago. This was before we had to grapple with the most bizarre properties of quantum physics or the recent finding that 96% of the universe may be composed of dark matter and dark energy, completely unlike the matter and energy of which we are made and encounter in our daily lives.

Quantum theory is one of my passions. When I went to university I thought if I understood quantum theory I would understand the meaning of life. I was so young and naïve. Quantum theory raises more philosophical questions than it answers. But, it is the most successful theory in all of science. It can explain properties of everything from quarks to atoms to DNA. It can predict the outcome of experiments to an accuracy of 10 decimal places. Its resounding success challenges claims in the Arts and Humanities about the absence of absolute truth and about knowledge just being a social construct.

Yet there is no consensus on the interpretation of the most successful theory in all of science. There are an abundance of different interpretations of quantum theory. They go by names such as: Copenhagen, consistent histories, decoherence, no interpretation, many-worlds,....
Yet these interpretations cannot even agree on how many universes there are, nor whether external reality even exists! So we have both certainty and ambiguity in science.

My wife generally doesn’t share my passion for quantum physics. Yet Robin does like Schrodingers cat! It is simultaneously dead and alive. It could be either and it is only after you look to see which that it dies or lives. So looks can kill! The possible existence of such a being as this cat is the logical outcome of the most successful theory in all of science. This should humble us. We don’t have all the answers. But there are some things which science does very well. Others it does not.

I hope appreciating this tension between certainty and ambiguity in science might make us a little more hesitant about our assumptions, and about our pre-conceived ideas about how we think the world (and God) should be.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Church in Hong Kong

I am in Hong Kong this week for a work conference [on superconductivity]. Since I arrived last night I was hoping to go to church today, but my Google searches did not yield anything near the university I am staying at. However, a friend kindly helped track down the Clearwater Bay International Baptist Church. It meets in a school right next to the Hong Kong University of Science of Technology. The 11am English service was led by a biology professor from the university. It seemed a lot like my home church, Unichurch back in Brisbane. It is wonderful that the Gospel transcends geography, culture, language, and race .... just as God promised Abraham...

Friday, June 5, 2009

Be not afraid!

Last year the St. Peter's Chorale (my daughter's school choir) performed Mendelssohn's Elijah. In preparation I bought a CD which I came to really love. Just like the oratorios of Handel, Bach, and Haydn it is a masterpiece of synthesis of the Biblical text and theological reflection.

When I woke at 4am this morning I put on my headphones and listened to the prelude to Elijah's confrontation of Ahab and Jezebel:

Hear ye, Israel, hear what the Lord speaketh:'Oh, hadst thou heeded my commandments'Who hath believed our report! To whom is the arm of the Lord revealed!
Thus saith the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, and His Holy One to him oppressed by tyrants, thus saith the Lord:
'I am He that comforteth. Be not afraid, for I am thy God! I will strengthen thee! Say, who art thou, that thou art afraid of a man that shall die; and forgettest the Lord thy Maker, who hath stretched forth the heavens, and laid the earth's foundations? Say, who art thou!'
'Be not afraid,' saith God the Lord,'be not afraid, thy help is near!' God, the Lord, thy God, saith unto thee:'Be not afraid!' Though thousands languish and fall beside thee, and tens of thousands around thee perish, yet still it shall not come nigh thee.

The full libretto is here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

When God spoke to John Piper

One morning each week my son Luke and I go out for breakfast together and discuss a chapter in a book we are currently reading through together. The current book is Guidance and the Voice of God.
Following this and a range of othe discussions this week about people hearing God's voice, God only working through the extra-ordinary,.. I recalled this great article by John Piper (of course, I must thank my dear wife for bringing it first to my attention). Make sure you read it to the end!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Don't waste your life!

My dear godly wife, Robin is a big fan of John Piper. We are currently reading together his book, don't waste your life. In chapter one, Piper recounts how as a searching young college student, discovering the books of C.S. Lewis changed his life:
He has made me wary of chronological snobbery ... he showed that newness is no virture and oldness is no vice. Truth and beauty and goodness are not determined by when they exist. Nothing is inferior for being old, and nothing is valuable for being modern.... To this day I get most of my soul-food from centuries ago....
He demonstrated for me and convinced me that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not opposed to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively -even playful- imagination. He was a "romantic rationalist." He combined things that almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination...