Saturday, November 28, 2009

What then shall we do?

This morning I read through Luke 3:1-22. This is an incredibly rich passage. John the Baptist is warning of both the coming Judgement and announcing the arrival of Messiah. Both are intertwined and announced as "good news". Is John also pointing to how Judgement and Salvation come together at the cross?

The painting below is from the Isenheim Alterpiece by Gruenwald. A copy hung in Karl Barth's office for much his career.

The crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers each asked John, "What then shall we do?"
It is interesting and challenging that John's answers to all involve the just aquisition, use, and distribution of money and property!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Give thanks!

Non-U.S. readers may not realise that today is the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. Since my wife is from the U.S. we always celebrate the holiday. I am now full of turkey and pumpkin pie.
It is a great holiday because unlike Christmas and Easter it has not been commerialised.
The Wikipedia entry tells the history.
give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus
1 Thessalonians 5:17

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Living a life of grace

After I saw the movie, Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce and the drive to end slavery I read the companion biography by Eric Metaxas. Both are brilliant. The book is particularly challenging because it shows that Wilberforce and the Clapham group had incredible dedication, perseverance, political nous, single mindedness, generosity, and a willingness to sacrifice even their health for the cause of abolition.

I warmly recommend both the movie and the biography.

It is also interesting to look at Wilberforces own best seller:
A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians, which went to 20 editions! You can download a copy free here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Faith of a theoretical physicist

Previously I posted about a book in which a group of leading Dutch scientists describe how they relate their personal faith to science. I said it would be nice to have an English translation. Carlo Beenakker, a Professor of Theoretical Physics in Leiden, sent me a link to the English translation of his chapter in the book.

Teaching theological students to think critically

Geoff Thompson sent me a helpful and stimulating article, "What 'Great Cloud of Witnesses'? Isn't My Own Religious Experience Enough?'' by Robert J. Sherman from Bangor Theological Seminary.

The article is mostly about how to engage seminary students with "a critical and constructive examination of their views and hinders their understanding of theology as an undertaking of and for the Church." The biggest obstacle to this is suggested to be "Acculturation in American Religious Privatism and Individualism". (Wow! I love that Section title):
Because so many students have come to their beliefs privately and experientially, they can construe the "catechetical" and/or the "critical/constructive" examination of those beliefs as a personal affront, even attack..... They are unaccustomed to any sort of detached probing of their beliefs, unaware that those beliefs may have diverse historic antecedents and unwilling often to recognize that their eclectic mix may have internal tensions and incoherencies.
The article is not just critical and negative though and discusses pedagogical strategies Sherman has used to address these issues.

I wonder if indirectly the article is also providing an argument for faculty at theological colleges to be engaged in original research and publication. This engages them in the process that Sherman strives to engage his students in.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An amazing Creation

Last night I went to the much anticipated (at least by me!) performance of Haydn's Creation by the Queensland Symphony and the Canticum Chamber Choir. I was relieved to find it was in English not German.

It was fantastic! There is no substitute for a live performance with good acoustics. Maybe I was sitting in an acoustic "sweet spot" in the concert hall. The clarity of the diction and symphonic notes was wonderful.

As Adam and Eve reflect on the amazing created world in which they have been placed, the chorus breaks forth:
Hail, bounteous Lord! Almighty, hail!
Thy word call'd forth this wondr'rous frame.
Thy powe'r adore the heav'n and
earth; we praise thee now and evermore.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Not understanding the atonement

This morning my son and I went out for breakfast and discussed a Chapter in C.S. Lewis, Mere Chrisitianity. We are up to Chapter 4, Book II, The Perfect Penitent. Which discusses the subtleties associated with understanding the atonement (i.e. what Christ's death achieved and how it did it). Lewis writes:
The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. ....
Theories about Christ's death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works....
Jeans or Eddington [distinguished scientists of Lewis' time who also wrote popular books]. What they do when they want to explain the atom, or something of that sort, is to give you a description out of which you can make a mental picture. But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists actually believe . What the scientstists believe is mathematical formula.....
A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The miracle and mystery of Christmas

Tomorrow night I am giving a talk, A Scientist ponders the Miracle and Mystery of Christmas at a Christmas Gingerbread House making event organised by my church. Here is a copy of the current version of the talk. I may try to simplify it. Any suggestions welcome.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A marriage with lawlessness?

The sermon at church yesterday was on 2 Corinthians 6, and wrestled with the application of the verses:
4 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16What agreement has the temple of God with idols?
I think important and difficult applications that I need to wrestle with as a Christian are:

To what extent to I accept my investments (including superannuation) being placed in companies which exploit workers, produce immoral products, or perform acts that I personally believe are wrong? (see here for more discussion)

How much effort do I make to buy products that have been produced in a just manner, where workers are paid fair wages? (see here)

What level of financial debt is acceptable? When do I become a slave to debt?

The Theology of Mary (Poppins)

My daughter brought to my attention this humorous post on Ben Myers blog, a song about Martin Luther, sung to the tune of the famous Mary Poppins song.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Are you a fundamentalist?

It is fascinating (and disturbing) how words and their meanings get "hijacked" and changed. A classic case is Fundamentalism. The Wikipedia entry does a great job telling the story.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chancing the existence of God

Following up on a previous post about Paul Ewart's paper in Science and Christian Belief.
Paul kindly brought to my attention a summary of the paper published in the Guardian Online and so accessible (both electronically and intellectually) to a broader audience, Why God needs chance: The reality of chance isn't a robust argument for atheism. It might even be necessary for God's existence

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How to publish a paper in a theology journal

Hopefully this post will generate some discussion. There are certainly people more qualified than me to answer this, but to some faculty and research students at theological colleges, this is a mystery.
Any wisdom or foolishness I have is based on the following experience:
  • having published more than one hundred papers in scientific journals
  • having recently had a paper accepted in Scottish Journal of Theology (which at least according to the Australian Research Council has an A* rating)
  • observing some energetic (and successful) young staff at theological colleges
It is not rocket science. Basically, just do it!

Here are a few hopefully helpful and concrete steps.
  1. Write a draft of your paper.
  2. Choose a journal. A good indication of a suitable journal is where are many of your references are from. Only publish in international peer reviewed journals. They should be available electronically and major theological colleges and secular universities should have subscriptions. Otherwise your readership may be very limited.
  3. Put the article in the format of the journal.
  4. Ask a colleague who has published in the journal (or a similar one) to read and give feedback on the paper. Make appropriate changes.
  5. Submit the paper.
  6. The most likely responses are: a. outright rejection or b. resubmit with some changes
  7. If a. make appropriate changes and submit the article to a less prestigious journal.
  8. Keep repeating the steps 2. to 6. until the paper is accepted in some journal.
  9. If b. bend over backwards making any suggested/required changes from the editor and/or referees.
  10. Never give up.
Any comments?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Responding to Creation

I really looking forward to hearing Haydn's Creation performed by the Queensland Orchestra and the Canticum Chamber Choir in two weeks.

The libretto is a brilliant synthesis of the text of Genesis 1-2, Psalm 19 and 104, and Milton's Paradise Lost. Program notes from a New York Philharmonic performance, including parallel German and English libretto texts are available here. I have a CD recording which uses the version of the English libretto, updated by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker.

This morning I enjoyed listening to the beginning. After recounting various acts of creation there is a solo and/or chorus. For example,

What wonder doth his work reveal
to heavens host in joyful throng,
and loud resounds throughout the skies
the praise of God and of the Second Day.

And loud resounds throughout the skies
the praise of God and of the Second Day.
As a scientist who ponders and marvels at the physical world this should be my response to what I see. That is the most important way to relate science and theology!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Creation and redemption in Isaiah

To me much of Biblical scholarship gets bogged down in debates about authorship and dating of different books. Although, there is some role in these questions the danger is it can distract one from understanding, appreciating, and applying the actual text. Furthermore, I contend that adopting a specific position is not necessary for the latter.

I will illustrate my point with a specific case. Brueggemann appears to take the position of Deutero-Isaiah (i.e., there were two authors of Isaiah and that the second part, ch. 40-66 was written during the exile, a helpful summary is on the Wikipedia page). In discussing YHWH, the God Who Creates [chapter 4, in Theology of Old Testament], he has a really nice section on The Context of Exile, which reads (p. 149-150):
In the Old Testament, creation faith receives its fullest articulation in Isaiah of the exile. [See, for example, Carroll Stuhlmueller, Creative Redemeption in Deutero Isaiah, 1970)] In the context of exile, Israel faced a twofold crisis that invited Israel to despair and to abandonment of its confidence in Yahweh. The concrete ground for the despair is the formidable reality of Babylonian military-political power. Behind that visiible authority, however, is the legitimating power of the Babylonian gods who guaranteed the regime and who appear to be stronger than the counterpower of Israel's own God....
... It is testimony to Yahweh's work as Creator that counters the ostensive power of Babylon.
[1Thus says the LORD,
the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him:]
12 I made the earth
and created man on it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host.
13 I have stirred him up in righteousness,
and I will make all his ways level;
he shall build my city
and set my exiles free,
not for price or reward,"
says the LORD of hosts.
(Isaiah 45:12-13)
But actually, these insights are actually independent of when this passage was written. One could rewrite Brueggemann's paragraph as

In the Old Testament, creation faith receives a full articulation in Isaiah's prophesy concerning the exile. In the context of exile, Israel would face a twofold crisis that invited Israel to despair and to abandonment of its confidence in Yahweh. The concrete ground for the despair would be the formidable reality of Babylonian military-political power. Behind that visible authority, however, would be the legitimating power of the Babylonian gods who would guaranteed the regime and who might appear to be stronger than the counterpower of Israel's own God....
... It is testimony to Yahweh's work as Creator that counters the ostensive power of Babylon.

Randomness and purpose II

Paul Ewart points how "Disorder and chaos arising from chance are often seen as destructive and randomness per se as evidence that there is no purpose in the universe." But he uses examples from physics to argue that chaos can be constructive and chance to be consistent with meaning and purpose.

I agree. Randomness is actually necessary for biomolecular functionality including optimising the rate of specific chemical reactions. If you want a very technical discussion see the discussion in a recent talk that I gave at a scientific workshop in Germany.

In the book, Biological Physics: Energy, Information, and Life, Philip Nelson begins each chapter with a question. Chapter 4 begins with

Biological question: If everything is so random in the nanoworld of cells, how can we say anything predictive about cells?

Physical idea: The collective activity of many randomly moving actors
can be effectively predictable, even if individual motions are not.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Randomness and purpose

I have started reading Paul Ewart's great article, The Necessity of Chance: randomness, Purpose and the Sovereignty of God. Before discussing the article here are a few old thoughts:

We should be cautious about deducing that a particular phenomena is “random” and therefore “meaningless” or “without purpose.” This has been discussed nicely by Leo Kadanoff in a Physics Today article with regard to the implications of chance and probability playing a role in evolutionary theory. Deterministic dynamics at one strata can lead to apparently stochastic or random dynamics at the next highest strata. Conversely, stochastic dynamics at one strata can lead to deterministic laws at the next strata. An example of the first is Brownian motion. The motion of individual molecules which interact with a larger particle (such as a dust particle) is deterministic at the atomic level but when viewed through a microscope the large particle appears to move in a random walk. An example of the second case is how the random motion of individual atoms in a gas leads to deterministic laws such as the ideal gas equation of state. Kadanoff states,
“Wherever we have looked most seriously, we have seen phenomena that can be described by simple models of lawful behaviour, endlessly repeated, without discernible purpose or goal. .... this is a cold and amoral description of reality. ....However, to apply this picture to the entire universe requires a tremendous extrapolation. Such an extrapolation can have only the strength of a metaphor. ...As a scientist, I can say that we do not have (and probably cannot have) any evidence to show that nature is just a set of laws operating without purpose or goal. But as a person, I find the metaphor congenial.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Test of faith materials available down under

Test of Faith is a new resource (Book, DVD, Study guide, and Leaders Guide) which explores major issues about the relationship between science and Christian faith. It is now available in Australia at Koorong books

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Miracle of True Freedom

I just read the chapter in Karl Barth's Dogmatics in Outline, concerning the Holy Spirit. Here is the (dense) introductory summary:
When men belong to Jesus Christ in such a way that they have freedom to recognize His word as addressed also to them, His work as done also for them, the message about Him as also their task; and then for their part, freedom to hope for the best for all other men, this happens, indeed, as their human experience and action, and yet not in virtue of their human capacity, determination and exertion, but solely on the basis of the free gift of God, in which all this is given to them. In this giving and gift God is the Holy Spirit.
Other snippets:
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom..... To receive the Spirit, to have the Spirit, to live in the Spirit means being set free and being permitted to live in Freedom.....

The fact that there are Christians, men who have this freedom, is no lesser miracle than the birth of Jesus Chrsit of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, or than the creation of the world out of nothing.

But there must be no misunderstanding: the Holy Spirit is not a form of the human spirit.....

When it happens that man obtains that freedom of becoming a hearer, a responsible, grateful, hopeful person, this is not because of an act of the human spirit, but solely because of the act of the Holy Spirit. So this in other words, a gift of God. It has to do with a new brith, with the Holy Spirit.