Sunday, January 31, 2010

Self-righteous environmentalism in relationships

Reading The Week (highly recommended) I came across a fascinating piece "Green-eyed monsters who kill marriage" which summarises a commentary by Terence Blacker in the Independent. According to a New York Times article marriage therapists in the US are seeing a sharp rise in the number of couples who are bickering about how they should live in order to save the planet.

This does not surprise me. Why? Because we all have an incredibly powerful force driving us towards self-righteousness. We judge the Pharisees but fail to see the "logs in our own eyes." Marriage (or co-habitation) provides a great feeding ground for self-righteousness. (My family also pointed out that teenage-parent relations are another forum). Life-style issues relating to reducing our environmental impact are just another battle ground...

God has placed within us a strong desire to be right. But we pervert this by trying to establish our righteousness in comparison to others unrighteousness. But the only way we can be right with God is if we accept his gift of righteousness provided by Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26).

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Did theology hinder or help the birth of modern science?

Most scholars, whether Christian or not, would agree that the Christian world view created an environment that helped rather than hindered the birth of modern science.

Alfred North Whitehead was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth-century. He wrote:

Without this belief, the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is . . . the motive power of research - that there is a secret, a secret which can be revealed. When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality..... My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, as an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.

1925a. Science and the Modern World. (Vol. 55 of the Great Books of the Western World series)

It should be pointed out Whitehead was not a Christian, as discussed in this article. He had no funeral.

I came across this Whitehead quote in Denis Alexander's wonderful book, Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and faith in the twenty-first century. There is a very helpful chapter on The Roots of Modern Science. Hopefully, I will write more on that later...

The painting is by Joseph Nicolas Robert-Fleury "Galileo Galilei in front of the Inquisition in the Vatican 1632."

Friday, January 29, 2010

The God Delusion debate

Last night my family watched the first half of The God Delusion Debate, between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. I thought it was very informative and strongly recommend it. You can see it online here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Charles Coulson - scientist and Christian

One of my scientific heroes is Charles Coulson (1910-1974). He was one of the founders of the field of quantum chemistry, which is related to some of my research. I particularly love his book Valence, for both its clarity and physical and chemical insight.

Coulson was a Christian and wrote an influential book, Science and Christian Belief, which popularised the phrase: the God of the Gaps:
"There is no 'God of the gaps' to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Growing old gracefully

This evening I watched a DVD of On Golden Pond which has a moving portrayal of an elderly couple (Norman and Ethel Thayer) who struggle to face old age and their mortality and a strained relationship with their daughter, Chelsea. Norman is a grumpy old man who is more morose than Toby Ziegler on West Wing. In contrast, Ethel has a passion for life and can see the best in her husband.

The scenery and photography is beautiful. I particularly liked some of the dialogue. Here is an interaction between Billy (the 13 year old son of Chelsea's fiance).
[A complete script of the movie is here].
Ethel: You mustn't let Norman upset you, Billy.
Billy: Sure.

Ethel: He wasn't yelling at you, you know.

Billy: Sounds like he is yelling at me.

Ethel: No. He was yelling at life.

Billy: What the heck does that mean?

Ethel: It means he's like an old lion. He has to remind himself that he can still roar. Billy... sometimes... you have to look hard at a person... and remember... that he's doing the best he can. He's just trying to find his way, that's all. Just like you.

The Dawkins delusion

Since Richard Dawkins is coming to Brisbane in march I am getting asked about responses to his views. One of the best responses to his book The God Delusion is a short book, The Dawkins Delusion?: atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the devine, by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. The Wikipedia entry gives a good summary of the book and different reviews. It ends:
The review in Publishers weekly suggested that "The McGraths expeditiously plow into the flank of Dawkins's fundamentalist atheism ... and run him from the battlefield. The book works partly because they are so much more gracious to Dawkins than Dawkins is to believers"

Monday, January 25, 2010

The end of science is the beginning of theology

I particularly like the end of the book, Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion, Alister E. McGrath (Blackwell, 1998, p. 208-9):
let me end by posing a question: what is the most significant difference between the natural sciences and religion?
One answer is suggested by George Herbert's poem, "The Elixir" which speaks of the possibility of seeing beyond the natural order to discern the divine:

A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe
And then the heav'n espie

This is a major theme of Christian theology - that the natural world, while wonderful in itself, offers a way to begin to discern the glory of God. For Calvin, the natural order is a theatre in which the glory of God is displayed to humanity, and through which something of the majesty of God can be known.....
C.S. Lewis addressed this issue in a remarkable sermon entitled "The Weight of Glory," preached before the University of Oxford on June 8, 1941:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things - the beauty, the memory of our own past - are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
One can study the natural order, and stop at that point - or one can go on, and discern what lies beyond and behind it, realizing that, from a religious perspective, the natural order beckons us onwards to discover its creator. Perhaps one of the most significant differences between science and religion thus lies not in how they begin, nor even in how they proceed, but in how they end.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Redeeming a marriage

Last night my wife and I watched the DVD of Fireproof.
I thought it was really good. It shows just how selfish we can be in a marriage and the importance of unconditional love. The Gospel is explained clearly and repentance and forgiveness are modelled.

I thought the movie was much better than Facing the Giants, which was made by the same producers. I thought it was rather artificial and seemed to have the sub-text, "Become a Christian and everything will go well for you."

Is seeing believing?

Isn't this a cool animation? Look at the way the spirals rotate....

Actually, they do not move!
This is a purely static picture.
And, they are not spirals but circles.

Your eyes and brain apparently have trouble perceiving this image accurately because it goes against certain "normal" patterns your brain is programmed to perceive. More examples of such optical illusions are here.

What does this have to do with science, theology, and culture?
To me, it is a simple example to illustrate the point that our perceptions of what is normal, what is reality, and what is "obviously" true, can be wrong.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti's tragic history

In the New York Times there is a helpful, but disturbing, Op-Ed piece To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature. Here is one extract:
At its apex, the white colonists were supplanted by a new ruling class, made up largely of black and mulatto officers. Though these groups soon became bitter political rivals, they were as one in their determination to maintain in independent Haiti the cardinal principle of governance inherited from Saint-Domingue: the brutal predatory extraction of the country’s wealth by a chosen powerful few.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

John Piper's disillusionment with theological scholarship

In John Piper's talk at a symposium, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor, in Chicago, he gave this critique of the theological academy, largely based on his experience doing a doctorate at the University of Munich.

I was disillusioned by such scholarship.

  • Driven by the need for peer approval.
  • Using technical jargon that only insiders understand and that often conceals ambiguity.
  • A speculative focus in object and methodology (Formgeschichte, Traditionsgeschichte, andRedaktionsgeschichte, and Sachkritik) that gave rise to scholarly articles which began in the mode ofWahrscheinlichkeit and by the end had been transformed into the mode of Sicherheit by the waving of the wand of scholarly consensus.
  • Using linguistic skills to create vagueness and conceal superficiality.
  • Not pressing the question of meaning until it yields the riches of theological truth.
  • Not having the smell of heaven or hell, nor seeming to care much about lostness.
  • Not letting exultation into their explanations, and therefore not being able to show the reality of things that cannot be illumined except in the light of exultation.
  • Not seeing the incoherence between the infinite value of the object of the study and the naturalistic nature of their study. The whole atmosphere seemed unplugged from the majesty of the object.

I wonder if this is also what Karl Barth would have said?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The only hope

At church I am taking a preaching class. Everyone has to give a 10 minute talk (which is videotaped) on a passage from 1 Thessalonians to the rest of the class.
Tonight I am giving a talk on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. My title is "The only hope: to be with Jesus forever" and my notes are here. Any comments would be welcome.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

John Piper on true scholarship

Last year Don Carson and John Piper spoke at a symposium, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor, in Chicago.
I just read most of Piper's (rather long) talk, The Pastor as Scholar: a Personal Journey, which is worth wrestling with. Here is one extract, concerning his time as a student at Fuller seminary:
  • Nobody pierced to the essence of true scholarship the way Dan Fuller did. In partnership with Mortimer Adler’s How To Read a Book, he taught me that true scholarship, whatever our vocation, was:
    • to observe the subject matter accurately and thoroughly,
    • to understand clearly what was observed,
    • to evaluate fairly what was understood by deciding what is true and valuable,
    • to feel intensely according to the value of what was evaluated,
    • to apply wisely and helpfully in life what is understood and felt, and
    • to express in speech and writing and deeds what was seen, understood, felt, and applied in such a way that its accuracy, clarity, truth, value, and helpfulness can be known and enjoyed by others.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Is there any hope for theology?

I am currently preparing a short talk on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 which discusses the Christian hope of the return of Jesus and the resurrection from the dead. Hence, I am thinking about hope. It is interesting that in Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Karl Barth has a chapter on the necessity of hope for the theologian. He discusses how all theology is under the judgement of God leading to distress:
There can be no theology without much distress, but also none without courage in distress......
The danger and distress of theology contain hope.....
....when theology confesses its own solidarity with all flesh and with the whole world under God's judgement, it receives hope in the grace of God which is the mystery of this judgement. This hope is a present reality in which theology may also participate and do its own work.
Although the enterprise of the theologian is frustrated by the judgement of God, there is still hope for it because, and only because, of the mercy of God.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Provocative truths about poverty?

David Brooks is one of my favourite New York Times columnists. Stimulated by the tragedy of the Haiti earthquake, Brooks has a challenging column The Underlying Tragedy , discussing the tragedy of the US's ineffectiveness at helping alleviate poverty around the world. He argues that several difficult truths must be acknowledged if change is to occur:
  • we don't know how to use aid to reduce poverty
  • micro-aid is vital but insufficient
  • it is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty
  • it’s time to promote locally led paternalism
It is worth reading the piece and the comments from readers. Most are negative, but do not actually engage with the substance of his arguments. People from a liberal perspective are so offended by raising the issues of "culture" [including voodoo] and "paternalism" they cannot engage. I am not sure how to summarise what people on the right seem to think, except "its not our problem".

I would add to Brooks list:

it is time to put the thorny issue of sin (both corporate and individual) on the agenda.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Are the Gospel's historically reliable?

George Hunsinger has a helpful guest post, on the historical reliability of the Gospels on Ben Myer's blog. To motivate you to read the whole post here are a few snippets:

a strong historical case can indeed be made in favor of Christ's resurrection, for example, but not one that I think is beyond "reasonable" doubt. Reason, in any case, reaches its categorical limit here. Affirming or denying Christ's resurrection — or better, affirming or denying the Risen Christ — is well beyond the competency of mere reason.....

Knock-down arguments in this world are rare. The point is rather that the historical claims of the gospel are susceptible to a respectable defense. Again, however, I think that in the end these kinds of considerations are only secondary, and are at best merely preliminary.

The Christian faith is far more a matter of radical conversion than it is of rational persuasion. The claim that a marginal Jew who was put to death on a cross should have been raised from the dead so that he now reigns as Lord and Savior is never going to be plausible to rational or evidential considerations.

It is finally not we who read the NT, but the NT that reads us. It calls us and our detached role as would-be authoritative, evidence-weighing spectators radically into question. That is why it is so dangerous.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

James Clerk Maxwell: physicist and Christian

James Clerk Maxwell was arguably the greatest theoretical physicist of the nineteenth century, famous for Maxwell's equations in electromagnetism, Maxwell's Demon in statistical mechanics, the Maxwell relations in thermodynamics, Maxwell- distribution in kinetic theory of gases, ...

Ten years ago, one hundred of the leading physicists of the world were polled as to who were the greatest physicists of all time. Maxwell ranked third, after Einstein and Newton!

Ivan Tolstoy, author of one of Maxwell's biographies, remarked at the frequency with which scientists writing short biographies on Maxwell often omit the subject of his Christianity. Maxwell's religious beliefs and related activities have been the focus of several peer-reviewed and well-referenced papers.[55][56][57][58] Attending both Presbyterian and Episcopalian services as a child, Maxwell later underwent an evangelical conversion (April 1853), which committed him to an anti-positivist position.[57]

A great movie

Up is a great movie. Highly recommended.
It is fun and portrays marriage in a positive light.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Anglican minister heads leading Australian university

Eighteen months ago, Australia's oldest University, the University of Sydney appointed Michael Spence as Vice-Chancellor (equivalent to President in a US university). One thing that got peoples attention is that he is an ordained Anglican minister. Here is an article from the Sydney Morning Herald following his appointment.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Healing mind, body, and soul

The New York Times Magazine has a fascinating and thought-provoking article, The Americanization of Mental Illness . The last paragraph reads:
If our rising need for mental-health services does indeed spring from a breakdown of meaning, our insistence that the rest of the world think like us may be all the more problematic. Offering the latest Western mental-health theories, treatments and categories in an attempt to ameliorate the psychological stress sparked by modernization and globalization is not a solution; it may be part of the problem. When we undermine local conceptions of the self and modes of healing, we may be speeding along the disorienting changes that are at the very heart of much of the world’s mental distress.
What is a person? What is a self? Can we partition mind, body, and soul? Can we reduce everything to biochemistry? No. People are complex and cannot be viewed out of the context of families, communities, and cultures. A Biblical world view should lead to a humble, holistic and culturally sensitive approach to mental health.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Most viewed posts on this blog

2009 is the year I started blogging and I thought it would be interesting to see which posts on this blog have attracted the most viewers. I did this partly because I find sometimes the results of such an analysis surprising. My view of what people will find interesting, helpful, or controversial is offer different to others. Thanks to Google Analytics it is easy to find out how much individual posts are viewed. The top 10 posts (and number of views) from 2009 are below:

I found this quite encouraging: both the numbers and the selection. I will keep going...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Are you free?

The first duty of free people is to say NO.
Jacques Ellul (1912-1994)
Professor of Law
University of Bordeaux

I have found that this is one of the keys to good time management and stress reduction.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Inconsistent responses to global warming and to the Gospel

I want to explore certain parallels and inconsistencies between how people respond to the issue of climate change and how they respond to the Gospel. First, what does it take to convince you that something is true? To what extent will you be influenced by the opinion of experts who have spent years studying an issue? What influences you the most: the media, anecdotal evidence and arguments, popular opinion, political leaders, church leaders, scientists, environmental groups, your friends or family?

I think there may be some inconsistencies between how both liberals and conservatives (both loosely defined socially, politically, and theologically)
evaluate the evidence for climate change and how they respond to it. Some "conservatives" exercise a populist skepticism to climate change that they don't exercise on theological matters. On the other hand, some "liberals" exercise a populist skepticism towards the Gospel (e.g. believing what they read in Dan Brown novels!) but seem to "believe" in climate change without being able to tell you what the evidence is. In all cases it is not clear to me that the strength of the convictions held is
correlated with how well informed the person is.

What do we learn from this? We tend to believe what we want to believe. Instead we should soberly and humbly examine the evidence, with a willingness to change both what we believe and how we live. We should have consistent standards of skepticism and trust whether it relates to the resurrection of Jesus or to global warming.

Both climate change and the future presented by the Gospel (God's impending judgement and the Second coming of Christ) demand a change in how we live now.
Both require life style changes. Unfortunately, the possibility of that life style change may lead us to "rationalise" our response to the evidence.

It is fascinating to me how environmental activists sometimes claim moral absolutes, demand legislation, and condemn those who won't change their lifestyle, and are self-righteous about their own lifestyle changes [e.g. "What! How could you drive an SUV"]. It is ironic because some would be moral relativists in other areas of life.
Some Christian conservatives have a parallel response to the Gospel: legislating, condemning, and self-righteous.
Do these parallel responses also tell us something about human nature?
Perhaps that we are all have an innate tendency to be like the Pharisees?

Aside: If you are not familiar with the images above they are satellite images of the break up of a section of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The top left image was taken January 31, 2002, and the bottom right image was taken March 5, 2002.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What is theology?

theo-logos = God-knowledge
It is "the human logic of the divine Logos"
Theology is science [wissenschaft=academic discipline] seeking the knowledge of the Word of God spoken in God's work - science learning in the school of Holy Scripture, which witnesses to the Word of God; science
laboring in the quest for truth, which is inescapably required of the community that is called by the Word of God. In this way alone does theology fulfill its definition as the human logic
of the divine Logos.
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: an Introduction
p. 49

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What are you running from?

My family enjoyed watching the movie, Catch me if you can, inspired by the true story of Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. who while a minor committed one of the largest checque (check for US readers!) frauds in U.S.A. history while posing as an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and a sociology professor!

It is a great story and also has a redemptive theme. But, I will focus on what struck me most. One thing the movie brings out is that Frank was running from himself.He first ran away from home when his parents got divorced following his father's bankruptcy due to tax fraud. Frank keeps flashing back to happy scenes from
his childhood and desperately wants to reunite his family. He keeps telling his
father that he is getting back the money the government took from the family. He also asks his father to tell him to stop. When finally extradited to the U.S. Frank makes a dramatic escape, only so he can go to the house of his mother who has remarried and now has a daughter. The pain is intense.

The failures of parents can have devastating consequences on children. The joys and pains of our childhoods influence (but do not have to determine) our futures.

What am I running from?
What am I trying to reclaim?
Am I trying to reinvent myself?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Bible transforms a man and a community

At the CMS Summer School today Con Campbell spoke on 2 Timothy 3 including the verses:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
To illustrate the power of the Word of God, Con
told a story I had not
heard before. Following the Mutiny on the Bounty. Some of the mutineers settled on Pitcairn island with a group of Tahitians. However, from an idyllic beginning it degenerated into drunkenness, violence, and debauchery. This history by a current resident of the Island recounts:
After a period of four years, the community fell into turmoil. Fueled by homemade alcohol, disputes over women eventually resulted in the violent deaths of all but two of the men – Adams and Young. Six years later Young died of asthma; Adams was left with eleven women and 23 children. Adams turned to the Bounty Bible, which led him to repentance and a new outlook on life. Using the Bible, he educated the children, built a school and organized the community into a Christian way of life.

Defending the truth with grace

No one wins an argument!

Yesterday Con Campbell spoke on 2 Timothy 2:14-26. A theme that stood out was the danger of arguments about irrelevancies (v. 16,24,25):
avoid irreverent babble.... Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.
Con also suggested that unlike what most young (and old) men think the "youthful
passions" (v. 22) that Timothy is urged to flee is not lust but the arrogance of youth.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Do you believe in climate change?

I increasingly get asked by non-scientist friends "Do scientists really believe in climate change?". Consequently, I am trying to be better informed. I found this Summary for Policymakers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change helpful. To me the evidence is overwhelming. The figure below is taken from that report.

I also liked this presentation by Sir John Houghton because it gave a succinct summary of some of the history. He is an evangelical Christian and it is worth reading the Wikipedia page on him, which describes his views on being a Christian and a scientist, and the responsibility of Christians to care for the environment.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Grace motivates service

Today Con Campbell looked at 2 Timothy 2:1-13.
Verses 3 and 4 are particularly challenging:
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.No soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.
This verse can lead to guilt because of our many failings and failures. However, Con stressed it needs to be read in light of verse 1:
be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus
Con then used the illustration of President Abraham Lincoln's leadership in the US civil war. For both the North and South soldiers who deserted faced the death penalty. In the south they were executed. However, in the North Lincoln had the option of giving a Presidential pardon. For almost all of the deserters Lincoln commuted the death sentence, an act of grace. His generals were completely opposed to this, arguing "Who will be motivated to serve?" But Lincoln built loyalty in the troops through empathy, also visiting the battle front many times.

Grace motivates service.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Standing firm for the Gospel

This week I am on holidays with my family on Mt. Tambourine at the annual summer school of the Queensland-Northern New South Wales Branch of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). It has a great kids program and great talks.
The daily Bible talks are being given by Con Campbell from Moore Theological College (in Sydney) who is expositing 2 Timothy. Con is co-author of a blog Read Better Preach Better, which is worth checking out.

Today Con talked about not being ashamed of the Gospel. He recounted an article by Eric Fellman about a seminary student who was imprisoned by the Chinese communists in 1949. His fiance was allowed to visit him once per year. After her visit each year he was told he could leave with her, but ... on one condition: he must renounce his faith in Christ. Each year he said NO. After thirty years he was released and they were married.