Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why American interventions fail

Since I am in the US I am more aware of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the associated angst and politics. I fear that both wars will fail in their goal to provide political stability to countries with tumultuous histories and no democratic tradition.
Unfortunately, the reasons are simple: culture, religion and history.
I do not believe that you can change these down the barrel of a gun, even if you are prepared to stay for a whole generation. Although some lip service is paid to these three forces I don't think their true power is ever acknowledged.
In history has there ever been a case in the twentieth century where a powerful Western nation has intervened with incredible military force in a developing nation and provided a foundation for long term stability?

Recommended play

My wife and son just went to a performance in Brisbane of Shadowlands, the story of C.S. Lewis, the love of his life, and grappling with the "why of suffering". Robin said it is very good and I am looking forward to seeing it when I return to Australia.

The play is performed by Crossbow productions. It is on until August 7 and tickets are on sale.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Einstein's theory of relativity does not support relativism

In Einstein's theory of relativity everything is relative to an observer. For example, if two observers are moving relative to each other then their measurements of the time between two events will be different. (Aside: they have to be moving at some speed which is a substantial fraction of the speed of light for the difference to be significant). The theory is then sometimes used to claim a "scientific" basis for relativism:
"it all depends on your perspective"
"there is no absolute truth"
"there is no right answer".
However, such conclusions are based on mis-understanding the theory. It actually describes the relationship between the physical measurements of time and length of two different observers. In particular, this relationship defines an absolute time (a space-time invariant) which is the same for all observers.
Einstein's special theory of relativity (1905) is based on two postulates:
  1. The laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion relative to one another (principle of relativity),
  2. The speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of their relative motion or of the motion of the source of the light.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Good kids movie

This week I have been on holiday with my American nieces (aged 8 and 12). This afternoon we watched the DVD, Free Willy: the Escape from Pirates Cove, starring Bindi Irwin. It is good harmless fun.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A myth about myths

You may have heard sentiments such as "All religions have their creation myths. Genesis is just one of those. They all basically saying the same thing ...."
It was only a few years ago that I read the Babylonian epic, Enuma elish. I wish I had read it earlier because it so enhances a reading of Genesis. Here is a little of Karl Barth's commentary comparing the two:

The epic Enuma elish is not a history of creation, nor "pre-history," but a portrayal of the constantly recurrent change of relationships which is exactly the same in pre-historical time as any other within the cosmos as it has come into being and now exists. The unity, totality and singularity of the cosmos are not altered by the fact that there are in it the dreadful contradictions, changes and convulsions, bases and emanations, causes and consequences, births and deaths, conflicts, victories and defeats, divisions, reconciliations and fresh divisions, which are the theme of myth. But all this is merely the inner rhythm of the cosmos and has nothing to do with its creation. 
Tiamat, the mother of the gods, the gods who originate in her, and her youngest and most successful scion the hero and later demiurge Marduk, who by his final victory over the original power which is both friendly and hostile comes to the aid of the other more or less impotent divinities-all these are of one species and kind. And if heaven and earth arise because Marduk ..... literally attacks the arch-mother of all the gods and all beings, cleaving and dismembering her and turning her into heaven and earth...... In these forms and events we nowhere see a genuine horizon of this One and All as it is found in the concept of creation. There is no qualitative difference between divine and every other reality. What kind of a deity is it in whose very bosom there is so much darkness and such a dialectic of good and evil, in whom conflict, victory and defeat, life and death, reign side by side?

The god Marduk with his dragon, from a Babylonian cylinder seal. 
.....We may calmly ask indeed if there is any true or final distinction between [man] and these gods; between these gods and gigantic but shadowy projections of human experiences and needs, struggles and sufferings, hopes and possibilities; between the Babylonian deity and the Babylonian king and Babylonian man. In the figure of Marduk the three are in fact indistinguishable. There can be no question in this epic of any prehistory, of any genuine history of creation. On the contrary, we have only the transparent apparel of a deep insight into the already existing reality of the world and of man. This reality and its inner problem have here no boundary, no beginning and no end, no given determination enabling it to escape the caprice or fate of its own movement. 
What we read in Gen. I and 2 are genuine histories of creation. If there is a connexion with the Babylonian myth or its older sources, it is a critical connexion. Everything is so different that the only choice is either to see in the Jewish rendering a complete caricature of the Babylonian, or in the Babylonian a complete caricature of the Jewish, according to the standpoint adopted.
In Gen. 1 and 2 no less than everything obviously depends on the uniqueness and sovereignty of the Creator and the creative act- so much so that a reciprocity of creaturely speech or activity is not even mentioned in the first account, and only incidentally at the end of the second (in the naming of the animals and the saying about the woman brought to man). 
Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation, p. 89
Reading this one can also see how and why in Barth's doctrine of creation there is such an emphasis on the creation being a reality distinct from the Creator.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The scientific track record of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has done much to popularise science and is widely acclaimed as a gifted scientific writer. He is sometimes introduced as a distinguished scientist. But is he? When they apply for jobs, grants, are nominated for prizes, or for membership of learned societies, scientists are evaluated almost exclusively on the quality and impact of their publications of original research in refereed scientific journals. One measure of a scientists contributions to the body of scientific knowledge is how often these publications are cited. Below, I give a summary of Dawkins' record.

Dawkins' CV with a complete publication list is available here (aside: the publication list on Wikipedia is incomplete). It seems to me that the last publication which actually involves original research in a refereed scientific journal is:

Dawkins, Richard; Brockmann, H.J. (1980). "Do digger wasps commit the concorde fallacy?". Animal Behaviour 28 (3): 892–896.

All other papers for the last thirty years seem to be either book chapters, book reviews in scientific journals, commentary on the research of others, philosophy, response to critics, .....

Citations of any scientists' papers can be accessed via the ISI Web of Science. One widely used measure of a scientists career influence is their h-index. If a scientist has N papers that have been cited N or more times then they have an h-index of N. According to the Web of Science, Dawkins appears to have an h-index of 17. (The raw data is here and here).

To put this in perspective, in the original paper proposing the index, Jorge Hirsch suggested that, for physicists, an h-index of about 10–12 might be appropriate to receive tenure at a major research university in the US. A value of about 18 might be appropriate for promotion to full professor, 15–20 could mean being elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society. Election to the US National Academy of Sciences might require an h-index larger than 45. Hirsch noted that biologists tended to have higher h-indices than physicists. Specifically, he found that among 36 new inductees in the National Academy of Sciences in biological and biomedical sciences in 2005, the average h-index was 57.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Brilliant but wrong

Many scientists consider Sir Isaac Newton to be the most brilliant scientist of all time. It is not widely known that he wrote more about religion than he did about science.
To me, his life and religious views illustrate a few things:
  • Great intellects take the Bible seriously.
  • You can be a genius and be correct on some matters, but badly wrong on others.
  • The dangers of mis-interpreting apocalyptic literature.
  • Governments should not legislate theological orthodoxy
The Wikipedia entry on his religious views is worth reading in full. It notes:
He devoted more time to the study of Scripture than to science, and he said, "I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily."[8] He spent a great deal of time trying to discover hidden messages within the Bible.

Newton did not believe in the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, but did not make these views public during his lifetime, presumably because they were illegal and could have led to loss of employment.
To get the flavour of Newton's views it is worth skimming some of his Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (published posthumously). He was quite confident scripture predicted the world would not end before 2060.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reading Revelation

10The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and of the springs of water. 11The name of the star is Wormwood [*]. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter.

[*] Wormwood is the name of a plant and of the bitter-tasting extract derived from it.
Welcome to the strange world of the book of Revelation! We are starting a sermon series on the book at church. I am really looking forward to it (once I get back to Australia). I really love the book now, but previously I avoided it at as "too hard." This was probably a back reaction to the many strange interpretations that people come up with for specific verses in the book.

For example, according to Wikipedia the Ukrainian word for mugwort or wormwood (Artemisia vulgaris) is "chornobyl"? The word is a combination of the words chornyi (чорний, black) andbyllia (билля, grass blades or stalks), hence it literally means black grass or black stalks. This is the origin of the name of the city which was evacuated in 1986 due to the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. In 1986 I remember reading this in The New York Times and that many Ukrainians (and no doubt others) considered the disaster was a fulfilment of the above verse in Revelation.

However, I finally learned that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which is giving suffering Christians hope for the return of Jesus and a heavenly future where there will be no more suffering or pain or death and Jesus will be worshiped as he should be (aside: hence the web address of this blog). One thing that really helped my understanding was a beautiful little book, The Gospel and Revelation, by Graeme Goldsworthy. He shows many passages in Revelation which are intended to remind readers of parallel passages in the Old Testament. For example, the ESV translation gives these OT verses as cross-references on Revelation 8:11 above.

So perhaps the bitterness in the water that causes people to die is not nuclear radiation from Chernobyl but actually a bitterness of heart that is associated with rejecting God's Word leading to death and judgement.

Recommended book on emergence

After my talk yesterday about emergence and reductionism in science and theology there was some interest in learning more about the science of emergence. In my talk I recommended Bob Laughlin's book, A Different Universe: reinventing physics from the bottom down, but expressed doubt it is very accessible to non-physicists.
An alternative and more accessible book is Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software by Steven Johnson.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Koran on Creation

A commonly held view is that "All religions have their creation myths. They all say basically the same thing." But is this really true?

I recently found a nice summary of the Koran's teaching on creation in book, The Islamic View of Major Christian Teachings (click for free download of pdf), by Christine Schirrmacher, Adjunct Professor of Islamic Studies at the Protestant University in Leuven. [She is speaking at the conference I am at this weekend].
Here are a few quotes that I thought particularly helpful:

Apart from the frequent and general observation that God created heaven and earth and mankind, the Koran does not contain any detailed report of the creation as in the Old Testament, except in surah 41:9-13, which describes the creation as having been completed in six days.....

We do not read anywhere in the Koran, however, that God made man “in his image,” as emphasized in the Old Testament (Genesis 1:21). This would be irreconcilable with the greatness and uniqueness of God, who cannot in any way be compared with mankind. Also, surah 40:57 describes the creation of heaven and earth as a ‘greater wonder’ than the creation of man. In contrast, the creation account in the Old Testament describes the making of man as the crowning of creation....

The Koran emphasizes that God was not tired after the creation and did not rest, as did the God of the Bible: “We created the heavens and the earth, and everything inbetween in six days, but no tiredness came over us” (50:38). God does not suffer tiredness and does not require sleep. God does not require Muslims to hold a Sabbath, and so, up until the modern day, there is no official weekly day of rest in the Muslim world, although Friday has a special status. In certain countries, Sunday has been introduced as a day of rest as a result of earlier European colonization.

Furthermore, these differences are not just minor details but rather concern two of the central ideas of the Genesis text.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Atheist intellectuals abandon their faith

A.N. Wilson is a leading British intellectual who wrote influential books in the 1990's attacking the Bible and Christianity. However, last year he announced that he now believed that Jesus did rise from the dead. His moving testimony in the Daily Mail, discusses arguments for the resurrection and ends
But an even stronger argument is the way that Christian faith transforms individual lives - the lives of the men and women with whom you mingle on a daily basis, the man, woman or child next to you in church tomorrow morning.
A nice article in the Wall Street Journal by Timothy Larson compares Wilson's story to that of some of leading "skeptics" of the 19th century who had similar conversions.

Gun culture

Yesterday I heard a talk by Bill Edgar (Westminster Seminary) about Christian perspectives on culture. As part of the background he considered the famous line, often associated with Nazi leaders:
"when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun"

There is a fascinating history on Wikipedia about the actual origin and context of the latter saying in the Nazi play, Schalgeter.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Resting from life's pressure

After I gave my talk on mental health and well being for academics today, one of the audience pointed out something that I found quite profound and helpful.
A Sabbath day of rest is important. But by God's grace, Christians can rest from striving, perfectionism, pressure, anxiety, ....
The Rest God promises his people is much more than a weekly day to recuperate.

Hebrews 4 challenges and comforts Christians:

3For we who have believed enter that rest, ....although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.4For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: "And God rested on the seventh day from all his works."

8For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

Martyrdom in the home of golf

I am not a big fan of golf. But I do like walking with our dog on the golf course near our home at dusk.... Anyway, since arriving in the US I have noticed how much attention that the British Open (being played in St. Andrew's Scotland) is getting in the media. I fear that some of this high level of coverage stems from a media obsession with Tiger Woods....
One newspaper article even gave a bit of background on the town including mentioning the martyr's memorials in the street cobblestones. This brought back some personal memories for me.

Patrick Hamilton, one of the first leaders of the Scottish reformation, was martyred in 1528 at age 24. According to Wikipedia:
His only book, Loci communes, known as "Patrick's Places", set forth the doctrine of justification by faith and the contrast between the gospel and the law in a series of clear-cut propositions. It is to be found in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments. [Book of Martyrs]
The complete text of the book is here.

The photo above [taken from a beautiful collection of photos of Scotland by James G. Mundey] shows the initials PH, the memorial for Patrick Hamilton.

About a decade ago I interviewed for a job at St. Andrews University [which thankfully I did not get]. I think the formal interview was in a room just above this monument. This helped keep things in perspective.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Plane movies

I just flew to the US (a 13 hour flight). I love my new MacBook Pro which has a very long battery life (5-6 hours) and so I can get lots of work done. But inevitably, my brain starts to turn to mush and I watch movies. Before DVDs these were practically the only movies I ever watched. Furthermore, I think my judgement is clouded by my mental state. A couple of times I watched movies on the plane, enjoyed them, and then recommended them to my family, to discover they were quite mediocre. So take the following with a grain of salt.

Both are quite funny but could have done without some of the unnecessary sexual innuendo and night club scenes.

Date Night has quite a positive picture of marriage.
There is also some good satire of morality in New York city. Even though some of the characters had no qualms about violence, blackmail, theft, divorce, drug trafficking,....
they claim they would never sink so morally low as to steal someone else's dinner reservation at a restaurant!

I am not sure non-Australians will find Wog boys 2 very funny. It is a bit like an Australian version of my Big Fat Greek wedding.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mental health for academics

On thursday I am giving a talk on mental health and well being at a conference for Christian academics and postgrads in the US. Here are the draft slides.
I thought the studies showing connections between depression, procrastination, and perfectionism were particularly interesting.
Feedback welcome.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Theology without reductionism

On Friday I am giving a talk, "Emergence and reductionism in science and theology," at a conference on Christ, Culture, and the Academy.
Here are the slides for a version of the talk I have given previously. The associated paper is forthcoming in the Scottish Journal of Theology and the abstract is below.
Feedback welcome.

The success of reductionism as a method in the natural sciences has heavily influenced modern theology, much of which attempts to reduce theology to other disciplines. However, the past few decades in science have shown the limitations of reductionism and the importance of emergence. The properties of complex systems with many constituents cannot be understood solely in terms of the constituent components and their interactions. I illustrate emergent properties and concepts with specific examples from geometry, condensed matter physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. Emergence leads to a stratification of reality that affirms that ontology determines epistemology. To show the significance of emergence for the dialogue between theology and the natural sciences parallels are drawn with the theology of Karl Barth. The approach here is distinctly different from most writing on emergence and theology which embraces “strong” emergence (which most scientists consider speculative), an immanent God, and does not engage with orthodox Christian theology. Aspects of Barth’s theology that are particularly relevant include his view that theology is an autonomous discipline which is not reducible to anthropology or history, the irreducible character of revelation, and the emphasis that ontology determines epistemology.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Commonality of liberals and fundamentalists?

The decisive problem of fundamentalism is not so different after all from the problem of liberalism. Both appear to balk at the fact that God himself is the one ultimate Judge of the truth or falsity, the adequacy or inadequacy, of all human conceptions and statements about him.
Thomas F. Torrance, Preface to Reality and Evangelical Theology, page 18, 1999, IVP edition

An ethical dilemma?

Last week my wife and I really enjoyed watching the movie, Julia and Julie, based on the true story of Julie Powell who writes a daily blog as she cooks her way through all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in just one year. Incidentally, it is the first movie to be made about blogging. There is a great scene when Julie's husband gets angry about how narcissistic her blogging is. One thing we appreciated was that (unlike many Hollywood movies) the movie presented a very positive view of marriage, since both Julia and Julie had good marriages.

So since I liked the movie so much, why not recommend it?

Often after we watch movies Robin and I like to go online and read more background..... Unfortunately, in this case the "romance" was spoiled by reading about the "not so nice" life of Julie Powell since her success. This raises ethical questions about whether we should encourage other people to see movies (or read books) made by people who are not good role models but from our recommendations, will benefit financially and have a higher public profile.

Or are we taking this all a bit too seriously? Is this somewhat silly since many prominent authors and movie makes are bad role models? I fear if I researched most of these people I would find their personal lives are a mess. Is it inconsistent to not recommend a specific movie or book just because I actually know the details of the moral failures in that specific case?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Are you depressed?

When you're depressed is a helpful and balanced article by Mark McMinn in the Christianity Today March 2009 Cover package on The Depression Epidemic.
It suggests 3 key questions to ask to evaluate depression and 5 possible steps to take. It ends, "There may be a time to take Prozac, and a time to give it up, but there is never a time to give up hope."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How does God act in the world?

Last week I heard a nice talk by Robert Brennan, "Divine Agency in the world: Motivator and Achilles' heel of the relationship between Theology and Science."

A few of the things I learnt from this fascinating talk include:

As late as the seventeenth century, discussions of God's action in the world were shaped by notions of inspiration, divine perfection, and God's two books of revelation (nature and Scripture). These notions were all discussed with reference to the Trinity and Christology.
However, in modernity these three notions are discussed without reference to the Trinity and Christology. [Robert considers this problematic].

Late medieval notions of divine perfection (derived from Greek philosophy?) shaped many theological discussions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, William Paley "asserted that harmonious design in nature was a proof of the Christian faith." Rejection of Paley's argument was influential in Darwin's rationalisation of his own rejection of Christianity following the death of his daughter. Darwin had practically memorised Paley while a divinity student at Cambridge.

Rejection of this notion of "perfection" in nature led to 19th century questioning of God's action in the world.

Newton's notions of divine agency in the material world were shaped by Augustinian notion of divine agency in human's, particularly with regard to inspiration.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Depression, medication, and hope

Last year Christianity Today had a cover story, The Depression Epidemic, which has several useful articles on a Christian perspective on depression.
The lead article is by Dan. G. Blazer, a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Science at Duke University Medical School.
I liked the article because of its balanced perspective and distinctly Christian dimension. A few ideas from the article:

Humans are complex.
Depression is a complex response of an individual, and not not independent of their interactions with society. We cannot be simply reduced to biochemistry, to brains connected to bodies, to isolated individuals.
Hence, treatments of individuals that focus solely on medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, prayer, or socialisation, will have limited success.
"no symptom is more central to depression than the loss of hope."

The article ends well:
Those who bear the marks of despair on their bodies need a community that bears the world's only sure hope in its body. They need communities that rehearse this hope again and again and delight in their shared foretaste of God's promised world to come. They need to see that this great promise, secured by Christ's resurrection, compels us to work amidst the wreckage in hope. In so doing, the church provides her depressed members with a plausible hope and a tangible reminder of the message they most need to hear: This sin-riddled reality does not have the last word. Christ as embodied in his church is the last word.
I am reading on this subject because I was asked to speak on "Mental health and well being for academics" at a conference on Christ, Culture, and the Academy, in ten days.... More to follow...

Saturday, July 3, 2010

True orthodoxy under test

The fact that, through the free grace of God, Jesus Christ is made our Righteousness means that we have no righteousness of our own. To be put freely in the right with God means that we and all our vaunted right are utterly called in question before God.... No one may boast of his own orthodoxy any more than he may boast of his own righteousness. Justification thus turns out to be the strongest statement of the objectivity of faith and knowledge..... the very beliefs which we profess and formulate as obediently and carefully as we can in fidelity to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ are themselves called into question by that revelation, for they have their truth not in themselves but in him to whom they refer,...
This is the crux at which fundamentalism is put to its severest test...
Thomas F. Torrance, Preface to Reality and Evangelical Theology, pages 18-19, 1999, IVP edition

The creature can understand the creation

One issue I flagged in my talk this week at the Church and Academy conference was the extent to which Barth's Doctrine of Creation addresses the issue of the fact that science so works. Is this due to the common creator of the creature and the creation?

Robert Brennan, helpfully pointed out that this issue has been addressed extensively by Thomas F. Torrance. I need to go back and read more of what he wrote on this. A nice overview is in Alister McGrath's Intellectual Biography of Torrance, which I read several years back.