Friday, April 30, 2010

Who is questioning who?

We all have questions about God and for God? On one level this is fine, but on another we need perspective. God is God and we are not. This comes through clearly in the book of Job. After 37 chapters of Job and his friends arguing about the answer to the question, "Why is Job suffering?" God finally speaks.
As we read the Bible we may have questions but we need to careful to not overlook that it has questions for us!

Chapter 38 begins

1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
2 "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

This is an engraving by William Blake from his Illustrations to the Book of Job.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Laughing (painfully) at ourselves

This evening my family and I watched a DVD of Babakiueria (Barbecue Area) a satirical look at Australian aboriginal issues, using the clever device of a role reversal where blacks invade a land inhabited by whites who then become a minority. The DVD (originally a TV show in 1986) is the format of a documentary made by blacks which looks at white culture from a patronising point of view.

It is hilarious on the one hand, but cutting because some of the caricatures are so close to the truth.

You can watch it here on YouTube.

A legacy of agreeing to disagree

Through my trip to India I came to encounter this excellent book of essays, The Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen. He is currently a Professor at Harvard and received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998, for his work on developmental and welfare economics.
The book was launched in 2005, by the then Indian Prime Minister, as reported on the front page of The Hindu newspaper.

Sen emphasizes India's long history for public debate about important ideas, both political and religious. Participants in this debate can and should respect one another while holding to different convictions and live peacefully together. This is the reason why democracy has survived in India, in contrast to many other countries previously ruled by European colonial powers. He counters the argument th
at this is a legacy of British rule, given that democracy did not last in other countries that were formerly part of the British empire.

A critical review of the book by Gordon Johnson was published in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

We are free but choose ... slavery

God respects our integrity so much he gives us the freedom to choose how we will live. Like a pained parent he warns us but lets us make choices for ourselves and live with the consequences.

This is clear in the account in 1 Samuel 8 of Israel's desire for a king, just like the surrounding nations.

So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11He said, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day."

19But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, "No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

God Delusion Debate II in Brisbane

God Delusion Debate: Part 2

Wednesday, April 28, 7:00pm to 9:00pm

This is a follow up event from previous God Delusion Debate event in March. [I was on the Q&A Panel then but won't be there this time as I will be en route back from India]

Additional clips of the debate Dawkins did with John Lennox will be shown. [You can watch the full debate online here]. Followed by a question and answer time with several Christian academics: a scientist, a lawyer, and a historian.

Held at the Raybould Lecture Theatre in the Hawken Engineering Building at University of Queensland.

The event is organised by Evangelical Students.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Church in Bangalore

Yesterday I was blessed to attend the Christian Fellowship Centre in Bangalore. It is always encouraging to see how the Gospel transcends culture and changes lives. Church life may be expressed differently in a specific cultural context in terms of meeting formats, dress, music, ...
The church website has lots of good resources (books, pamphlets, sermons) which are offered free. Furthermore, I encourage reading the Centre's financial policy which you may find challenging and humbling. I did.

Can science disprove God?

Here is the current version of the slides that go with the talk I will give tomorrow night at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Compassion in Jesus name

Yesterday I was privileged to visit the Bethel Student Centre in the Peenya Plantation, a very poor neighbourhood in Bangalore. The centre is run by a local church, Bethel Telegu Church, and involves a program for about 300 children who are sponsored by Compassion.

I was very impressed by the commitment and professionalism of the staff and their love and care for the children. I was able to visit with several families in the community and was very humbled by their houses which consist of a single room and no running water. In spite of these difficult circumstances a number of girls who have been part of the Compassion program are now studying at university. [How you do this while still living in a one room house challenges me!] The strong emphasis on the value of education and tutoring in the program is clearly paying off.

The level of planning, documentation, and accountability in the program was better than I have encountered in many Western churches and ministries.

Through the centre children receive each day one meal, tutoring, games, and Bible teaching. There are also field trips, medical checkups, and health education.

Many things struck me and I learnt a lot. One was just how happy a lot of the kids were. To me they seemed happier, more respectful, and carried themselves with more dignity than many affluent Western kids.

Sponsoring a Compassion child costs US$38 per month [which is tax deductible]. It is hard for me to think of any investment with a higher rate of return...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Taking responsibility for the past

For any of us to take responsibility for our past actions and to ask for forgiveness is difficult. Repentance for the sin of our society, culture, or nation, is even harder. Some would even deny this is necessary. Yet, Old Testament prophets did not seem to make this distinction.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., has a thought-provoking op-ed piece in the New York Times, Ending the slavery blame-game, which discusses the thorny issue of reparations for the descendants of slaves, including the role of African leaders. One paragraph was particularly moving and humbling:
In 1999, ..., President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin astonished an all-black congregation in Baltimore by falling to his knees and begging African-Americans’ forgiveness for the “shameful” and “abominable” role Africans played in the trade. Other African leaders, including Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, followed Mr. Kerekou’s bold example.
I thank my wonderful wife for bringing this article to my attention.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Is racism worse than injustice?

In Australia, there has recently been a major controversy about violence against Indian students, and whether it was racially motivated, or "just" part of regular crime and violence among young people in Australia. One of my Indian hosts here brought to my attention an excellent article, Oz & Us: a banged-up equation? that just appeared in the Times of India newspaper. It is also interesting to read the comments on line, most of which seem to consider the article to accurately reflect the problem.

I was impressed by the quality of the journalism and the balance presented. (A few Australian journalists could learn something here...). In particular, it put the problems of Indian students in Australia in a broader social and political context. Furthermore, it argues that the responsibility for their problems lies with a broad range of parties (bad Australian Government policies, greedy Indian and Australian "entrepreneurs", mono-cultural Australians, the students themselves, ....).

On the one hand, as an Australian I was relieved that racism is not the major problem here. On the other hand, I am extremely embarrassed that my Government developed an educational (and foreign) policy that seems to have been solely motivated and influenced by financial greed. This policy has led to significant suffering and injustice. Surely, I should be more embarrassed by that than racism by a bunch of young thugs!

Images of India

I am really enjoying my time here. I am not sure I can write any coherent description so here are a few random vignettes:

the taxi from the airport weaving between cars at 120 km/hr (speed limit was 80 km/hr)
... driver does not wear a seat belt ... driver does not know where to go so picks up a man on the street who does...

an abundance of dogs on the streets

friendly warm gentle people.... beautiful colourful saris

struggling to eat with my fingers, especially my right hand (I am left-handed...)

delicious food...

a labor intensive economy... an abundance of restaurant servers, cooks, security guards, cleaners, ...

no curb and guttering anywhere .... lots of stained unpainted cement walls ... building rubbish everywhere...

drinking coconut juice straight from the coconut

traffic is organised chaos

Forthcoming talk in India

This is the poster (click for a larger view) of the public lecture I will give on monday night at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. The talk is sponsored by the IISc Bible Study Forum.
I will post a draft of the talk later.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Visit to India

This week I am in Bangalore, India for a scientific conference (you can read more about it on my work blog, condensed concepts). Tonight I have been asked to give a talk, Can Science see the end of the universe?, to a Christian group of faculty at the Indian Institute of Science. The current version of the powerpoint slides for the talk are here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Does the stream forever glide?

Still glides the stream and shall forever glide (1888) by Arthur Streeton, one of Australia's most famous artists. This painting of the Yarra River in Melbourne, helped launch his career.

What does it have to do with theology? In his But Now talk Keith Birchley used it to illustrate the notion of religion going on and on. But now, that has changed with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Are Australians deluded?

Not about God, but about house prices. We have one of the highest levels of home ownership in the world and one of the largest fraction of personal investment (and debt) is in personal homes.

Now we have a new distinction. According to the Economist a good measure of whether house prices are over-valued is the ratio of house price to rental income compared to its historical average. Currently, Australia has the highest value in the world! (56%) For all you budding home buyers about to embark on financial slavery consider this warning from the Age.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Right but wrong

Today I read through the fourth speech by Elihu (Job 36-37), the angry young friend of Job. He seems to be sincerely concerned to defend God's justice and righteousness. Elihu's speech shows an awe and respect for God's power manifest in Creation. It ends,

God is clothed with awesome majesty.
23The Almighty—we cannot find him;
he is great in power;
justice and abundant righteousness he will not violate.
24Therefore men fear him;
he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit."

So, what is the problem? Perhaps, Elihu seems to try to impose on the world and Job his neat little equation (or mantra) suffering equals unconfessed sin. Furthermore, those who disagreed with him were portrayed as arrogant and attacking the very character of God.

This should humble us and how we relate to others.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A two word summary of the Gospel?

What would yours be?
I heard a great talk this week by Keith Birchley at the UniBible Talks on campus.
The talk was on Romans 3:21-26 which begins:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law
Martin Luther said this passage is "the very centre and kernel of the Epistle and of all of Scripture." Martin Lloyd-Jones said the two words, "But now" are the two most important words in the Bible!
Jesus death and resurrection are a turning point (a nuclear explosion!) in the spiritual history of the universe. It is no longer religion (man trying to justify himself) as usual.

On the "But now", Karl Barth says:
We stand here before and irresistible and all-embracing dissolution of the world of time and things and men, before a penetrating and ultimate KRISIS, before the supremacy of a negation by which all existence is rolled up.....
But now directs our attention to time which is beyond time, to space which has no locality, to the impossible possibility, to the gospel of transformation, to the imminent Coming of the Kingdom of God, to affirmation in negation, to salvation in the world, to acquittal in condemnation, to eternity in time, to life in death - I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away. This is the Word of God.
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition, p.91-92.

The American "civil" war

Mike Bird has an interesting post quoting a Briefing article by John Woodhouse which comments on differences between Evangelicalism in the USA and UK (and Australia).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The soul of science

The review is for the journal Science and Christian Belief.

I welcome any comments.

Great Bible video clips for adults (and kids)

At church on Sunday, one of our ministers Dave Pitt gave a nice overview of the Bible, for both kids and adults, using lots of fun visual illustrations, including clips from Jelly Telly. Here is a fun one on the Book of Samuel.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Scientific gobbledygook

I am working on my review of the book Mind, Brain and the Elusive Soul: Human Systems of Cognitive Science and Religion, by Mark Graves.
The review is for the journal Science and Christian Belief

The question the book addresses is, “How do contemporary investigations in cognitive and brain science, pragmatic philosophy, and emergent systems theory impact upon a theological understanding of soul and spirit?” (p. 207).

So what are cognitive science and "emergent systems theory"? The Wikipedia entries on Cognitive science and Systems theory give a good introduction and overview to these enterprises. To me, cognitive science is a legitimate and exciting enterprise involving multiple academic disciplines. It is populated by many leading researchers from a range of disciplines and has made important contributions to our understanding of how the brain works and functions (and does not function at times).

However, in distinct contrast "emergent systems theory" seems to be a "theory of everything" that is "going to change the world." It is promoted by people such as Ervin Laszlo who do not hold regular academic positions and argue for highly speculative positions that are well outside the scientific mainstream. Wikipedia states that Lazlo's 2004 book:

Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything posits a field of information as the substance of the cosmos. Using the Sanskrit and Vedic term for "space", Akasha, he calls this information field the "Akashic field" or "A-field". He posits that the "quantum vacuum" (see Vacuum state) is the fundamental energy and information-carrying field that informs not just the current universe, but all universes past and present (collectively, the "Metaverse").

László describes how such an informational field can explain why our universe appears to be fine-tuned as to form galaxies and conscious lifeforms; and why evolution is an informed, not random, process. He believes that the hypothesis solves several problems that emerge from quantum physics, especially nonlocality and quantum entanglement.

I regret to say that this is just scientific "gobbledygook". It claims connections and research results that are not valid.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Science requires faith

A little over 2 years ago Paul Davies wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Taking Science on Faith, which produced quite a strong negative reaction from some of my fellow theoretical physicists. Here are a few quotes from Davies article:
science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way....

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs..... But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do? be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin.....

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence....

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way....

....until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

Overall I agree with Davies and I think the criticisms of his article are not justified. His response makes interesting reading.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Two scholars asks hard questions

RJS (a Chemistry professor) has a thoughtful post A Mind for Truth? concerning a recent controversy about an interview of the distinguished Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke, that was posted on the Biologos website. The Biologos review of the history of the controversy is here.

The angry young man boldly corrects his elders

Why do we suffer? Why do the "innocent" suffer?
Why don't the wicked get what they deserve?
Is there justice in God's world?

Job experienced great suffering. His friends had a simple answer. It was because Job had sinned and needed to repent. They claimed there was a simple equation, "The righteous prosper. The unrighteous suffer." The "friends" lectured Job at great length. But, Job claimed his integrity.

The painting is Job and His Friends by Ilya Yefimovich-Repin 1869. I found it here.

In Chapter 32 of Job, a new character enters the conversation.
1So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. 2Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger. He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God. 3He burned with anger also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong.4Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job because they were older than he. 5And when Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouth of these three men, he burned with anger.
Why was he so angry? Was he scared that the questions did not have the simple answers he clung to.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Do I need a map to get anywhere?

C.S. Lewis is certainly a master at using analogies to explain theology. I found the discussion below from Mere Christianity helpful. It is from the beginning chapter of Book IV, Beyond Personality: or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity. It is partly answering a man who said he had no need for traditional doctrine because he experienced God while alone in the desert.
if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion-all about feeling God in nature, and so on-is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

War is hell 2

My family and I just watched a DVD, My Brother Jack, based on a classic Australian novel by George Johnston. I read the novel when I was around 20 and found this adaptation as a TV mini-series enthralling.
It describes the story of the author's struggle into adulthood, in suburban Melbourne between the world wars. As David Meredith, he grows up with an abusive father, who is tormented by his WWI experience, including exposure to mustard gas. The whole story is reflected through the uncertain David's relationship with his older confident brother.
It chronicle's David's passion and struggle to be a writer and eventual success as a journalist and then war-time correspondent and author. But, this is against the backdrop of his failing marriage and strains with his parents and brothers.
The movie captures well the influence of close family relationships, for better and for worse. And the incredible damage that war does, long after the shooting stops....

Monday, April 5, 2010

Searching for understanding

In trying to understand the relationship between science (indeed all human knowledge) and the Bible, Job 28 is helpful. Job has encountered great personal suffering and his friends eagerly share with him their wisdom, which crudely speaking seems to be based on the equation that suffering is directly proportional to ones sin (or inversely proportional to personal integrity).
In chapter 27, Job defends his personal integrity. In Job 28, he considers man's search high and low in the material world to find wisdom and true understanding.

12"But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
13Man does not know its worth,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
14The deep says, 'It is not in me,'
and the sea says, 'It is not with me.'
15It cannot be bought for gold, ....

23"God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place....

28And he said to man,'Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.'"

Man's search will reveal many mysteries about the material world but it will not reveal the true meaning of life. In particular, it will not reveal answers to the deep questions that Job asks about the meaning and significance of his personal suffering. Indeed, the best place to find that is in the suffering of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 contrasts that wisdom in weakness to the power and strength of the world.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Our humiliation of God

To mark Easter, last night my family watched The Passion of Christ movie produced by Mel Gibson. This is the second time I have seen it. Both times I have been reluctant to watch it, probably because of its graphic depiction of the violence. Yet both times I have been glad I have watched it. Both times, I must thank my wife for her eagerness to watch it.

A few things I appreciate about the movie are the depictions of:
  • the spiritual battle of Jesus, both in the Garden and as he goes to the cross
  • the inner torment of Judas
  • Mary's grief as she watches her son tortured
  • the anger and self-righteous confidence of the religious leaders
  • the brutality of the Roman rule of Judea
  • Pilate's inner struggle to act justly, to maintain stability, and listen to his wife
  • the complete humiliation of Jesus (and God)
  • the mocking of Jesus by the crowds
The movie confronts the viewer to ask: which character in the drama am I?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Struggling with the dialectic of faith and works

This morning my son and I read the second Faith chapter in C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. He considers our struggle to understand the relative role of faith in Christ and our own efforts in living as a Christian. I found the following passages particularly helpful:
Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ. I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary. A serious moral effort is the only thing that will bring you to the point where you throw up the sponge. Faith in Christ is the only thing to save you from despair at that point: and out of that Faith in Him good actions must inevitably come....

The Bible really seems to clinch the matter when it puts. the two things together into one amazing sentence. The first half is, 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling'- which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions: but the second half goes on, 'For it is God who worketh in you'- which looks as if God did everything and we nothing. I am afraid that is the sort of thing we come up against in Christianity. I am puzzled, but I am not surprised. You see, we are now trying to understand, and to separate into watertight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together. And, of course, we begin by thinking it is like two men working together, so that you could say, 'He did this bit and I did that.' But this way of thinking breaks down. God is not like that. He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it. In the attempt to express it different Churches say different things. But you will find that even those who insist most strongly on the importance of good actions tell you need Faith; and even those who insist most strongly on Faith tell you to do good actions. At any rate that is as far as I can go.
The Bible verse Lewis is quoting is Phillipians 2:11-13. Until now I had not appreciated the logical tension (or dialectic) inherent in that verse.

Friday, April 2, 2010

There is no Good Friday without Easter!

Since it is Good Friday I read the chapter, "Was crucified, Dead, and Buried, He descended into Hell," from Karl Barth's Dogmatics in Outline [an exposition of the Apostle's Creed]. His summary is
In the death of Jesus Christ God has humiliated Himself and rendered Himself up, in order to accomplish His law upon sinful man by taking his place and thus once for all removing from him to Himself the curse that affects him, the punishment he deserves, the past he is hurrying to meet, the abandonment into which he has fallen.
Barth stresses the importance of not separating Good Friday and Easter, described as theologia crucis and theologia gloria. There is a tendency to gravitate more towards one than the other.
But we ought not to erect and fix any opposition. ... there is no Easter without Good Friday, but equally certainly there is no Good Friday without Easter!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

New DVD about science and Christianity

The Centre for Public Christianity just sent me a copy of a new DVD God Science which features interviews with scientists, philosophers, and historians about the relationship between science and faith. A few of the interviews can be seen online here.
On the DVD, I am interviewed about the concept of emergence in science and theology.

What is the Bible clear about?

The Bible is not clear about everything (diet, politics, science, free will vs. pre-destination, baptism, church government, ....)

But it is VERY clear about who God is, who we are, and how we can be in a covenantal relationship with God through Jesus. I found this statement (partly based on 2 Timothy 3:16) in the Westminster Confession of Faith helpful:
VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.