Thursday, September 30, 2010

The promise of Rest

What is the significance of the seventh day in the Genesis creation saga? This follows up on my previous post about the significance of God resting on the seventh day the commandment to keep the Sabbath. I am reading through Exodus and today I got to chapter 31. I found it noteworthy that the last thing the LORD said to Moses before he gave him the two tablets:
15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.

Again the creation account is linked to the covenant, to the Sabbath rest, and to life and death.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Creation history or creation of a history?

It is popular folklore that 150 years ago in Oxford there was a watershed event in the history of the relationship between science and Christianity: the Wilberforce-Huxley debate about Darwin's recently published On the Origin of Species.
At the Polkinghorne 80th birthday conference this week in Oxford we were given copies of two recent articles by the Oxford historian Allan Chapman from the Oxford Magazine, "Monkeying about with History: Remembering the `Great Debate'  of 1860?" and "Aping our Ancestors: how the `Great Debate' of 1860 was invented". [Unfortunately, I cannot find copies online].

The first article notes that there are no surviving records of the actual content of the debate and reviews documents from the period that show that it actually generated little discussion at the time. Hence, it is not clear that it really was a watershed event.
The second article reviews the historical background of the emerging struggle between the "Grand Amateurs" of British science who were often clergyman and privately funded [e.g. Wilberforce and Darwin] how the debate and the new generation of "professional" scientists [embodied by Huxley] who aspired to work in secular institutions and receive government funding for their research. Decades later, for the purposes of the political agenda of the latter camp [embodied in the X-Club founded by Huxley] a mythical version of the debate where science triumphed over religion seemed to have served a useful polemical purpose.

In 2001 John Hedley Brooke, previously Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion, at Oxford gave a nice lecture on the same topic at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

History always seems to be more complicated than we would like to think.

A scientist looks at the Nicene creed

I am enjoying reading John Polkinghorne's Science and Christian Belief: Theological reflections of a bottom-up thinker. He takes the Nicene Creed and reflects on it phrase by phase. The book is based on his 1993-1994 Gifford lectures.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Quantum theory is like a drug

I am in Oxford for a conference Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, in honour of the 80th Birthday of Sir John Polkinghorne.
Here is some of the last two paragraphs of Polkinghorne's book Quantum Theory: A very short introduction.

It seems appropriate to close this chapter with an intellectual health warning. Quantum theory is certainly strange and surprising, but it is not so odd that according to it `anything goes.' Of course, no one would actually argue with such crudity, but there is a kind of discourse that can come perilously close to adopting that caricature attitude. One might call it `quantum hype.' I want to suggest that sobriety is in order when making an appeal to quantum insight.
..... Wave/particle duality is a highly surprising and instructive phenomenon, whose seemingly paradoxical character has been resolved for us by the insights of quantum field theory. It does not, however, afford us a license to indulge in embracing any pair of apparently contradictory notions that take our fancy. Like a powerful drug, quantum theory is wonderful when applied correctly, disastrous when abused and misapplied.

The cartoon is from xkcd.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Giving the seven day creation a rest

What are the creation texts in Genesis really about it?
A colleague has continually emphasized to me that a main point of Genesis 1-2 is to teach the Israelites to keep the Sabbath. Genesis 2 says:
2And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
I thought he was pushing this point too far because it seems to diminish the significance of Genesis 1 and all it tells us. But then this morning (on the Sabbath) I read in the ten commandments (Exodus 20):

8 "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. ... 11For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Here is a little of Karl Barth's commentary on Genesis 2:3
the real question is whether it is not a modern notion to interpret rest in the sense of recuperation after preceding exhaustion. It is true that in the parallel in Ex. 3117 God's resting after the completion of creation is connected with the concept of "refreshment"(naphash), and that in Ex. 2312 this refreshment is also ascribed to the "son of thy handmaid" and the "stranger" who are also to keep the Sabbath. But as a comment on "resting" the term "refreshment rdquo; inclines us in the direction of "coming to oneself" or "reviving." And if (apart from the later laws of the Sabbath, cf. Ex. 208f., etc.) the decisive commentary is to be sought in the connexion, indicated in the passage itself ( v. 3), with the day which is blessed and sanctified for man by divine precedent, it must be said that according to Ex. 1629 the Sabbath is a divine gift to man. In bringing relief, it means positive blessedness, freedom, joy, rest and-it may be added-peace. ......
 In fact, however, the saga says and means the very opposite. It is a part of the history of creation that God completed His work and confronted it as a completed totality. The true and finished world in its actual constitution is heaven and earth and all the host of them, not without but with the God who willed and created them as the world, and who now confronts them in this being of theirs as the Lord. On the seventh day God was blessed as the One who had thus completed the world. And for this reason He has blessed and sanctified the seventh day to man as a day on which man may also be blessed and free and joyful, resting from his labours, belonging to himself in peace, breathing freely and being refreshed.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1 Doctrine of Creation, pp. 221-222

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Movie worth watching

Two nights ago my family watched a DVD of The Blind Side, for which Sandra Bullock received an Academy Award as best actress.
The movie is quite funny and inspiring. It does raise significant issues of social justice and racism and how they interact with sport, both for good and bad.

There is an interesting extract in the New York Times from the book on which the movie is based. I found it interesting that this is one of the few cases of a movie which very closely follows the true story.

To me the story underscored the value of the requirements that US college athletes have to keep a minimum academic standard in order to play. I think this is clearly in their best interest.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Six propositions about science and the Bible

I have been thinking about the following question: What are the really key ideas that Christians need to understand about the relationship between science and the Bible?

This has been stimulated by two events. First, I will be giving some lectures next month on the topic at Protestant Theological Seminary in Novi Sad, Serbia.
Second, I have a friend is going to teach science in a Christian university in Africa, and has asked for advice on relevant materials.

So, here is my first pass at some of the essential ideas/propositions.

1. The God of the Bible is both the Creator of the physical universe and the Redeemer of humanity

2. Science and the Bible have distinct purposes and present complementary pictures of the reality of the natural world.

3. Science cannot explain why it works.

4. Both science and the Bible raise many confusing unanswered questions. This should not lead to invocation of mysticism, miraculous divine intervention, nor pessimistic postmodernism or relativism, but rather should lead to humble investigation.

5. Philosophical perspectives and the scientific knowledge that stimulates them do not have the same truth certainty.

6. A distinction must be made between belief in evolution as a biological process and belief in evolution as a world view (emphasized by Tim Keller).

I welcome comments and suggestions.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hawking a rehash

People are starting to ask me about Stephen Hawking's new book, the Grand Design.
He seems to be pushing the idea of multiple universes as  a way to solve the problem of the Anthropic Principle (that the natural constants of nature are fine tuned). He also appears to be claiming that the quantum theory implies the existence of multiple universes. Of course, this all implies that God does not exist....
None of these claims are particularly new or based on actual experimental evidence...

There is a cynical review by John Crace in the Guardian and a critical review by Karl Giberson in the Huffington Post.

It is all in the name

Yesterday I read the Exodus 3 account of Moses and the burning bush. Moreover, this is when God reveals his name. It is interesting to read what Karl Barth says of the significance of the name YHWH (Yahweh).
Therefore the decisive act of revelation by which Israel is chosen as Israel and becomes the people of this God is the revelation of the name of God. It is significant enough that this revelation of the name (Ex. 3:13 f.) is in fact, in content, the refusal to give a name, for "I am that I am" can hardly mean more than that "I am He whose true name no one can utter." 
 By its very wording the revealed name is intended to recall the hiddenness even of the revealed God. But under this name, which in itself and as such pronounces His mystery, God does reveal Himself to His people, i.e., He begins, as Ex. 3 instructively shows, to have dealings with Israel through the announcing by Moses of its deliverance out of Egypt. From this standpoint one must add to the concept of the name of God that of the covenant, 
....In covenant with this people-"I will be their God and they shall be my people" (Jer. 3133) - the name of God is actualised. i.e., in the covenant with its divine promise and claim, with its record deposited in the Law, everything takes place that does take place through the name of Yahweh. ..... To have knowledge of the name of Yahweh, and to that degree knowledge of Yahweh Himself, and to participate in His revelation, is to be a partner in the covenant made by Him. Yahweh is thus God a second time in a very different way in the fact that He elects a people, makes it His people and rules it as His people.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 317-318

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Spot the addict

Noel Pearson has a good opinion piece, States addicted to pokies profits, criticising Australian state governments for legalising gambling. Here is an extract:

The political history of the introduction of poker machines in Australia is shameful. Nothing more plainly involves the state corrupting its own citizens than the officially sanctioned promotion and growth of gambling, particularly poker machines.
The culpability of Labor governments in this history is extraordinary to reflect on. How can a party that sees itself as actively seeking a better society, whose mission involves tackling poverty and disadvantage, be responsible for such a scourge? Can there be anything more contrary to the Labor notion of social justice than the state-sanctioned spread of poker machines?
There is a further moral issue which Pearson does not raise. Why are state governments so eager for these revenues? It is because of pressures from their citizens. We want/demand/expect higher and higher level of government services (health, education, roads, police, parks, welfare, ...) but at the same time do not want to have to pay higher taxes in order to provide them! So who are the real addicts? The gamblers, the governments, or prosperous demanding citizens?

What is sacred ground?

Each week I go out for breakfast with my son, usually at Hungry Jack's. We read the newspaper and talk about a Christian book we are reading.
This is one of the few times in the week when I look at a hard copy of a newspaper. I still prefer it to reading online.
In today's Australian newspaper there is a good column by Greg Sheridan, Both sides guilty of excess in US Islam debate.
He mentions an excellent column by Charles Krauthammer, Sacrilege at Ground Zero, which gives a persuasive and balanced argument about why building a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks is not a good idea. He points out the relevant example of how Pope John Paul II ordered Carmelite nuns to leave the monastery they had build near Auschwitz because it was an inappropriate location.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The mission of teaching

Teaching is hard work.
Effective teaching where students actually learn something is demanding and an elusive art.
Teaching cross culturally involves a whole extra set of challenges.
Teaching which engages students to the point that they actually change their world view is something most of us dream of.

These issues are addressed in the highly recommended book, Teaching in a Distant Classroom: Crossing Borders for Global Transformation by Michael Romanowski and Teri McCarthy.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Work as slavery and oppression

Working in God's creation was meant to be a joy for humanity but due to sin it became a burden and struggle. In Exodus 1 we see how it becomes an instrument of oppression as the Egyptians try to control the growing population of Israelite "guest workers".
11Therefore [the Egyptians] set taskmasters over [the Israelites] to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. 13So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.
Traditional slavery [buying and selling people] still exists throughout the world today.
But, slavery also exists in affluent western countries, as people are enslaved to careers, ambition, and financial debt.

The image is from here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Joseph's dream

Joseph's bloody coat is brought to his father Jacob, Rembrandt (c. 1633)

I have been reading through Genesis and noticed a few things about the account of Joseph.
Chapter 38 appears to be "out of place" because it interrupts the account with a description of  the incest of his brother Judah with his daughter in law, Tamar. However, this horrific account makes a striking contrast with the following chapter where Joseph resists the advances of the wife of his employer, Potiphar in Egypt. For his integrity ["How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?"] Joseph ends up languishing in prison for many years. During this time he could have become very bitter towards his brothers who sold him into slavery. However, when at the end of his life he has power over them he allays their fear of his possible revenge with the statement (Genesis 50):
"Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?20As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Yet it is interesting to see that the writer of Hebrews did not commend Joseph for either of the above commendable acts but rather:

22By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.
I love the Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. My family and I were fortunate to see a London West End production several years ago. However, it completely misses the point about Joseph. It does not mention God. And the lyrics of Joseph's song, "Any Dream Will Do" imply that Joseph was concerned with his own glorification.

Joseph's dream was God's: deliverance of his people from slavery.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The "greatest" nation on earth?

Newsweek has a ranking of different nations on a range of criteria (health, education, politics, economic dynamism, ....). Australia is 4th and the USA is 11th.
There is an interesting article on Why cold, dark, small, and depressive nations top the rankings.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Like father like son

Yesterday at the Brisbane Men's Training Event I heard 3 great talks by Ray Galea about Fathers and Fatherhood.
The defining standard of Fatherhood is our heavenly Father. We should not ask, "How is God like a father?" but rather, "How is a father like God?"

A recurring theme in the talks was that of grace, acceptance, and forgiveness between fathers and sons. The ultimate model is our heavenly Father.

One should never under estimate the influence of our earthly fathers on us, both for good and bad. This was highlighted to me in Barack Obama's Dreams of My Father.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt (c.1668)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Are we just animals?

26Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
Genesis 1:26

What is man's place in nature? How is he different from the animals?
Out of context, this verse has also been used to justify "progress" involving exploitation and destruction of the environment. 
What is it actually about?
It is interesting to read some of Karl Barth's exegesis, which not surprisingly is rather Christological,

... man stands in royal superiority over the animal. No technical proof is given of this superiority, either by reference to man's form or by reference to his rationality as the instrument of his sovereignty. Indeed, no such proof can be given if we are to be loyal to the spirit of the passage. Of course the asserted sovereignty has its basis, but this is to be sought only in the divine likeness of man, and therefore in the creation of man as male and female to the exclusion of all other differentiations, and therefore in the unity and uniqueness of the human race. ....

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by Peter Wenzel

...But the basis which emerges when this fact is joined with the words about man's divine likeness is not a technical basis. By reason of the fact that man is created in and after the image of God, and therefore in this uniqueness, no means are put at his disposal for the exercise of this lordship over the animals. What is given to him-and it is to this that the passage refers -is the divine destiny and promise of this lordship. .... For all his similarities and links with animals, he is not to be one animal with others, but is to have them all under himself-in correspondence with God's relationship to all creatures. He and he alone, male and female, is to be the one "animal" to whom God will reveal and entrust His own honour within creation, with whom, in the course of a special history which will not be that of any beast, He will make common cause, and from whose activity He will expect a definite recognition of Himself, the praise of His might and of His right. Obviously this lordship, this distinction, cannot give man a technical superiority over the beast. It rests exclusively on the divine destiny and promise of his divine likeness. It is the immediate consequence of this, and must not be separated from it. Only in this way is it the answer to the question of Ps. 84: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" Only in this way does the answer which follows ( v. 6) have meaning: "Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet." Where is the fulfilment of this destiny and promise? ... [The Old Testament] tells us (in the story of the fall in Gen. 31) how in antithesis to the destiny and promise given to him man was deceived by the most cunning of the creatures over which he was to have dominion, and yet how in spite of this the destiny and promise ( Gen. 314) were again renewed and preserved. It thus recounts the history of the covenant between God and man as it was fashioned in God's relationship with Israel. In the history of this covenant it becomes true that man was created, not to be the lord of creation, but to be a lord in creation and in token of this to be lord over the beasts. And the New Testament (Heb. 25f.) has given this answer a final and true elucidation by referring the whole of Ps. 8 directly to the man Jesus who, for the suffering of death, was crowned with glory and honour. A thoughtful exposition of Gen. 126f. will certainly have to move along the line which leads to this point. The biblical creation saga had no occasion to speak of any other lordship of man over animals than the one actualised along this line.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1, p. 206.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The nature of the beast

1And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. 2And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 3One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast.4And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, "Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?"

Revelation 13:1-4

Who is the beast? What is the beast?
Perhaps those awful uncontrollable things that take charge of our lives and enslave us: money, ambition, political opportunism, "national security", "personal security", technology, ....
That is the "nature of the beast".

In the words of someone else:
We see before us the dragon of which the Book of Revelation speaks. ‘Then another sign appeared in Heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems.’ [Rev. 12:3.] John portrays the ‘beast rising out of the sea,’ out of the dark depths of evil, with the symbols of Roman imperial power, and he thus puts a very concrete face on the threat facing the Christians of his day: the total claim placed upon man by the emperor cult and the resulting elevation of political-military-economic might to the peak of absolute power — to the personification of the evil that threatens to devour us.
Notwithstanding the dissolution of the Roman Empire and its ideologies, this remains very contemporary! Today there are on one hand the forces of the market, of traffic in weapons, in drugs, and in human beings, all forces that weigh upon the world and ensnare humanity irresistibly.
Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth (2007)
(Pope Benedict XVI)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A reasonable atheist

The New York Times has an interesting online Opinion piece, Mystery and Evidence, by Tim Crane, a Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. His comparison of science and religion is a refreshing change from the ill-informed rantings of Richard Dawkins.

Here is an extract:
None of these remarks are intended as being for or against religion. Rather, they are part of an attempt (by an atheist, from the outside) to understand what it is. Those who criticize religion should have an accurate understanding of what it is they are criticizing. But to understand a world view, or a philosophy or system of thought, it is not enough just to understand the propositions it contains. You also have to understand what is central and what is peripheral to the view. Religions do make factual and historical claims, and if these claims are false, then the religions fail. But this dependence on fact does not make religious claims anything like hypotheses in the scientific sense. Hypotheses are not central. Rather, what is central is the commitment to the meaningfulness (and therefore the mystery) of the world.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Is God a geometer?

On Friday at work we had a very interesting Physics department colloquium by Marcelo Gleiser about his recent book.

One thing I learnt was that Johannes Kepler firmly believed that "God was a geometer". He found that he could relate the size of the orbits of the 6 known planets to the 5 "perfect" Platonic solids (see above). The Wikipedia entry about his first book,  Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596) states:
... Kepler thought he had revealed God’s geometrical plan for the universe. Much of Kepler’s enthusiasm for the Copernican system stemmed from his theological convictions about the connection between the physical and the spiritual; the universe itself was an image of God, with the Sun corresponding to the Father, the stellar sphere to the Son, and the intervening space between to the Holy Spirit. His first manuscript of Mysterium contained an extensive chapter reconciling heliocentrism with biblical passages that seemed to support geocentrism.
....Kepler received permission from the Tübingen university senate to publish his manuscript, pending removal of the Bible exegesis and the addition of a simpler, more understandable description of the Copernican system as well as Kepler’s new ideas.....
Later Kepler published Harmonices Mundi which applied to planetary motion the idea of the "music of the spheres" an idea of Pythagorus concerning musical harmonies and geometry.
Some of the laws of planetary motion that Kepler discovered were incredibly important for overturning the geocentric universe and for Newton. However, all these ideas which claimed a theological basis were overturned as more data became available.
To me this showings the danger of mixing theology (particularly preconceived ideas of how the world should be) and science.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The end now and then

Since we have been doing a sermon series on Revelation at church I have also read a little about Karl Barth's eschatology. There is a nice chapter on this subject by John Bolt, in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences. A few points that Bolt emphasizes:

Eschatology is about Jesus Christ. This may seem a basic point but Bolt points out how most discussions of eschatology within North American evangelical circles are dominated by premillenial dispensationalism and concerned with "tracking and tracing the movements of nations and scouring world events for 'signs' as they indicate the unfolding of the prophetically forteold end-time drama."

Jesus is victor. Here there is a fascinating aside about Barth's discussion in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century of J.C. Blumhardt's exorcism of a girl and the associated revival in a his southern German community.

The threefold form of the Parousia. The effective presence of the triumphant Jesus is not just at the end, but also at Easter and Pentecost.

Christian hope does not lead to a passive life. John Webster's summary in Barth's Moral Theology is:
To hope is not simply to wait, but to be impelled in a very definite direction, stemming form and looking towards the great consummation of Jesus' perfect work. Thus language about Christian hope does not mean some eschatological suppression of the ethical; rather it involves a description of the world as a reality whose situation has been so transfigured by God's act in Jesus Christ that hopeful human action is both possible and necessary.
Overall this seems to me consistent with the message of Revelation.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Fathering 101

Today's Weekend Australian Magazine has an interview with child psychologist Steve Biddulph [a secular parenting guru in Australia] about his latest book The New Manhood.

My wife and I have found some of his books helpful. There is lots of useful practical advice. On the other hand, it is fascinating and worrying that such basic ideas as limited internet time, the importance of the involvement of fathers with their children, the problems of institutional day care, .... are hailed as revolutionary, controversial, and best-seller material.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A distinguished scientist on the resurrection of Jesus

Richard Smalley received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. A year ago I heard Fritz Schaefer give his "Scientists and their Gods" lecture and he mentioned Smalley. Apparently for most of his life he was critical of religion and he did not have a reputation of being a very nice guy.... However, towards the end of his life there was a big change. Fritz mentioned the following account:

Hope College presented Dr. Smalley with a Distinguished Alumni Award during Alumni Day on Saturday, May 7, 2005. He was honored in absentia because his illness prevented him from attending, but prepared remarks that were read at the awards banquet. “My short two years at Hope starting as a freshman in 1961 were immensely important to me,” he wrote. “I went to chapel, studied religion, and attended church more than I had ever done before, and was with people who took to these issues seriously. I valued that greatly back then. Recently I have gone back to church regularly with a new focus to understand as best I can what it is that makes Christianity so vital and powerful in the lives of billions of people today, even though almost 2,000 years have passed since the death and resurrection of Christ.”“Although I suspect I will never fully understand, I now think the answer is very simple: it’s true,”