Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Biblical debt

The Christmas Day edition of the New York Times Sunday Book Review section had a story on the front page, The Book of Books - What literature owes the Bible by Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author. I am not sure I really understand, fully appreciate, or agree with her piece. However, it is worth reading and highlights a point I have made before: you can't understand the literature (and history) of the Western world without a deep knowledge of the Bible. Hence, it needs to be an important component of a secular education. As I posted earlier, The Prime Minister of Australia agrees (in words but not in policy).

Friday, December 30, 2011

Who is Jesus?

I have been reading through the Gospel of John. Central to this Gospel are the seven "I am" statements that Jesus made.
I AM the bread of life.  John 6:35,48
I AM the light of the world.  John 8:12,9:5
I AM the door.  John 10:7
I AM the good shepherd.  John 10:11-14
I AM the resurrection and the life.  John 11:25
I AM the way, the truth and the life.  John 14:6
I AM the true vine.  John 15:1,5
To the reader/hearer familiar with the Old Testament this is meant evoke association with the name of the God of Israel, YHWH, "I am who I am".
Two earlier posts In the name of God and It is all in the name consider Barth's view of the significance of the name YHWH, particularly with regard to the unveiling and veiling of God in revelation.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Would you side with Newton or Leibniz?

Ard Louis has a nice article How Does the BioLogos Model Need to Address Concerns Christians Have About the Implications of its Science?

It has a fascinating beginning discussing the contrasting views of Newton and Leibniz about the sufficiency of natural processes to explain the observed order in the world. Does invoking God's interventions to make up for what science cannot explain reflect well or not on the character of God?

Ard also highlights how the origin of many Christian's discomfort with evolution as a scientific description of the biological world arises from a discomfort with some of the associated language and metaphors such as "random", "survival of the fittest", "chance", and "purposeless". He associates the underlying presuppositions with the metaphor of 90 per cent of the iceberg below the surface.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Running from injustice

Last night my son and I enjoyed watching the movie, The Fugitive (the 1993 version). It is good "harmless" fun. On the other hand, although just fiction it does highlight two significant issues. First, the desperate ends to which drug companies and medical researchers may be tempted to go to increase or preserve profits. Second, the criminal justice system is imperfect. If wealthy white surgeons can be incorrectly convicted of murder what hope do unemployed black men have?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Artistic idolatry in the U.S. Capitol

I finished reading The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. Given so much of his material is of dubious scientific and historical accuracy I was curious to verify his claims about The Apotheosis of Washington, the giant mural on the dome of the U.S. Capitol building. In this case he is correct, it does depict George Washington becoming a god!

Maureen Dowd's scathing review of the book in The New York Times is also worth reading. Here is some of the beginning
 the terrifying thing about “The Lost Symbol” is that Brown — who did not flinch when the Vatican both condemned the “The Da Vinci Code” and curtailed the filming of “Angels & Demons” in Rome — clearly got spooked by that other powerful, secretive ancient sect, the Masons.
His book is a desperate attempt to ingratiate himself with the Masons, rather than to interpret the bizarre Masonic rites and symbols that illuminate — as in Illuminati! — how the ultimate elite private boys’ club has conspired to shape the nation’s capital and Western civilization ever since George Washington laid the cornerstone for the Capitol building in a Masonic ritual wearing full Masonic regalia, including a darling little fringed satin apron. If the Masons are more intimidating than the Vatican, if Brown has now become part of their semiotic smoke screen, then all I can say is, God help us all.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Against the arrogance of the reductionists

Phil Anderson is one of the most influential theoretical physicists of the second half of the twentieth century. He has also been a strong critic of reductionism, emphasizing the role of emergence in all of science. He recently published a book of his essays, More and Different: notes from a thoughtful curmudgeon. I highly recommend it. Here is small extract from an essay "Emergence vs. Reductionism".
Physicists - and scientists in general - love to do two things; (a) to take apart, to analyze into simpler and simpler components; (b) to mystify, to say it is not really this, it’s that. They like to take upon themselves the role of the shaman or the mullah. Everything comes from a First Cause – the First Equation – and only the appropriate scientist can investigate this with his very expensive equipment, and understand it with his abstruse theories. 
The arrogance this attitude fosters has to be experienced to be believed. Such books as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time covers the whole of science in six brief chapters, spending the rest of the book on personal speculations about the first millionth of a picosecond of time when, he seems to feel, all that matters happened.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Lost Saviour

As I have confessed before, I love Dan Brown novels. They are a great read. But, the science (usually presented as "fact") is ridiculous and the history is dubious.
I have just started reading Brown's latest, The Lost Symbol. Again there is comical science. In this case it is "Noetic Science" which is a mish-mash (a synthesis!) of modern physics with ancient mysticism. The frontpiece of the book has a page entitled "Fact" which states that the Institute of Noetic Sciences exists. This is indeed correct. I found the Institute web page fascinating and disturbing reading. This is probably best summarised by The Double Slit Experiment: Experimental Tests of the Role of Consciousness in the Physical World. None of anything I could see had any signs of real science: i.e., experiments that were or could be reproduced by other scientists and published in traditional scientific journals.

Like The DaVinci Code the novel is rich on symbols, puzzles, secrets, and "The Ancient Mystery." The Freemasons are central and portrayed in a sympathetic manner. What is most striking to me is how the world of some of the characters seems to resonate with aspects of the world of both the Old and the New Testament. The preoccupation with images and symbols aligns with idolatry or ritualistic religion. The preoccupation with mysteries and secret knowledge sounds very gnostic. [Paul's Letter to the Colossians addresses these issues]. The responsibility of man [and particularly select men (n.b. not women)] is to use his cleverness to find and discover the secret knowledge. Through ritual he is to find the strength to act in a moral manner.

In contrast, the person of Jesus Christ is not a symbol, an artefact, or a puzzle that man decodes, but rather a real person who reveals the mystery of God to all humanity.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Einstein on religion

What did he really believe? He is widely quoted as saying:
science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind
However, it is interesting to read the complete article in which this statement appears. In 1940 Nature published a short article, ``Science and Religion'' written by Einstein. [It also appears as Section II in this longer article] Here are a few significant quotations which clearly showed that Einstein's notion of religion was purely a humanistic one.
If one conceives of religion and science according to these definitions [Einstein's] then a conflict between them appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts. According to this interpretation the well-known conflicts between religion and science in the past must all be ascribed to a misapprehension of the situation which has been described. 
 of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors... 
The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God... 
In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task. After religious teachers accomplish the refining process indicated they will surely recognize with joy that true religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge.
A much more detailed discussion is in Einstein and religion: physics and theology by Max Jammer.

Superficial conflict and deep concord

On the Christianity Today site there is a short interview with Alvin Plantinga about his new book Where the conflict really lies: science, religion, and naturalism.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The goal of a university education

There is an excellent New York Times online article What is College For? by Gary Gutting, a philosophy Professor at Notre Dame University.
I agree. The principle goal of a university education is not to pass courses, get a degree, get a job, to be entertained, or to enjoy extracurricular activities. Rather, it is to be intellectually stimulated and learn to think in new ways and about new things.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

We need a free press

Last night my son and I watched The Insider, a 1999 film based on the true story of a cigarette company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand being courted by the producer of the TV news program 60 Minutes. I thought the acting by Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, and Christopher Plummer was excellent. The movie highlights the corruption of "Big Tobacco", the tortuous relationship between corporate America and the "free" press, and the high personal cost of being a whistle-blower.

It is interesting that a few weeks ago we also watched Good Night and Good Luck, an excellent 2005 movie. It is filmed in black and white to great effect as it depicts the 1950's battle of Edwin R. Murrow (also from CBS news) with the anti-communist crusader (and slanderer) Joseph McCarthy.

Money and politics always represent a serious threat to a free press and thus to justice. In light of this it is interesting and refreshing to read about the history and ownership of The Guardian newspaper.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An African perspective on communion

What is the meaning and purpose of Holy Communion?
What might it have meant in its original Jewish communal context?

Luke 22:14-20 contains an account of The Last Supper of Jesus, where

he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

On this passage the Africa Bible Commentary says
We ought to play closer attention to the meaning of the sharing of the bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus Christ. Western countries tend to operate on the principle that writings remain, but spoken words are fleeting. This principle does not hold true in Africa where spoken words do not vanish but remain to guide the community through the centuries. In many African communities, a wise older woman or man will call a child or younger person and give her or him food and drink. While the young person eats and drinks, the older person narrates the entire public wisdom and history of the ethnic group or society. This word, which brings wisdom, must not only be received, but must be swallowed together with the food and drink - actually, it has to be chewed and eaten in the biblical sense (Psalm 1:2). It should become part and parcel of the flesh and blood of the listener, so that this person generates and gives birth to life abundantly.
This also gives me a better perspective on the role and significance of oral tradition, something that would have been critical in the contexts in which both the Old and New Testaments were written.

Monday, December 12, 2011

I don't know

This is my standard answer to many thorny questions in theology.
But, today I learnt that to Jesus sometimes this is not an acceptable answer!
Luke 20:1-8 records an incident where the Pharisees questioned Jesus authority. He responds by asking them,
4was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?" 5And they discussed it with one another, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why did you not believe him?' 6But if we say, 'From man,' all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet." 7So they answered that they did not know where it came from.
So if we say "I don't know" for political reasons, i.e., to just try and keep everyone happy, it is a problem. However, if we are genuinely not sure of the answer I think it is appropriate and consistent with the humility required by passages such as Job 38. Furthermore, we also see how the above encounter occurred because Jesus was responding the hubris of the Pharisees' own questions.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A random argument for the Creator

Something can be learnt from past efforts to use science to argue for or against the existence of God.

The book Entropic Creation: Religious Contexts of Thermodynamics and Cosmology by Helge Kragh is an important one. A synopsis of the book is in a 2007 article by Kragh published in the journal Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences.

There is a helpful review of the book by Mark McCartney in the October 2010 issue of Science and Christian Belief. The entropic creation argument, widely used and debated between about 1850 and 1920 can be summarised as follows.

I. The entropy of the world increases continually. [This is the second law of thermodynamics.]

II. Our present world is not in a state of very high entropy.

III. Hence the world must be of finite age.

IV. If the world had a beginning, it must have been created.

V. If created, there must be a creator, that is, God must exist.

In this form the argument is rarely used today. Although, there are remnants or variations on it. For example in John Lennox's book God's Undertaker (page 71) who references Roger Penroses arguments concerning the entropy of the universe. [The Figure below is taken from The Emperor's New Mind].

One reason that the argument is rarely used today is that observational cosmological has definitively established III with the current estimate being 13.7+-0.1 billion years.

It is interesting that in its heyday some atheists were so resistant to the possibility that IV and V might be true that they attacked I, II, and/or III, to varying degrees.

On the other hand, it is interesting that in the past some theists (including distinguished scientists) seemed to be convinced that IV and/or V followed from the preceding points. I am not sure that is true today.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Repentant theology

Maybe this should be a more appropriate title for Reformed Theology. Historically, reformation is usually thought of in terms of reforming the teaching and structures of the church. Today, some say a key component of Reformed Theology is a commitment to ongoing reformation of ourselves and the church: our lives, thoughts and believes. Although, to some it focuses on the historical teachings of Luther and/or Calvin.

Reading through the Gospel of Luke I have been struck how the word repent is repeated. [see here for the relevant verses]. Repentance is a stronger word than reformation. To me, it focuses more on reforming ourselves rather than others, and on reforming our lives rather than just teaching and structures.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Moving the Science-Theology dialogue South II

Here is the final version of my Editorial, ``Science and theology in non-Western contexts,'' that will appear in the December 2012 issue of the journal Science and Christian Belief.
I really benefitted from comments, on a shorter earlier draft, that I received from colleagues in India and Sri Lanka.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ambivalence towards Jesus

We can find Jesus and his words very appealing and comforting. On the other hand, they can be very confronting and destabilising. This was highlighted to me the other day when reading through the account (Luke 4:16-30) of Jesus appearing in the Temple and reading the scroll from Isaiah. At first Jesus receives a positive response:

22And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.

But only a few verses later the same people respond very differently:

28When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Books on Islam and science

My knowledge and understanding of Islam is extremely limited and something I would like to correct. An interesting and important issue is the relationship between Islam and science, both past and present. Here are a few books that I would eventually like to read.

Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science by Nidhal Guessoum, a Muslim and Physics Professor at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates).

Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History by Ahmad Dallal based on his 2008 Terry Lectures given at Yale. He is a historian who is currently Provost at American University in Beirut.

An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam by Taner Edis, an atheist physicist who grew up in Turkey. The reviews on Amazon are worth reading.

I welcome suggestions about other relevant books and articles.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Global idols and issues

As I have mentioned before it is important that those of us in the Western world learn from Christian leaders in the Global South. A book I want to read is Subverting Global Myths: Theology and Public Issues facing our world by Vinoth Ramachandra from Sri Lanka. The endorsements/reviews are very helpful and encouraging.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Theology is a balancing act

The history and content of theology is full of debates, divisions, and controversies over a range of specific topics. I think a common factor in most of these is that people on different sides have had different views about the relative importance/time/emphasis/words to be placed on one side of the coin. Consider the contrasts intrinsic to the linked topics:

The death and resurrection of Jesus
Creation and redemption
Judgement and grace
Faith and works
Old and New Testament
The sovereignty of God and the freedom of humanity

In all cases one of the pair cannot be separated from the other. The challenge is a balanced perspective which respects each part without neglecting the other.
Then there is the Trinity!...
Theology is a balancing act.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Going crazy for the truth

My son and I watched the movie The Informant! which is based on the true story of Mark Whitacre who was one of the most senior corporate whistle-blowers in US history.

At times the movie is strange and hard to follow. This is heightened by the voice over commentary and the music. But that is partly the point because the story does have some strange and unexpected twists.

The movie highlights just how corporate culture can be, mental health issues, the high personal cost of being a whistle-blower, and the value of a supportive spouse.

Poor Jesus

I am currently reading through the Gospel of Luke and this morning read how in 4:18-19 Jesus announces five purposes for which God sent him in fulfillment of Isaiah:

18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
   and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

It is interesting to read the Africa Bible Commentary on this passage:
It is clear that from the beginning to end Jesus was oriented to the needs of the poor, both those who were poor within themselves and those who were poor in social, economic and political contexts. His parents were not wealthy and lived in a despised village. In hist public ministry he lived poorly, mixed with the ordinary folk were the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed. Furthermore, he shocked the elite by eating with social outcasts. He acted and spoke in a manner that caused him to be seen as a serious threat by the various establishment groups in his country and by the Roman Empire. Eventually, the religious establishment and the Roman colonial power murdered Jesus.
 The etching is the 'Hundred guilder print' of Christ preaching by  Rembrandt.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Combining academics with mission

This is great video about the South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies.
Earlier this year I gave a few lectures there on science and theology. It is a wonderful place and worthy of support.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The unique History of the Bible

 A Hindu scholar of the world's religions once said to Lesslie Newbigin:
I can't understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion-and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don't need any more! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole of creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it. 
Newbigin, 1999, A Walk Through the Bible, Louisville, KY: John Knox Westminster Press, 4. See also Lesslie Newbigin, 1989, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 89. 
Taken from an essay Reading the Bible as one Story by Michael Goheen.

You have no friends!

This is probably the cruelest thing one can say to an acquaintance.
But, that is what happens to the central character at the beginning of the French movie Mon Meilleur Ami (My Best Friend). He is challenged to prove within 10 days that he actually does have a best friend.
This is an amusing and touching movie about the value, struggles, fragility, and rarity of friendship in the modern secular professional age. I found it refreshing (and strange) to see  a movie that was just about platonic relationships rather than romantic ones.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why didn't Jesus publish?

A couple of gems from the Postscript to Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters.
In the history of the church redemption has often been misunderstood to be salvation from creation rather than salvation of creation. But the point of the gospel is that creation itself is the goal of the salvation that the gospel announces. (page 121)
 in making provision for the communication of the good news to many different cultures in the succeeding centuries, Jesus did not (like Mohammed) write a book. Rather, he formed a community to be the bearer of this good news. The identity of that community is formed by its mission - its being sent by Jesus - to make known the good news of the kingdom. (page 122)
The postscript was co-authored by Michael Goheen and some of the same material can be found in his essay Reading the Bible as one story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Moving the Science-Theology dialogue South

I have been asked to write a Guest Editorial for a forthcoming issue of the journal Science and Christian Belief. This is an honour.
I have chosen to explore the issue of Science and Theology in non-Western contexts. I do not consider myself particularly qualified (or entitled?) to write on the issue but I hope it is reasonable and constructive for me to raise the issue and stimulate discussion.
I welcome comments on a draft.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The perspective of time

We are preoccupied with the immediate. Everything happening now seems so urgent and so important. To get things in perspective it is interesting to look back at old magazines and see what was in the headlines, what the hottest gadgets were, and what people were predicting about the future.
I have just been going through an old pile of Time and Newsweek will titles such as "The Best of 1999",  "Pictures of 1980", "The Most Influential People in America in 1997."
Here are a few things that struck me.

The recurrence of wars, of corruption in government and business, of famine and environmental problems.

Forgotten celebrities, politicians, and sports stars.

The Best of Cybertech of 1999 is an interesting list. Top is the Sega Dreamcast [what is that?!]. Google only ranks no. 7 on the list!

How seriously we take ourselves.

The presence of cigarette advertising (such as the 1989 ad below). We have made some progress by banning it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Global future of Christianity

The last few decades have seen a dramatic change in the demographics of the global church.
Philip Jenkins, a historian at Penn State, has documented this in several books. A recent one is The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South published by Oxford University Press in 2006.
2002 interview with Jenkins published in The Atlantic Monthly is worth reading. Here is the beginning:
For someone who isn't familiar with Christianity as it's practiced in the Southern Hemisphere, how would you define it? In general terms, how does it differ from the ways that Christianity tends to be practiced in the North? 
There are a number of prime things I would list, but high on the list is the fact of poverty—that very often in the global South you're dealing with people who are not the world's fat cats. That means that they tend to relate much more closely to the biblical world and its concerns than do people who are rich and from the First World. Often they're people without access to the kind of medical care that the First World takes for granted, so the medical, healing, and exorcism elements of the Bible make very good sense to them. The other fact, apart from poverty, is novelty. In many parts of the global South, Christianity is a much newer religion than it is in Europe or North America. That's particularly true in Africa. Of course, Christianity has been in South America for a long time, but the kind of Pentecostal and Protestant Christianity that's come in over the last fifty years is obviously a newer kind of experience. So in some cases these are families that are discovering the Bible and Christianity for the first time, and it seems to be a new and rather intoxicating experience.

I can't get no satisfaction

Next week in Queensland we have the annual ritual of "schoolies week" where large numbers of high school graduates descend on a section of city of Surfers Paradise to pay exorbitant amounts to stay in apartments, get drunk, cause trouble, ....

I was interested to read this week of research that found 70 per cent who attend actually find it a negative experience which does not live up to expectations.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Grinding out a "living"

I think the movie Reign over me is worth watching. It deals with the relationship between a "successful" cosmetic dentist and his former college room-mate who has become a recluse following the death of his wife and three daughters in 9/11. The movie highlights dealing with grief, mental health issues, long term friendships, grace in relationships, escaping from the grind, and the folly of upper middle class aspirations.
I liked the use of Bruce Springsteen music but at times the movie is spoiled by gross "locker room" dialogue.

A lighter and stranger movie which highlights the meaningless of the middle class grind is Stranger than Fiction.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Remorse is not repentance

This morning I was reading through Matthew 27 which includes the account of the death of Judas. The Africa Bible Commentary has an interesting and important insight about this passage.
It is instructive to compare Peter and Judas at this point. This comparison may well be the reason that Matthew interrupts the flow of the story to report on what became of Judas. Peter wept bitterly and Judas was seized with remorse . Bitter tears may well lead to repentance and eventual restoration, as happened to Peter. But Judas' remorse led only to recrimination and, in his case, to suicide. Peter made no attempt to undo what he had done, but eventually submitted to the authority of Jesus. Judas, on the other hand, tried to undo what he had done, and when he found he could not do so he decided to take his own life.
 Judas returns the silver by Rembrandt

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A finely tuned argument

Victor Stenger has a new book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning: Why the Universe is not Designed for Us. Stenger is a prominent atheist and author of the bestselling book, God: the Failed Hypothesis. [A detailed critique of that book was published in Science and Christian Belief by David Bartholomew, formerly Professor of Statistics at the London School of Economics.]

What is fine tuning? Basically it is the idea that the laws of physics and fundamental constants of nature [e.g. charge and mass of the electron] are "finely tuned" so that carbon based life can exist.  Some argue that this is evidence that we were meant to be and that God designed the universe accordingly. I believe that Stenger claims this argument is flawed because it is "carbon-centric" and that one can imagine alternative scenarios and universes where life is based on a different element (e.g. silicon, which is the basis of computer technology). Alternatively, one might even consider the possibility that life is not based on atoms and molecules but on the dark matter or dark energy which comprises most of the universe.

What do I think about these objections? First, we cannot completely rule out the existence of such alternative "templates" for life. But, these are just speculations and lack specificity. This is similar to the claim/argument that Richard Dawkins makes in The God Delusion that physicists will invent a theory [e.g. the multiverse] that will explain fine tuning, just as Darwin explained the emergence of "apparent design" in biological systems. Alternative new explanations of anything are always possible. But usually in science (and everyday life) we focus on the concrete possible explanations we have access to now and consider their relative merits.

How likely is an alternative chemistry for life? One reason we might be skeptical is that evolution has not produced it yet! Biomolecules do use a diversity of chemical reactions and different metal ions [iron, molybdenum, copper, zinc, manganese, vanadium, ...] are used for different purposes in metalloproteins. But, it seems the template in any and every species is still nucleic acids (for DNA and RNA) and amino acids (for proteins). If one could use silicon to perform some function then one might expect some part of nature to have discovered it. I am reminded of Richard Feynman who said:

'There is no such thing as polywater because if there were, there would also be an animal which didn't need to eat food. It would just drink water and excrete polywater'

Also, for the last 50 years chemists have been desperately trying [with minimal success] to come up with synthetic structures which can perform even the simplest functions [e.g. photosynthesis] that biomolecules do. Stenger is a physicist. But, I think most chemists would acknowledge that there is something very special about carbon based chemistry.

Having said all this, I think caution and caveats are in order. I do not think fine tuning proves that the universe is designed for life. Furthermore, I certainly do not think it proves that God exists. [See Tony Wright's cautionary comments on an earlier post]. To me it is just a fascinating observation which confronts us with questions of a non-scientific nature. Is there some greater meaning and purpose to the universe? The end of science is the beginning of theology.

I thank Stephen Driscoll for asking me some questions that stimulated this post

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Meticulous immorality

I enjoy reading "light" thrillers for relaxation, but find it hard to authors I like. I have read all the novels by my favourites: John Grisham, Federik Forsyth, and Christopher Reich. [I also like Dan Brown, provided one does not think about the veracity of any of the history or science!]
Hence, I have been looking for a new author and may have found one, Daniel Silva. I just finished The Rembrandt Affair. It had enough originality and surprises to keep my interest.

But, this is post is more about a fascinating thing highlighted in the book. During the Holocaust, the Nazi perpetrators kept meticulous records of what they were doing.  I am not sure what to make of this. It does show the propensity of humanity to perform incredible evil, to compartmentalise morality, to believe one will never be caught, ....

Friday, November 11, 2011

Known by the company you keep

I first became aware of Leonid Molidnow as co-author of Stephen Hawking for his recent popular book The Grand Design, which has received negative reviews. The other day while browsing books in a Sydney airport bookstore I also discovered Molidnow has co-authored a book with Deepak Chopra,  The War of World Views: Science vs. Spirituality.
Two bestselling authors first met in a televised Caltech debate on “the future of God,” one an articulate advocate for spirituality, the other a prominent physicist.  This remarkable book is the product of that serendipitous encounter and the contentious—but respectful—clash of worldviews that grew along with their friendship.    
In War of the Worldviews these two great thinkers battle over the cosmos, evolution and life, the human brain, and God, probing the fundamental questions that define the human experience.
You can read on Wikipedia why Chopra is a "magnet for criticism." I find it deplorable the manner in which he tries to use quantum physics to support his ideas about New Age spirituality and "medicine."

I would not describe Molidnow as "a prominent physicist". I had not heard of him until he co-authored the popular book with Hawking. Various publicity material for the books states Molidnow "is at Caltech" which gave me the impression that he was a faculty member. However, his own webpage at Caltech states he is there as a guest.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Between radicalism and conservatism

I am reading the next instalment of Creation Regained. The quotes below capture some of the last chapter, Discerning Structure and Direction. I think it is helpful because it provides for a balanced perspective on what a Christian's attitude to the "status quo" should be.
We shall argue that in all cases the task of the Christian is to discern structure and direction... structure denotes the essence of a creaturely thing, the kind of creature it is by virtue of God's creational law. Direction by contrast refers to a sinful deviation from that structural ordinance and renewed conformity to it in Christ. given societal order is absolutely corrupt ... some element in every situation is worth preserving...   a Christians rejection of evil must always lead to a cleansing and reform of created structures, not to an indiscriminate abolition of an entire historical situation.
so our focus on structure rejects a sympathy for revolution, and our focus on direction condemns a quietistic conservatism.
For Christians, this renewing orientation is particularly important, since severe social oppression and injustice can easily seduce them into identifying the whole social order ... with the world in its religiously negative senses. When this fatal identification is made, Christians tend to withdraw from all participation in societal renewal. Under the guise of keeping itself from the world, the body of Christ then in effect allows the powers of secularisation and distortion to dominate the greater part of its life. This is not so much an avoidance of evil as a neglect of duty.
Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, pages 88, 94, 95
Liberty leading the people, a classic work of the French Revolution.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Partnership across cultures

This week my wife and I attended an event sponsored by Overseas Council of Australia who support theological education in the majority world. [There are sister organisations in the UK, USA, and New Zealand]. The speaker was Elie Haddad, President of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.

There are many reasons why I support OCA. Briefly, in the West we are very rich, both financially and in terms of Christian resources [full time paid pastors, buildings, theological colleges, books, Bible translations, ....]. We should share these resources. The best (and cheapest) way to provide theological education for pastors and church planters is in their own culture. We should support indigenous workers rather then sending (at great expensive) Westerners who come with significant cultural baggage.
A clear statement of this argument is on the South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) web site.

The OCA website is highly informative and contains material I consider essential such as annual reports, financial statements, and details of the board of directors.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Companies with real impact

The New York Times runs a series Fixes which "looks at solutions to social problems and why they work."
The latest article is about "Impact sourcing" [as opposed to "outsourcing" where Western companies maximise their profits by using workers on low wages in the majority world] which profiles several companies that were specifically set up to alleviate poverty in the majority world by hiring and training the unemployed poor for data processing tasks.

The article has an interesting definition, "Social enterprises seek to be profitable, but prioritize social impact."

I thank my lovely wife for bringing the article to my attention.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Medium is better

The bigger the better!
Small is beautiful.

Small means too much energy is spent on struggling to survive. There is no economy of scale. Furthermore, if there are lots of small independent organisations doing similar things there is usually duplication of effort.

For example, three small churches in one suburb all maintain their building (or set up in a public facility), all do the committee work and paper work and fund raising needed to employ a pastor, and all three pastors prepare a sermon each week. All three struggle to organise a barely viable youth group. Merging into one church which employs one senior pastor and one youth worker would be much more efficient and effective. But, everyone would have to compromise and adapt....

But as organisations grow they can also become inefficient and problematic. "Big" can lead to corruption, bureaucracy, internal squabbling, loss of focus, comfort, and arrogance. Furthermore, big and "successful" Christian organisations with significant resources can attract the wrong kind of people. People who are attracted to "success" and power, rather than people who want to humbly serve and are willing to make sacrifices. People who want to be in the limelight and have their ego stroked. People who want a "career" rather than people who are actually passionate about the mission of the organisation.
[This point is well made in the book Revolution in World Missions by K.P. Yohannan in the context of Western organisations try to hire staff in the majority world.]

So the struggle is to find the balance between big and small. Medium is better.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Postmodernism can't kill sin (or self righteousness)

Last week there was a good column in The Times (London) by their Chief Sports Writer Simon Barnes about racism in sport. The column was prompted by a fixation of the press with recent allegations against John Terry, the England football captain.
A footballer can do all kinds of terrible things. He can dive in the penalty area. He can kick an opponent just for the fun of it and although he will be punished, as Wayne Rooney was, it won't affect his place in the England team or his value to commercial firms as a seller of goods.A footballer can lie, cheat and dissemble, he can be petulant and he can be violent, and all that he does will be accepted as part of the rough-and-tumble of football. He can indulge in grotesque displays of simultaneous fickleness and loyalty to squeeze the last $10 million out of the latest deal and still, as with Rooney and Terry, be a national hero....
A player can get up to all kinds of things off the field, including spectacular sexual irregularities, with piquant details.
It's only racism that shocks...
 But I am fascinated by the way that, in the moral free-for-all of modern professional football, there is a need to identify something that is obviously and unquestionably immoral. It seems that football, and perhaps every other walk of life, has a need for an Unforgivable Sin. There are two reasons for this. The first is that there is a basic need for a moral structure; even the lawless need a code that they can live by. ....The second is the Unforgivable Sin can provide great comfort. If you are not committing it, you must be basically all right, mustn't you? .....
The notion of the Unforgivable Sin can be found in other sports: .... It can be found in other walks of life....
We need this line in the sand. We need the feeling that there are crimes in which there are no grey areas, no question of tolerance....  
So - and let me say it again, because I do not wish to be considered an unforgivable sinner - I am not advocating easing up on anti-racism. But the promotion of racism as the One Great Sin means that plenty of other sins, many of them equally odious, get an easy ride. Racism in sport and outside sport is something that needs to be constantly addressed. And is. There am may other things, in sport and outside sport, that need to be constantly addressed. And aren't.
I guess this also shows that in reality we do not really live in a post-modern age where morals are just a matter of personal preference. Humans have an innate sense of right and wrong and desperately want to be righteous.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Should banks be bailed out by the general public?

No. To me one of the great disappointments of the past few years is watching political leaders (of all persuasions) being beholden to Wall Street.

There is a good NY Times column The Path Not Taken by Paul Krugman. It puts the recent decisions of European political leaders in a broader context, suggesting it amounts to:
the abject failure of an economic doctrine — a doctrine that has inflicted huge damage both in Europe and in the United States. 
The doctrine in question amounts to the assertion that, in the aftermath of a financial crisis, banks must be bailed out but the general public must pay the price. So a crisis brought on by deregulation becomes a reason to move even further to the right; a time of mass unemployment, instead of spurring public efforts to create jobs, becomes an era of austerity, in which government spending and social programs are slashed...
Krugman, then points out that there is an alternative.
... Iceland was supposed to be the ultimate economic disaster story: its runaway bankers saddled the country with huge debts and seemed to leave the nation in a hopeless position.
But a funny thing happened on the way to economic Armageddon: Iceland’s very desperation made conventional behavior impossible, freeing the nation to break the rules. Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net. Where everyone else was fixated on trying to placate international investors, Iceland imposed temporary controls on the movement of capital to give itself room to maneuver.
So how’s it going? Iceland hasn’t avoided major economic damage or a significant drop in living standards. But it has managed to limit both the rise in unemployment and the suffering of the most vulnerable; the social safety net has survived intact, as has the basic decency of its society. “Things could have been a lot worse” may not be the most stirring of slogans, but when everyone expected utter disaster, it amounts to a policy triumph.
Christians should have something to say about this. We should be concerned with both individual responsibility and accountability [bankers and investors] and protecting the poor and needy.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The wisdom of the unstable text

At church we are going through a sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes. It was pointed out that this is an intrinsically "slippery" and unstable text. Just when the reader may think that they "understand" what the book is saying they are confronted with some new "contradictory" idea.

I guess that is the whole point. God's wisdom and truth are destabilising for us. It defies both our simple and our sophisticated codifications. Ecclesiastes is the counter to books such as Romans which may tempt one into believing that we can come up with some "framework" and "logical" structure to codify and subdue the living and active Word of God.

Indeed, Ecclesiastes also shows us that life itself is not particularly logical or easy to understand.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Christianity is not an explanation

The latest issue of Science and Christian Belief has a nice review by Denis Alexander of Terry Eagleton's book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution. The book is a robust critique of the 'New Atheists' Ditchkins [Dawkins+Hitchens] by another atheist, one of the world's leading literary critics [see my earlier post]. I particularly liked this quote from the book that the review mentions:
[Dawkins] also has an old-fashioned scientific notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places, Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that “thanks to the telescope and the microscope, (religion) no longer offers an explanation of anything important.” But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

Confronted by parenthood

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie, The Waiting City. It chronicles the spiritual and relational development of an Australian couple who travel to India to await the adoption of a child. It highlights the significant cultural differences which expose the fragility of the couples marriage. I think it is a great movie for married couples to watch.
Some Christians might be critical of the movie because of the ambiguity of the "spiritual" and religious awakening of the couple. On the other hand, the movie makes strong positive statements about marriage, children, religion, care for the needy by the church, the folly of careers, and seeing the value of other cultures. It also flagged how an abortion can have devastating consequences for a couple; something one does not normally expect in a "Hollywood" movie.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Kerala lectures

Two weeks ago in Kerala, India I gave three lectures at The International Lecture Course on Science and Religion sponsored jointly by the Mar Thoma Higher Education Commission and the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (Cambridge). Here are the relevant materials.

Significant issues in the dialogue between religion and natural science.

Critical realism in science and theology.
This talk is based on an article published in the journal Science and Christian belief.

The end of created time: a comparison of Biblical and Scientific eschatology. 
Some of the ideas are in a short article, Can Science see the end?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The total redemption of the fallen creation

I am enjoying reading Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters, and the associated fortnightly discussion group.
So what is the relationship between the following?
  • creation [God's perfect created order]
  • sin and the Fall [which made the creation imperfect]
  • redemption of the created order by Christ's death and resurrection
  • the Kingdom of God [past, present, and future]
  • our acts of obedience to help "redeem" some aspects of the created order
  • the final re-creation of a new heaven and a new earth?
Wolters offers an analogy (described below) which I thought was helpful, particularly for understanding his "integrated" point of view which has a more positive view of both the progress of history and the content of civilisation than many Christians [particularly some evangelicals] would have. He also strongly advocates Christian engagement [redemption] with all spheres of life; not just church and family, but politics, business, art, technology...

Consider a baby which is born with some degenerative disease which gets worse as the baby grows to become a teenager. The baby is beautiful and "good" [like the original creation] and there is much about her growth that is positive, desirable, and as planned. However, built into the growth there is this terrible debilitating disease [sin] which prevents the teenager from functioning as she might and reaching her full potential. Nevertheless, ongoing medical treatment [redemption] can go some of the way to reversing the damaging effects of the disease.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't get involved

The recent case of a video showing bystanders in China walking by as two-year girl was twice run over by vans is creating considerable angst in both China and the West.
This reminded me of a famous case Murder of Kitty Genovese which occurred in New York in 1964. However, that case involves more ambiguity (and controversy) because there is (thankfully) no video of it and the neighbours alleged lack of response.
It is a good time for us all to read the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An acid test for big bang denialists

As a physicist and Christian occasionally I get asked about books such as this one, which claims to show that the earth is only a few thousand years old, whereas we observe light from distant galaxies billions of years old. The reason that such books have no scientific credibility is that they are largely a collection of assertions and speculations. There is no actual quantitative analysis of real experimental data. For an alternative theory to big bang cosmology (which sets the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years) to be credible it MUST give a quantitative description of all of the existing experimental data (Hubble expansion, cosmic microwave background, relative abundance of the elements, ...).

The figure is taken from a Physics Today article Supernovae, Dark Energy, and the Accelarating Universe by Saul Perlmutter who this month shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. It shows how different independent measurements put severe constraints on the age of the universe, the mass density, the cosmological constant,...)

Should criminals be put in prison?

In Loving God, Charles Colson argues that restitution to crime victims rather than punishment and incarceration is the appropriate means of dealing with criminals.
He cites Exodus 21 and the example of Zacchaeus in the New Testament as a basis for this.

Colson points out the intriguing history and etymology associated with the introduction of prisons in the USA. Penitentiary is derived from "penitent". Quakers advocated that criminals needed to be punished and incarcerated until they were penitent and repented. This resulted in the opening of the first state prison in the USA in 1790 in Philadelphia.
The Black Hole of Calcutta by Louis Figuier.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Problems with logical positivism

Does Richard Dawkins implicitly assume some particular philosophy of science?

At the beginning of the 20th century logical positivism was one of the dominant views in philosophy.  Logical positivists claimed that real knowledge is only what can be measured and verified. A statement is meaningful only if it can be verified by observation.
But this verification principle cannot be verified. "Meaningful" is not a scientific category which is amenable to testing in the laboratory.
Karl Popper also exposed problems inherent in logical positivism even within philosophy of science. Popper emphasized that scientific theories cannot be verified but only be falsified.

Perhaps, the most visible proponent of logical positivism today is not any professional philosopher, but popular science author Richard Dawkins.
Before Darwin, even educated people who had abandoned "Why" questions for rocks, streams and eclipses still implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the "Why" question where living creatures were concerned. Now only the scientifically illiterate do. But only conceals the unpalatable truth that we are still talking about an absolute majority.
God's utility function, River out of Eden: A Darwinian view of life, 1995

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Questions raised by natural science and anthropology

  • Why is there a universe? [Why is there something rather than nothing?]
  • Why is the universe the way it is? [Why aren't the laws of physics different?]
  • Why is there consciousness?
  • Why is there morality?
  • Why is religion ubiquitous and durable? i.e. Why is religion found in every culture and in every age?
  • Why can we do science?
I would not claim that the Christian doctrine of Creation provides definitive answers to all of these questions. However, it does provide a coherent framework to provide possible answers.

This post and the questions were stimulated by a presentation I heard by Rodney Holder today at the International Lecture Course on Science and Religion in Kerala.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It is all about me!

The Book of Jonah exposes some of our possible motivations, deep underlying prejudices, and self-righteousness. Jonah is called by God to go to the hostile and depraved city of Nineveh to preach a message of judgement and repentance. He runs in the opposite direction. Several divine interventions (including the famous fish) eventually force him to follow God's call. The people of Nineveh do repent. One might expect him to rejoice.
1But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."  
This discomfort, or even disgust, with the grace and mercy of God reminds me of two things. First, Javert the self-righteous policeman in Les Miserables who killed himself, rather than live with an act of mercy from his live-long adversary. Second, Karl Barth's point that when we comtemplate the judgement of God, particularly as it is represented in classical art, we tend to focus (or even delight) on how it applies to others rather than ourselves.

So, it is not all about me! It is not for me to judge or to decide who should receive God's mercy. I should be unsettled by just how gracious and merciful God is.
Woodcut by Weigel (1695) of Jonah outside Nineveh