Saturday, April 30, 2011

Are Australians greedy?

I found the above graphic striking.  It compares the average area per person occupant of new dwellings constructed in different countries. Note that Australians have more than 2.5 times the floor space of Brits and Swedes!

I saw the graphic in an article in the Weekend Property section of the Weekend Australian [it does not appear in the online version]. The graphic is from Stockland, an Australian real estate developer and contained in a recent presentation. They suggest that Australia needs to use its space more efficiently and they are leading the way in developing such houses (e.g. double story versus single story houses).

But, maybe we should ask the harder question: are we just a little bit greedy? Could we live with less?

Scientific and Biblical eschatology at AA-CC

I am looking forward to the Conference on the Church and the Academy at the end of June. There is still time to register and to submit papers. I just submitted an abstract for a talk,  A comparison of scientific and Biblical eschatology

How, when, and why will the world end? Both science and the Bible present pictures and possible scenarios for the end.Science tells us that the universe had a beginning, time has a direction (the arrow of time), and life, stars, and even the whole universe may come to an end.
I will review scientific discussions about how currently known physical laws do put constraints on the future. This has led some scientists to make statements about the future.
I will compare and contrast this scientific view of the future to Biblical eschatology which works with a different set of pre-suppositions. Furthermore, the predictions of science are of limited relevance to our personal lives, particularly because of the large timescales involved. In contrast, Biblical eschatology has significant personal implications.

I am planning this to be a development of a talk I have given previously in France, India, and Serbia.
This picture of the life cycle of stars is from

Why hot desking is not so hot

Hot desking is the latest inane office management technique that economic rationalists have brought to the corporate world. It is a system where no-one in an office has their own desk; when they show up for work (if they are not travelling or tele-commuting) they are assigned a desk which they have to clear/empty at the end of the day. The touted advantage is that it saves office space and the associated costs, promotes "culture change", and leads to employees interacting with a wider pool of other employees and thus creating new synergies.
There is a short article Cold shoulder for hot desk layouts in the Weekend Professional section of todays Weekend Australian. [I can't find the article online]. The article points out how unpopular hot desking, making it harder for companies to hire new staff and retain current staff. Business is not just about space and infrastructure. Hot desking depersonalises the office space, makes it more stressful, and makes employees not feel being part of a team.

What is the underlying problem here? What does this have to do with theology? Well, it depends on your anthropology and your view of humanity. If you believe that at heart people are relational (as the Tri-une God is) and that is their primary need, mode of operation, and motivation, then any workplace should be structured accordingly.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Freedom to forgive

I am continuing to slowly work through Miroslav Wolf's Exclusion and Embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness, and reconciliation with a discussion group. This past week we discussed the first half of the chapter on Embrace. Here are a few quotes:
The central thesis of the chapter is that God’s reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model for how human beings should relate to the other. 
He considers this in terms of repentance, forgiveness, "making space in oneself for the other", and "healing of memory."

He critiques the modern notion that "Freedom is the most sacred good." The schema of "oppression" and "liberation", "victims" and "perpetrators" can be a problem because both often claim the higher moral ground and the relative roles are sometimes just determined by who is in fire. Furthermore, conflicts
"are very messy. It is simply not the case that one can construe narratives of the encournter between parties in conflict as stories of manifest evil on the one side and indisputable good on the other."          (p. 103)
He insists that love not freedom is ultimate.
Furthermore, there is no "final reconciliation", contrary to the offers of communism and the American constitution (my insertion).
I will advocate here the struggle for a nonfinal reconciliation based on a vision of reconciliation that cannot be undone....   reconciliation with the other will succeed only if the self, guided by the narrative of the triune God, is ready to receive the other into itself and undertake a re-adjustment of its identity in light of the other's alterity.  (p. 110) 
But who can we forgive? Under what conditions? I remembered once reading this story about Corrie Ten Boom being confronted with a Nazi prison guard asking for forgiveness.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Translating the meaning of Easter

I have been listening to my CD of the St. John Passion by J.S. Bach. I find I need to listen to it with the words. Since I could not find the notes that came with the CD I eventually looked online and found that the translation was quite different to the translations found online. Eventually, I did find the full notes from my CD, including the words of the Translation by Peter Pears and Imogen Holst].

I love the Aria [which you can listen to here].

To release me from this prison
of my transgression now my Saviour is bound.
From the scars of guilt's infection,
healing protection
we can find in his wounds.

This seems to me to be a much better translation than an earlier version:

From the bondage of my errors
Me to deliver
Is my Savior fettered.

He from all my body's torments, 
Fully to heal me, 
Lets himself be wounded. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, April 25, 2011

Who will be the Judge?

How do you feel about God's judgement? Are you repulsed or comforted? How is God's judgement inextricably linked with the Resurrection of Jesus?
The sermon at church on Easter Sunday was based on Paul's speech in Athens recounted in Acts 17. Paul proclaims the identity of the "unknown God" who 
has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man [Jesus] whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."
Jesus resurrection is a sign of judgement because in it he is setting things right in the world. The innocent Man no longer suffers unjustly but is vindicated. Man is freed from the sting and fear of death.

Popular post-modern culture may explicitly claim to dislike judgement. Being "judgemental" is the worst "sin" in a world that claims sin is just a social construct. But I contend that Western society today is actually schizophrenic in its attitude to judgement. Most newspapers articles and commentary implicitly cries out for "justice" and "condemns" the actions of others; whether corrupt politicians, ruthless businessmen, schoolyard bullies, vain pop stars, drunk football players, mindless bureaucrats, ....

On the other hand, our problem and dislike of judgement is that we just don't want it to apply to ourselves, those we love, or those we deem "innocent"! We want to be the judge and arbiter of who is judged and by what criteria!

Karl Barth expressed a balanced view of God's judgement [discussed in an earlier post] which critiqued our empathy with classical  "painters [who] imagined to some extent with delight how these damned folk sink in the pool of hell".
The Resurrection of Christ, Rubens (1611)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Dancing ideology

Last night I watched Mao's Last Dancer based on the autobiography of ballet dancer Li Cunxin. I highly recommend it. I appreciated the portrayal of the
  • striking cultural contrasts between Communist China and Houston, Texas in the 1980's! 
  • nature and totalitarian goals of Marxist-Leninist ideology
  • social, artistic, and personal dimensions to the Cultural Revolution
  • enduring importance of family, even to adult children
Another inspiring ballet-based movie I recommend (regardless of whether or not you like ballet) is Billy Elliot. It portrays an aspiring young male dancer in a completely different culture in the 1980's: a coal mining town in the north of England racked by strikes and the battle between miners unions and the Thatcher government!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Would Jesus celebrate Anzac day?

ANZAC day is one of the most significant public holidays in Australia. On thursday night I attended a free ANZAC concert in Brisbane because my daughter was singing in one of the choirs. The concert a joint initiative of the Queensland Symphony and the RSL (Returned and Services League of Australia) [equivalent to a Veterans association in the USA).
The music was great but there were several disturbing aspects of nationalism, militarism, and bad theology which reared their ugly head.

The Lord's Prayer was sung while the big screen above the orchestra showed movies of Australian troops going into battle and playing with Middle Eastern children.

The Governor of Queensland introduced the hymn Abide with me emphasizing its appeal to soldiers with a verse:

4. I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears not bitterness. Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
I did not realise that the hymn is traditionally sung at Anzac day services and F.A. Cup finals! However, I feel it is being totally ripped from its history, meaning, and context. It is not about a generic offer of peace and comfort in the face of the battle of war, but rather about how a Christian need not fear death because they are trusting in the resurrection of Jesus.

A slide show honoured soldiers who had died in battle. It seemed to me it was suggested the soldiers were now in heaven because they had died for their country. Surely, this is salvation by works.

The 1812 overture provided a resounding end to the concert. It begins and ends with a Russian hymn "God preserve thy people".

     Mighty Lord, preserve us from jeopardy. 
     Take Thee now our faith and love, thine inheritance. 
     Grant thee victory o'er our treacherous and cruel enemies
     And to our land bring peace.
     O mighty Lord hear our lowly prayer,
     And by Thy shining holy light.
     Grant us, O Lord, peace again.
     O mighty Lord hear our prayer
     and save our people
     Forever, forever!
It is strange that a hymn that was used to promote the nationalism of the Russian Orthodox church 150 years ago is now being used on the other side of the world by secular organisations to promote the nationalism of a different country.

So what might be a Christian view on such events? 
  • They should not be celebrations of war and nationalism. 
  • They should honour those who have died and be a reminder of the tragedy of war. 
  • They should reflect on whether our soldiers today are serving with integrity
  • Are our soldiers dying for justice and in the hope of creating peace? 
  • They should cause us to ask whether our troops are just aiming to preserve our economic interests and/or impose our political values on others?
War is hell. Lest we forget.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The miracle of Good Friday

Since it is Good Friday I re-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] which I have often posted about. One thing I came to a new appreciation is that God, not just Jesus, suffered on the Cross. Here are a few other highlights:
what first gives its significance to the humiliation and abandonment of this man is the fact that this man is God's Son, and it is none other than God himself who humbles and surrenders Himself in Him.
when we hold together [the humiliation and exaltation of Christ], then the picture before us is that of an inconceivable exchange, of a katalage, that is a substitution. Man's reconciliation with God takes place through God's putting himself in man's place and man's being put in God's place, as a sheer act of grace. It is this inconceivable miracle which is our reconciliation....
Do not confuse my theory of the reconciliation with the thing itself. All theories of reconciliation can be but pointers. But do also pay attention to this `for us': nothing must be deducted from it! Whatever a doctrine of reconciliation tries to express, it must say this.... view of Christ's Cross we are invited on the one hand to realise the magnitude and weight of our sin in what our forgiveness cost. In the strict senses there is no knowledge of sin except in the light of Christ's Cross. For he alone understands what sin is, who knows that his sin is forgiven him. And on the other hand we may realise that the price is paid on our behalf, so that we are acquitted of sin and its consequences.
The painting below is from the Isenheim Alterpiece by Gruenwald. A copy hung in Karl Barth's office for much his career.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Learning from history

Each week I go out for breakfast with my son and discuss a chapter of a book we are reading together. We just started Theology: The Basics, by Alister McGrath, which I had read earlier with my daughter.
The first chapter gives a nice discussion of some basic issues one must face in theological discourse.
How and to what extent one engages with historical perspectives?
[McGrath divides history into the eras: apostolic, patristic, medieval, reformation, and modern]
How does one interact with the Bible, with tradition, and with reason?
Dialogue with other disciplines and philosophies present both opportunities and risks for theology.

Creeds provide a valuable summary which is a good launching point for an overview of theology. McGrath centres the book around the Apostle's Creed. Each chapter also contains a short text by a prominent theologian from Anselm to Barth to Calvin to Luther to Wesley to Tillich.

One thing I think is particularly important and valuable about the book is that it is a good point to start appreciating the significance of history. Over the past two thousand years there have been many very thoughtful, eloquent, and godly people who have wrestled with theological questions. I believe most of the issues are not that different today. With humility we can learn a lot from them, for better or for poorer.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Truth, justice, and ?

This morning I was reading Psalm 45 which is "A Love Song" addressed to the King. It praises both the King and God. I was struck by the strange juxtaposition of "truth, meekness, and righteousness" in verse 4 of the ESV. The NIV reads

3 Gird your sword on your side, you mighty one; 
   clothe yourself with splendor and majesty. 
4 In your majesty ride forth victoriously 
   in the cause of truth, humility and justice; 
   let your right hand achieve awesome deeds. 

I tend to equate truth and justice with power not meekness and justice.
After all, Superman fought for "truth, justice, and the American Way".

But God's Kingdom is quite different.
The meek shall inherit the earth.
God's King humbled himself to become human and suffer (see Philipians 2:3-11).

The meek shall inherit the earth.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Cross of Jesus is a scandal

An innocent man suffered the horrendous death of a criminal.

A powerful King is humiliated by a brutal foreign ruler rather than delivering his people from their unjust suffering.

Guilty people who believe the innocent man died in their place escape punishment for their wrongdoing. They don't get what they deserved.

The Raising of the Cross by Rembrandt (1633).
n.b. He painted himself into the scene!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

How do you read this?

I am slowly reading through my review copy of  Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins by Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III. One thing I like and agree with is the emphasis on hermeneutics as being a key issue. Here are a couple of relevant quotes:
Next we turn to a summary of four American viewpoints on the creation-evolution conflict. Each point of view—creationism, intelligent design, partnership and independence—is associated with a distinct principle of biblical interpretation and evaluation of the relevant science. page 24
One neglected factor in addressing the conflict between Christian faith and science is the need for careful biblical reading and interpretation of relevant passages. In fact, this may be the key factor for the Christian believer in resolving science-faith conflicts.   page 46 
I also thought the following passage was helpful pointing out how hermeneutics can be driven by different presuppositions about the purpose, nature, and function of language. Specifically, in a modernist view language was either taken to be referential or  expressivist.
Biblical hermeneutics have been aided by progress over the years in the theory of language. Nancey Murphy [Anglo-American Postmodernity, pp. 10-11] points out that in the modern period (seventeenth to mid-twentieth century) language was understood to function in only one of two ways.  
In the referential (or representative) aspect, language gets its meaning by describing facts or objects. Here one reads words in a sentence as actually representing that being described; the descriptions and events are to be understood literally. 
The second, the expressivist aspect, refers to a kind of second-class theory of language. Here language gains its meaning because it expresses some inner attitude, feeling, or intention of the speaker or writer. Language contains no factual meaning. 
In the modern period, theology could adopt only one or the other aspect of language since language at that time was understood as functioning only in these two ways. The conservative church opted for the referential aspect (and one might ask, was there really any other choice?), while the liberal church chose the expressivist. But neither version alone can describe all dimensions of how language actually works
 Carlson and Longman then go on to present a more nuanced view of Biblical hermeneutics. More on that later...

[The painting is A Woman Reading by Claude Monet].

Friday, April 15, 2011

Is historical fiction good or dangerous?

"Historical fiction" is an increasingly popular genre. Furthermore, there are an increasing number of movies which use actual historical events as the background for a great story. But often, due to creative license the movie is not an accurate portrayal of the actual events and can leave audiences, particularly uncritical ones, a misleading impression. There are a whole range of views on how much of a problem there is. I discussed this briefly in a post, Can Hollywood make history? 

Last night, my son and I enjoyed watching the movie The Damned United. It is a portrayal of the troubled 44 days that Brian Clough spent as manager of Leeds United Football club. The movie is worth watching even if you are not a football fan. It is a particularly poignant portrayal of how personal relationships are so important and determinative in life. This is seen in:

-the loyal but difficult relationship between Brian Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor. The synergy of their contrasting personalities and gifts made them a strong but fragile team.

-how Clough was driven by rivalry with the former Leeds Manager Don Revie, which went back to a perceived snub many years.

-how personal relationships (here between manager and players and board of directors) ultimately determine professional success or failure.

There is an interesting discussion in The Guardian, The Damned United should never have been made which highlights some historical inaccuracies (and associated lawsuits) in the movie. The movie writer and directors defend themselves with the claim that they have used creative license to capture the essence of the man. Watching the movie and reading the Wikipedia page about Clough I feel that they have done this. The main weakness I felt of the movie was that it actually did not really enlighten me much on why Clough was such a successful manager.

As an aside, the popular Australian children's writer Jackie French explores issues about historical accuracy nicely in her novel Macbeth and Son.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Dramatic reading of the Gospel of Mark

At church we have been going through a sermon series, Meet the King, based on the Gospel of Mark. Rather than following the time-honoured tradition of having a member of the congregation read the relevant Scripture passage before the sermon we have been watching a dramatic reading, Mark's Gospel on Stage performed by Max McClean and produced by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts. This past sunday was Mark 15 about the crucifixion of Jesus and I thought the reading was particularly effective.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Who is protecting who?

The Australia Defence Force Academy (ADFA) is currently involved in a major scandal about the shocking treatment of a female cadet.

1. Unfortunately, there is a shocking history associated with treatment of military cadets by one another. It seems this has been consistently covered up. Here a few quotes from a chilling article Culture of abuse 20 years old in The Weekend Australian by a former cadet.
Working in criminal law, I regularly see people incarcerated for the same crimes committed against me at ADFA. However, the criminals in my case were never brought to trial but were given commissions and careers in the ADF [Australian Defence Forces]... 
[Government inquiries recommended new procedures. Hence] Despite more than a decade of resistance, ADFA was dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century. 
Despite the changes, no one took the time to say to anyone in the ADF that what happened at ADFA prior to 1998 was wrong. No one said to any of the graduates of ADFA: "What was done to you at ADFA was wrong, what you did to other cadets at ADFA was wrong."
2. No one seems to make the following comment about "consensual" intimate relations between unmarried cadets. On purely utilitarian grounds, I fail to see this is a good idea if you want to run a stable, unified, disciplined, and focused combat force.

3. Unfortunately, it seems there are people in military leadership who have pasts where they have committed such atrocities or covered up the actions of others. They lack credibility when they claim we must increase military spending. They also lack moral authority to fight "just wars" that are meant to protect us from "evil" enemies. Sometimes the enemy is within.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A romantic history

My wife and I watched the movie The Young Victoria and really enjoyed it. The acting, musical score, and cinematography are particularly good. For a movie, it appears to be surprisingly close to the actual history, and consequently quite educational. But, perhaps the movie is too sympathetic in its portrayal. Queen Victoria's reign covered 20 prime ministerships and shaped the British Empire, for better or for worse!

The earliest known photograph of Queen Victoria

Ten theological theses about Genesis

What are the first three chapters of Genesis about? To me most debates on what is not clear and in the process lose sight of what is actually quite clear. Here I offer my tentative list of ten important theological ideas that are communicated.
  1. Nature is not God. God is the ruler of everything.
  2. Creation has a purpose: the creature is to live in convenantal relation with its creator.
  3. We are made in God's image.
  4. The creature has value.
  5. The creation has value.
  6. Man is not God. Humanity is accountable to God.
  7. We are male and female: different and complementary.
  8. Humanity is to keep the Sabbath - this means joy, freedom, and rest.
  9. Sin and Evil exist and have consequences (estrangement from God and one another).
  10. God judges sin. Sin leads to spiritual death.
Note that these big theological ideas are really quite independent of what position one takes about the meaning of "day", the timescales involved, the relationship to a scientific description of the beginning of the universe and the origin of life, the "historicity" of Adam and Eve,...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Where are philosophers glamorous and influential?

There are not many countries in the world where someone who has taught Epistemology at a leading university, would also be featured regularly in a glossy magazine, and be a political mover and shaker.

Today's Australian reprints an interesting article French Thinkers are Men of Action Too by Ben MacIntyre from The Times (London). It contrasts the role of intellectuals in public (and political) life in France and the U.K.  Here is an extract:

Almost everything about BHL [Bernard-Henri Levy] is, from a British point of view, annoying: the vanity and showmanship, the white Charvet shirt unbuttoned to reveal the tanned chest, the film-star wife, the elevated language and the mane of unacceptably glossy French hair.
Hard as it is to like this preening self-styled "militant philosopher", I find it impossible not to admire him. From Bosnia to Afghanistan to Libya, BHL has been a cultural fixture, expounding, criticising, agitating; sometimes wrong, frequently pretentious, but always there, the modern incarnation of the intellectuel engage, the committed thinker.
British intellectuals are simply not engaged in the politics of international affairs in the same way. We expect our thinkers to be scholars, quietly toiling away to explain afterwards what it all meant, but not to hold forth on matters of conscience or affairs of state.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Do you want to be a star?

After 37 "chapters" of Job and his friends philosophising and arguing about the theological significance and explanation of Job's suffering, the LORD speaks:

31"Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades
   or loose the cords of Orion?
32Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season,
   or can you guide the Bear with its children?
33Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
   Can you establish their rule on the earth?

Although this is humbling to the modern reader it had probably even greater significance to readers in the Ancient near east where the distinctions between stars, deities, kings, and pharoahs was blurred. This then ties back to the "polemical" nature of the Genesis account of creation which again is stark contrast to Babylonian epics.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Another angry young man

Continuing my reading through Job this morning I got up to chapter 32 where the angry young man Elihu speaks his mind. My post last year suggested that perhaps he was so angry because he was scared that the answers were not as simple or as definite as he wished.
Coincidentally, later in the day I read an article Wayne Rooney faces two-game ban for a recent expletive filled outburst in front of the TV cameras. It was interesting to read what Harry Rednapp (manager of rival Tottenham Hotspurs) said about successful young footballers:
"Why is he so angry? I don't remember Bobby Charlton doing that when he scored or smashed one in from 30 yards, or Jimmy Greaves.
"Why do some of these young players have to be so angry with the world? They're getting hundreds of thousands of pounds to play. I respect him as a player, but he's a silly boy and he shouldn't have done it."

Monday, April 4, 2011

The epistemology of Job

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....
23"God understands the way to it,
   and he knows its place.
24For he looks to the ends of the earth
   and sees everything under the heavens.
25When he gave to the wind its weight
   and apportioned the waters by measure,
26when he made a decree for the rain
   and a way for the lightning of the thunder,
27then he saw it and declared it;
   he established it, and searched it out.
28And he said to man,'Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
   and to turn away from evil is understanding

Job 28

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The gracious divine Gift of freedom, rest, and joy

Two months ago I posted Freedom, rest, and joy on the Sabbath about Karl Barth's exposition of Genesis 2:2,3. This morning I read more of Barth's wonderful discussion of the theological significance of Genesis 2:3
So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
Barth discusses how this first Sabbath is the beginning of God's covenant of grace with man.
It cannot be emphasised too strongly that this invitation comes at a time when creation, and particularly man, had nothing behind it except its creation by God, so that there can be no question whatever of a relationship between this Sabbath observance and any work completed by himself. Before and apart from all work and conflict, irrespective of any merits of his own, he is invited to cease from his own works, to rest, and therefore to enter into the freedom, rest and joy of God Himself. In his case, therefore, the Sabbath as the sign of the given promise does not stand at the end but at the beginning, i.e., at the beginning of his working week. 
And the promise itself, whose sign is the Sabbath, cannot be tied to his own volition, achievement or merit. What precedes it when it first occurs is wholly the work of God and not of man. God has taken it upon Himself to do and accomplish what can now be for man as well as for Himself an occasion for freedom, rest and joy. As far as man is concerned, he has simply to recognise that God has really done all that is necessary, that He has invited him to participate in His rest, and that he may accept this invitation. In other words, he is left wholly and utterly with the grace of God. When this is addressed to him, there begins the history of man with God. Hence this really begins on Sunday and not on a weekday. It begins with the Gospel and not with the Law. It begins with the freedom of man and not his commitment; with a holiday and not an imposed task; with joy and not with toil and trouble. The latter will follow soon enough, but only in succession to the former. 
That God rested on the seventh day, and blessed and sanctified it, is the first divine action which man is privileged to witness; and that he himself may keep the Sabbath with God, completely free from work, is the first Word spoken to him, the first obligation laid on him. It is thus decided once and for all that the history of the covenant which begins here is to be the history of the divine covenant of grace. And with this decision creation is completed as the revelation of the will of God with regard to the existence and being of His creation. With it creation itself is also completed: "The heavens and the earth … and all the host of them." Creation took place in order that man's history might commence and take place as the history of the covenant of grace established between God and himself. According to the first biblical witness it took place because God's love for man willed to be incomparably strong in the fact that man and his whole world and therefore the object of God's love should become God's creation and therefore belong from the very outset to God. Creatureliness, and therefore creation, is the external basis of the covenant of grace in which the love of God for man moves towards its fulfilment. It is in this teleology that it is presented in the first creation narrative of the Bible.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation, pp. 218-9.

The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, Rembrandt (1637)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Science fiction in Christianity Today

There is a really strange article Christ of the Klingons in Christianity Today which sympathetically discusses some wild claims about the theological significance of string theory by a theoretical physicist Gerald Cleaver [who works in M-theory (a version of string theory)] and a philosopher Robin Collins. Here are a few statements I found rather strange:
"To me [M-Theory] offers a Christian God whose creative ability is much larger than we ever could imagine before," Cleaver says.
To Cleaver, M-Theory's multiverse, with its dizzying variety, unending moments of new creation, and perhaps infinite scope, makes perfect sense as the work of "a God of the infinities, who creates eternally."
I've always had problems perceiving the infinite God that we believe in [as] creating life in just one spot," Cleaver says. "Over the entire past and future of humankind, there'll probably be no more than a few hundred billion humans to interact with God on this earth. That is a finite number that does not make consistent theological sense to me."
"The beauty of it suggests that this is the true picture of reality," Cleaver says. "The beauty of a theory is extremely important."
[He quotes Paul Dirac, a famous theoretical physicist who said in 1963]
"It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit [an] experiment… . If one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one's equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress."
I think theology is silent on the merits of specific scientific theories. I would say that Dirac's view borders on being unscientific. Arguably, this obsession with "beauty" is why he did not make any significant contributions for the last 30 years of his career.
It does not matter what we think about the beauty of a theory. What matters is whether it can explain experimental data and predict the outcomes of new experiments. String theory is yet to do that and some physicists are skeptical whether it will ever be falsifiable. So is it science? Theology is grounded in reality and so I see no need for it to engage with such speculations.

Our subconscious self-righteousness

This morning, I really enjoyed our reading group which is going through Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace. This post is just about one intriguing issue which came up. Volf begins the chapter, "Exclusion" with comments from Michael Ignatieff about patronising (and self-righteous) European attitudes to ethnic conflicts. [Incidentally, Ignatieff is currently leader of the Liberal Party in Canada].

A 1995 journal article by Ignatieff, The seductiveness of moral disgust  considers the motivations for and failures of Western military interventions, particularly that in Bosnia and Kosovo:
There was a strong element of narcissism buried inside the more obvious motivations leading the West to intervene. We intervened not only to save others but also to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that Europe "meant" something, stood for toleration within a peaceable and civilized civil society. This imaginary Europe, this narcissistic image of ourselves, we believed was incarnated in the myth of a multiethnic, multiconfessional Bosnia.
The essay is reprinted in a book, The Warriors Honour: Ethnic war and the modern conscience. The book also contains an essay, "Nationalism and the narcissism of minor difference". Apparently this is an illusion to the claim of Freud that a signature of Narcissism is the amplification of "minor difference".

So what? To me this is just another example of how humans all have an incredibly powerful subconscious force driving us towards self-righteousness. This is what drives the creation, maintenance, and promulgation of religion.

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