Monday, May 30, 2011

Creation: the basics

As I posted earlier my son and I are reading through Alister McGrath's small book Theology: The Basics. The chapter we discussed this morning on Jesus, I thought was particularly good. However, the purpose of this post was just to note that I found the previous chapter on Creation a little disappointing.

I felt this had too much emphasis on the issue of natural theology, and the associated controversy concerning its role in theology. Moreover, McGrath does not emphasize several key aspects of the doctrine of creation.

First, because God is the Creator we accountable to Him and He is worthy of our devotion and obedience (Revelation 4:11)

11 "Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
   to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
   and by your will they existed and were created."

Second, creation is for a purpose: for us to live in a covenantal relationship with God.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Facing our frail humanity

Last weekend my wife and I watched the movie My House in Umbria starring Maggie Smith. On reflection I feel it is one of the best movies I have watched in the past year or so. There is a richness to the scenery and cinematography that enhances the wonderful acting. To me the movie highlights:

our universal need for forgiveness and redemption, whatever our past

our past history has a significant influence on how we feel and act today

our frail humanity

our desperate hunger for and need for relationship

the (partial) healing power of time, rest, nature, companionship, and food

Saturday, May 28, 2011

One Christian's climate of concern

I just posted on my work blog about a recent physics department colloquium where I heard John Cook speak about his efforts through his blog Skeptical Science to counter misinformation and misunderstandings from climate change skeptics. I was interested and encouraged to read a post Why I care about Climate change which describes his motivations:
...I care about climate change for two reasons. One reason is my ten year old daughter, Gaby. ....I want to be able to look her in the eye ....  and say I did my best to communicate the scientific reality to people.
The second reason is my faith. I'm a Christian and find myself strongly challenged by passages in the Bible like Amos 5 and Matthew 25. I believe in a God who has a heart for the poor and expects Christians to feel the same way. And as I read the peer-reviewed science, I see more and more evidence that the poorest, most vulnerable countries will be (and currently are) those hardest hit by global warming. Drought will devastate low-latitude countries. Rising sea levels will create havoc on low lying countries like Bangladesh.
I was also impressed by the tone of John's presentation. He was never patronising or rude or disparaging of those who he disagrees with. He just calmly presented his point of view and why he held it. This is a good Christian witness.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Personal integrity before public function

On the Desiring God blog there is an excellent post The danger of fruitfulness without purity. It is something every Christian leader should read and ponder. I thought the paragraph below was particularly challenging and apt.
We must diligently guard against two “cardinal sins” of leadership. The first is mistaking giftedness for spiritual maturity. Too many young people have been thrust into leadership and responsibility too quickly and without proper supervision and guidance. Leaders tend to be overly eager to give responsibility and authority to young people because almost every ministry has numerous needs and positions to fill. But giftedness must not be mistaken for maturity. And giftedness alone without spiritual maturity can oftentimes do more long-term damage to a ministry after short-terms “gains” fade away.

The second “cardinal sin” of leadership is mistaking “fruitfulness” for holiness. We can often become easily enamored with the shininess and abundance of “fruit.” “Successful” ministry is not measured by numeric indicators. When Christ addresses the seven churches in Revelation, does he commend the larger churches and rebuke the smaller? Does he compare growth rates and highlight numbers? No. Instead, he hits at the heart of character, faith, endurance, compromise, idolatry, and immorality.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

All things being equal

This past weekend I was in a discussion group about the chapter on Gender Identity in Miroslav Volf's book, Exclusion and Embrace.  I found it the most disappointing chapter for reasons I will blog about later hopefully. There was a strong emphasis on equality of the sexes and issues of superiority and subordination. But,  I wondered if equality was interpreted in a particular modern way and held as such a high value that it swamped other issues and concerns.

The United States Declaration of Independence begins:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal".
"Liberty, equality, and fraternity" is the national motto of France and was a catchcry of the French Revolution.

Is such an emphasis on equality appropriate and Biblical?

Equity is a Biblical concept. A word search on the ESV (English Standard Version) gives
11 occurences.
Kings are to rule with righteousness, justice, and equity, and the LORD will judge with justice and equity.

Perhaps the key issue is how does our notion of equity compare to Gods? Any comments?

Monday, May 23, 2011

I am right

I am right with God.  I am justified. Not because I am right but because God is right.
Romans 3:21-26

Hence, it does not really matter whether I am right about
-scientific evidence for evolution
-what music should be played at church
-health care reform
-whether the Hubbard model on the anisotropic triangular lattice is the appropriate effective Hamiltonians for organic superconductors
-climate change
-who should have bought the milk today....

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hearing the Word of the The King

Last night my family enjoyed watching The King's Speech. It is a great and moving story, which to me highlighted:

the importance of finding your voice [not just your physical voice]

the value of helping the mute find their voice

the power of words to comfort and to inspire

that childhood events can subconsciously have a large impact on our later lives

that people hunger for leadership particularly in times of uncertainty and great need

how today the advent of television, iTunes, multi-media and a preoccupation with images has diminished the power of words. furthermore, the words of leaders are just not heard in a cacophony of background noise. long gone are the days when people crowded around radio sets to hear a word from the Prime Minister or the King.

Yet today the words we need to particularly clamber to hear are those of the King of Kings, the Word of God.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Towards a Christian perspective on academic disciplines

Last Saturday I went to a really helpful and stimulating Simeon Network workshop which included a discussion of "Deconstructing an academic discipline". A key to doing this is to actually being clear on the subject, methodology, values, guiding principles, and foundational assumptions within the discipline. Until these are defined it will be difficult to actually develop a Christian discipline.

However, I wonder whether there is more to the story. Specifically, I would like to distinguish the following:

How is the discipline meant to be practised?
How is the discipline actually practised?
How as a Christian, should I practice it?

For example, everyone will agree that science is about evidence, reason, objectivity, reproducibility of results, developing and testing hypotheses....

But, I believe that is not how it is practised. I would claim that many of the conclusions that I see in scientific papers are actually not justified based on the data that is present.

As I Christian, I am mindful of the sinful nature of humanity and the resulting tendency we have to "believe what we want to believe". Hence, I should have a greater scepticism towards the claims of others and a wariness of my own abilities and commitment to reason. This should double my commitment to way the discipline is meant to be practised.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hawking says there is no heaven

This week Stephen Hawking was interviewed by the Guardian. The following statement has attracted significantly publicity:
I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.
The Guardian article also states:

Hawking responded to questions posed by the Guardian and a reader in advance of a lecture tomorrow at the Google Zeitgeist meeting in London, in which he will address the question: "Why are we here?"
In the talk, he will argue that tiny quantum fluctuations in the very early universe became the seeds from which galaxies, stars, and ultimately human life emerged. "Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in," he said.
I beg to differ with Hawking. Science is about evidence. Hawking is a loud proponent of M-theory. However, there is no experimental evidence that string theory is valid. Furthermore, even if it is valid, making philosophical deductions from the content of scientific theories is problematic.
But, I would contrast this lack of evidence to the evidence for heaven. What? Yes, there is some evidence. There is some historical evidence (including eyewitness accounts) that Jesus Christ was crucified and that he rose from the dead. If Jesus really did rise from the dead then it is highly likely that there is an afterlife heaven exists. I agree that not everyone accepts the validity of or agrees with the evidence. But there is evidence that should be examined, weighed and considered. In contrast, for Hawkings ideas there is no concrete empirical evidence that I am aware of.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Science is (or should be) beautiful

I have never heard someone say "I don't know much about science but I know what I like."
Is science art? Can scientific knowledge be beautiful? Are some theories more beautiful than others?

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was one of the most influential astrophysicists of the twentieth century. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983. Recently Physics Today devoted a whole issue to him, marking the centenary of his birth. They reprinted a 1979 article he wrote, Beauty and the quest for beauty in science. The abstract is:
Science, like the arts, admits aesthetic criteria; we seek theories that display "a proper conformity of the parts to one another and to the whole" while still showing "some strangeness in their proportion.".
[This article is also included in a book of essays entitled, Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science].

An interesting exploration of these ideas is Physics and Christian Theology: Beauty, a Common Dialect? by Tracee Hackel.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The place God dwells, speaks, and reconciles

The sermon at church on sunday was on 1 Kings 8 where King Solomon dedicates the Temple, following the placing of the ark of the covenant. It was emphasised that at the centre of the temple was the mercy seat (or atonement cover) and how this was related to us finding mercy through Jesus. This reminded me of Karl Barth's nice exegesis of Romans 3:25 [which he translates "Whom God set forth to be a covering of propitiation, through his faithfulness, by his blood"]
"In the Old Testament cultus the covering of propitiation was the sheet of gold, overshadowed by the wings of the two-angel-figures (cherubim), which covered and marked the place where the contents of the ark, the oracles of God, were deposited (Exod. 25:17-21). In I Sam. 4:4, 2 Sam. 6:2, Ps. 80: 1, it is the place above which God himself dwells; in Exod. 25:22, Num. 7:89, it is the place from which God speaks to Moses; it is pre-eminently, however, the place, where, on the great Day of Atonement, the people were reconciled to God by the sprinkling of blood (Lev. 16:14-15). The analogy with Jesus is especially appropriate, because the mercy seat is no more that a particular, though very significant, place. By the express counsel of God, Jesus has been appointed from eternity as the place of reconciliation above which God dwells and from which he speaks; now, however, he occupies a position in time, in history, and in the presence of humanity"
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition, pp. 104-105.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

King Solomon was a fallen scholar

Previously I have posted about fallen scholars: people who had great intellects and produced seminal and influential scholarly works, but had their own personal moral failures. Should we dismiss their ideas? Or should we overlook their personal failings and focus on the relative merits of their ideas? Is such a separation of the person and their ideas really possible?

Only today I realised there is actually a significant precedent in the Bible: King Solomon. He was a wise man who was one of the leading scholars of his time (see 1 Kings 4:29-34). Yet he had many wives, worshiped idols, exploited his people, and failed as a parent. The Bible does not endorse his behaviour but does endorse his teachings.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Prominent atheist endorses Christian evangelism of Africa

Matthew Parris is an influential U.K. journalist and former member of Parliament for the Conservative Party. In 2008 he wrote a fascinating piece As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs to God in the Sunday Times. It is worth reading in full but here are a few extracts:
travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.
But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
..... There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.  
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates. 
Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. 
And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.
I feel that perhaps there are some inconsistencies here. There seems to be an underlying colonialism and paternalism. If Christianity is so good and necessary for Africa, why not for the West? If atheism is the truth that liberates people in the West why cannot it liberate and change hearts in Africa?

I learnt about this article today at a meeting of the Simeon Network in Brisbane.

I am upper class

Previously I have posted about the issue as to how you define a "rich person" in affluent Western society. No one wants to admit they are wealthy or upper class. The "rich" are always those who have more money than me, regardless of how much money I have.

In Australia, our latest government budget has cut some "welfare" benefits to households earning over $150,000. This has led to debate about whether such people are actually wealthy. The key issues and statistics seem to be objectively summarised here.

Only 3% of Australians have individual pre-tax incomes of more than $150,00 and 17% of household incomes are larger than that. Hence, if you want to define lower, middle, and uppper band of incomes, then defining the upper one-sixth as "upper" seems reasonable. After all, if at school our child got marks in the top 17% of the class then I doubt we would claim that our child was in the "middle" of the class?

I "confess" my household pre-tax income is greater than $150,000 [In Australia salaries of university faculty are all public information so this is hardly private information]. This puts my family in the top 17 per cent.
But, I think it is silly the way governments (from both political parties) keep giving us "family" tax benefits, tax cuts,  "baby bonuses" and rebates in cynical vote-getting exercises. The current government is to be commended for trying to reign this "welfare" in. I will happily take the money but I think this "middle" class "welfare" is bad government policy and just reflects the endemic greed, discontent, and insatiable materialism in modern Western society.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Recommended resource on science and Christian belief

I continue to be impressed by the journal Science and Christian Belief. Besides major articles each issue contains a large number of book reviews. It really helps deciding what books may be worth reading and getting succinct summaries of what is out there.

The latest issue has a positive review by Graeme Finlay of the book I love Jesus and I accept evolution by Denis Lamoureux (his website at the University of Alberta is also worth looking at).

The only thing I find disappointing about the journal is that like most journals, conferences, books, blogs, ... on science and Christianity it spends too much time talking about evolution...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Just a novel

Over the years I have read all of John Grisham's legal thrillers. Most I have enjoyed and think the best two are probably The Testament and The Runaway Jury. Over the past decade he has started to write in other genres and found most of these rather disappointing and so don't bother to read them anymore. This week I read his latest legal novel, The Confession. I found it also disappointing: there are few surprises in the plot, and the characters are not as rich or endearing as in some of his novels. This is somewhat similar to The Appeal: you keep waiting for justice to be done and the "good guys" to win, but they don't.

The novel does make a good case for abolition of the death penalty, expose problems in the US criminal justice system [particularly where prosecutors, judges, and sheriffs are democratically elected]. But, the novel does have some good Christian content as the hero is a Lutheran minister.

I also kept thinking of various issues highlighted in Exclusion and Embrace because the novel does explore issues associated with justice, victimhood, forgiveness, forgetting, revenge, and racial conflict.

For a more positive review of The Confession see the review in the Washington Post by Maureen Corrigan.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The theology of embrace

I just finished reading the Embrace chapter of Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace. It is centred around the parable of The Prodigal Son [Luke 15:11-32].
Rather than a theological reading he reads the story at the level of social relationships. The two central themes are "the father's giving himself to his estranged son and his receiving that son back into his household" leading him to pursue the "question of how identities need to be constituted if broken relationships are to be restored."
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
Luke 15:20

Monday, May 2, 2011

Liberation or bondage?

It is interesting to see how academic authors can inject their own values into texts. The paragraph below appears in an extract [published in the Weekend Australian Magazine] from the new biography of Australian historian Manning Clark, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark by Mark McKenna (from the History Department at Sydney University). 
Clark’s extramarital sexual longings were locked in the chains of the religious dogma he imbibed as a child and which would cause him much pain and anguish throughout his life. The desires of the flesh were evil. They were an example of mankind’s baseness. Unless they were kept under control by God’s holy sacrament of marriage, men and women risked losing their souls. No amount of reading about the need for sexual liberation could wash these tormenting thoughts from his being.
What might a less coloured commentary by a more objective academic look like? Here is one possibility, without the strong language:

      Clark struggled through his life, as many men do, with desires for extramarital sex. At times he was racked with guilt, perhaps compounded by his upbringing, as the son of an Anglican clergyman. But even though he rejected this upbringing he was still torn. Perhaps this was because he knew that acting on those desires was morally wrong; they were ultimately selfish and would cause anguish and pain to others, especially to his wife and children. Indeed he did experience this to be the case when he did eventually have extra-marital affairs. This book chronicles some of that turmoil, pain and anguish.

Worth watching

Sunday, May 1, 2011

One academic's quest for grace and truth

Manning Clark was Australia's most famous and influential historian and was a colourful public figure. He was the son of an Anglican clergyman, who became an atheist, and entitled the second volume of his life memoir The Quest for Grace.
Ross Fitzgerald has a fascinating review of the new biography An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark by Mark McKenna. [An extract is here]. Manning Clark continues to attract interest, partly because of ambiguities about his relationship to the Soviet state and claims that he fabricated his presence at certain historical events.

Here are just a few extracts from the review in the Weekend Australian Review:
Clark sometimes admitted there wasn't very much difference between literary fiction and "his kind of history".
... in the romantic tradition of Carlyle, who spoke from his "inspired soul" to become "the light of the world", Clark "attempted to minister to [our] nation as a kind of spiritual soothsayer, uttering gnomic words of guidance in the form of historical parables".
Novelist David Malouf perceptively sensed in his friend Clark an enduring spiritual yearning, which manifested itself in "a desperate need for certainty", and a "huge desire for absolute truth". Yet, for all of his adult life, the historian's deep longing was as much sexual and emotional as it was spiritual and intellectual.
five months before his death, Clark wrote to his friend and ex-academic colleague, the Oxford-educated communist, Ian Milner, in Prague:
      I wonder whether any crude secular position is conducive to    poetry, music or painting . . . I see us all as people who have lost their "Great Expectations", either in any world to come, or in the here and now . . . just because 1917 fell into the hands of spiritual bullies, that does not mean we should give up the hope of stealing fire from heaven -- or that we should bow down to 5th Avenue.
My family thought this was a picture of me, not Manning Clark! I guess 50 year old Australian male Professors all look the same! 

Unveiling the character of the law

On Friday I had an interesting discussion with a friend about the character of the Old Testament law and the extent to which it was "written in stone" as opposed to having a more dynamic character because it was "veiled" and required contemplation and investigation. I vaguely recalled Karl Barth's view of Revelation and the veiled-unveiled dialectic he emphasized.
I think the passage below may be one of the (many?) relevant ones, but welcome alternative suggestions. 
Revelation in the Bible means the self-unveiling, imparted to men, of the God who by nature cannot be unveiled to men. The element of self-unveiling in this definition may be described as the historical if not the logical or material centre of the biblical revelation. When the Bible speaks of revelation, it does so in the form of the record of a history or a series of histories. The content of this history or of each of these histories, however, is that self-unveiling of God. But as the record is given, our experience also is, of course, that the One who thus unveils Himself is the God who by nature cannot be unveiled to men, and that this self-unveiling is to specific men. Logically and materially this is just as important as the recorded self-unveiling. Historically the latter constitutes the centre....., self-unveiling means that God does what men themselves cannot do in any sense or in any way: He makes Himself present, known and significant to them as God. In the historical life of men He takes up a place, and a very specific place at that, and makes Himself the object of human contemplation, human experience, human thought and human speech. 
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 315.
Moses with tablets of the Ten Commandments, Rembrandt (1659)