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.