Saturday, December 29, 2012

Pain, hope, and grace in Les Miserables

I love Les Miserables, as previous posts testify.
My family and went to see the latest movie version.
I thought it was excellent.
The movie version definitely has a different character to the musical. The cinematic drama gave a grander portrayal of the poverty, desperation, pain, suffering, and army brutality. On the other hand, some of the actors singing their lines did not have the musical and emotional intensity of the musical.
Again I was struck again and again by the message of grace, forgiveness, and peace in the life of Valjean, in contrast to the legalism and self-righteous internal torment of Jabert.

A highlight was Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I dreamed a dream". The pain, the forlornness, and lost hope was in stark contrast to the romanticism of some musical renditions. I was overcome with the brutality of men towards women.

Friday, December 28, 2012

What did C.S. Lewis believe about evolution?

Everyone likes a good C.S. Lewis quote to bolster their argument.

On Biologos David Williams has a great series of blog posts Surprised by Jack about C.S. Lewis considering his views on Scripture, Genesis, the Fall, and Evolution. It challenges our views of Lewis [why are conservative evangelicals so infatuated with this Anglo-Catholic?] and examines what he actually believed rather than what we might wish he believed.

Here is an extract of the post about evolution, which first discusses how Lewis overall accepted the science of evolution.
What Lewis did believe to conflict with Christian faith was what he called the great “Myth” of “Evolutionism” or “Developmentalism.” But this is not the same as evolutionary theory per se. “[We] must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth,” he writes in his essay "The Funeral of a Great Myth.” 
Lewis believed that the great myth of “Evolutionism” conflicted not only with the Christian faith, but with Reason itself, undercutting the grounds for believing in human rationality and, therefore, in any human rationale that could be offered for believing in Evolutionism in the first place. According to Lewis, Evolutionism’s chief premise, namely, Naturalism, invalidates human reasoning itself, amounting to “an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs—which is nonsense.” “All possible knowledge…depends on reasoning,” he writes in chapter III of Miracles. “We infer Evolution from fossils: we infer the existence of our own brains from what we find inside the skulls of other creatures like ourselves in the dissecting room.” All sciences, including evolutionary science, depend upon the validity of human inference for their own validity. “Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.” Naturalism, however, with its grand Myth of Evolutionism explains all of reality, including human reason, in terms of non-rational natural causes and effects, reducing all human reasoning to being no more than the accidental byproducts of chance, matter and time, and thereby undercutting the validity of reasoning itself.
 This important distinction between evolutionary science and evolutionism [a philosophical perspective] has also been stressed by Tim Keller.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Jesus on the waterfront

My family and I watched the classic movie On the Waterfront.
I particularly liked this scene, of a moving speech by a priest [based on Father John M. Corridan], highlighting Jesus identification with the oppressed.

It was nice to see a Hollywood movie which portrayed clergy and Christian faith in such a positive manner. But, that was 1954!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Is there a scientific basis for a rational world?

I have been enjoying re-reading Paul Davies' 1992 book, The Mind of God: the scientific basis for a rational world.

I was struck by the sub-title. I remain to be convinced that there is any scientific basis for the apparent rationality of the physical world.
Can science really provide a justification for or understanding of why the material world has an inherent rationality?
From the point of view of science, the world just IS. Science just works.

Indeed Davies explores this question in a 2007 New York Times Op-ed piece Taking Science on Faith. This received a strong negative reaction from prominent atheists.

Redemption through literature

My wife and I enjoyed watching the French movie My afternoons with Margueritte.
It highlights the importance of relationships, the power [for good and ill] of parents, and the value of literature.


Monday, December 24, 2012

A scientist reflects on Christmas

The Apostles Creed contains a helpful summary of what I believe about Christmas. It begins:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,       the Creator of heaven and earth,       and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord:Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,   born of the Virgin Mary,
Wow! That sounds strange. Can a scientist really believe that?

Is it hard to believe in the miracles associated with the birth of Jesus Christ?
Was Jesus mother Mary really a virgin?
Was the baby conceived by the Holy Spirit rather than by a human father?
What is the real mystery of Christmas?
Why is Christmas a gift?

In the process of answering these questions I hope to engage you with several ideas.
First, Scientists don't have all the answers. We don't understand everything. There are mysteries in science that are as profound and as difficult to believe as those described in the Apostles Creed. Second, the great mystery of Christmas is the gift from God of Jesus. Emmanuel, God is with us.

So why do I say that scientists struggle to understand some things in science?
A great mystery is why does science work at all? I find it is truly amazing that using our brains we can discover the inner workings of atoms, what happened in the first three minutes of the universe, and the molecular basis of genetics. Furthermore, some of our scientific understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology is so reliable and powerful that we can produce amazing things like laptop computers, GPS, new drugs, and test-tube babies!?

In my field, theoretical physics, a big question, is why can mathematics be used with such success to describe physical laws?

Eugene Wigner received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963. Wigner also wrote a famous essay with the title, ``The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences". The concluding sentences are often quoted. Wigner says,
It is a miracle that mathematics can be used to describe the laws of physics. This is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.
Note Wigner uses the words miracle and gift.

Before discussing the miracles and mystery of Christmas, I want to say a little more about some mysteries in science. I do this because it is common to dismiss out of hand Biblical miracles such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus, claiming that they are scientifically impossible. But is this really justified?
 One thing we have learnt from modern science is that sometimes what we think ``makes sense" or what we may intuitively think is  ``rational" or ``reasonable" can actually be false.

Quantum theory is one of my passions. I have a really fun job where everyday I get to use quantum theory to try to understand  properties of new materials. When I went to university I thought if I understood quantum theory I would understand the meaning of life. Quantum theory is the most successful theory in all of science. It can explain properties of everything from atoms to DNA. It can predict the outcome of experiments to an accuracy of 10 decimal places. It is like if I had a computer program which could tell me what a strangers credit card numbers are. This resounding success shows that scientific truth is not just a matter of personal opinion.

However, you should not think everything in science is certain. Quantum theory raises as many questions as it answers. In spite of the success of the theory, there is no consensus on its interpretation. There more than ten different interpretations of quantum theory. These interpretations are so different that they do not even agree on how many universes there are, nor whether external reality even exists! So we have both certainty and ambiguity in science.

My wife, Robin, does not share my  passion for quantum physics. Yet Robin does like Schrodingers cat! This cat is a logical outcome of the most successful theory in all of science. The cat is in a quantum state such that the cat is dead and alive at the same time. It is not one or the other. It will only be definitely one or the other is you look to see which one it is. So looks can kill!
If you are confused and think this doesn't make sense then you have got the point. If you think you understand it then you don't! This confusion should humble us. Science does not have all the answers.

Given that science involves such strange ideas it is not hard for me to believe in the miracles in the Bible such as the virgin birth. At UQ I am not the only other scientist who believes this. Indeed, each week I meet with several other science professors to read the Bible and pray together.

So what is the significance of the miracles of Christmas?
They actually point to the mystery of Christmas.

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah there was a prophecy
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [God is with us]
Isaiah 7:14
What is the meaning and significance of God being with us?
Well we all crave empathy for our situation and life experiences. When we have strong life experiences, both good and bad, we love it when another person can come along side us and relate to our experience.
God loves us so much that he wants to completely identify with us; to show perfect empathy with our frail humanity. God is saying, "I am with you. I am there for you. I understand. I have been through this to."

Furthermore, God took the initiative. We did not take the initiative. That is why Jesus was conceived not by a man, but by God.

So God became a human.
Jesus was truly human and truly God.

But how can this be?
This is the real mystery of Christmas. It is a paradox that I don't claim to completely understand. But just as I can accept quantum physics as true, I can accept this tension, that Jesus was fully human and fully God.

But understanding the miracles and mystery of Christmas cannot be separated from the miracle and mystery of Easter.

The baby became a man, Jesus Christ, who taught us who God is and how we can live in relationship to God. Jesus died on the cross to take away the penalty we deserve for our disobedience towards God. How are we disobedient? We ignore God. We do what we want.
Jesus death conquered sin. He rose from the dead to show his power over death and to enable us to rise from the dead to eternal life.

Returning to the Apostle's Creed which summarises this:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
       the Creator of heaven and earth,
       and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
   born of the Virgin Mary,
   suffered under Pontius Pilate,
   was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
To end I want to rephrase the quote I gave earlier from  the theoretical physicist Wigner,
``The miracle of Christmas, of the Immanuel
[God being with us] for our salvation is a wonderful gift
which we neither understand nor deserve.''

Something Australians cannot understand about the USA

Superficially Australia and the USA are similar: they are both prosperous English-speaking Western capitalist democracies. However, there are deep and profound cultural differences rooted in the vastly different historical origins of each nation. These differences are reflected in different attitudes to authority, national leaders, government regulation, foreign policy, welfare, compulsory voting, health insurance, ....

One issue which marks this cultural divide is the attitude to gun control. Most Australians, particularly those who have never lived in the USA, simply cannot understand why so many people in the US are opposed to gun control. This cultural divide was nicely discussed in the Weekend Australian article Split hints at nation willing to look the other way on guns.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The slow car ride to equal pay for women

Today in Western countries it is pretty much taken for granted that men and women get paid the same amount for doing the same job. [This doesn't mean that there still aren't subtle inequities and prejudices. But, that is another issue.]
Hence, it is hard to appreciate that this is a very recent phenomenon.
For example, in the UK the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 but only came into force in 1975!
[Don't you love the way politicians do this...]

I enjoyed watching the movie Made in Dagenham which is partly based on the historical events leading to the Equal Pay Act in the UK.

I thought it did particularly well at portraying the way that authorities/oppressors/rulers seek to divide, frustrate, and wear down those fighting them.
On the down side, I think there were a few too many cute hairdo's and dresses.

Husband to wife: "This is what happens when you go on strike. You end up yelling at each other."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Barth on creatio ex nihilo

It is sometimes debated whether science and Genesis 1 is consistent with the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo [creation out of nothing].

I found it interesting to see what Karl Barth says in the context of his exegesis of Genesis
It is clear enough that there is a chaos; that creation is "somehow" related to it; that it plays its part even in the later history which begins with creation; and that there too there are definite encounters between it and God. But there is no such thing as a "reality of chaos" independently confronting the Creator and His works, and able in its own power as matter or a hostile principle to oppose His operations. 
It may well be that the concept of a creatio ex nihilo, of which there is no actual hint in Gen. 1-2, is the construct of later attempts at more precise formulation. But its antithesis - the mythological acceptance of a primeval reality independent of God - is excluded in practice by the general tenor of the passage as well as its position within the biblical context.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation, page 103.

Hence, Barth argues that creatio ex nihilo is not explicitly supported by Genesis. However, he stresses that Genesis stands in conflict with its antithesis.

Monday, December 10, 2012

What would John Wesley think?

Protestant church schools in Australia are a complex and "fascinating" phenomena. Many of the older ones are extremely wealthy, charge high fees (of the order of $20,000 per year for tuition), and have high-flying corporate figures on their boards.
What I did not know until recently was the extra-ordinary renumeration packages of some principals (heads of school).

There has been considerable media coverage about the recent sacking of the principal of Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne. This arose due to conflict over alleged discrepancies of payments of the renumeration. This past weekend School for Scandal was the cover story of the Weekend Australian Magazine which describes all the intrigue and conflict in more detail than you probably want to know.

I have no interest or comment on the justice of the dismissal.
The questions no-one is even asking is
Is it appropriate that the head of a church school should be paid more than half a million dollars per year? 
What does this say about the values of the head and the school board? 
According to the Weekend Australian article, "parents launched a Rosa Storelli Fairness page on Facebook, where an anonymous supporter of the board used the pseudonym "John Wesley" to counter their claims."

I find this ironic and tragic given the frugal and humble lifestyle of John Wesley.

Is scientific knowledge forbidden fruit?

An interesting and important question about Genesis and the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" concerns what is the nature of this knowledge?

Here is Karl Barth's commentary:
What does "knowledge of good and evil" mean? The expression is obviously too concrete to allow us to accept the interpretation of Wellhausen (Prolegomena, p. 300 f., etc.) that its reference is to science and our general knowledge of things. Indeed, if this were so, it would be impossible to see why God should prohibit this to man and thus prohibit progress from childish ignorance to culture, or why the saga should regard this progress as deadly. For this reason other writers (e.g., Delitzsch) have thought in terms of the problem of progress from childish innocence to moral decision. Knowledge of good and evil characterises intellectual maturity and moral decision.
Church Dogmatics 3.1, The Doctrine of Creation, p. 285

I found Julius Wellhausen's perspective intriguing (and ultimately misplaced), particularly because he is best known as the first main proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis.
To me equating this "knowledge" with modern academic knowledge is just reading into the text modern (particular German modernist academic) preconceptions and concerns. Wellhausen's view reflects poorly on his scholarship.

So what does Barth himself think?
He first emphasises how ones view should be shaped by other Old Testament passages about "good and evil". After a survey he concludes
The question frequently raised whether we are to understand by "good and evil" what is morally right and wrong, or useful and useless, or pleasant and unpleasant, cannot be answered as though these were alternatives. The Old Testament concepts of tobh and ra' embrace all these things in the instances adduced. To know good and evil is to know right and wrong, salvation and perdition, life and death; and to know them is to have power over them and therefore over all things. The Genesis saga in its account of the fall, and in agreement with the rest of the Old Testament, undoubtedly tells us that man has seized this knowledge and power to his own undoing, and that he must now live in the possession of this knowledge and power.
Church Dogmatics 3.1, The Doctrine of Creation, p. 287

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A distortion of vocational calling

My son and I are just finishing reading Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung. I thought the following paragraph in was quite insightful about work and careers.
Unfortunately, we’ve turned the idea of calling or vocation on its head. The Reformers emphasized calling in order to break down the sacred-secular divide. They said, if you are working for the glory of God, you are doing the Lord’s work, no matter whether you’re a priest or a monk or a banker. But we’ve taken this notion of calling and turned it upside down, so instead of finding purpose in every kind of work, we are madly looking for the one job that will fulfill our purpose in life. 
(p. 103)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A vacuous legacy for theology

The notion of a vacuum (i.e. empty space) is an important concept in physics.

Today I learnt (from an article in the American Physical Society News) that the word vacuum first entered the English language in a theological treatise written by Thomas Cranmer in 1550.
Thus it is evident and plain, by the words of the Scripture, that after consecration remaineth bread and wine, and that the Papistical doctrine of Transubstantiation is directly contrary to God's word....
Natural reason abhorreth vacuum, that is to say, that there should be any empty place, wherein no substance should be. But if there remain no bread nor wine, the place where they were before, and where their accidents be, is filled with no substance, but remaineth vacuum, clean contrary to the order of nature.
"A Defence of the true and Catholick doctrine of the Sacrament of the body and blood of our Saviour Christ : with a confutation of Sundry errors concerning the same"

I think Cranmer's theology was correct. But, clearly his science was wrong. Physical vacuums can and do exist. Perhaps, another caution from history about the dangers of theologians and preachers pontificating about science (pun intended!).

Monday, December 3, 2012

Augustine on science

Given that he lived, more than a millenium before the rise of modern science I would have thought that Augustine would not have not had much to say about science or the relationship of science and Christianity.
However, I recently learnt this was not the case and that he had some important, perhaps timeless, insights. Even in his time there were some who conflated their theology with some scientific "theory".
Here is one quote, brought to my attention by Luke Glanville.
Whenever I hear a brother Christian talk in such a way as to show that he is ignorant of these scientific matters and confuses one thing with another, I listen with patience to his theories and think it no harm to him provided that he holds no beliefs unworthy of you, O Lord, who are the Creator of them all. The danger lies in thinking that such knowledge is part and parcel of what he must believe to save his soul and in presuming to make obstinate declarations about things of which he knows nothing. 
Augustine, Confessions, Book V, page 96.

The context is nicely discussed in a post on Eureka Street by Andrew Hamilton. Prior to becoming a Christian Augustine was engrossed in Manichaeism but became intellectually  dissatisfied with the elaborate and unjustified astrology associated with it. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

An annotated bibliography on natural science, evolution and creation

David Ussery is an Associate Professor of Systems Biology at the Danish Technical University. He is a Christian, with a fundamentalist church background, who eventually rejected the young earth creationism he was brought up with.

Between 1988 and 2001 he compiled an annotated bibliography of 386 books on Natural science, evolution, and creationism. By 2001 he had actually read 187 of the books, which is rather impressive.
He has written a fascinating journal describing his background, thoughts on reading some of the books, and debates with young earth creationists.

The books cover a wide range of topics, perspectives (Christian and non-Christian, liberal and conservative), publication dates, and theological and scientific sophistication.
The bibliography is worth at least scanning. Some of the terse comments are quite insightful. It makes one appreciate the incredibly diverse literature which is available and often overlooked.

Finally, on the Biologos Forum Ussery has a critical and helpful review of Michael Behe's book The Edge of Evolution.