Friday, June 29, 2012

In awe of hummingbirds

I am currently in Telluride, Colorado for a science workshop, and a few days ago I saw a hummingbird down by the creek. Earlier on this trip, in Washington state I also saw one frequently at a bird feeder (just sugar water). We do not have them in Australia.

To me they are the most amazing creatures. I am in awe that such a small being can hover like a miniature helicopter and then speed off like a jet.

Reading the excellent Wikipedia page a little I learnt they are the only birds that can fly backwards! Although only 8-13cm long, they can fly at speeds in excess of 50 km per hour. Their flight mechanism is distinct, intermediate between that of other birds and insects. During courtship displays their wings can beat at rates up to 100 beats per second. While in flight, hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of all animals. Most migrate annually thousands of kilometers from North America to spend the winter in northern Mexico.

Wow! What an amazing world God has created for us to live in!
We should not lose sight of this as we struggle to understand the mechanisms whereby this came to be.
Psalm 104

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What is real tolerance?

I am starting to read Faiths in Conflict: Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World by Vinoth Ramachandra. It is interesting to see how he defines tolerance (p. 121):
To tolerate a belief or practice surely implies
(a) we recognize that belief or practice to be genuinely different from our own
(b) we disagree with the belief (or disapprove of the practice)
(c) we do not coerce or absorb the others into ourselves, but give social or legal space for the other to flourish.
I find it interesting because it acknowledges differences and does not aim to minimise them. Compare, for example, the platitude, "All religions are really about the same thing." Furthermore, it allows public disagreement and debate, while respecting others and their views.

This seems very different from postmodern sensibilities which seem to equate "tolerance" with a demand for the public acknowledgement of the validity of other views.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Muddling through life

I watched The Descendants, starring George Clooney in an uncharacteristically "uncool" role, as a struggling father and husband.
I enjoyed it but do find myself uncomfortable being a "voyeur" watching other people's pain and family problems, particularly when they are believable.

Unlike most Hollywood movies, it portrayed marriage, family, and fidelity in a positive light. At end I thought there was a strong message about the need for forgiveness.

An interesting review by Roger Ebert highlights the connections between the development of Clooney's character as a father and a custodian of the land.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Is ethics rooted in eschatology?

I am enjoying the reading through Ethics of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann. In the beginning of Chapter 1 he states:
Every Christian ethics is determined by a presupposed eschatology. In differing ethical decisions we must always deal not only with differing ethical conceptions but also with fundamental theological decisions in eschatology, and then in Christology. In this chapter we will make this clear form an apocalyptic eschatology, a christological eschatology, a separistic eschatology, and a transformative eschatology.
I am not sure what is the basis of these bold claims. It may become apparent later in the book.

With regard to the different eschatologies Moltmann argues the first three are inadequate and he favours a transformative one.

Apocalyptic is rooted in the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (church and state). The state is seen as an instrument for law and justice. Moltmann makes the extreme claims (p. 12):
According to the doctrine of the two kingdoms, in worldly structures the Christian acts no differently from other poeple, appropriately and rationally. But that makes him invisible. So in worldly life Christians become anonymous. There is no plan for a specifically and distinguishable Christian ethics.
He further argues that central to apocalyptic eschatology is the notion of the cathechon 
(2 Thess. 2:7-8) concerning the one who restrains the man of lawlessness. This then leads to Armageddon and bizarre ideas such as associated with The Late Great Planet Earth and Hal Lindsey.

A Christological eschatology stems from a Calvinist Kingdom of God theology and finds its most sophisticated expression in Karl Barth. The death and resurrection of Jesus have established the Kingdom of God and "hardly anything is left for a futurist eschatology except the universal unveiling of what God has already brought in Christ." (p.23)

A Separatist eschatology has its roots in the Anabaptists and Stanley Hauerwas is characterised as its modern exponent.

Aside: In 1964 Karl Barth wrote Moltmann a letter criticising his book Theology of Hope and the central role that eschatology played in his theology.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Language and reality

Previously I posted about the limitations of analogy in science and theology. Related to this is the limitations of language. One should be wary about assigning too much meaning to the terminology that scientists may ascribe to technically well defined entities: chaos, colour of quarks, local realism, disorder, .....

A simple example is the notion of "imaginary" vs. "real" numbers (these are "complex" numbers).
The "imaginary" numbers do exist, just as fractional numbers are "real" and exist. For a mathematical and logical argument see here. Furthermore, imaginary numbers (and complex) numbers can represent real physical quantities such as the phase and amplitude of an electrical signal.

Cuteness and climate change

At the IMAX theatre at OMSI in Portland, Oregon I saw To the Arctic.
The movie contains lots of cute footage of polar bears and dramatic scenes (e.g., mass caribou migration) in the Arctic.
But, the strong and disturbing message of the film is the terrible consequences of global warming for the Arctic, especially for wildlife. The decreasing area of ice means reduced habitat, less availability of food, and longer migration times.
It is quite possible that by 2050 there will be no polar ice cap.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Universities need a free press too

I am in Seattle and found interesting this article about a local student newspaper. It underscores the importance of accountability and transparency for college and university administrators (and faculty too).

Moltmann's Ethics of Hope

In the theology reading group [the Volfians] our next book is Ethics of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann. In the Preface he states
The principle behind this ethics of hope is:  
—not to turn swords into Christian swords 
—not to retreat from the swords to the ploughshares 
—but to make ploughshares out of swords.
Swords to ploughshares is an allusion to Isaiah 2:4.

This statue Let us beat swords into ploughshares is found in the gardens of the United Nations in New York and was (ironically?!) a gift from the Soviet Union in 1959.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A life of a musical genius

On a recent Brisbane-LA flight I watch the documentary In search of Haydn.
(This review in The Age is fair).
It is a little dry at points and at times could have benefited from more music rather than just experts talking about Haydn. They highlight that The Creation was in some respects a culmination of his career. They also claim it is an Enlightenment apologetic something I think is overstated.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Are you a rhino or a hedgeghog?

My wife and I recently worked through the Marriage Course with another couple. We all found it very helpful and would certainly recommend it.

One amusing and insightful idea was the view that in conflict individuals either tend to be rhinos [charge and attack!] or hedgehogs [withdraw and be prickly!]. Realising which you and your spouse each are can be helpful in avoiding, addressing, and resolving conflict.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A communal perspective on Romans 9

Romans 9 is a difficult passage to understand. Isolated verses sometimes appear to be used to support a harsh and rigid form of pre-destination and election. This can make God look unjust and fickle as He "randomly" chooses to "harden the hearts" of some individuals.
In our individualistic Western mindset we can read the passage as answering the question "why does God save some individuals and not others?"
However, it was pointed out to me this week there is an alternative reading; one with a more communal perspective that I think is more consistent with the context.

Reading the passage in context it may be more that Paul is addressing the issue of why God has chosen to make salvation by faith available to the Gentiles.
It is not concerned with the mechanism of salvation of individuals, even Pharaoh, but rather the means of salvation, and what communities this salvation is available to.

Paul recounts several key events in the history of the formation of His chosen people Israel: the birth of Isaac, the birth of Jacob and Esau, and the Exodus from Egypt. They illustrate that God acts in a free and sovereign manner, with mercy, and to accomplish His purpose: the formation of a great nation through which His glory would be manifest. Furthermore, the choices God made were not based on the performance or acts of any individuals involved. This grand narrative is not concerned with individuals but the history of a people.

Reading Romans 9 with the next chapter is important.
Some of Israel became mistaken that God saved them because of their righteousness. They focused on a righteousness that is based on the law. No, the real righteousness of God comes by faith. This is available to all.

12  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Passing through the Red Sea, Raphael (1518-19)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Do we ever learn anything from history?

“What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
George W.F. Hegel, 1830

This quotation is given at the beginning of a fascinating article in today's Weekend Australian A Lesson worth its weight in gold.

It recounts similarities (and some differences) between Europe's current financial problems and those from the 19th century. The desire to implement a common currency was also behind the failed Latin Monetary Union.

Aside: further illustrating "there is nothing new under the sun" in some respects the article is similar, including the Hegel quote, to an article from October 2011, by Oliver Hartwich in the Business Spectator.