Monday, March 31, 2014

A model Christian scholar: Nicholas Wolterstorff.

I recently read two short and helpful articles by Nicholas Wolterstorff.

The Grace That Shaped My Life is a short autobiography. Several things stood out to me.

First, the influence of his childhood in a Dutch Reformed community: characterised by simplicity, sobriety, and measure.

Second, the influence of Abraham Kuyper and his Reformed view of life and scholarship.
"The scope of divine redemption is not just the saving of lost souls but the renewal of life - and even more than that: the renewal of all creation. Redemption is for flourishing".

Third, his introduction to justice as "one of the fundamental categories through which I view the world." This occurred through encounters with Palestinian Christians and black South African pastor Allan Boesak.

Fourth, through the grief of the tragic death of his son he came to understand the suffering love of God.

 The second article is a brief address he gave marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. He addresses the distinctives of true Christian scholarship: a love of learning and understanding. The following paragraph summarises the main idea.
The orientation that I have all-too-briefly been describing, of meditating with awed and reverential delight on God's works of creation and redemption, seeking to discern the wisdom embodied therein, has virtually disappeared from the modern world, rejected by secularists, neglected by Christians who have turned it into one among other religious beliefs that they hold. So I invite you to do some imagining. Imagine that we have recovered this vision, and that for us it truly is an orientation toward reality rather than one religious belief among others. Then we would see it as the point of the natural and human sciences not just to produce theoretical constructs worthy of admiration but to enhance our understanding. And we would regard the object of our understanding not as something just there but as a work of God, infused with divine wisdom. Love of learning, so understood, would lead us to reverence these works of divine wisdom and to praise their maker, some of whose wisdom we had now glimpsed. Cell biology of the past fifty years is an extraordinary scientific construct--admirable both for its intrinsic worth and for its technological utility. But more than that, it has revealed to us some of the astounding intricacy of the divine wisdom embedded in creation.
Following a challenge from Terry Halliday, it was this approach that inspired my last post Awe and wonder in the face of science. That is my first feeble attempt to take up this challenge.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Awe and worship in the face of science

Since we are surrounded by it and so used to it we can take science for granted and not reflect on how amazing it truly is. Things that regularly happen today in science would have been inconceivable decades ago, let alone centuries ago.

Below I list some of the things I think we should be in awe of.

The immense scales of the observable universe.
Our sun is just one star of two hundred billion in our galaxy, which is just one of almost two hundred billion galaxies. It takes light from the most distant galaxies tens of billions of years to travel to us.

Length scales of many orders of magnitude.
This is nicely illustrated in the wonderful movie Powers of Ten.

The universe exhibits a diversity of rich and complex behaviour. Yet it can understand much of it in terms of simple universal laws that are easy to state, e.g., the laws of thermodynamics, Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, Schrodinger's equation of quantum mechanics, the genetic code, ....

Nature appears to be fine-tuned.
This covers not just the values of fundamental physical constants that lead to the notion of fine tuning and the anthropic principle, but the unique properties of water, and

The intricate and subtle "machinery" of biomolecules.
Proteins have very unique structures that are intimately connected to their specific functions.

We can measure precisely.
Scientists have created incredibly powerful and specialised instruments for making very precise measurements: telescopes, microscopes, the tension in a single strand of DNA, the magnetic moment of an electron [to one part in a billion billion, .....

We can predict the outcome of new experiments.
Scientists construct mathematical theories in their minds, on pieces of paper, in equations, and sometimes in computers. Their success is measured by the extent to which they can propose new experiments and predict the outcome. Last weeks announcement that BICEP had made observations that were predicted by the theory of inflation concerning the rapid expansion of the universe, just one millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the beginning of the universe is just the latest in a long list.

We can understand the material world.
Einstein said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." 

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.
Eugene Wigner received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963. In 1960 he published an essay "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences that concludes
The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. 
We can manipulate and control nature.
Scientists and engineers can move single atoms, design drugs, make computers, atom bombs, heart pacemakers, mobile phones, manipulate genes, ......

Why is the universe like this?
Why are human brains capable of such a grand endeavour?
Why do we have such power over the material world that we can create intricate instruments to measure detailed properties of the universe?

Science has no answer.
Christians should be in awe and worship the Creator of it all.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Problems with Australian universities

In the conservative magazine Quadrant there is a provocative piece Why Australian universities are just not good enough, by James Allan, a Professor in the law school at University of Queensland, where I also work. It pains me to admit that his criticisms and concerns are largely accurate. Allan is to be affirmed for having the honesty and courage to speak out.

Some of the problems include:
One of several concrete proposals for improvements is greater public accountability and transparency such as publishing 
  • the salaries and job descriptions of the most highly paid employees
  • the ratios of administrative staff to lecturers

Monday, March 17, 2014

The "science and faith" label is problematic

There are several reasons I don't like the term "science and faith" and similarly "faith and learning". I think "science and theology" is more appropriate.

First, science involves faith, too. 
I discussed that in an earlier blog post.
It also links to an excellent relevant article by Professor Priyan Dias.

The nature of the faith exercised by active scientists [and lay people who believe the results of science] is not the same as Christian faith. But it is still faith. Faith in both is based on evidence; again it is not the same kind of evidence. But it is still evidence.

Similarly, the "science and faith" label easily plays into the hands of those who believe that science is rational and theology is irrational. Both science and theology involve rationality. It is not exactly the same kind of rationality but it is still rationality.

A concrete, but perhaps extreme, example to illustrate the above is the issue of string theory and the multiverse [i.e, there is not just one universe but a zillions and zillions of them, that are not causally connected to one another]. There are now a significant number of distinguished theoretical physicists who believe in a multiverse and would claim that it is rational and scientific. I certainly do not. I think the whole idea involves just as much faith, and perhaps more, than belief in the Triune God. Not only is there currently no direct conventional scientific evidence for a multiverse, it seems that by its nature this is an untestable hypothesis. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

How did slavery end in the USA?

My family enjoyed watching the movie Lincoln. Although it is a little long and slow at times it gives a fascinating portrayal of how Abraham Lincoln was able to use his moral vision, political nous, and arm twisting to get the US Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the constitution banning slavery.

The historical details were new to me. I did not realise how "touch and go" it was, how unconvinced may legislators were, and how offer of plum government jobs was necessary to persuade some to vote in favour of the amendment. I naively thought many were overwhelmingly persuaded by the moral vision. That was certainly not the case. Indeed, it was disturbing to see how even many of those who voted in favour had racist sensibilities. Furthermore, the notion of giving the right to vote to blacks and women was anathema to many. The movie also illustrates how far the Republican Party has drifted [or turned its back?] from its origins.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The challenge of globalisation and injustice to Christian theology and living

I just finished reading Globalisation, Spirituality, and Justice by Daniel Groody, for the theological book club I just joined.

I really enjoyed it and found it quite stimulating and challenging. The book represents an ambitious project because of its wide scope [globalisation, poverty, politics, injustice, racism, theology, history, personal devotional life, community building, church sacraments, ...], the wide range of sources and authors it draws from to address these issues [Bible, church fathers, Catholic church teaching, many Protestant writers, liberation theology, personal experiences,... ] and then it attempts to synthesise and draw it all together in a common vision. I particularly appreciated getting a Catholic perspective from a Catholic rather than some caricature from a Protestant critic. It was impressive the extent to which Groody engaged with Protestant writers ranging from Charles Colson to Jim Wallis to John Calvin! As I gravitate toward activism rather than private contemplation I found the call to a balance and integration of the two challenging. I also got a much better understanding of liberation theology, whereas in the past I have been mostly exposed to caricatures of it.

There were a few parts of the book that I thought were weak due an overruling desire to be positive, affirming, and inclusive. This led to glossing over significant differences and challenges. Although critical of the injustices and inequalities of globalisation at the end he seemed to take the affirming "Christ in culture" route trying to assign it an almost mystical cosmic value. I found the positive discussion of justice in other religions [Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism] superficial. For example, it glossed over the issue of caste in Hinduism and women in Islam. At the end of the chapter Groody says "learning to live together as a common family does not mean watering down one's beliefs into a bland commonality". I agree but I feel that is what happens in that chapter. I prefer the treatment of the
Prophecy sometimes means "calling a spade a spade". Tolerance does not mean forced agreement but civil agreement to disagree and respect one another. Here I much prefer the treatment in Vinoth Ramachandra's Faiths in Conflict: Christian integrity in a multi-cultural world.

Groody quotes positively from Teilhard de Chardin, a mystical French Catholic priest who was a palaeontologist. Unfortunately, I think he has little to offer. To me he is a good example of how not to combine science and theology. I feel he tries to give a pseudo-scientific justification of a mysticism that has little connection to real Christian theology, which is ultimately rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.

An unfortunate consequence of some of the above weaknesses is that some may dismiss the book rather than engaging with the challenging message of the bulk of it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Political radical or just humanitarian?

Why would a upper middle-class middle-aged couple ever go to a public protest?
One had never been to such a protest; the other not since university days.

Last friday my wife and I went to a public demonstration in Brisbane about the Australian government's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, organised by the Refugee Action Collective.
It was encouraging to see some of our friends there too.
I would estimate there were several hundred people there. However, I can't find any coverage in the news media.

What prompted this "radical" political activity?

The more I learn the more shocked I am at the incredibly violent and ruthless manner that this (and the previous) government have taken towards refugees and asylum seekers.
Here are a couple of recent newspaper articles that highlight just how problematic this issue has become.

Welcome back to White Australia

Manus Island's $3.5 million kitchen in a tent
[The government is currently paying private contractors $900 per day per detainee in Papua New Guinea.]

It is interesting to contrast Australia's shameful performance to that of Turkey's treatment of Syrian refugees, as described in the fascinating New York Times article, How to build a perfect refugee camp.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Yearning for restitution

The Weekend Financial Review has a fascinating and disturbing article Shameful legacy of Nazi treasure hoards [Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall. I read the hard copy.]
It concerns the shameful manner in which the German government after WWII dealt with the embarrassing issue of what to do with all the art and wealth that the Nazis had looted from Jews.

A renewed focus on this old and painful issue has been further stimulated by the new Hollywood movie The Monuments Men.

The seriousness of the above trailer (version 2) is an interesting contrast to the frivolous marketing of the main one.