Sunday, April 27, 2014

Four remarkable things according to Bill Bryson

The travel writer Bill Bryson wrote a widely-acclaimed popular book A Short History of Nearly Everything, which discusses the major achievements and methods of science. Many non-scientists have told me how helpful and enjoyable the book is.

At Gresham College he gave a short and fascinating talk, The Four most remarkable things I know.
Here are the four things:

1. You exist.
2. Life does not happen anywhere else in the universe.
3. We live in a planet that we don't really know.
4. All life comes from a single moment of creation.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

War is hell. 5.

My son and I watched The Hurt Locker, which recounts the daily travails of a USA bomb squad in the Iraq war. I found it just a bit too tense and drawn out. But that is some of the point.

The movie begins with a quote from the book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." 
The movie does a good job communicating this idea.

My main impressions were:

1. The contrasting power of the Americans and the Iraqi citizens.
2. The clear estrangement between the two.
3. The hopelessness of the situation, for both parties.
4. War is hell, i.e. it is all about sin, violence, death, fear, ..... There is nothing glorious about it.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Connecting to nature and to each other

My family watched The Tree of Life. It is definitely the strangest and slowest movie I have watched in a while. It is just a bit too creative and clever for its own good. Furthermore, at times it is hard to follow and some of the symbolism gets lost, until you read a guide, such as the Wikipedia page.

Nevertheless, I would still recommend it because it features some spectacular cinematography and touches on and ties together such profound themes: creation, grace versus law, family, hope, parenting, death, tragedy, grief, natural history, boyhood, marriage, ...
Some of this is through a Christian filter but some, such as heaven, is just typical Hollywood schmaltz...
I also love the use of the Smetana's Moldau, one of my favourite pieces of music.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An argument for the resurrection of Jesus

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Why should we believe it?
Charles Colson was involved in the Watergate scandal and became a Christian at that time. I find the following argument for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead quite compelling.
“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The unique positive contribution of Christian universities

Hunter Rawlings is a former President of Cornell University, which is avowedly secular, and was co-founded by Andrew Dickson White, notorious for promoting the conflict thesis: that science and religion are at war with one another. Rawlings is currently the President of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 60 of the leading North American universities.

The Princeton Alumni Weekly recently published a talk by Rawlings, Universities on the Defensive. In it he gives four essential reasons why the colleges and universities in the USA are the best in the world. I want to reflect on
2) they are a crazily unplanned mix of public and private, religious and secular, small and large, low-cost and expensive institutions, all competing with each other for students and faculty, and for philanthropic and research support; 
I wonder why Rawlings thinks this.
Why might universities based on Christian values play a positive role that complements secular ones?
Here is what I think.

First, regardless of what you think of Christianity its influence is central to understanding much of the history, literature, and philosophy of the Western world. Yet, in secular universities there can be a tendency, both in teaching and research, to "censor" this or paint Christianity in such a negative light that it is not possible to appreciate this important influence. This leads to slanted and inaccurate knowledge.

Second, secular universities can be easily swayed by commercial interests and a functional view of education and research. Rawlings discusses this in his talk. It is all about training graduates so they can get high paying jobs and research should have commercial benefits. In contrast, Christians should view scholarship and education as having intrinsic value. Furthermore, education is not just for the gratification of the individual but is equipping the student to serve others and broader society, regardless of renumeration or acclaim. These competing perspectives can push secular universities in a more positive direction.

I don't want to gloss over that Christian universities have their own deficiencies. For example, scholarship and teaching can be hindered by narrow doctrinal perspectives and a fear of new knowledge. Here, secular universities put them under healthy competition and can complement them well. Hopefully, Christians in secular universities also help move them in these more positive directions too.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Exposing our homelessness

This month in my new theology reading group we are reading Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh.

It is a rather long and wide ranging book but enjoyable and challenging. I am about one third of the way through.
The authors intersperse chapters on home and homelessness from a wide range of perspectives (global, local, social, political, theological, economic, ...) with chapters of meditation that look at particular Biblical passages through the lens of the home and homelessness.

The book begins with the fascinating contrast of Kenny and Kenneth, who co-habit the same neighbourhood in a large North American city. Kenny spends his days pan-handling at a street corner and takes some meals at a homeless shelter. He sleeps in an illegal makeshift "shack" in a park. He struggles with drug addiction and is often in conflict with others. But, Kenny does have a community of sorts. Kenneth drives his luxury car past Kenny each day on the way to his office. He is only in this city a few months of the year, living in an exclusive high security condominium. The rest of the year he is travelling or living in other cities. Kenneth has never met his neighbours. So who is homeless?

Both Kenny and Kenneth live in a very broken world.

The flavour of the book is in this earlier article.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why would an academic believe?

On wednesday night I will be participating in a panel discussion Why three academics believe
organised by Evangelical Students at University of Queensland and Unichurch.

Some of the material I will present was featured last year on a website Why I believe?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The problem with popular science books

Most really are not about science.

It used to be claimed that distinguished scientists writing books for the general public would provoke the snobbish disdain of their colleagues. It was considered to be intellectual shallow to take ones research to the masses. However, all that changed with Stephen Hawking's bestseller A Brief History of Time. It made him a lot of money and a celebrity. After that many scientists got in on the act. Now there is a steady stream of popular science books.

I think scientists should write books for popular audiences. My problem is that I think in the end most really aren't about science.
There seem to be two common agendas of authors. Both are extremely ambitious and filled with hubris.

One agenda is that the topic of the authors research is THE big thing in science. It doesn't just revolutionise a particular specialised field of science but will revolutionise all of science. The author promotes their specialisation [chaos theory, string theory, complex adaptive systems, quantum information, self-organised criticality, systems biology, evolutionary biology, emergence, cosmology, …..] as THE most fundamental and important sub-discipline of science, because it has such profound implications for all of science.

The second agenda goes even further. The work of the author and her/his field is THE answer to the meaning and purpose of humanity and the universe. Only when we accept this will we truly understand why we are here, where we are going, and how to tackle the grand challenges facing humanity.

I illustrate the latter by giving quotes from the end of several highly acclaimed and influential popular science books. I have featured these quotes in earlier posts.
``Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism? Only, we suggest, in the sources of science itself,..... it is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity necessarily leads. The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immmensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.''
Jacques MonodChance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modem Biology, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Knopf, 1971), p. 167
But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (Basic Books, 1977), pages 154-155.
If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, .... Then we shall all ...[discuss] why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would truly know the mind of God.
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

This post was stimulated by reading an excellent paper by Ian Hesketh about Big History where he discusses the whole genre of popular science writing. More on that later….

The tragic comedy of the Church of England

This episode of the British comedy Yes Prime Minister has some pointed digs about leaders of the Church of England and the process of appointing bishops.

Yes Prime Minister 1.7 - The Bishops Gambit