Monday, September 29, 2014

The meaning and significance of the secular

In the theology reading group this month we discussed
How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith
The 140 page book is a synopsis of the 900 page tome  A Secular Age, by  Charles Taylor. It makes that work more accessible, particularly through the glossary at the end of the book.
Previously, I discussed the three senses of the secular. Other important terms include the following.

Immanent frame.
A constructed social space what frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence.
The influence of this term is indicated by the existence of a multi-author academic blog with this title.

Modern Moral Order.

"A new understanding of morality that focuses on the organisation of society  for mutual benefit rather than an obligation to "higher" or eternal norms.  The "moral" is bound up with (and perhaps reduced to) the "economic.""
Although, not explicitly named neoliberalism seems the extreme and problematic embodiment of this.

A construal of life within the immanent frame that does not recognise itself as a construal and thus has no room to grant plausibility to the alternative.

A construal of life within the immanent frame that is open to appreciating the viability of other takes. Can be wither "closed" (immanentist) or "open" (to transcendence).

It refreshing and encouraging to see such a towering intellect highlight how many views that masquerade as "truth" or "well established" or "conventional wisdom" are just a "take" or "spin".

Some say that Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans was like a hand grenade lobbed into the world of academic theology. Perhaps Taylor's tome is like a hand grenade lobbed into the secular academy, particular the humanities and social sciences. 

To me the book is highly original, stimulating, and challenging.
It helps understand how we got so secular. Furthermore, the church is secular. 
Some church and mission organisation statements, strategies, and practices may appear to be not that different from Walmart: a focus on money, marketing, growth, efficiency, and numbers...
But it is more than that. It is not just "worldliness" but a whole epistemology and approach to life.

Unfortunately, the rise of secularism was an unintended consequence of the Reformation. For example, if you think of the sacrament in purely material terms or the work of the butcher and the candlestick maker as similar to the priest or monk this does have flow on effects. This led to the disenchantment of nature [a key to the development of science] and life. "the Reformers rejection of sacramentalism is the beginning of naturalism, or at least opens the door to its possibility." (page 39).

Many apologetic strategies, particularly in response to the New Atheism, are conducted on the ground rules layed down by secularists: evidence, logic, rationality, science, .....
imagination, art, story, history, transcendence, emotion, .... don't get a look in.
" ...the responses to this diminishment of transcendence accede to it in important ways... God is reduced to a Creator and religion to morality ... the particularities of a specific Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity - as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice..." (page 51).
I do have a few reservations about the book. Taylor appears to have little engagement with the Tri-une God or little substantial theology. Although deism is decried, most of the discussion is in terms of deism. There is no acknowledge or engagement with the non-Western world. Perhaps because Taylor appears to be a liberal Catholic, there is little discussion of the Lordship of Christ, the prophetic voice to society, and a call for repentance.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A rich diversity of apologetic approaches

In his excellent book, Mere Apologetics, Alister McGrath considers a diversity of approaches for engaging with those who are skeptical or curious about the Christian faith.

Chapter 7, Gateways for apologetics: Opening the door to faith, considers four different approaches.

1. Explanation
2. Argument
3. Stories
4. Images

Most traditional apologetics focusses on the first two approaches.

Stories is not just concerned with the Biblical narrative but engaging with influential secular literature such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci code. 

Images is not just art but using and engaging with powerful mental images and concepts such as Plato's cave or the theological notion of adoption.

C.S. Lewis was all the more impressive as an apologist because he was a master at all four approaches, from Mere Christianity to Narnia.

Which approach to use should be determined by the background and interests of the audience.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Forgiveness and liberation

My wife and I enjoyed watching Mandela: Long walk to freedom
Here are a few impressions.

It is tragic to see the inhumanity of humanity. In order to stoke racism, prejudice, and maintain power and privilege, the powerful will intimidate and humiliate their opponents: from draconian laws to random house searches to solitary confinement to taunting by prison guards. These silly psychological games are not just games and thuggishness but sometimes well thought out strategies to squelch dissent.

The double standard of violence. When governments and police use it against their own citizens to "maintain law and order" it is claimed to be justified, legitimate, and moral. When others use violence in a desperate response to oppression it is deemed to be unjustified, illegitimate, and immoral.

Ultimately pragmatic economic considerations [the potential collapse of the South African stock market] forced the government into negotiations with Mandela. To me this highlights the positive influence of the divestment movement on university campuses in the USA and the value of the Sullivan principles.

The "impossible" does happen. Only 30 years ago, the end of the Soviet Union and apartheid seemed inconceivable. But the end did come.

But most striking was Mandela's ability and willingness to forgive, extend grace, and move on, working for the good of the country.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A great course on science and religion

The Great Courses [also known as The Teaching Company] select the best university courses from the USA and make (and sell) videos/CDs of the lectures.

I just bought the course Science and Religion given by Lawrence Principe, a Professor of History of Science, Medicine and Technology and a Professor of Chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University. It is currently on special, at a much reduced price.

I highly recommend it. The 12 lectures focus mostly on the historical interactions of science with theology, but makes connections to issues of the present day.

Some of the points made in the first lecture include:

to early scientists such as Kepler, the distinction between science and religion was not clear

both science and religion involve faith

the conflict thesis is not supported by historians and should be replaced with a complexity thesis

rather than reading into the past our current notions and prejudices we should look to the past for fresh ideas about how we face issues today.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How hard is to walk across the street and meet a stranger?

My wife and I really enjoyed watching the movie The One Hundred Foot Journey. It thoughtfully and  creatively deals with issues of multiculturalism, families, redemption, reconciliation, grief, and the joy of cooking and eating!

The only sad thing thing for me is seeing how people can let their whole identity and life purpose be defined by external measures such as Michelin stars.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

All bloggers act like Baptists!

At the Immanent Frame a group of writers discussed The new landscape of the religion blogosphere. I thought the following comments from Joe Carter, Web editor at First Things, are quite insightful and amusing.
Despite their importance, there is no council, diocese, presbytery, or synod that oversees and sanctions these religious blogs. But should these bloggers be able to teach large audiences without oversight from a higher-level polity? If a professor and ordained minister at a Presbyterian college writes regularly on issues about religion and theology, should her writing be exempt from denominational authority? Or what if a Lutheran layman and a Catholic priest hold a regular open debate? Should they not be held to account as if they were writing in a denominational magazine or journal?  
 I suspect that most religion bloggers will argue that their blogging should not be overseen or scrutinized by their college, local church, or other ecclesiastical body. They would claim that since their blogs are neither churches nor parachurch ministries, they should be free from congregational supervision—even when they are writing about issues concerning their denomination’s view of doctrine. If this view is widely held—and my own experience convinces me it is—it marks a peculiar shift in the decentralization of ecclesiastical authority. Whether they are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, when it comes to religious discussions online, all bloggers act like Baptists.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Three senses of the secular

What does it mean to be secular?
Secular means different things to different people.

In his book, How (not) to be secular, James K.A. Smith gives three distinct definitions of "secular".

"the earthly plane of domestic life"
This is the "classical" or "historical" definition, and distinguishes the secular from the sacred, i.e. the domain of priests. "butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers carry out "secular" work. To early reformers such as Luther this was positive. There was to be no distinction between the sacred and the secular.

"the areligious - neutral, unbiased, objective"
This is a "modern" definition. It is particularly used in claims that the "public square", i.e. politics and public debate should be "free" from discussions about religion or religious values and perspectives.

This is the notion of Charles Taylor, who in A Secular Age, says it
 “consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A critical review of John Lennox's God's Undertaker

Recently I was asked to review John Lennox's book, God's Undertaker: Has Science buried God?
I chose not to because there is already a helpful detailed review by Denis Alexander, former director of the Faraday Institute, published in Science and Christian Belief. He is much better qualified than I to discuss biology. I reproduce the review below.

I agree with the criticisms. I would not recommend the book, particularly because there are much better books available. Some I recommend at the bottom.
 I wish I could give an equally warm recommendation for God’s Undertaker by John Lennox, but this is unfortunately more problematic. This is very much a book in two halves. In the first 75 pages, the author gives a generally good overview of the limitations of science and the fact that science itself is unable to address the really big questions of life, such as why something exists rather than nothing, and why science itself is possible. Lennox points out that science itself was nurtured within a Christian world-view and there is nothing intrinsically ‘naturalistic’ about science, suggesting that the term ‘methodological naturalism’ is unhelpful as a way of describing the scientific enterprise, for all scientific descriptions for the theist are, by definition, descriptions of what God has done and continues to do. The author’s critique of reductionism, presentation of the inherent intelligibility of the universe and discussion of the anthropic principle are well presented, amply illustrated with useful quotes, and contribute to a strong first half of the book. 
It is once the author moves from the physical to the biological sciences in the second half (58% to be precise) of the book that things start to go seriously downhill. Lennox begins to build up a picture of ‘atheistic evolution’ as a purely ‘naturalistic process’ and it soon becomes apparent that it is Darwinism which is the main target. The term ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) is introduced without definition, so it is only as the chapters progress that it becomes clear that the author is using the language of ID in the same way as its US proponents, such as Dembski and Behe. As with these writers, Lennox exaggerates the alignment of the biological theory of evolution with naturalistic philosophy (two very different things), in order to highlight Darwinism as a target for religious attack. The author’s own advice given earlier in the book, to see the whole created order as reflecting God’s design, is somehow lost in this second section, where the possibility that God might choose to bring about biological diversity through the process of evolution, as maintained by those holding to both mainstream science and theology, is oddly ignored. 
Many of the traditional creationist and ID red herrings litter this second section. ‘It can be highly dangerous to think outside the evolutionary box’ (97). Really? I can think of no better guarantee for someone’s future career in the biological sciences than to publish a solid peer- reviewed paper that challenges a cur- rently held theory: it is every scientist’s dream scenario. But to publicise one’s doubts about a well-established theory in any branch of science without the solid backing of good papers in reputable journals is of course dangerous for one’s career, and rightly so, for criticism without evidence or justification is always a risky path to pursue in academia. 
Unfortunately Chapter 7, ‘The nature and scope of evolution’, presents a smorgasbord of misrepresentations and straightforward errors, too long to list here. The peppered moth story has been up-dated by Michael Majerus (2007) and its evolution remains a good exemplar of natural selection in action. The idea of natural selection is not a ‘tautology’, nor is it in the same class as ‘Freudian psychology and astrology’ (102); it is a theory with real explanatory power. Natural selection is not about the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ (103), but about reproductive fitness, which is not the same. The terms ‘microevolution’ and ‘macroevolution’ are not being ‘increasingly used’ (106); if anything the reverse is the case as the advent of genomics is leading to their decline with the realisation that some species are virtually indistinguishable morphologically but are genetically very distinct (like the worms C. elegans and C. briggsae, which have 800 unique protein- encoding genes each out of their complement of 20,000, and last shared a common ancestor about 100m years ago). Yet the author cites in support of his points on micro/macroevolution rather ancient literature, one (long discredited) citation even dating back to 1942. (107). The fossil data are misrepresented and the ‘model sequences’ of speciation found in the fossil record are far more impressive than the author seems aware: in particular, the evolution of the tetrapods from fish, the evolution of mammals, the evolution of the whale (a mammal that returned to the sea from land via Pakicetus, Ambulocetus and the fossil whale Basilosaurus which retains a complete mammalian hind limb), the evolution of elephants and horses, the evolution of turtles and many other examples besides. Nor in this volume do we hear of speciation in plants by polyploidy; the chromosomal inversions that have led to speciation in insects such as mosquitoes; ring speciation events (as in the Herring Gull and Californian salamanders); nor anything of the remarkable cichlid speciation of the African great lakes. The author even questions common descent, when the inheritance of ‘fossil’ genetic sequences in our genomes in the form of pseudogenes, retroviral insertions and transposons, together demonstrate our own common ancestry with the apes beyond any reasonable doubt. 
The last few chapters of God’s Undertaker are devoted to a discussion of the origin of life and of information. The author is only too aware of the dangers of the ‘god-of-the-gaps’ type of argument, but believes the origin of information to be a ‘gap in principle’ in contrast to a ‘gap in knowledge’. It is not clear why this should be the case. The mathematical arguments presented here in an attempt to demonstrate that the origin of biochemical information is ‘impossible in principle’ are deeply flawed because they are based, like so many of Dembski’s arguments, on the premise that proteins or long stretches of DNA self-assemble by a purely chance process. But no one believes that, so the arguments represent tilting at windmills, the assumption being that the stages leading to living matter occurred incrementally; it is pre- cisely how those incremental changes were preserved and reproduced that rep- resents one of the fascinating research challenges of the origin of life field. Indeed, there have been some remark- able advances in the field over the past decade, though there is no doubt at all there is a huge current gap in our scien- tific knowledge at this juncture. Does that matter theologically? It would seem odd if some theological conclusion hinged upon our current scientific ignorance about something. The author suggests that ‘design’ is the answer, but the answer seems vacuous in explaining any- thing or in generating a research pro- gramme. Perhaps this century, perhaps the next, the knowledge gap will slowly close, and surely Christians should see that ‘closing’ as part of our glad worship to the God who is the author of the whole created order, not as a threat to a poorly founded argument for God’s existence. 
The antipathy to Darwinism that is still displayed by some Christians, even by some academics like the present author, whose book appears to present some form of episodic creationism, is truly puzzling. For as Francisco Ayala points out, there is a great irony in the observation that supporters of ID and creationism agree with writers such as Richard Dawkins that evolution equates with atheistic materialism. It would surely be much more fruitful for people of faith to baptise the evolutionary account of origins into the biblical doctrine of creation, which is, after all, what Christians have been doing since 1859.
A critical review of Lennox's more recent book, Seven Days that Divide the World is here.

So what books would I recommend?
I list some here, in order of increasing level of sophistication.

User's Guide to Science and Belief by Michael Poole

Unnatural enemies: an introduction to science and Christianity by Kirsten Birkett

The Language of God by Francis Collins

Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose? by Denis Alexander

The Science of God by Alister McGrath

Monday, September 1, 2014

Can atheists be certain?

In the theology reading group next month we are looking at How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith. More on that later.

In the introduction Smith engages with the novelist Julian Barnes book, Nothing to be frightened of, that expresses his anxieties about dying and death. It looks like a fascinating book that has received wide praise from readers with a diversity of perspectives.

Here I just give one quote that Smith used:
If I called myself and atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn't because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know? As twenty-first-century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year 1959, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believed in divine purpose, an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgment. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us that out knowledge is so final?