Sunday, April 26, 2015

How do my Christian values shape my view of the university?

Recently I gave a short talk to a group of academics, many of whom were senior professors, about this issue in the context of how univerisities are changing rapidly.

Universities have distinctly Christian origins, going back 500 years.
Not only was the study and teaching of theology at the centre of the first universities, whether Oxford or Princeton, it underpinned the whole philosophy of institution. The idea of a secular university is an innovation of the last century.
The idea of the university as largely a commercial entity is a product of just the last 40 years.

As a Christian I think there are three core values (scholarship, people, and transformation) that shape my view of what a university should be. It is not necessary to be Christian to have these values. Some humanists would share them. A nice example is the eminent literary critic Terry Eagleton, who is a Marxist and atheist. He recently wrote a nice piece The Slow Death of the University, reflecting similar values.
However, for me personally, these values are deeply rooted in Christian theology.

All truth is Gods truth and has intrinsic value, regardless of any potential commercial benefit. Yet in a world marred by sin, real authentic scholarship is difficult and plain hard work. It requires sustained effort and support in the long term. It is hard to measure quality.

People are made in the image of God. They have intrinsic value and are to respected, regardless of their gifting, performance, or achievements. People are complex social and psychological beings. They cannot be reduced to numbers, metrics, or commodities. Staff are not “human resources” to be mined, exploited, and discarded. Students are not “customers” who are “always right” and to be pandered to. Nor should they just be seen as a source of revenue.
Universities are communities. This means that democracy, transparency, and collegiality are important.

Education should transform students. The values, goals, convictions, knowledge, and skills of graduates should not be the same as when they first enrolled. Furthermore, education should equip them to serve others, not just advance themselves professionally and financially, or increase their egos and social status. Education is not just about getting a piece of paper that will enable them to get a high paying job. Graduates should serve the common good and transform society.
Research should also transform society, not just in economic terms.
It can increase appreciation of beauty, wonder at the physical universe, heal diseases, create models for conflict resolution, lead to technologies that reduce pollution, …

It should be clear that these values are in complete conflict with the neoliberalism that now rules most universities, and nicely critiqued as a religion by Paul Tyson.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Talk at Theology on Tap

Tomorrow afternoon I am giving a talk, “Why is Science so Awesome? at Theology on Tap in Brisbane.

The current version of the slides for the talk is here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Can mental illness be funny?

My family enjoyed watching the movie, It's kind of a funny story.
A teenager in New York is having suicidal thoughts and checks himself into a hospital psychiatric ward. Once in there he realises that he is much more “normal” than the other patients and
wants to get out, but is not allowed to.
The movie is somewhat humorous and entertaining. But, at times it is depressing, being confronted with mentally ill patients with little hope of healing.

On the positive side the movie does well raising the issue of mental health and the extreme pressures teenagers can be under, particularly those from families with upper middle class aspirations.
On the other hand, the movie is somewhat superficial and simplistic because the central character is “healed” by just learning to enjoy life, take up a hobby (drawing), appreciate his family more, and (of course since this is Hollywood) having a gorgeous girl friend.

An unrealistic aspect of the movie is that the star is able to check himself into the fancy private hospital without his parents permission and with no concern about payment for services.
Somehow I am skeptical this would happen in the USA.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why is science so Awesome?

This coming sunday afternoon I am giving a talk, “Why is Science so Awesome? at Theology on Tap in Brisbane.

There are many things I find amazing about science, leading to me to awe, wonder, and questions. The immense size of the universe, the complexity of life, successful scientific predictions, and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Why is the universe like this? Why can humans understand it so well? What does theology say about all this? The talk is intended for a general non-expert audience. 

 An earlier version of the slides for the talk is here.

This image of a pinwheel galaxy was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and is from here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Don't give your life to your employer

I think the movie The Company Men is worth watching. It is a moving portrayal of how several men respond to getting retrenched from a company they have given their lives to. One struggles with his self image and must deal with being massively in debt, because of an extravagant lifestyle. Another is betrayed by the CEO, who used to be his best friend. It also highlights corporate greed, which is driven by short term financial considerations and considers people as just "resources" to be exploited.

Overall it is depressing and there is little redemption and hope. Yet, this is realistic. Give your life to your employer and you will probably get hurt.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Three amazing and unbelievable things about Easter

Today I am giving a talk at our churches' Easter Eggstravaganza, an event for children and families. Here is the talk.

Just because something is hard to believe does not mean that it is not true. My experience as a scientist tells me that. Many scientific discoveries have been unexpected, surprising, and go against what people thought was common sense.
[Aside: for adults interested in science: examples include Schrodinger's cat (quantum entanglement), the Big Bang, Dark matter,...]
I still find some of these things hard to believe.

I will now do a simple science experiment to show this. Putting a skewer through a balloon and putting a flame on a balloon containing a small amount of water.

At Easter Christians celebrate the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
Here are three things that many people rightly find hard to believe about Easter.

Could an all powerful God die on a cross?
Can God really forgive sins?
Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is that possible?

I find these three things amazing.

1. Could an all powerful God die on a cross?

The Bible tells us that Jesus was God's Son. God the Father and Jesus together made the whole universe. They both rule over it. Jesus was powerful. He could heal sick people, know what people were thinking, and walk on water. He taught about what God was really like, because He really knew God as His Father.
Yet if Jesus was so strong and powerful how could he be so weak and powerless that he allowed his enemies to falsely accuse him of wrongdoing and to kill him on a cross, a terribly painful and embarrassing death? Couldn't he stop them? He could not save himself. How could he claim to save others?

2.  Can God really forgive any and every wrong that someone has done?

Jesus told an interesting story about this. In the Bible you can find it in Matthew 19. There was a rich young man who really wanted to go to heaven. He told Jesus all the good things he had done in his life. But, Jesus asked him to do something that was very difficult for him: give away all his money. This was too hard for him. He loved his money more than he loved God. Indeed Jesus has very high standards. He wants us to be perfect. Jesus disciples, his 12 closest friends, wondered if anyone could be saved. It seemed no one could be good enough for Jesus or for God. In response, Jesus said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26)
Jesus death on the cross makes this possible. His suffering covers all of our failings and wrong doings.
This is fantastic news for us. It does not matter what we have done, God can forgive us, if we want to be forgiven.

3. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is that possible?
That is a miracle. Can a scientist like me believe in miracles?

After all, history and experience tell us once people are dead they are dead forever. But just because we have not seen something happen does not mean that it can never happen. Again, God can make the impossible happen.

I then do the following simple science demonstration.
Consider an egg and a small bottle. Who thinks that this egg can fit in this bottle? Before I saw this happen I never thought it was possible.

Just because we think dead people stay dead forever, does not mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead. If God, the ruler of the universe, what it to happen it could. It did.

On Easter Sunday Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Jesus conquered death, came to life and appeared to many eyewitnesses, and now lives forever.

So, tomorrow on Easter Sunday when you are eating all your yummy chocolate eggs think about this egg in the bottle. It doesn’t look too yummy. But it does illustrate that something can be true even if we don’t expect it to be. God is not constrained by the laws of nature us scientists know all about. Jesus really did rise from the dead. He has power over death and sin. What is impossible for man is possible for God. God raised Jesus from death to life. We can be forgiven and we can have the gift of eternal life.