Sunday, February 28, 2010

Advice for Christian undergraduates

The new University year begins on monday. This evening I have be asked to speak briefly at our church, which has a lot of undergraduates, and offer advice for new Christian students.
A few years ago I spoke at a morning on Science and Christianity, organised by our church. Videos of the talks are all online here. At that event I did an interview with Bernard Mostert, about his experience being a Christian undergraduate. I thought he gave particularly articulate answers to questions such as:

What do you wish you knew when you started university?
What do you wish you had done different?

Several helpful points Bernard makes are
-there are cohesive rational arguments for the truth of Christianity
-Christian students have nothing to be afraid of at university
-don't expect atheists to be convinced by these arguments
-beware of pride. the goal is not to win arguments but to glorify Jesus

We are free and disobedient animals

This morning I read more of Karl Barth's exegesis of Genesis 1:20-23, particularly:
20 And God said, "Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens."........ 22 And God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth."
Barth makes some creative contrasts and similarities between humans and the birds and fish. God speaks His Word to both, blesses them, and commands them. But
If it is true that man, created with the beasts by the will and Word of God, may freely hear and obey this Word, it is also true that he will constantly have before him in the animal world immediately around him the spectacle of a submission to this Word, which, if it not free, is in its own way real and complete. The creature precedes man in a self-evident praise of its Creator, in the natural fulfilment of the destiny given to it at its creation, in the actual humble recognition and confirmation of its creatureliness. It also precedes him in the fact that it does not forget but maintains its animal nature, with its dignity and also its limitation, and thus asks man whether and to what extent the same can be said of him.
K. Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1, p. 177.

Barth then also discusses how the fish and birds anticipate the central role played by the dove (Holy Spirit), disciples as "fishers of men", and the Greek diagramme ichthus of the name Jesus.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Key issues at the interface of theology and philosophy

Alister McGrath's widely used text, Christian Theology: An Introduction has a nice chapter on Philosophy and Theology. I read it partly because my daughter is about to start a philosophy subject at university. It is interesting how McGrath keeps coming back to parallel issues in the philosophy of science, particularly logical positivism, falsification, and critical realism.

Logical positivism was a view developed and held by the "Vienna Circle" in the early part of the twentieth century. They claimed that the only meaningful statements that can be made were those that could be empirically verified. [They rejected theology as "unscientific". Richard Dawkins thinking is implicitly that of logical positivism.] Karl Popper objected that scientific theories could not actually be "verified". Rather, all one could do was "falsify" them. The most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last half century was Anthony Flew's Theology and Falsification, in which he argued that God meets the "death of a thousand qualifications." [Flew now holds a different view].

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Has Dawkins really softened?

I have been looking over some of the reviews of Richard Dawkins latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth.
It is interesting how different the reviews are. In The Independent, Marek Kohen says
The zero-tolerance stance he took towards religion in The God Delusion set atheists up as an exclusive sect, proudly isolated. Now he seems to have embraced the power of coalition and common cause, complaining that an opinion survey does not offer an option for people to agree that humans evolved over millions of years but that God had a hand in the process, and putting in a good word for the "churchmen and women who accept the evidence for evolution".

A side-effect of his new readiness to compromise is that he seems older, having shed some of the stringent impatience with the shortcomings of others that is more typically seen in much younger men. It suits him, though.
In contrast, in New Scientist, Randy Olsen writes:

Implying that your audience is stupid does not qualify as a great new angle. Yet this is precisely what Dawkins does. He opens the book by mentioning his two previous books about evolution, and then, with a nearly audible scoff, adds that back when he wrote those books (when people, apparently, were smarter?) he didn't have to argue that evolution actually happened. "That didn't seem to be necessary," he says.

By the first chapter he is comparing his predicament to a history professor forced to teach "a baying pack of ignoramuses" and dealing with a "rearguard defence". Today, he proclaims, "all but the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution".

It's really kind of comical. If "spot the condescensions" is a new drinking game, then bottoms up! There's one in just about every chapter. Though Dawkins says from the outset, "This is not an anti-religious book", he can't help but knock religion throughout, For instance, he writes: "God, to repeat this point, which ought to be obvious, but isn't, never made a tiny wing in his eternal life." Young Earth creationists are, he writes, "deluded to the point of perversity". You get the sense that Dawkins just can't control it. It's as if he suffers from an anti-religious form of Tourette's syndrome.

Covenant in the context of chaos

Karl Barth has an interesting, creative, and inspiring exegesis of Genesis 1:20-23:
20And God said, "Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens."21So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22And God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
Barth puts this passage in the context of the chaos and fear associated with the air and the sea, areas man cannot inhabit.
It is in these spheres--surely the least expected--that the life of autonomous creatures begins by creative fiat.... In the depths below and the heights above He begins His work on and with such beings. So great is His mercy! So much is He the Lord and Master of all things, including these regions! So thoroughly did He see to it that even these regions cannot be more than threatening signs of His wrath; that chaos is controlled, and life is made possible in its immediate vicinity! Where man imagines he can see the open jaws of death, God causes things to swarm and to fly,.... The spectacle offered in these spheres is one to inspire confidence....
In God's blessing of the fish and birds we really transcend the concept of creation and enter the sphere of God's dealings with His creation. What we have here is the beginning of its history, or a least an introductory prologue which announces the theme of this history, i.e., the establishment of a covenant between God and His creation which moves independently like Himself and renews itself by procreation after its kind. .... there is to be a God-like creature ordained for fatherhood and sonship and continuing its existence in the relationship of fatherhood and sonship. It is not to strive against Him but to be at peace with Him; not to live in impotence but in power; not in its own arrogance and strength but in the strength of His blessing, authorisation and promise, living and active in fruitful begetting.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1, p. 168ff

Monday, February 22, 2010

Loving God will all your mind

Donald Hay is an economist who was the Head of the Division of Social Sciences at Oxford University, from 2000 to 2005. Since "retirement" he has helped develop an excellent program for Christian postgraduate students at Oxford, Developing a Christian Mind. It challenges and helps the students to integrate their Christian faith with their academic life. In this talk to the Graduate Christian Union at Oxford, Donald Hay presents the challenge.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The pleasure of physics research

My Oxford colleague, Professor Andrew Briggs is currently visiting me. Andrew was graduate student in physics at Cambridge when the Cavendish laboratory moved location. Over the entrance to the old laboratory James Clerk Maxwell, the first Cavendish Professor had engraved (in Latin) the words of Psalm 111:2. Professor Sir Brian Pippard, then the Cavendish Professor, recounted in a short history:
The great oak doors opening on the site of the original building had carved on them, by Maxwell's wish, the text from Psalm 111 Magna opera Domini esquisita in omnes voluntates ejus. Shortly after the move to the new buildings in 1973 a devout research student suggested to me that the same text should be displayed, in English, at the entrance. I undertook to put the proposal to the Policy Committee, confident that they would veto it; to my surprise, however, they heartily agreed both to the idea and to the choice of Coverdale’s translation:
Andrew Briggs was that "devout research student." The translation of Psalm 111:2 is:
The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Growing old gracefully?

When I was in Sydney a week ago I glanced through the TimeOut Sydney magazine in my hotel room. Two things I noticed.
First, Valentines Day has become a really big deal in Australia. I remember when I moved back to Australia in 1994 with my American wife we went out for our first Valentines Day in Australia and we did not have a reservation. But it did not matter, all the restaurants were empty!

Second, there was a cover story on the rock band AC-DC. (Who battle it out with the Wiggles to be Australia's biggest earning entertainers, about $100 million each in 2009). It is interesting to see how the angry young men of my youth have aged. I particularly like the two current photos below. You can guess which of the two photos they are using in the publicity for their current tour!

I guess male rock stars dye their hair when they get old...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More redemptive movies

My wife and I just "ran away" for two nights to celebrate Valentines Day. Two movies we enjoyed watching were, Last Chance, Harvey and Living Proof. Like most good movies they have redemptive themes.
A highlight of Last Chance, Harvey is the moving speech that Dustin Hoffman gives at the wedding reception of his estranged daughter, acknowledging the hurt and pain children of divorce experience.
Living Proof chronicles the historical development of a breast cancer drug. As it provides vignettes of the lives and families of the women who were part of trials of the new drug it underscores that life is really about relationships.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The power and pitfalls of illustrations

A sermon illustration can be a powerful tool to increase understanding and to increase recollection. However, a danger is that sometimes we remember the illustration but not the truth they were meant to illustrate.

When I try to teach kids about God and the Bible at church and in Religious Education classes in the local primary school about God I sometimes do some simple science demonstrations, such a turning a tea bag into a rocket, breaking a rule with air pressure, or getting an egg into a bottle. The kids really love these. [I have a fan club and struggle to stay humble...]

My dear wife is so enthusiastic about this that she has signed me up to give an elective at the forthcoming Ignite conference on kids ministry in Brisbane. Hence, I am thinking a bit more systematically and critically about the value and limitations of such science demonstrations. Here are a few preliminary thoughts.

The goals of these demonstrations should be modest:
  • to have fun
  • to help engage the kids with you and with the lesson
  • to stimulate the kids to think about what they are observing
  • to give (an imperfect) illustration of the lesson
There are actually many books available at our local Christian bookstore on "Science experiments to illustrate Bible lessons for kids." Unfortunately, I am hesitant to recommend any of the ones I have looked at. They all have lots of great demonstrations. However, I find they often use the Bible in a manner that I am not comfortable with. This may be even more problematic than the debatable connections they try to make between specific experiments and specific Bible verses or stories.
Perhaps, it is enough to be less ambitious about illustrating specific stories and verses and instead use the science demonstrations to preliminary ideas such as:
  • something that we may think is impossible may actually be possible
  • something can exist even if we cannot see it
  • our perceptions of reality are not always correct
  • something may be true even if we cannot understand it
  • there are people who are both scientists and Christian
The science demonstration is then just like any other illustration (e.g., a personal anecdote, a scene from a movie, a recent news story, a joke) at the beginning of a lesson or sermon which invites the listener to pay more attention to the actual passage from the Bible being taught and its application.

Comments welcome. Any favourite science demonstrations?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Am I my brothers keeper?

Yesterday, I heard a helpful and challenging talk on the account of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). A few points I learnt from Leigh Trevaskis, Lecturer in Old Testament at Queensland Theological College, include:

Interpretation of this passage tends to be influenced by Hebrews 11:4 which says that Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain. But, this relies on commentary imbedded in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament). The Genesis text gives no indication that Abel's sacrifice was superior.

Cain cannot handle God's choice. He is the jilted older brother; the first of many: Jacob and Esau, Reuben and Judah, ...
Cain is unable to cope with God's ruling of the world. His response is anger; in particular murderous anger (the Hebrew used for anger here usually precedes murder).

The word "brother" occurs seven times in the text, pointing to its central role in the story.

Cain is destined for more frustrated "gardening" (interaction with Gods creation), just like his parents were when they made the wrong choice. Similarily, there is parallel in the use of "keep". Adam and Eve were commanded to "keep" the garden (Genesis 2:15), i.e., care for and nourish God's creation. Cain refused to "keep" his brother.

The best anti-dote to resentment and anger towards our "brother" is to care for them and appreciate and affirm their gifts. This is particularly true for theological students and faculty.

How is this to be read in the light of the New Testament? Hebrews 12:22-24 is relevant:

But you have come to ..... Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

In passing, the cutting relevance of anger and jealousy in academic contexts was brought home when I read last night a Christian Science Monitor report:
A neuroscience professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville has been charged with capital murder for killing three people after opening fire at a faculty hearing. Dr. Amy Bishop reportedly had learned that her request for tenure had been denied for a second time.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Walking the theological tight-rope

This weekend I heard a nice introductory talk by Andrew Bain for students at Queensland Theological College. He gave a historical overview of the relationship
between theology and other disciplines in the university, and considered the implications (dangers and opportunities) for theological education today. The following is my reflection on Andrew's talk.

It seems that theological education (and research) tends to veer to one of two extremes: isolationism or an uncritical syncretism.
In the first extreme the focus remains on the Bible and traditional creeds but there is no real engagement with society and intellectual currents of the time.
This may lead to the church and its message becoming irrelevant and ineffective. It may also mean that theology cannot benefit from real and relevant advances in other disciplines. This isolationism may be driven by fear of liberalism and the decline
(prophetic, numerical, and financial) usually associated with it, particularly in mainline denominations.

The opposite extreme is an uncritical syncretism results when the latest intellectual and academic fashions are allowed to define the content, method, and scope of theology. This may be driven by a fear of being labeled as "fundamentalist" or "fideist" or anachronistic or a yearning for academic acceptance and respect.

So the tight-rope walk is to not veer to one extreme or the other.
This means engaging critically with recent scholarship but never letting it define the object of theology, the tri-une God who has the freedom to reveal Himself.

Almost a hundred years ago a young pastor struggled with such a balance and wrote in the preface of his first book:
The historical-critical method of Biblical investigation has its rightful place…. But, were I driven to choose between it and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper, more important justification. The doctrine of Inspiration is concerned with the labour of apprehending, without which no technical equipment, however complete, is of any use whatever. Fortunately, I am not compelled to choose between the two. Nevertheless, my whole energy of interpreting has been expended in an endeavour to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit.
This is what Karl Barth wrote in the Preface of the first edition of Der Romerbrief.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tough love in the church, para-church and academy

What should be the standards of accountability for Christian organisations, their staff, and members?
One minimum standard for any organisation is that its constitution (governance structure), list of board members, financial policies, staff conduct of conduct, should be publicly available?
With regard to finances it is worth perusing the seven standards of the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability.

Surely, Christian organisations should have even higher standards than secular ones. They should have a level of transparency so there is not even a hint of wrongdoing. Further, given our belief in the sinfulness of the human heart, we should have in place structures with oversight, accountability.

What does this have to do with tough love, parenting, and academia? Isn't this all a bit random. Tough love is about accountability. A key ingredient of academia is peer review and integrity in research. That is also about accountability. As the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, "The easiest person to fool is yourself."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Christian science

Should being a Christian change how I do science?
I doubt it should or will effect the nature of the scientific knowledge I produce. I don't think there is a Christian version of condensed matter physics or quantum theory.
However, I believe being a Christian should have a significant effect on how I practise science.
Some possibilities:
-act with integrity
-put others before self
-think and act with humility and objectivity
-have a sense of wonder at God's great creation and that we can understand it
-be concerned with finding the truth, not with confirming my own theories
On the other hand, Christians do not necessarily have a monopoly on most of these.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Engagement with an intellectual forum

The sermon at church yesterday was on Acts 17, where Paul gives a speech on the "unknown god" at the Areopagus in Athens. This is the place where, "All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas."

I found the sermon outline helpful. Paul declared that the "unknown" God is
  • creator of everything
  • sustainer of everything
  • sovereign over everything
  • Judge of everyone
This God has revealed himself and raised Jesus from the dead.
There are three common and distinct responses: mock, muse, or marvel.

Aside: on the actual site today there is a plaque commemorating the speech.

I got the image from here, where you can also see pictures of the site, including the view of Mars Hill from the Acropolis.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Light from Genesis to Revelation

14And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth." And it was so. 16And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.19And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
Genesis 1:14-19

In order to explore and give an exegesis of this passage Karl Barth puts it in a Christological and eschatological context, drawing particularly on passages in Isaiah and Revelation that discuss light from the sun and moon. Barth concludes:
It is when there is no light of the heavenly bodies that there is no day, time, or history. This then is the actual content of the threat of judgement but also of the corresponding promise of Is. 60 and Rev. 20-21. The wisdom and patience of God which has founded human history has a definite goal, and the finite time granted to man in relation to this history has actually an end. As the death of Jesus is the goal of that history, it is also the end of time. As all prophecies point to Him, they necessarily speak of the last time this side of His resurrection and return, of the end of time this side of the dawn of the new creation. And they do so by uttering their terrifying warnings but also their friendly promises, not about the end and dissolution of the constellations,... Thus the meaning of the work of the fourth day, the meaning of the fact that God found it good (v. 18b) emerges clearly.... as in that of the first day.... the material point at issue -- the creation of day, time, and history.
Church Dogmatics III.1 The Doctrine of Creation, p. 168

Saturday, February 6, 2010

From philosophy to pastoral care

A couple of years ago Ben Myers and I published a paper in the journal, Science and Christian Belief with the heady title, Dialectic critical realism in science and theology: Quantum physics and Karl Barth.

Although the subject of the paper is subtle intellectual issues associated with the relationship between science and theology, I find it interesting to consider some related issues relevant to everyday life. I wonder whether the issue of idealism versus critical realism is actually relevant to personal relationships, church life, and mental health. I submit that the natural mode of operation of the sinful mind is one of idealism, i.e, we impose an order on the world to support our preconceived notions and prejudices. The data we perceive is interpreted in terms of our framework and values. We are not objective about our own limitations and shortcomings but are well aware of those of others. We look for specks in the eyes of others when there are logs in our own. The regenerate mind, that is being renewed by Christ, acknowledges its limitations and is willing to stand corrected and see other points of view.

How much church and family discord is caused by an unwillingness to see other points of views or an unwillingness or inability to not assign negative motives and interpretations to the words and actions of others?
How much counselling and pastoral care is based on helping people realign their individual expectations with reality?

Church is composed of a diverse group of personalities with a multitude of personal histories, expectations, relational styles, and perceptions.
Do the following statements usually reflect critical realism or idealism?
``No one at church cares about me.''
``Church is unfriendly.''
``The pastor is authoritarian.''
``There is nothing new in the sermon each week.''
``My spouse does not love me. If they did they would ...''
``I am never going to get married."

Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a highly successful stress reduction program in a secular hospital. A major emphasis is on learning to perceive and accept the world as it is, rather than as we wish it would be, and on focusing on present realities rather than on the past or future events on which the mind tends to dwell.

Friday, February 5, 2010

One Christian's enthusiasm for science

When one scientist received the latest publication of a colleague he enthusiastically wrote back:
" I yearned to discuss with you, ....., in a highly agreeable kind of discourse, the many undisclosed treasures of Jehovah, the creator, which he reveals to us one after another. For who is permitted to remain silent at the news of such develpments? Who is not filled with a surging love of God, pouring itself copiously forth through tongue and pen?"
Who were the two scientists? Johannes Kepler wrote this to Galileo when he received a copy of the Sidereal Message which reported the discoveries Galileo made with his telescope.
I found this quote in the chapter on the emergence of modern science in Denis Alexander's helpful book, Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and faith in the twenty-first century.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

My wife on the resurrection

This morning my wife, Robin is giving a short talk on the resurrection of Jesus to a group of women. I found it quite inspiring (o.k. I am biased) and so thought I would post it here:

Some people don’t believe in a literal resurrection because it’s a miracle, they can’t understand. It is out of the ordinary, unusual, supernatural, mysterious, and unexpected.

But that’s just it. We serve a living God that is unusual, supernatural, miraculous. God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts and everything he does does not have to make sense to us.

I want to serve a great big huge powerful God that is different than you or I. I don’t want to serve a little god that I can put in a box and confine to the rules of nature. In the resurrection God conquered death and paid our debt once for all. It’s a turning point in history.

Away from the everyday ordinary that often consumes, dulls and pacifies us. Resurrection power should invade our lives; but not just enhance our middle class dreams of a comfortable life. But rather with the power of the Holy Spirit working through us, tell others about this extraordinary God of ours that does not always make sense.

God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to conquer sin and death so that we might not fear the end of things we know and look forward to our own resurrection.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Beyond parochialism and nationalism

The sermon at church on Sunday was on Acts 1. Looking at the passage something I noticed afresh was the following contrast. After the resurrected Jesus had spent forty days with the apostles and "speaking to them about the Kingdom of God" he was about to ascend to heaven. The apostles asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"

Our natural human tendency is to be parochial and to be prone to nationalism. But God's Kingdom is bigger. That he is why Jesus responds that he will send the apostles to "Jerusalem, all Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Is Academia paradise?

One thing that caught my attention and bewilderment in John Piper's talk The Pastor as Scholar: a Personal Journey was his discussion on his struggle to leave his position teaching at Bethel College and take a position as a pastor. He says,
I knew what this would mean to leave the world of academia.
  • It would mean no more Summers free to read and study and write.
  • It would mean endless administrative pressures and challenges.
  • It would mean an uncontrollable schedule.
  • It would mean an audience who would not want or reward academic prowess but pastoral warmth and presence.
  • It would mean funerals and weddings and baptisms and counseling and hospital visitation and emergencies and conflict resolution and staff management.
  • It would mean that the days of publishing articles in New Testament Studies and Theologische Zeitscrift and the days of being on the cutting edge of any scholarly discipline were over.
  • It would mean pressure to write a sermon or two or three every week would be relentless.

I don't doubt that this is what it meant to Piper. However, for the record his experience in academia is anomalous. Be assured that in the twenty-first century in practically any university or theological college there is plenty of administrative pressure, staff management, conflict resolution, lack of reward of academic prowess, ...