Saturday, January 28, 2012

The abstract versus the concrete

In both good science and good theology there is continual struggle to find an appropriate balance between  the concrete and the abstract. For example consider the following tensions and contrasts in theology:

systematic theology vs. Biblical studies

Christology vs. the Gospel narratives

John's Gospel vs. the Synoptic Gospels

Romans vs. the Gospel of Mark

ethical principles vs. explicit commands

Greek thought vs. Hebrew thought

I welcome concrete thoughts on some abstract principles one might use to find a balance!

Living with a lie

I quite enjoyed the movie The Debt (2007 Israeli version) which gives a fictional account of three Israeli secret agents who live for 30 years as national heroes based on a lie. They claim to have killed a Nazi war criminal who they had actually mistakenly let escape from them.

It is good tense enthralling drama. But the nagging and effective question that haunts the viewer is: is my ambition and fear of failure and exposure so great I could live with such a lie? and would go to such lengths to preserve it?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Finding and following an authentic Jesus

Do we need to "find" the "historical" Jesus before we can "follow" him?

I particularly like the paragraph below from Stanley Hauerwas:
Jesus and Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom (1983).

In a strange way, reading Hauerwas also resonates with reading Radical by David Platt. This morning my son and I read the first chapter and I was struck by the following:

We are molding Jesus into our own image. He is beginning to look a lot like us because, after all, that is whom we are most comfortable with. And the danger now is that when we gather together in our church buildings to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead we may be worshiping ourselves.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Exploring theological ethics

I previously posted about a theological reading group I am in which started with Miroslav Wolf's Exclusion and Embrace. We have since read Creation Regained by Wolters. This year we are beginning with a range of separate readings. This fortnight it is some essays by Stanley Hauerwas, arguably one of the most influential living writers on theological ethics. I have not read him before and am enjoying him. The first article is How "Christian ethics" came to be.

Hauerwas has been heavily influenced by Karl Barth and it is interesting to read a short article he wrote for First Things which introduces Barth's Dogmatics in Outline and recommends an annual reading!

Another fascinating article is No, this war would not be moral, published in Time magazine in 2003. It concerns US President Bush's claim that the war against Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein was 'evil'.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Wise or foolish?

1 Corinthians 1-2 is an important passage which discusses and contrasts the "wisdom of men" to the "wisdom of God" that is found in Christ. I feel that this passage is sometimes mis-interpreted and mis-applied to justify an anti-intellectualism and to argue against a positive role for apologetics.

Here are a few selections from the passage:

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God... 
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom..
25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 

What is the context of the passage? What is the main point of the passage?

The context is the Corinthian church is divided about which leader to follow. Who is the best speaker? Who is the wisest? Who does the best baptisms? Paul is saying these are the wrong criteria for choosing a leader and the church should not be divided.

The main focus of the passage is on salvation, not on the role of the intellect in general. Salvation is found only by acknowledging our weakness and foolishness and casting ourselves upon Christ. We have nothing to boast about. Intellectual prowess does not help someone get saved. The world may scorn our humility as foolish and intellectually unsophisticated (or self demeaning).

For a Christian who has been saved in this "foolish" manner the passage does not imply they should scorn the intellectual riches of the secular world pertaining to matters other than salvation.

The passage does not mean that we should not use to our brains to reason and think about the riches of the Gospel.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fleeing war and childhood infatuations

The 2003 French movie Bon Voyage is worth watching. It is set in the context of the Nazi takeover (and French capitulation) of Paris. The connected lives of some who flee Paris for Bordeaux are chronicled. I found the main character, a conniving superficial starlet, unendearing. But I guess that is some of the point!

What is it like to be a scientist?

There is a nice insightful article What I wish my pastor knew .. about the life of a scientist by Andy Crouch. It is based on the authors insights that come from being married to a physicist. I think the article may be useful and challenging to anyone who wants a more accurate picture about what science is and is not, not just to pastors. Here are few choice extracts:
The honest, and humbling, truth is that there is likely more intellectual humility in the average physics laboratory than in the average theology classroom... 
Scientists may or may not believe in the words of Genesis 3, but they know the burdens of work — even and especially delightful work — very well... 
... a community of people that work side by side, motivated by delight and wonder, characterized by intellectual humility and a willingness to admit they have been wrong and change direction, who together help one another bear the frustrations of work in a fallen world . . . does this sound like something the church ought to celebrate? Or perhaps even emulate? 
As with so many professional callings, I have found that science makes such demands on its practitioners that those who succeed in it tend to be either strikingly mature and wise persons, or sadly foolish and stunted — with relatively few in the middle. The stakes in a scientific vocation are high.
This article is part of an excellent series: What I wish my Pastor knew about science...

I thank Luke Glanville for bringing the article to my attention.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The struggle to overcome

Are we all born equal? Is a child a "clean slate"? If poor children are given the right educational opportunities will they flourish? How does one break cycles of poverty? Does early childhood trauma have long term effects (esp. on brain hardware?)

My darling wife brought to my attention a fascinating New Times Op-Ed piece about a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediactrics. Here is an extract:
This new research addresses an uncomfortable truth: Poverty is difficult to overcome partly because of self-destructive behaviors. Children from poor homes often shine, but others may skip school, abuse narcotics, break the law, and have trouble settling down in a marriage and a job. Then their children may replicate this pattern. 
Liberals sometimes ignore these self-destructive pathologies. Conservatives sometimes rely on them to blame poverty on the poor.
I think there are also issues here for Christians, particularly those who want to reduce everything to a spiritual battle.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Learning from life

A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.
        Muhammad Ali

So what "life wisdom" have I learnt from experience and observation?
What do I wish I knew and understood when I was twenty?

Life proceeds in stages. Adapt your expectations and activities accordingly.

Making a living is hard.

Financial debt can be a noose around your neck.

New initiatives need to be sustainable in the long term.

The good is the enemy of the excellent.

Learn to say no!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hobbledehoy and the most profound truth

24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:24-25

Here is an extract from Karl Barth's commentary on these verses:
If Christianity be not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ.... All that is not hope is wooden, hobbledehoy, blunt-edged, and sharp-pointed, like the word `Reality'....
But to wait is the most profound truth of our normal, everyday life and work, quite apart from being Christians....
We ask nothing better or higher than the Cross, where God is manifested as God. We must, in fact, be servants who wait for the coming of their Lord.
K. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th edition, page 314-5.

Dictionaries define a "hobbledehoy" as an "awkward ungainly youth"! I am not sure what the original German word was that Barth used.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A vivid portrayal of India

My wife and I have enjoyed watching the 4 part documentary India Reborn produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (you can watch some of it and read the text here). It highlights the rapid economic, social, and political change that India is currently undergoing. Unfortunately, much of this change is increasing the gap between rich and poor, and a large fraction of the population is being left behind or even becoming worse off due to the economic boom. There are other unexpected negative consequences too such as a massive rise in the incidence of diabetes among the rising "middle class".

The imagery is rich and enthralling and found the commentary insightful. I would be interested to here what Indians think.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

An article I wish my Presbyterian friends would read

We can learn a lot from history, especially other peoples mistakes!

John Frame has impeccable credentials in Reformed Orthodox Conservative circles. In 2003 he wrote a fascinating article Machen's Warrior Children. Here is the abstract:
From 1923 to the present, the movement begun by J. Gresham Machen and Westminster Theological Seminary has supplied the theological leadership for the conservative evangelical Reformed Christians in the United States. Under that leadership, conservative Calvinists made a strong stand against liberal theology. But having lost that theological battle in the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A., they turned inward to battle among themselves about issues less important—in some cases, far less important—than liberalism. This essay describes 21 of these issues, with some subdivisions, and offers some brief analysis and evaluations. It concludes by raising some questions for the Reformed community to consider: 
Was it right to devote so much of the church’s time and effort to these theological battles? 
Did the disputants follow biblical standards for resolution of these issues? 
Was the quality of thought in these polemics worthy of the Reformed tradition of scholarship? 
Should the Reformed community be willing to become more inclusive, to tolerate greater theological differences than many of the polemicists have wanted?
Unfortunately, it is not clear these warnings have been taken to heart as recent cases involving Peter Enns and Bruce Waltke suggest. History repeats itself.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

One gift of giving

My dear wife has become a keen follower of the blog A Holy Experience. Recently there was a moving post about how the author Ann Voskamp gave away some profits from her book One Thousand Gifts to a community building project at a Compassion child centre in a garbage dump in Guatemala.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Christians should be downwardly mobile

My wife and I have just finished reading Radical by David Platt. The subtitle is "Taking back your faith from the American Dream". However, almost all of it is relevant to Australia and not written in the manner than seems to turn off some Australian readers.

I thought the book would equate "the American dream" mostly with material wealth and career advancement. However, Platt rightly considers it to be broader. For example, he points out the Gospel and ministry should go against values of self sufficiency, pride, showmanship....

The book may be uncomfortable reading for both liberals and conservatives. Liberals will disagree with the emphasis on the depravity of man, the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the Cross, and the claim that salvation is found in Christ alone.
Conservatives will be unsettled by the advocacy for the poor and needy, the call to forsake wealth, and to give equal emphasis to meeting physical needs as to evangelism and teaching.

Perhaps the best and most challenging chapter is the sixth, "How much is enough: American wealth and a world of poverty?". He exposits several very challenging teachings of Jesus such as Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. Platt confesses that for many years concern for the poor was a "blind spot" for him.

Platt then gives several moving and challenging anecdotes of people from his congregation who have got radical, "downsized", and started to focus on using their money for the good of others rather than themselves.
Painful and challenging truth.

Beginning the year with a Mission statement

Since Friday I was at the annual summer school of CMS (Church Missionary Society, Queensland and Northern NSW branch). The theme was The Glory of God with biblical expositions from Isaiah by Kanishka Rafell. It was a great way to start the year!

Next year the main speaker will be Simon Manchester.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Living water

My darling wife brought this excellent video from the Advent Conspiracy to my attention. The Christmas season is over but the message is still relevant!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Brilliant but wrong

Previously I discuss the merits and weaknesses of the argument from authority, where one invokes the authority of a learned person to bolster ones argument. So beware of the dangers. I give a few examples using two of my scientific heroes. This illustrates you can have a Nobel Prize (or two!) and still hold and promote views which turn out to be clearly wrong.

Linus Pauling received Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and in Peace. He was considered to the person most likely to crack the structure of DNA but proposed the wrong structure. Towards the end of his life he claimed that large doses of vitamin C could cure everything from the common cold to cancer. He also did not believe in quasi-crystals the subject of last years Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

John Bardeen received two Nobel Prizes in Physics: one for the invention of the transistor and the other for the theory of superconductivity. Yet he did not believe in the Josephson effect (subject of a later Nobel Prize) and had the wrong model for charge density wave transport.

Even scientific geniuses are fallible. In the end of the day it is cold hard scientific evidence which determines the truth not the authority or personality of individual scientists.

Videos of Faraday Institute lectures and seminars

The latest newsletter from the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge has an interesting and impressive item.
we were amazed to notice that our seminars and lectures, which only began to be posted on the University of Cambridge video and audio web-site a little over a year ago, were viewed 250,983 times during 2011, making us the 7th most viewed entity within the University. See for further details. To put this in perspective, there are 92 University Institutions contributing to these outputs, including Cambridge’s 31 Colleges, as well as academic departments and other Institutes. The stats do not include the number of views from our own web-site which is hosted by St. Edmund’s College.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

America's leading biologist and a Christian

No, the post is not about Francis Collins!
I just picked up from a second hand bookstore a copy of the definitive biography Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin by A. Hunter Dupree. It was first published in 1959 and was described by Thomas Kuhn as "Among the finest scientific biographies I have read. It has a particularly interesting chapter, A Theist in the Age of Darwin. It is striking to me how many of the issues, personality types, arguments, and tactics in the science-theology debate/war/dialogue have not changed in 150 years! One central issue is the failure to make a distinction between
1. Darwin's science
2. The weaknesses of William Paley's argument from design
3. Orthodox Christian faith

The life and views of Asa Gray is an interesting and important story. He was the pre-eminent American biologist of the nineteenth century, a confidante of Charles Darwin, and one of the most prominent and effective promoters in the USA of Darwin's new theory of biological evolution. But he saw no conflict between the science of Darwin and orthodox Christian faith.

Darwiniana, an influential collection of Gray's essays and reviews, many of which had been earlier been published anonymously (as was the custom of the time) was published in 1878. It was edited by George Frederick Wright, a conservative Congregationalist minister and amateur geologist. (It can be read online).

Below is the end of the Preface which clearly states Gray's commitment to both Darwin's science and to the Nicene Creed.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Simple suspense and deception

My son  and I enjoyed watching The Breach, a movie based on the true story of catching a US FBI agent, Robert Hanssen, who was a traitor, passing multiple secrets to the Soviets and Russians over more than 20 years.
A bizarre feature of the movie and the actual case was that Hanssen was a devout Catholic, attending mass daily. It is amazing to me how we have the ability to be be so duplicitous, both to others and ourselves.