This is the third in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
This is the second in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
This is the first in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
An interesting recent post in The Telegraph by columnist Brendan O’Neill, entitled: “How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet“.
A brief excerpt:
Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something – in this case on a belief in God. There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist; after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):
“Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.” (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)
“What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man.” That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don’t think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such. The very notion of wretchedness is religious. If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature. If, and only if.
Man’s wretchedness is ‘structural’: man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we “must have fallen from some better state.” That is not obvious. But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.
How do we know that? From thousands of years of collective experience.
The essential element of Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus. Last week I participated in a study of Mark 7, and was reminded just how personal Jesus’ interactions with people were during his ministry on Earth.
There are three major segments to Mark 7, and at first glance they don’t seem to have too much in common (at least, they didn’t to me). I strongly encourage you to read the whole chapter yourself (use BibleGateway if you don’t have a Bible handy), but I’ll give a brief overview of each section:
Here’s an example of a legal right, and a justification for its existence:
Society needs someone appointed to make decisions on everyone’s behalf, because we can’t get anything done if we need to consult the whole population about every decision. Since this person is making decisions for everyone, everyone should have a say in choosing who this person is. Therefore, everyone should have a right to vote.
We start with a societal need, and the rights endowed upon citizens are based on that need.
Here’s another societal need:
Society needs good future citizens. Thus, society needs children, and needs to promote the best upbringing for those children. Children require a mother and father. The best care for children is usually given by their parents, and this care will take many years and require huge investment. Thus the people involved need to feel secure as they invest time, effort and money into creating a family in which children can grow up. Thus, we create a legal framework where any man and woman (the most basic and universal requirement for parents) may enter into a legal contract that encourages them to invest in creating a potential home for children. Thus, any pair of one man and one woman may choose to get married.
Several countries are currently discussing (or are already in the process of) redefining marriage. With that in mind, there’s a new paper by Ryan T. Anderson entitled: Marriage: What It Is, Why It Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining It. Although there are obvious religious considerations to this issue, Anderson isn’t actually discussing those issues in any detail in this paper.
The abstract expands:
Marriage is based on the truth that men and women are complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the reality that children need a mother and a father. Redefining marriage does not simply expand the existing understanding of marriage; it rejects these truths. Marriage is society’s least restrictive means of ensuring the well-being of children. By encouraging the norms of marriage—monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanence—the state strengthens civil society and reduces its own role. The future of this country depends on the future of marriage. The future of marriage depends on citizens understanding what it is and why it matters and demanding that government policies support, not undermine, true marriage.
There’s a fantastic article at The Weekly Standard about Thomas Nagel. Nagel may not be as much of a household name as Dawkins, but he is probably America’s most prominent philosopher and a serious intellectual heavyweight. But his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, was roundly attacked by the self-proclaimed “brights” of atheism. In short, Nagel thinks that the worldview of philosophical materialism is wrong, despite being a very useful presupposition of science. For voicing these thoughts, Nagel has been branded a heretic by his fellow atheists.
The most interesting aspect of this drama is that Nagel is actually just voicing what every one of those critics believes. Or at least, he’s voicing the line of thought that is revealed by their actions. Because nobody actually lives as if materialism were true (unless they are certifiably insane). As the article puts it:
As a philosophy of everything [materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.
I received the following piece via email from the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.
I didn’t write it, but I think that it is a useful discussion of what the Catholic concept of “papal infallibility” actually entails.
Infallible? by Raymond Perrier
Infallible must be one of the most misunderstood terms in Catholic vocabulary. Reflecting on the Papacy of Benedict XVI we can remind ourselves what Papal infallibility is and most importantly what it is not.
So, in a previous post I talked about how Nature doesn’t have a voice, and that this makes it difficult to ask it questions. Today I want to talk about an alternative way of interpreting nature.
Francis Bacon talked about reading “both books” in order to gain insight about God. By this he meant that God is revealed in scripture, because the Bible is God’s Word to us, and God is also revealed in nature, because he is the Creator of the universe. It seems to me that asking questions of nature can be very similar to asking questions of Scripture, which in turn is very similar to asking questions of a novel. Let me explain:
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.
“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.
Scientific research can be thought of as a process of asking questions of Nature. Perhaps it’s worth exploring that concept in a little more detail.
It is true that many scientific advances have started with a question. And the process of research can be considered a way of asking Nature questions. But the kind of questions that we can ask Nature are very specific.
First, the obvious: Nature doesn’t have a voice. Interviews are out. So we need to look for evidence instead.
The language that I’m using resembles a criminal investigation, and that’s deliberate. Scientific research is in fact very much like forensic work. We look for evidence, we analyse things that we observe, we try to find patterns and unravel processes. Forensics is all about mechanisms: how the crime was perpetrated. However, there’s usually an accompanying part of a criminal investigation, and that is the literal question-and-answer stuff. By interviewing a suspect, the investigator can try to unravel the question of motive. Forensics, for all its strengths, is powerless to address “why” questions. This, again, is like science.
A couple of good discussion pieces by Chris Mulherin that were published recently:
Christianity, science and rumours of divorce talks about the misunderstandings that lead to the perceived “conflict” between science and the Christian faith. In particular, he emphasises the distinction that Christianity is a worldview, whereas science is a methodology.
The second article, Science as ideology betrays its purpose, discusses the hazards which arise from conflating the methodology of science with the worldview of Naturalism.
Both articles can be downloaded from the ISCAST website.
One of the biggest contributors to the idea that science and Christianity are somehow at odds, is the idea that Young-Earth Creationism is the same thing as Christianity. We really need to clarify this point.
Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) describes a belief structure that has made a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 the core article of faith. This position seems difficult to reconcile with science. (Of course, a hermeneutically sound – and thus more truly literal – interpretation of Genesis 1 is wholly reconcilable with modern science).
But this YEC doctrine is not representative of Christianity, it’s a strange late-19th-century offshoot with little theological or biblical support. The implications of this unfortunate conflation of YEC with Christianity are covered well in a recent blog at the British Centre for Science Education. The following graphics may help to illustrate the relationship between YEC and Christianity, and are inspired by that blog post:
*note: I’m using the term “creationist” in this post to refer mostly to the YEC position. This term would not apply to someone who, for example, believes that God created the universe ex nihilo, but that Big Bang cosmology and evolution describe some of the processes of Creation.
First, some clarification. We’ll start with what Intelligent Design is not:
Christian doctrine teaches that the universe, life, and human beings are created by God. That is, Creation was a deliberate act. Also, God is omniscient and omnipotent, and chose to exercise creation in a particular way. This is not the definition of Intelligent Design.
The teleological argument refers to a philosophical argument for the existence of God based on apparent design and purpose in the world around us. The universe and our place in it appear to be purposeful, and a purposeful creation suggests a purposeful Creator. Variations on this line of thinking can be traced back to before Plato, and it also features in the work of St Thomas Aquinas as one of his rational arguments for God’s existence. This is also not the definition of Intelligent Design.
So what is it?
Science requires faith.
I realise that statement will upset people, but those are the facts. The comic above, from the excellent xkcd, presents the issue particularly well. To do science at all, we must at the very least have faith in our rationality and the ability of our brains to discover truth. Faith in the regularity of the universe helps, too.
What does God have to do with hurricanes?
According to secular society, both nothing and everything:
Nothing, because God’s existence is denied, and everything, because calling a natural disaster an “act of God” allows us to implement special insurance clauses.
According to orthodox Christianity, both everything and nothing:
Everything, because God is sovereign over everything, but nothing, because He does not go around specifically creating every specific giant storm system for a specific purpose.
In 1 Corinthians 1-6, Paul admonishes the church in Corinth because church members have been suing each other. In this age of incessant litigation, it’s a passage with a great deal of application.
Here’s how it reads in the NIV:
“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court — and this in front of unbelievers!”
There’s an excellent article by W. Grainge Clarke on the philosophy of science and how it relates to the Christian worldview.
On the topic of the underlying assumptions of the scientific method, he writes:
“These presuppositions are, by their nature unprovable, and some philosophers would consider them unacceptable. Behind the acceptance of these presuppositions lies the fact that modern science developed when the dominant worldview in Europe was Christian. If the Christian worldview is accepted they all make reasonable sense. However, on the atheistic worldview, that all is the product of matter-energy, time and chance, then none of these presuppositions are justifiable. To consider just one case: ‘The human mind is capable of rational thought’. If the human mind has been developed solely by non rational forces then there is no reason to believe that it can be rational and certainly it is not to be relied upon. Consider two computers one of which was designed and assembled by the IT staff at the local university and the other by the local kindergarten. Which is most likely to function well? Yet the kindergarten children have much more intelligence than blind chance.”
You can find the whole article here:
Healing Is a Choice
Ten Decisions That Will Transform Your Life & Ten Lies That Can Prevent You From Making Them
by Stephen Arterburn
Published by Thomas Nelson, paperback edition
Just a quick update – I recently published an article on the journal Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology, entitled “Children of God: The awkward teenage years“. The abstract below will give you something of the flavour:
In this essay I explore some of the manifestations of ‘teenage rebellion’ in matters of faith and society: how disillusionment with God can manifest and impact our lives. As we grow from infancy to adulthood, an early childish optimism towards our idealised vision of life often gives way to dissatisfaction, cynicism and disillusionment in our teenage years. This is a natural by-product of a youthful idealism based on unrealistic notions, and hopefully as we continue to mature to adulthood we understand life more deeply and regain our satisfaction, enthusiasm and sense of wonder with all that this life and universe have to offer. In general, I believe that this disillusionment is rooted in our early failure of understanding. The core of the Christian faith is a personal relationship with God through the person of Jesus. A person who believes in God but does not have a relationship with him may find that this level of faith is insufficient to withstand the additional pressures, responsibilities and difficulties that adulthood requires. On a broader perspective, I also look briefly at disillusionment with science from the Enlightenment to the present day.
Get the whole article here:
Music, and indeed any art form, involves striving to express that which is recognised but cannot be fully put into words, that which is unknowable and yet known more deeply than anything else. It is this striving for expression that produces great art, it is the acknowledgement – without complete understanding – of the intangible Other that drives creative work.
This is not unique to Christian cultures, it is a universal feature of art. We do not express artistically what we could simply describe succinctly and fully, in a sentence. The intangible natures of love, of the soul, of our deeply felt and yet deeply fractured relationship with God, these are the things which give flight to the mad impulses of the artist.
Over in the Guardian‘s website, prominent atheist Julian Baggini has written a Heathen Manifesto in which he calls for atheists everywhere to stop insisting on a polarised society and try to listen a little more to what he calls the “moderate middle”, those who lack religious belief but are also turned off by the froth and vitriol of Dawkins et al.
As Baggini puts it in his introduction:
“This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”
I rather like Baggini. More than many other atheist writers he is willing to conduct a reasoned dialogue rather than simply engaging in posturing and rhetoric. And I was very interested in his manifesto, so let’s go through it briefly. I’ve kept his headings to give this some sort of structure, and inserted my own comments at various junctures. Baggini’s manifesto is in italics, my own insertions are in normal typeface. Some sections have been trimmed for brevity.
Today marks the 374th birthday of Nicolas Steno, a pioneer in geology and anatomy in the 17th century. Steno (Neils Stensen in the original Danish) was born in 1638 in Copenhagen, and after completing his university education in Denmark he spent the rest of his life travelling throughout Europe and collaborating with prominent physicians and scientists.
While the common approach of scientists at the time was to appeal to the ideas of Aristotle and Pliny, Steno was determined to examine evidence for himself and draw his own conclusions. He was guided in this by his religious convictions about God as Creator of the natural order.
The Telegraph has an interesting short piece from Alistair McGrath today. He looks at the parallels between the faith in the Higgs boson and faith in God, both based on explanatory power rather than direct experiemental observation. He concludes:
“Some tell us that science is about what can be proved. The wise tell us it is really about offering the best explanations of what we see, realising that these explanations often cannot be proved, and may sometimes lie beyond proof. Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen. The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured. In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth.
“There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world…
“There’s more to God than making sense of things. But for religious believers, it’s a great start.“
Read the rest of the article here:
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
– Richard Schröder, Professor of Philosophy in Berlin
I really think that those who endorse a “plain reading”, strictly literalist interpretation of the Bible are missing out on some of the most awesome stuff that God has given us the Scripture. Let me give a bit of background to explain what I mean:
I was recently asked to preach on Mark 13, in which Jesus describes the end times (and also some more imminent times). It’s a complex chapter and I’m not going to try and unpack all of it here, but I was particularly struck by his description of the Temple desecration. Jesus starts by saying that the Temple will be destroyed, torn apart block by block, and also says that the fulfillment of this prophecy will give the listeners confidence in what he tells them about the end times. The destruction of the Temple will happen soon, in the lifetimes of his listeners, and then they will know that what he says about his second coming is also true.
So why do I say that this is a challenge to a literalist reading of Scripture? Well, let’s look at what Jesus says. He warns the listeners to flee from the destruction, and he does it using these words:
Recently, I’ve been reading through the Old Testament. I haven’t read the latter books of the Pentateuch for a while, so it was an interesting experience. The Pentateuch makes up the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and also comprises the Jewish Torah. This collection is also referred to as the Books of the Law, which is what Jesus is talking about when he mentions “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g. Matt. 5:17, Matt. 7:12).
Genesis and the first half of Exodus are largely composed of narrative, but from that point on there are indeed large chunks of detailed instruction from God which dominate the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And when you hear people talking vaguely about “all those crazy rules and stuff in the Bible”, it’s generally the last three books of the Pentateuch that they have in mind. So as I worked my way through these books, I was expecting to find an endless list of obscure and arbitrary prohibitions.
In contrast, I was delighted at just how sensible all the laws are. But there are a few important things to bear in mind as you read them.