Fellow Pilgrims

The next section of Philip Yancey’s new book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? looks at three kinds of Christians having an impact in our world: pilgrims, activists, and artists. Yancey devotes a chapter to each, and each deserves some consideration here over the next several posts.

The First ThanksgivingPilgrims. This is a particularly apropos this week – at least for those of us in the US. The painting of the first Thanksgiving shown to the right is not historically accurate (wrong clothing etc.) but the image of humans together is a powerful one.

A pilgrim is a fellow-traveler on a spiritual journey, not a professional guide.

We are God’s people on earth, and none of us are perfect. In fact we are a rather motley crew. But apparently this is the plan. The Gospels relate the marvelous story of Jesus’s ministry on earth, his miraculous healings and his control of nature, his appalling crucifixion and then the magnificent victory of resurrection. But the story ends with the disciples staring up into the sky and wondering what to do next.

“Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” were the disciples’ last words to Jesus, and it was left to the angels to provide an indirect answer: “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Get moving – you’re the main actors now.

We bumbling pilgrims are “the Jesus left behind” after the ascension, the heirs of God’s Spirit. Paul takes the concept further, calling us the body of Christ and God’s temple – meaning the actual presence of God in the world. We are the reason Jesus came, to set into motion a kingdom without borders that eventually would indeed reach Europe and China and Australia and the Americas. (p. 101)

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Posted in Christian Life, Church | Tagged

5 Questions … and Some Answers

QI picked up an interesting and somewhat unusual new book recently, Science and Religion: 5 Questions. The editor, Gregg D. Caruso, posed five questions on science and religion to thirty three different authors and scholars covering a broad range of viewpoints. Respondents include Daniel C. Dennett, Michael Shermer, William Dembski, John Polkinghorne, and Rabbi David Wolpe and many more.

The five questions:

1. What initially drew you to theorizing about science and religion?

2. Do you think science and religion are compatible when is comes to understanding cosmology (the origin of the universe), biology (the origin of life and the human species), ethics, and/or the human mind (minds, brains, souls, and free will)?

3. Some theorists maintain that science and religion occupy nonoverlapping magisteria – i.e., that science and religion each have a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority, and these two domains do not overlap. Do you agree?

4. What do you consider to be your most important contribution(s) to theorizing about science and religion?

5. What are the most important open questions, problems, or challenges confronting the relationship between science and religion, and what are the prospects for progress?

These questions introduce the speakers (especially 1 and 4), and touch on the major issues of origins (2). Given my current interest in Stephen Jay Gould’s proposed NOMA as sketched in his book Rocks of Ages, the third questions in particularly interesting. Many of the respondents don’t seem to have actually taken the time to understand his proposal. The final two questions are open ended and provide for interesting individual responses.

From time to time I will dip into this book and consider come of the various responses offered.

Charles Townes. One of the interviews is with a man who isn’t a household name, but perhaps should be. Charles Townes shared the Nobel Prize in 1964 for “for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle” (Nobel Prize page). I heard him speak earlier this year at a symposium in memory of his former student, James P. Gordon, who was first author on the paper with Townes and reporting the success of the maser in 1955. Charles Townes is still impressive at 99 years of age. For those who might not know, maser stands for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. The more familiar laser operates on the same principle at shorter wavelengths (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

Oh yeah, and he is a life-long Christian, a member of the United Church of Christ.

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Posted in Science and Faith

Love the Lord Your God

Blake_jacobsladderThe way we read and tell the story of the Old Testament plays a large role in the view that many people have of Christianity.  To many outside the church the story can be framed as ancient myth, the story of an autocratic tribal god, a founding myth for ethnic identity. Within the church other misunderstandings often prevail. Iain Provan, in his new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters looks in depth at the story the Old Testament portrays and digs into the message getting past many of the caricatures active in the secular world, and even in the church. In chapter 7 he explores the answer to the question How am I to relate to God?. There are several aspects to the answer Provan finds in Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament.

Worship God alone. There is one God, distinct from the cosmos he has created. He alone is worthy of worship. God is cloaked in mystery and cannot be captured in any tamed and domesticated form. When a prophet sees God, as Ezekiel did, no words can adequately capture what has been seen. Only analogies are possible. Humans are not gods and should not seek to take the place of God. The so-called gods of the other nations are not gods at all. Household idols, common in the day and age (even Rachel took the household “gods” from her father Laban), are nothing but inanimate objects formed by man from created matter. Idols are forbidden because they are not and cannot contain God. The call to forsake the false gods and idols permeate the Old Testament – and the failure to do so leads to a multitude of troubles. Idolatry is not merely forbidden, it is inherently destructive.

It is not only that the worship of the creation rather than the Creator is offensive to God, and a perversion of the true nature of things (although it is both of these). It is also that in worshipping idols rather than God human beings do damage to themselves, to each other, and to the world in which they live. To turn from God to “gods” is to embrace a lie about reality. (p. 167)

The book of Daniel provides a powerful lesson in this regard. It is a central message of the book.

The book of Daniel works this out in a thoroughgoing way, picturing a world in which the worship of the one true God has all but disappeared. It is a world, Daniel tells us, that is governed by “beasts”—the beastly empires described in Daniel 2 and 7. It is a world, therefore, that has been turned upside down. The world created by God is one in which human beings should govern the animals (Genesis 1:26-30), but in Daniel, the “animals” govern the human beings. Here the idolatry of the self has been transposed into the idolatry of the state, and upon human beings who refuse such idolatry suffering falls, whether in fiery furnaces or in lions’ dens or in some other way. This is what happens when the emperor, in particular, comes to think that he is a god (Daniel 3). The book of Daniel illustrates well the general biblical point: that worshipping as a god anything that is not in fact God must ultimately have drastic consequences for human beings and also for the creation they are supposed to govern and care for on behalf of the Creator. (p. 168)

Idolatry is not so much the infraction of a divine commandment as the committing of an act of cosmic insanity.

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Posted in Bible | Tagged

No Miracles Allowed?

Diplomystus - Green River FormationI’ve been reading Stephen Jay Gould’s short book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life in which he outlines the concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), an important concept in the discussion of science and Christian faith. In Chapter 2 Gould provides two examples illustrating the idea of NOMA and the compatibility of science and faith under this principle. The first is the position that the Catholic Church through Pope Pius XII and John Paul II has taken on evolution in general and human evolution in particular. The second is the example of many Christian scientists, especially at the dawn of the scientific age. Isaac Newton is a start.

The story of Galileo is often put up as an example of the warfare between science and Christian faith – unfairly most historians will agree. Yes Galileo was put on trial and forced to recant, although he was ultimately (many, many years after his death) proven right. But there is a lot more to the story that simply science and faith. As Gould puts it “Galileo moved too fast and too far in an unnecessarily provocative manner.” He didn’t just provide a view – he mocked the powers of the day.

A move toward NOMA. More recently the Catholic church has tended toward a view consistent with Gould’s description of NOMA. In Humani Generis Pope Pius the XII allowed that evolution, if proved to be true, was consistent with the faith – although he held that the human soul was immediately created by God, not a product of gradual, natural evolution. He himself was not convinced that evolution was yet proven true.

John Paul II (1996) moved a step further.

In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of faith about man and his vocation.

Pius XII added … that this opinion [evolution] should not be adopted as though it were a certain proven doctrine … Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. (As quoted by Gould p. 80-82)

The general thrust is clear – at least the Catholic church holds that scientific questions are addressed using scientific methods. When the data is in and a judgment rendered, there is no problem accepting theories put forth. But there are many questions (the soul being one of these) that science is not really competent to address.

Isaac Newton - GodfreyKneller 1689The second illustration Gould presents is the implicit principle of NOMA embraced by many religious scientists, including Isaac Newton (right). Early scientists remained ardent theists – and made no attempt to disguise this fact. Most religious scientists today, including those with strong theological commitments (and that would include me), hold to a version of NOMA as well. Gould calls it “bench-top materialism.” These scientists tend to …

hold that the “deep” questions about ultimate meanings lie outside the realm of science and under the aegis of religious inquiry, while scientific methods, based on the temporal invariance of natural law, apply to all potentially resolvable questions about facts of nature. (p. 84)

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Posted in Miracles, Science and Faith | Tagged

Reclaiming the Good News

CactiOur world is athirst for the good news of the gospel, often without knowing it. But what is this good news and how do we pass it along? In chapter 4 of Vanishing Grace Philip Yancey looks at ways that we as God’s people can reclaim the good news and pass it on. This chapter is worth some thought and some conversation.

First we have to ask the question – What is the good news? Yancey’s take here may surprise (or even annoy) some.

It strikes me as genuinely good news that we are creations of a loving God who wants us to thrive, not random byproducts of a meaningless universe. That God entered our world and demonstrated in person that nothing – not even death – can separate us from God’s love. That the story of Jesus has this main theme: “For God so loved the world that he gave …” That human existence will not end with the imminent warming of our atmosphere or the gradual cooling of our sun, and that my particular destiny will not end with death. That God will balance the scales of human history not by karma but by grace, in such a way that no one will be able to accuse God of unfairness. (p. 71)

This central message is sometimes hard to for non-Christians to grasp – and it doesn’t appear to jive with the message that Christians seem to preach. Christians are too often characterized as cranks, hypocrites, or authoritarian busybodies (and we could expand this list). But Yancey points out that the church is also filled with humble “saints” … “What is a saint? I like Reynolds Price’s definition: someone who, however flawed, “leads us by example, almost never by words, to imagine the hardest thing of all: the seamless love of God for all creation including ourselves.”” (p. 71) The humble saints don’t get the press, and they don’t get the attention. But this is where we should focus. As Yancey puts it: “in a modern society that runs by competition, self-indulgence, and power, we should stand out by following a notably different script.” (p. 74) Continue reading

Posted in Christian Life, Gospel | Tagged

Now Choose Life

Seriously_Dangerous_ReligionIn the last post on Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion we looked at Genesis 3, a story that Provan sees as relating the embrace of evil by humans created in the image of God. This embrace of evil had consequences for Adam and Eve and for their descendants. But this raises an important question – what are we to do about human evil and suffering? About poverty and want? What is the biblical response in the pages of the Old Testament. The answer isn’t a resignation to a predetermined lot in life. The command in the Old Testament is quite clear – and Deuteronomy 35 lays it out.

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. …Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.

Humans are called to choose to follow the way of God. There is no fatalism about this issue, although there is at times a resignation to the fact that evil will always be present, and that the wicked person will often prosper for a time.

In the Old Testament view the events of Genesis 3 did not significantly affect the nature of God’s good creation. It is still good as the Psalmists often reflect. Nor did the events of Genesis 3 lead to inevitable “ongoing relational problems between God and human beings.” (p. 136) Abel, Enoch, and Noah had good relationships with God. Cain was presented with a choice and he made a choice (Gen 4:6-7). Sacred space in communion with God is preserved in temple and tabernacle.

Here, sacred space is preserved—the sacred space that the whole world ought to represent. These are the places from which the command is issued, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2)—the places that foreshadow a world that will once again be completely holy. Beyond the tabernacle and temple, the garden in Eden can also be recovered to some extent in human experience more generally—when there is humility before God rather than godlike pride (Ezekiel 28; Isaiah 51:3). (p. 136)

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Posted in Bible, Original Sin | Tagged

Tradition and Our Way of Life

What role should tradition play when it comes to theology and biblical interpretation?

Q2This is a significant question, and one that comes up quite often in discussions of the relationship between science (or other areas of study) and Christian faith. It isn’t a new question of course, but one that has played a role in Christian thinking for centuries. Is a new perspective wrong (whether on Paul or Genesis or something else) simply because it requires a change in thinking and biblical interpretation? What weight should we give to the various confessions, creeds, and statements of faith?

The answer isn’t to toss them all in the trash. Personally I find a great deal of value in the Apostle’s Creed. The scientific “fact” that the dead don’t rise has no impact on this creed and those who claim it does are missing the point. No one claims that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a natural event. And as a one-off that happened to a specific individual, the evidence for and against lies in its impact on others. It left no other residue in the record.

Other questions are not as easily resolved. Many feel threatened when new ideas challenge traditional positions and traditional interpretations. As we try to move forward today, it is useful to reflect on the past and to learn from mistakes and successes. David Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast takes the opportunity in his new book Dealing With Darwin to explore the way place, politics and rhetoric influenced the reception of Darwin’s ideas in the late nineteenth century.

James WoodrowA “Heresy” Trial. One event Livingstone digs into is the rather sensational ouster of James Woodrow from his position at the Southern Presbyterian Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina in the 1880’s. “It was a grand spectacle, which at the time, made headline news. The New York Times, under the banner “Woodrow’s Heresy Trial”, reported that the “largest congregation so far of the General Assembly” gathered for the hearing.” (p. 117) . James Woodrow, uncle of Woodrow Wilson, held the Perkins Chair at the seminary. This was a professorship established to unite science and theology, to combat the threats that science could pose through “cool-headed, knowledgeable reflection, not the knee-jerk dismissal of the “religious zealot” who “denounced as Infidels and Atheists” the advocates of every new scientific advance.” (p. 135) A cool-headed, knowledgeable reflection on science and theology ultimately led to his dismissal. (Although not every response to his critics was cool-headed, and his rhetoric at times fanned the flames.)

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Posted in Evolution, Science and Faith | Tagged