Are We Ethically Superior?

new-scientistInterVarsity press recently sent me a copy of a new book A Little Book for New Scientists: Why and How to Study Science by Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson. The book is designed for Christian college, or possibly high school, students contemplating a career in science. It also contains insights in a short readable format that pastors, including youth pastors, may find useful.

Despite the fact that I am no longer a new scientist, I immediately dove in and began to read. Josh Reeves is an assistant professor of Science and Religion at Samford University in Alabama with an undergraduate degree in Psychology, an MDiv, and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies (Science and Religion track) from Boston University. Steve Donaldson is a professor of Computer Science at Samford (BS in Physics, BS in Engineering, MS and Ph.D. in Computer Science). Both Reeves and Donaldson have long-standing interest in the questions at the forefront of science and religion, particularly science and Christianity.

I have to admit that curiosity with a touch of skepticism drove some of my interest in the book. As a scientist with now 20+ years as a professor and 30+ years as a researcher I was curious to see where I would agree or disagree with the views expressed by Reeves and Donaldson. Outside perspectives can be enlightening, but also infuriating on occasion. (Well, Reeves brings an outside perspective – Donaldson has more direct science experience.) Samford, however, has an active program in Science and Religion – and Reeves and Donaldson bring a wealth of experience to this book.

Why study science? Part one of the book addresses this basic question in three chapters. In the first, Reeves and Donaldson point to the two books metaphor “For over 1500 years, Christians have used the metaphor of God’s two books to suggest the complementarity of natural and supernatural knowledge.” (p. 22) God speaks both in the general revelation of his creation and in the special revelation to his people.

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How Do You Date a Hole in the Ground?


(Image from Wikipedia: credit)

The last two sections of the new book The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? looked at the layers of rock and sediment in the Grand Canyon area. The questions addressed focused on the age and formation of these layers (A Story Carved in Stone and Fossils Tell a Story). Part four asks questions about the canyon itself. How was the canyon formed in these sediment layers and when was it formed?

Was the canyon formed rapidly in moderately soft sediment recently deposited or was it formed slowly as water eroded away the hard sedimentary rock?

Although there are some difference of opinion when it comes to exact mechanisms, most young earth creationists support the notion that the canyon formed rapidly following the breach of dams holding back some large remnants of post flood waters. Three large lakes are identified, two for which solid geological evidence exists (although dated to millions of years ago, and it isn’t certain how large they were) and a third hypothetical lake required to bring the amount of water up to the necessary volume. Dam breaches have been known to form canyons rapidly so this mechanism isn’t entirely far-fetched. But, as Tim Helble and Carol Hill point out, the shape of the Grand Canyon isn’t consistent with this as a major mechanism. A breach or spill-over model has been considered for some features on a smaller scale – but it is an idea currently out of favor.

From the geologist’s point of view there are three major problems with the dam breach hypothesis. (1) The shape of the Grand Canton isn’t consistent with catastrophic scouring of a layered landscape. (2) The amount of water proposed (3 thousand cubic miles) isn’t enough to remove 1 thousand cubic miles of sediment and then carve through hard igneous rock at the bottom of the canyon. (3) There is no evidence for a very large lake containing even 3 million cubic miles of water. Rather than a lot of water in a short time, the Grand Canyon appears to have been carved by a lot of water (61 million cubic miles) over the last 6 million years. Something like 10 cubic miles of water a year … and we see the result.

When was the Grand Canyon formed?


Image by the National Park Service (source), available at Wikipedia (source). Click on the image for a larger version.

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Posted in Genesis, Science and Faith | 1 Comment

You Brood of Vipers!

As I’ve been preparing to lead a discussion on issues intersecting Science and Christian faith I have been reflecting on the most effective approach to the issues involves. A couple of recent posts have explored this issue: Rules of Engagement and Moving From Debate to Dialogue. The theme of both posts is similar – how to engage productively with a controversial issue in church. I’ve gotten some push back on each posts – in a couple of public comments and in direct messages of one form or another.

Some of the push back has arisen from a misunderstanding, but some arises from a more serious difference in perspective. Two of the more common complaints involve the importance of defending truth and the biblical example of aggressive criticism. These are points to consider – especially their applicability to the questions raised by science and Christian faith.

1. We must defend the truth? An occasional reader had the impression that moving from debate to dialogue or contrasting teaching with engagement was undermining truth. It simply is not true that every position is equally correct – and it is important, the reader asserts, that we not be wishy-washy about this. While I agree with this sentiment, not every issue is clear cut with one and only obvious correct answer. We need to engage in order to pursue truth. But even when the answer is obvious to the expert, a simple proclamation will often fall on deaf ears. We need to engage in order to persuade others of the truth.

top2Several years ago I had a conversation over lunch with some colleagues when the issue of global warming came up. The conversation took a rather common turn, with a scientist expressing dismay, accompanied by a touch of disgust, at the recalcitrance of so many people on the issue of global warming. After all, the reasoning goes, any intelligent person should either learn the science or accept the consensus opinion of those who do know the science and who understand the scientific method of investigation. Truth on these questions is not determined by popular vote or a show of hands. It isn’t simply a matter of belief. It seems rather clear at this point that mankind can influence the climate, and that global warming is real. My colleague is an expert who understands the science. But many Americans (including many readers of this blog) are not going to be convinced by aggressive assertions of truth. It is important to build trust, which allows the other to hear and can eventually sway opinion.

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Posted in Christianity, Conversation, Public Issues | 1 Comment

Isaac was Isaac-ing

525px-isaac_a_lover_of_peaceDespite his position as a patriarch (Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”), Isaac doesn’t play much of a role in Genesis. In broad terms he serves as the son of Abraham and the father of Jacob. There is only one rather short segment where Isaac is the primary actor.

In Genesis 24 Abraham sends his trusted servant to get a wife for Isaac from their own people. Isaac receives his wife – but that is his only action. In 25:9 Isaac and Ishmael bury their father Abraham. In 25:21 Isaac prays to God for a child as Rebekah is barren. (For those keeping track, chronologically earlier as Isaac is said to be 60, while he was apparently 75 when Abraham died (given Abraham’s recorded age at Isaac’s birth (100) and at his death (175)). Then there is the story of Isaac and Abimelech (26:1-33) where Isaac flees in time of famine, passes off Rebekah as his sister, and digs a number of wells in pursuit of peace. He is fooled into blessing Jacob in Esau’s place (ch. 27), sends Jacob away (28:1-5), and finally dies at the reported age of 180 after Jacob returns with his family from his uncle Laban (34:27-29).

The story of Isaac and Abimelech is quite similar (but not identical) to an earlier encounter between Abraham and Abimelech (20:1-18, 21:22-34). The similarities have led some to propose that there was one original story, sometimes told in the name of Abraham, at other times in the name of Isaac. This, however, is a flat reading of the text. However the stories originated in the oral history of the Israelites they are combined here with a definite theological message. Bill Arnold (Genesis) writes:

In fact, this text is devoted to making Isaac look as much like Abraham as possible. Echoes and direct allusions to the Abraham narrative permeate the whole, inviting the reader to relive many of those episodes through Abraham’s son. The effect is to confirm Isaac as the true heir of Abraham’s covenant blessing, the legitimate successor in the ancestral line and therefore the true patriarch of Israel. (p. 235)

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Posted in Bible, Genesis | Tagged , ,


Trust Websters Unabridged 1983Trust is a powerful word. From the Merriam Webster dictionary definition:

belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.

a) assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something

b) one in which confidence is placed

Webster’s Unabridged 1983 to the right, (click for a larger image) uses biblical references as illustrations of the word in context: Whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe (Prov. 29:25) and For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth (Ps. 71:5).

As Christians we tend to emphasize head knowledge – belief in the correct doctrines and dogmas. But the most important Christian attitude is one of trust. We trust in the Lord because he is trustworthy.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
(Prov. 3:5-6)

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:

Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock. (Is 26:4)

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
(Jer. 17:7-8)

Pete Enns is featured in an excellent video from Eastern University.

I’ve found that trusting God is so central and important to the way we live the life of faith. … See, when we use the word believe we use words like what do you believe in or I believe that. Trust is different. Trust is a who word.

Watch the whole video – four minutes well spent.

What does it mean to trust in the Lord?

In what ways do we try to put our trust in something other than the Lord?

What is the result?

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Fossils Tell a Story


(Image from Wikipedia: credit)

The story told by the fossils is one of great age, with a succession of flora and fauna in the distinct layers of sedimentary rock. Part three of the new book The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? describes the fossils found in the Grand Canyon layers, and in the Grand Staircase layers above the current canyon plateau. This is a massive stretch of sedimentary rocks, according to modern geology spanning about 500 million years, from the Cambrian through the Mesozoic eras and up to the modern day. Flood geology as proposed by at least some Young Earth Creationists places all this deposition and most of the subsequent erosion within a very short time – as little as one year for the deposition and certainly no more than 2000 years for all deposition and erosion, from the tilted Precambrian “Supergroup” layers below the canyon to the current top of the staircase. In fact, many place all of the layers below the great unconformity as pre-flood, the tilting of these layers as early flood and the deposition up to Bryce Canyon as late flood, the major erosion is early post flood as waters drain (i.e. most of this shaping of the land occurred within one to two years), with modest erosion continuing through to the present. An image by the National Park Service (source), available at Wikipedia (source) illustrates these layers. The Precambrian Grand Canyon Supergroup is represented by the tilted layers near the canyon in the yellow Precambrian rock. More than two miles of sedimentary rock was deposited and hardened above the Precambrian layer.


TrilobitesThe fossils contained in the multiple layers of sedimentary rock tell a story – not a story consistent with a massive catastrophic flood. A summary of Grand Canyon Fossils is found on the park website here. It is common to point to the faunal succession, that is the layering of animal fossils as evidence for many layers over along period of time. Ralphy Stearly, a paleontologist by training and Professor of Geology at Calvin College, has written a nice description of the faunal succession in chapter 13. These range from trilobites and other “simpler” creatures in the lowest layers to dinosaur bones near Bryce Canyon at the top of the formation. (The image of trilobites to the right is one I took – and is not specifically from the Grand Canyon.) Although the layers provide witness to a succession of increasing complexity, it is important to remember that so-called “simple” creatures are found in many layers. Sponges are found in Cambrian layers, and in subsequent layers characteristic of marine environments. And, of course, sponges are found in the oceans today. But rabbits and dinosaurs, for example, are not found in the Cambrian layers. The fossils are found in communities representing different environments – fresh water, marine, swamp, sandy desert. Hydrodynamic sorting is often invoked to explain the layering observed, with earthquake sorting as another mechanism. These explanations are not convincing, except to the one who is already convinced that the global flood must explain the layers.

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Posted in Creation, The Fossil Record | Tagged

Moving From Debate to Dialogue

ChurchI am preparing to lead a discussion on science and Christian faith this fall as part of a group life offering. As our church is located next door to a major research university, this is a topic of significance in our community and in our church. It is possible to play ostrich and bury our heads in the sand, but this will not help when it comes to having an impact for the gospel in our community. The apparent conflict between science and Christian faith gives many an excuse to avoid any deeper consideration of the claims of Christianity. This is not the only issue – but it is a major issue.

In preparation for this discussion I have been reading material from the Public Conversations Project (PCP). Some of the material doesn’t apply directly to our situation, but most of the general advice remains valid. The most significant is the emphasis on dialogue rather than debate. In a debate the goal is to win, often at all costs. In a dialogue the goal is understanding. It is hard to move forward on any complex and controversial topic when the focus is on the debate rather than understanding. Consider some of the following comparisons, adopted and modified from a PCP table.

Debate Dialogue
Participants tend to propound a carefully crafted position. Participants may or may not be committed to a position.
Atmosphere is threatening. Attacks are expected and permitted. Atmosphere is one of safety. There is an agreement to respect one another even in disagreement on the issues.
Participants speak to represent a group. Participants speak as individuals from their own experience.
Participants speak to the already committed. Participants speak to each other.
Difference within a “side” are denied or minimized. A broader continuum of personal positions are expressed.
Participants express unswerving commitment Both deeply held beliefs and uncertainties are expressed.
Participants listen to refute. Participants listen to understand and gain insight.
Participants aim to win. Participants desire to learn and grow.

Debates are contests with winners and losers. They can be entertaining, but they don’t generally advance they tend to harden the lines. We can also consider other contrasts complementary to the (dialogue vs. debate) such as (teach vs. preach) or (engage vs. deliver). While debate is almost always destructive (even when it is entertaining) the other pairs have pros and cons.

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Posted in Christian Life, Conversation, Problems for Faith, Resources for Discussion