Prophets of God

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-21

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles together form one coherent story. According to Luke Timothy Johnson in his recent book Miracles: God’s Presence and Power in Creation:

It is no small measure due to Luke’s theological vision and literary skill that we see the story of the church as continuing the story of Jesus, now as risen Lord working through his prophetic followers in the power of the Holy Spirit; that we see the story of Jesus and the church together as the fulfillment of God’s promises in Scripture; and that we see the entire story, from beginning to end, as suffused with the presence and power of the Creator God, who through multiple “signs and wonders” accomplishes his will in the world. (p. 249-250)

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Wow!

I am not a city person – I find the great outdoors far more interesting. Sometimes we are lucky and the great outdoor comes to us!

Saturday morning we were treated to a window seat as ‘nature’ took its course. An eight point buck was bedded down and patiently waiting in the back yard. We often see does and fawns in the yard (they devoured two of our young cherry trees last year! – we will have to protect the new ones better), but this was the first buck in the 12 years we’ve been in the house. His patience was rewarded when a doe came out from hiding under the spruce tree. A chase ensued, he caught up to her, and nature took its course (as this is a family blog I’ll skip those pictures – I’ve had some claim that even deer deserve their privacy – of course, then they should stay out of the back yard!). Suffice it to say that we might expect yet another fawn in the spring.

God’s creation is fascinating!

So why are conservative Christians as a group (with many individual exceptions) anti-science when it comes to these kinds of issues: pollution control, environmental protection, climate change? It boggles my mind because there is no good theological reason for this attitude. In fact such virtues as stewardship and love for others dictates that we of all people should care. Not as radical green idealists who put the rest of nature over human flourishing, but as humans, God’s image, in the world to care for it and for others. Air pollution is a devastating problem in many cities around the world – as Southern Californians know quite well. Anthropogenic climate change is also a reality. How devastating might be up for debate – I don’t think this is an entirely settled question – but that doesn’t mean that we should sit back and do nothing, or worse yet, accelerate our pursuit of technologies suspected of making it worse.

Katherine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian, a climate scientist, and a voice advocating for careful consideration of the issues in the evangelical church (she isn’t willing to give up the term even though it has been tarnished by some of us) has an opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times. It is well worth the read. Although behind a paywall in general, the NY Times allows a certain number of free reads a month, so you may be able to access it even if not a subscriber. She concludes the piece:

By beginning with what we share and then connecting the dots between that value and a changing climate, it becomes clear how caring about this planet and every living thing on it is not somehow antithetical to who we are as Christians, but rather central to it. Being concerned about climate change is a genuine expression of our faith, bringing out attitudes and actions more closely into line with who we already are and what we most want to be.

This is why she continues to speak up and speak out – from her expertise and her faith. I have long encouraged the church to develop the wisdom to listen to faithful Christians with deep expertise in science (all sorts) and then act on this base of knowledge. Don’t count credentials – listen to the arguments and reasoning. This goes for the evolution ‘debate’ but many other issues as well – and creation care, from pollution control to climate change, has far more significant consequences than our in-house arguments about the age of the earth and the process of evolution.

Thoughts?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

You may also comment on Wow! at Jesus Creed.

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About Restoring People!

The miracles and wonders recorded in the Gospels are not mystical proofs of the divinity of Jesus or an apologetic argument for Christian faith. Yet they are an essential part of the story. Luke Timothy Johnson, in his recent book Miracles: God’s Presence and Power in Creation, looks at the miracles recorded by Mark. But first a reminder…

Our concern is steadfastly with the way in which the evangelists use the miracles of Jesus to express dimensions of the good news: how the Son of God liberated humans from captivity to alien powers, restored people to health and full communion with people, showed compassion toward individuals and multitudes, and manifested the presence and power of God within creation. (p. 193)

The Gospel of Mark moves at lightning speed, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in his adult life inaugurated with his baptism by John to the empty tomb following his crucifixion. As Mark relates the story he weaves in exorcisms, healings, compassionate provision, and power over creation.

Demon possession was violent and degrading … and a sign of Satan’s rule. Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger yet. According to Mark, when Jesus begins to proclaim the good news of God. … “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (vv. 14-15) he calls disciples and drives out an impure spirit, with power to expel the intruder “The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.” (v. 26) The exorcisms in Mark, along with Jesus’ exchange with the teachers of the law “How can Satan drive out Satan?” (3:23) illustrate that this is a cosmic battle. “Human freedom is not a matter of utter independence, but a matter of being in allegiance to cosmic rulers, whether God or Satan. Therefore liberation of human freedom … involves the overcoming of one spiritual domination by another powerful enough to overcome it.” (p. 198) Continue reading

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Doesn’t Christianity Condone Slavery?

This is the next question raised in Rebecca McLaughlin’s recent book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.

On this question, I take a slightly different tack from that taken by Rebecca. To start to explore this question we need to define the word “condone.” According the Merriam-Webster condone means “to regard or treat (something bad or blameworthy) as acceptable, forgivable, or harmless.” Another dictionary on my shelf (Webster’s 20th Century Unabridged) defines condone as “to pardon, forgive, or overlook an offense.

Second, we need to consider what we mean by “Christianity.” The key questions here: Is God an objective reality? and Is Christianity … i.e. following Jesus as Messiah and Lord … an objective truth? As a scientist I find this to be an important point. Is there an objective truth I seek, or is all religion inherently and irreducibly subjective? Putting this differently, Is God constrained and defined by our human understanding and Christianity by human practice of the faith?

If ‘Christianity’ is defined by human practice, we must acknowledge that some forms have done far worse than condone slavery. They have actually endorsed, enforced, and preached it as God’s ordained truth. Other forms of Christianity (for example, the black church in the US) have found hope and freedom and comfort in the teaching that hears the cry of the oppressed and that justice will be served. The tyrants will receive their just reward (… i.e. punishment). Christians were also active, as an expression of their faith, in the abolition movement that ultimately ended slavery in the US.

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How Can You?

Merriam-Webster defines a miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.

How can a modern, educated Western adult believe in miracles?

More personally, How can a scientist believe in miracles? Isn’t believing scientist something of an oxymoron?

Given that Christianity is a resurrection religion, the miraculous is part of the package. As Paul wrote: If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. …. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:17, 19) The resurrection is clearly an example of an extraordinary event requiring divine intervention. But what of the other miracles recorded in the Gospels? What are we to make of these?

Timothy Luke Johnson, in his recent book Miracles: God’s Presence and Power in Creation digs into the wonders, signs, and miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. These are not random acts and they do not serve as apologetic arguments for the Christian faith. As though we can ‘know’ that Jesus was the Son of God because some ancient men wrote of miracles?! Unlike some of the non-canonical writings from the early church, where miracles are sometimes fanciful, ‘just because he can,’ or even capricious, the miracles recorded in the canonical Gospels play an important role in the story. They portray the reality of the coming Kingdom of God. See for example the summary statement in Matt.8:17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.” and in Matt 12:15-21 for a longer quote of Isaiah.

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Lines and Circles?

We all prefer friends who are just like us … personality, age, education, social class, marital status, politics. This is simply human nature it appears – with both good and bad consequences. We tend to self-segregate. Should the church be any different?

I read an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (aka PNAS) a while back where the investigators looked at self-segregation as a function of institution size. Both simulation and survey methods were used in the study. This article, Structural effect of size on interracial friendship, explored the influence that the size of a social context has on the diversity of interactions. The article itself requires a subscription to access, but the results have also made several news stories including this one at Science Daily and this one, School size plays a role in interracial friendships, that found its way to USA Today.

The general assumption is that people prefer to interact with people who are “like them.” To quote from the paper: “Most social scientists assume that individuals prefer to make friends with people of similar social attributes, including race/ethnicity, relation, age, education, and social class. However, any individual’s likelihood of finding a satisfactory friend in terms of group similarity is constrained by the opportunities available in the person’s social context.” The purpose of the study published in PNAS was to investigate the structural effect of context size while holding everything else constant. The paper focuses on race for comparison of survey data from high schools – but the conclusions are not limited to race. They apply as well to age, education, social class and other selection parameters.

The major conclusions of this PNAS study are:

(1) Total context size has a distinct effect on interracial friendship. An increase in the size of the total group decreases the likelihood of forming an interracial friendship.

(2) The effect of size increases when the number of variables for preference increases. (Just race, race plus personality, race plus personality plus academic ability …). The groups become increasingly homogeneous as the size of the total pool increases because there is an increasing chance to find friends who match.

(3) “Noise” disturbs the trends somewhat. There will always be real anecdotal exceptions to the general pattern.

(4) The observations are not limited to interracial relations, but have application to many other parameters. While the surveys focus on race – but the simulations are far more general.

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Miracles?

In Stephen Jay Gould’s short book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life he outlines the concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), an important concept in the discussion of science and Christian faith. On one level, the principle of NOMA is embraced by many religious scientists, including those with strong theological commitments (and that would include me). 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)

Certainly I assume that scientific methods based on the natural laws we know and are yet uncovering will apply to the questions about facts of nature. This informs the way I view the fossil record, and the information contained in the genomes of plants, animals, and all forms of life. There is a remarkable coherence between chemistry, physics, biology, … all the sciences. I see no reason to assume that God must have moved outside the natural realm to form the marvelous diversity of life we observe around us and find evidence for in the past.

Gould goes a step further however.

The first commandment for all versions of NOMA might be summarized by stating: “Thou shalt not mix magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science.” In common parlance, we refer to such special interference as “miracle” – operationally defined as a unique and temporary suspension of natural law to reorder the facts of nature by divine fiat. … NOMA does impose this “limitation” on concepts of God, just as NOMA places equally strong restrictions upon the imperialistic aims of many scientists (particularly in suppressing claims for moral truth based on superior understanding of factual truth in any subject). (p. 84-85)

And this is a step too far.

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