Before Galileo

I picked up another new book this week – to add to my stack. This book Evolution and the Fall contains a collection of essays by a number of authors including Biologist Darrel Falk, philosopher James K.A. Smith, theologian Joel Green and Old Testament scholar J. Richard Middleton. It looks well worth dipping into over the coming months. This book is the result of a collaboration facilitated by the Colossian Forum where these Christian scholars met together regularly over several years for worship, fellowship, and intellectual engagement on the issues surrounding evolution and the fall.

The introduction lays out the premise. Christian thinkers need to gather together in communion to thrash through the kinds of hard questions raised by evolution, especially human evolution. Our model shouldn’t be Galileo. Rather,  we should be looking before Galileo to the manner in which the church worked through key issues. The preferred model should be the Council of Chalcedon where the leading thinkers and bishops of the church gathered to thrash out issues surrounding the nature of Jesus as both divine and human.

Why is this a better model? First, comparison with Galileo sets the wrong tone.

Since we now tend to look at the church’s response to Galileo as misguided, reactionary, and backward, this “Galilean” framing of the new origins debate does two things: First it casts scientists – and those Christian scholars who champion science – as heroes and martyrs willing to embrace progress and enlightenment. Second, and as a result, this framing of the debate associates concern with Christian orthodoxy as backward, timid, and fundamentalist. (p. xvi)

Second, this model focuses on the importance of Christian fellowship and worship in the discussion.

Creative and constructive theological work requires faithful imagination. But that requires two things: time and worship. We need time to train and stretch our imaginative muscles; time to ruminate on issues and opportunities; time to listen and contemplate; and above all time to pray. So the cultivation of faithful imagination also requires bathing and baptizing the imagination in the cadences of the biblical story – which is precisely the goal of Christian worship. Thus the cultivation of constructive theological imagination begins with liturgical formation. (xviii)

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Consider the Devil(s)

When my son was in third or fourth grade he gave a year end report on Tasmanian Devils (image credit). These are fascinating carnivorous marsupials now found only on on the Australian Island state of Tasmania. But it wasn’t all fun – there is a dark side to the tale of the Tasmanian Devil. They are severely threatened by a transmissible facial cancer. Bites transfer cancer cells from animal to animal. The genetic diversity of Tasmanian Devil is so small that the cells are not fought off as foreign invaders, instead they take root and the cancer spreads between individuals as it spreads within individuals. You can read more here. Genetic diversity in a population is a good thing.

Chapter three of Adam and the Genome looks at genetic diversity within our species, Homo sapiens, and the implications of this diversity. Dennis Venema introduces the Tasmanian Devil as an example of the potential consequences of population bottlenecks. The low genetic diversity of the Tasmanian Devil is believed to have resulted from a severe population bottleneck within the last 10,000 years (the holocene). One recent paper (here, Biology Letters, 2014;10(11):20140619. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2014.0619) estimates a bottleneck of between 473 and 714 individuals between 1700 and 5700 years ago. Conservation efforts to save the Tasmanian Devil involve genomic analysis to preserve as much genetic diversity as possible in a healthy population kept free of the devastating facial cancer.

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On the Resurrection

He is risen indeed!

Yes a scientist can believe in the resurrection. Science trades in motivated belief, there are reasons for the positions taken and the theories accepted. But theology also trades in motivated belief. In his book Theology in the Context of Science John Polkinghorne presents a short summary of his motivation for Christian belief. Dr. Polkinghorne was a very successful scientist, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, before he resigned to study for the priesthood. He knows what it means to think as a scientist and as a Christian. (The picture to the right is of our visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 2001 – when visitors were scarce.)

One of the difficulties that face a scientist wanting to speak to his colleagues about the Christian faith is to get across the fact that theology also trades in motivated belief. Many scientists are both wistful and wary in their attitude towards religion. … Their wariness arises from the mistaken idea that religious faith demands that those who embrace it should be willing to believe simply on the basis of submission to some unquestionable authority … (p. 124)

Dr. Polkinghorne goes on to acknowledge that he too would have trouble with faith if it required uncritical fideism.

What I am always trying to do in conversation with my not-yet-believing friends is to show them that I have motivations for my religious beliefs, just as I have motivations for my scientific beliefs. … This task is one of great importance, since the difficulty of getting a hearing for Christian faith in contemporary society often seems to stem from the fact that many people have never given adequate adult consideration to the possibility of its being true, thinking that they ‘know’ already that there can be no truth in claims so apparently at odds with notions of everyday secular expectation. (p. 124-125).

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A Whale of a Story

No this one isn’t about Jonah. Rather it is about the fossil evidence and other evidence for the evolution of whales. Dennis Venema digs into this example in Adam and the Genome. Robert Asher has a chapter on whale evolution in his book Evolution of Belief. (Robert Asher is a paleontologist at Cambridge, specializing in the paleontology of mammals.) Gary Fugle also discusses whale evolution in his excellent book Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide. As it happens some of my colleagues have been deeply involved in the study of whale evolution and we have several examples on display across the street.

Even Charles Darwin knew that whales were mammals. This led him to propose in his first edition of On the Origin of Species that they evolved from land animals – perhaps from something like an aquatic bear. This proposal earned him a great deal of ridicule (Dennis quotes a rather acerbic example) and Darwin reduced his discussion of whale evolution in subsequent editions. While the identification of whales as mammals was once a poster child for anti-evolution forces, it has become one of the strongest examples of evolution available with a multitude of transitional fossils, most of them discovered in the last forty years. The whale also captures our imagination. Massive sea-faring mammals.

Darwin picked the wrong land animal, rather than a bear he should have chosen a pig, or a hippopotamus. Whales and porpoises (cetaceans) are even-toed ungulates like both of these mammals. The evidence for evolution of whales from an early even-toed ungulate comes in multiple threads.

(1) The fossil record. A string of intermediate forms have been identified (image above is a Basilosaurus fossil). Many of these fossils retain clear evidence of hind limbs gradually disappearing through the millions of generations. If you click on the image above you can see the hind limbs in the lower right corner. These are rudimentary, perhaps of use in reproduction, but certainly not for locomotion. The ankle bones of these ancient whale precursors have a structure similar to that of even-toed hoofed animals and one distinctive from other mammals. Continue reading

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A New Kind of Triumph

This last Sunday we celebrated the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, setting off the Holy Week events. The echoes of Scripture in this event are often recognized and preached, but still worth another look. Richard Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels looks at these passages in the context of their message concerning the identity and mission of Jesus. This is an incident recorded in all four gospels, although with slightly different emphasis in each.

There are several take-home messages from the triumphal entry.

The accounts are not identical. First – and this probably escapes most – these accounts help us learn how to read scripture and understand inspiration. When the passages are preached, read, taught individually they are clearly the same, that is they record one historical and significant event. Placed side by side there are several striking discrepancies.

In Mark 11:1-11 Jesus sends two disciples to get a colt and bring it; Jesus rides the colt down to Jerusalem; People spread cloaks and branches; Shout Hosanna; Jesus enters the temple, looks around and leaves. The next day he returns and cleanses the temple.

In Matthew 21:1-11 Jesus sends two disciples to get a donkey and her colt and bring them; Jesus rides one, the other or both? down to Jerusalem; People spread cloaks and branches; Shout Hosanna; Jesus enters the temple, cleanses it, and then leaves the city.

In Luke 19:28-45 Jesus sends two disciples to get a colt and bring it; Jesus rides the colt down to Jerusalem; People spread cloaks and praise God; Jesus enters the temple and cleanses it.

In John 12:12-19 The people take branches and meet Jesus; Jesus finds a donkey and sits on it; the cleansing of the temple occurred at a Passover probably two years earlier.

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Evidence For Evolution

At the Christ and Creation conference last Friday morning Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight gave back to back talks based on their new book Adam and the Genome. The major points in 25 minutes each. Both excellent talks followed by a joint (but brief) Q&A time. Both talks were excellent and inspired many in attendance to buy the book. (Baker ran out of the supply on hand well before the afternoon sessions were over.) I am slowly working through the book, starting with the evidence for evolution in general and human evolution in particular. Whatever you think of the pathways for integrating the evidence with Christian faith, it is important to take the evidence seriously. If you are not a biologist and wonder why biologists and most other scientists find the evidence compelling, buy this book and read Dennis’s overview. This is an excellent introduction to a complex topic.

Analogy to Language. In Chapter 2 of the book Dennis uses several different illustrations to help the lay person understand the basic principles of evolutionary biology. None of the analogies are perfect, as Dennis makes clear, but each is helpful. We can understand elements of the evolutionary process better if we step back and consider the case of language. Consider six “English” versions of John 14:6:

  1. ca. 990 AD. Se Hælend cwæð to him: Ic eom weg, and soðfæstnys, and líf: ne cymð nan to Fæder, buton þurh me. (Anglo-Saxon)
  2. ca. 1395 AD: Jhesus seith to hym, Y am weie, treuthe, and lijf; no man cometh to the fadir, but bi me. (Wycliffe Bible)
  3. ca. 1535 AD: Iesus sayd vnto him: I am the waye ye truthe and ye life. And no man cometh vnto the father but by me. (Tyndale Bible)
  4. ca. 1611 AD: Iesus saith vnto him, I am the Way, the Trueth, and the Life: no man commeth vnto the Father but by mee. (King James)
  5. ca. 1769 AD: Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (King James)
  6. ca. 1982 AD: Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (New King James)

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Reflections on Christ and Creation

I had the opportunity to speak on Sunday at a local church. The pastor is a friend I’ve known for years – since our kids were toddlers. The topic for the day was science and Christian faith. What does it mean to be a believing scientist, and to stay a believing scientist? After all, there is a common idea in our culture that science and Christian faith are locked in conflict. We can embrace one or the other, not both. Coming off three marvelous days at the BioLogos Christ and Creation Conference there was plenty of material running through my head ready to share.

To look at this question I’d like to start where we as Christians should always start – with Scripture.

In the Gospel of Mark we read: (Mark 12:28-34)

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, understanding and strength. This is an important part of our calling as Christians. It means that being a Christian and a scholar, whether in science or social science or humanities should not be a matter of compartmentalizing … weekday scientist, weekend Christian and never the twain shall meet. But this can be easier said than done.

There was a time in graduate school when I wasn’t sure it was possible to be or stay a believing scientist and scholar; the questions loomed large and answers were few and far between. Often it wasn’t even clear where answers might be found. Quite frankly, most of the resources from a Christian perspective did not take science or scientists seriously, with respect. Rather they were strangers to be ridiculed and dismissed. I distinctly remember one Sunday, back from graduate school at Berkeley. A movie from an apologetics group was shown in the evening service (back in the day when Sunday evening services were common). Rather than dealing with the very real questions raised by modern science – geology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, even Chemistry – the film used a rather funny sequence with hapless scientists in white lab coats performing meaningless tasks with mice and drawing ridiculous conclusions. This was not helpful.

Today there are many resources available to work through the issues at the intersection of science and Christian faith. I have been lucky enough to be involved in some of these discussions. I’d like to share five reflections on science and Christian faith.

The first is that there is a wonderful harmony between science and Christian faith. There are no unavoidable conflicts, places where this harmony can’t be found. There are questions for which we do not, today, have answers – but this is nothing new. Continue reading

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