Cultivate Humility

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. James 3:13

lab-1The second section of A Little Book for New Scientists: Why and How to Study Science by Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson looks at characteristics of a faithful scientist. Faithful is a two-pronged concept in this context. We should be faithful as Christians and as scientists – (1) faithful to live as Christians in this world with all that entails and (2) faithful to science as professionals in a discipline. The section is divided into three chapters. The third, The Known Unknowns, will be discussed at length below. The first two, Hope in the Face of Adversity and Life Together, provide some important insights that many prospective scientists will find useful, and the pastors or other advisors might find enlightening. A couple of the issues that Reeves and Donaldson raise are worth highlighting – but there is much more in the chapters.

Adversity takes many forms. Life as a successful scientist – especially at the highest levels – is a demanding vocation. There are definite rewards, but one is expected contribute in a number of ways. “Depending on place and type of employment, those demands could involve any or all of the following: research, teaching, administration, reading, writing, presentations and travel.” p. 58 To this list you can eventually add mentoring both students and junior colleagues, pursuit of funding to support a research program, leadership in a variety of professional roles (professional societies, journals and conferences), and reviewing the funding proposals and papers submitted by others. The time commitment can be overwhelming at times – and they are all (most of the time) intellectually challenging and rewarding activities. The time demands are not unique to scientists – but found in many competitive professions.

Christians are called to all kinds of vocational pursuits. It is important to approach any career with both a sense of calling and a sense of restraint. A career is not an end in and of itself. The goal isn’t simply the pursuit of knowledge, success, prestige, or acclaim. (I would recommend Tim Keller’s book with Katherine Leary Alsdorf Every Good Endeavor as a source to dig deeper into the relationship between vocation and Christian life. The focus is more toward business than science or academia, but it is still useful.)

lab-2Standing on the shoulders of giants. Reeves and Donaldson also dig into the importance of community in science. Reeves and Donaldson point out that productivity in the sciences is always a community endeavor. New ideas and insights seldom, if ever, arise in isolation. Solo papers are relatively rare. Many projects require dozens of participants. Any idea or result, even those that may come from an individual, must be defended to the full community.

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None and Fine With It

University Church dsWith the SBC convention this summer came a series of stories … Southern Baptists see 9th year of membership decline, or this story Southern Baptist Convention Membership and Attendance on Decline, but Church Planting on Rise with more details. Over the last year membership is down 1.3%, baptisms 3.3%, average weekly attendance 1.7%, Small Group/Bible Study/Sunday School 3.2 %. The steady drop in both membership and involvement is considered a cause for concern. It is important, however, that we not view this as a Southern Baptist problem. It isn’t a trend limited to a specific denomination. Nor is it possible any longer to dismiss it as a simple consequence of the dilution of theology – affecting primarily “liberal” groups – while those of “us” who take doctrine seriously are holding our own or growing. The Southern Baptist Convention most certainly takes the gospel and the Bible seriously.

One doesn’t have to look very far (especially on the internet) to move from hand-wringing to suggestions to counter the trend. One blogger at Patheos put up a list of suggestions for stopping up the drain: 7 Out-of-the-Box Things Southern Baptists Must Do to Stop the Bleeding and Start Growing Again. You can read what he has to say in the post. I expect that there is wisdom in some of them, while others are Band-Aids on the problem, and may even exacerbate it.

Half of ‘nones’ left childhood faith over lack of belief, one-in-five cite dislike of organized religionThe Pew Research Center has featured results from the Religious Landscape Survey in a couple of stories over the last month that have bearing on these issues. The survey was conducted in 2014 and compared with a similar survey in 2007. As reported in May 2015 (here), over the seven years between these surveys the Christian share of the US population dropped from 78.4% to 70.6% and the Evangelical Protestant share dropped from 26.3% to 25.4%. Those who claim none or unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic, nothing in particular) grew from 16.1% to 22.8% accounting for the lion’s share of the decrease in the Christian population. The results released this year dig into this a bit deeper, Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind. The chart to the right comes from this report. Most of the “nones” shed their religious identity in adulthood … 78%, or about 17 to 18% of the US population. Among the common themes:

About half of current religious “nones” who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention “science” as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said “I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.” Others reference “common sense,” “logic” or a “lack of evidence” – or simply say they do not believe in God.

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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?

640px-Grand_Canyon_Panorama_2013

(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?

grand_staircase-big

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

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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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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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Trust

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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