Conflict or Coherence Revisited

university-5-dsWhat is the difference between a dead dog and a dead chemistry professor lying in the middle of the road?

I’ve been at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston all week – so there have been plenty of chemistry professors around. As far as I know none were lying in the middle of the road. These meetings are always a good chance to reconnect with old friends and to learn what other groups are doing. This week I had the chance to reconnect with a professor from my graduate school days. I posted on his book – Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence? a couple of years ago, but it seems appropriate to repost it today.

Henry (Fritz) Schaefer was a professor of chemistry at the University of California Berkeley for 18 years (1969-1987) before moving to the University of Georgia, where he has now been for almost 30 years. I was a graduate student at Berkeley when Fritz was on the faculty and participated in a lunch gathering he had with Christian graduate students for a year. His influence as a Christian and a productive and respected scientist was an invaluable example for me.

This book arose from a series of lectures he has given over the years. He got started lecturing on science and Christianity in response to an incident from his first experience teaching freshman chemistry at Berkeley in January 1984. To cover time after a bit of a technical failure with an expected demonstration … well let’s read his own telling of the story:

I said, “While we’re waiting for the moles, let me tell you what happened to me in church yesterday morning.” I was desperate. There was great silence among those 680 students. They had come will all manner of anticipations about freshman chemistry, but stories about church were not among them!

At least as surprised as the students, I continued, “Let me tell you what my Sunday School teacher said yesterday.” The students became very quiet. “I was hoping the group at church would give me some support, moral spiritual, or whatever, for dealing with this large class, but I received none. In fact, the Sunday School teacher first told anecdotes about his own freshman chemistry instructor, who kicked the dog, beat his wife, and so on. Then he asked the class, in honor of me:

What is the difference between a dead dog lying in the middle of the road and a dead chemistry professor lying in the middle of the road?

The class was excited about this and I hadn’t even gotten to the punch line. They roared with laughter. … “the difference between a dead dog lying in the middle of the road and a dead chemistry professor lying in the middle of the road is that there are skid marks in front of the dead dog.” It was a new joke at the time, and the class thought it was outstanding. (p. 3-4)

After the class a number of students came down to talk with him – several of whom simply wanted to know what he had been doing in church. Some of the students asked if he would give a lecture on the topic – the first such lecture was in April 1984; the 400th in the summer of 2016 (from a listing in Appendix B of the book). I was a TA for freshman chemistry one of the terms Fritz taught the class – quite possibly January 1984; the timing is about right.

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Better Than Inerrancy

We are reaching the end of our walk through The Lost World of Scripture by John Walton and D. Brent Sandy. After describing why inerrancy is an important term – although really inadequate to the task “its limitations have been exposed as it has been put to the test in a variety of ways” (p. 283) – John and Brent move on to describe an approach that they feel better serves our purposes. The first thing to note is that the term inerrancy grew in importance in response to skeptical claims criticizing both Scripture and the Christian faith. This is probably not the best reason to formulate our doctrine. “Our best doctrinal formulation should not be constructed to convince skeptics but to truly describe our actual beliefs. (p. 284)” It is also true that our best doctrinal formulation should not be described to erect fences around scripture to “protect” believers.

So what do John and Brent suggest? They suggest that we should be competent readers, ethical readers, and virtuous readers. We can look at each of these terms. Continue reading

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Purpose in Biology?

Yet another new book for our consideration.

Denis Alexander, molecular biologist, former chair of the Molecular Immunology Programme at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge and emeritus director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, has recently published Is There Purpose in Biology? The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. This should be interesting…

Purpose is one of those words that covers several different categories or concepts. Is life purposeful or purposeless? On one level there is, of course, purpose in biology. Stomachs are for the purpose of digesting food. The peacock’s plume and the beaver’s dam serve a purpose. The bright and beautiful colors of the Monarch Butterfly serve the purpose of warning potential predators that this insect is best left alone. It is distasteful and potentially poisonous thanks to the milkweed on which it feeds as a caterpillar and an adult. The pictures of Monarchs in this post were taken on my vacation in northern Minnesota last week. The Monarchs are beautiful and fascinating creatures – four generations a year, three short-lived (adults live two to five weeks) preparing for a long-lived fourth migratory generation surviving up to nine months to start the cycle again the next spring. Continue reading

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Pros and Cons of Inerrancy

After looking at 2 Timothy 3 and Paul’s use of θεόπνευστος (God-breathed or God-spirited), John Walton and D. Brent Sandy (The Lost World of Scripture) turn to the concept of inerrancy. While both of them affirm inerrancy, properly understood, its use in the church is often flawed and troublesome. They note at the beginning of the chapter that “Descriptive terms that carry rhetorical power often have a shelf life. … Inerrancy is one of those terms, and it may be reaching its limits.” (p. 274)

Both John and Brent agree that “the church needs a robust expression of biblical authority.” The claim that Scripture is inerrant in all that it affirms is one way to develop such a robust expression. However, “to know what the text affirms, an interpreter has to decide its meaning.” (p. 275) They go on to defend biblical authority:

If what we claim to know about God is built only on the accumulated wisdom and insight of human beings, we must admit that we know little of God. But Christianity has made a different claim – that the information we have about God comes from God himself (2 Pet 1:20-21). It is therefore absolutely essential that we embrace the Bible as the Word of God. But the question remains, How is it the Word of God?” (p. 276)

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Babel Fish Needed?

I recently received a copy of a new book courtesy of the author and publisher, Faith Across the Multiverse by Andy Walsh. This book is not your typical science and faith book, but it should prove an interesting read as we work through several of the main concepts Walsh introduces. This opening chapter (numbered 0 rather than 1) is titled The Power of Babel Fish using a concept from Douglas Adams “Hitchhiker” books. Translation is inevitable and essential. Our thinking is constrained, if not confined, by the language we use. Metaphors and analogies make important connections bringing understanding.

It is also true that the same word can be used in different communities or contexts to mean very different things. Walsh uses the word “vector” as an example, contrasting its use in physics, molecular biology, the mapping of infectious diseases, and computer science. Although there are often points of connection in the various uses (but not always) it is still necessary to translate the meaning from one field to another.

What does this have to do with science and faith? There are several points of connection. First, the Bible frequently uses examples from nature (‘science’) to illustrate the nature of God and his relationship with creation. These metaphors and analogies make a crucial connection for human comprehension. They help to translate God into a language we can understand.

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It’s God-Breathed

No exploration of the nature of Scripture is complete without a discussion of Paul’s claim in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is God-breathed.” Many a statement of faith uses this phrase and references as a proof text for the doctrine of Scripture, often as the first proposition as though all else follows from this assertion. John Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture, devote a chapter to this text.

There are several important points. The first has do do with the way that language is used in Scripture. Quoting from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery “the Bible is much more a book of images and motifs than abstractions and propositions.” We err when we look at “the Bible as a theological outline with prooftexts attached.” John and Brent note that “the Bible primarily relates truth through narratives of human experience and through poetic language that transcends the normal boundaries of expression.” (p. 264)

Paul was a powerful communicator and he shaped his communication to evoke a response. His sermons, teaching, and letters were not dry statements of theological concepts. John and Brent run through a number of examples in 2 Cor. and Galatians, but we could find them in any of his letters. Language is a tool for communication, not some kind of mathematical formula.

As far as we know the term θεόπνευστος (God-breathed or God-spirited) was coined by Paul. It is found no where else in Scripture or “apparently in the Greek literature before Paul’s time.” (p. 269) It is likely that Paul is creating a word picture that aims to imprint the idea that God’s Spirit is behind the narratives and images we have in Scripture. Continue reading

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A Plotless Story?

I was at a conference several years ago where the speaker, a well known pastor, reflected on science, evolution, and Christian faith. Human beings are story-telling animals. We use stories to understand who we are and why we are. The traditional Christian narrative provides a powerful story of who and why we are, or so it seems. In contrast evolution presents a rather poor and purposeless story. Several years ago I reflected on the story we tell – in a post worth another look (somewhat edited below).

Is evolution a lousy story?

What makes the traditional Christian creation narrative better?

There are a number of key points worth considering here. The first one is that evolution isn’t a story – it isn’t a story of who we are, how we got here, or where we are going. There is no protagonist, villain, or plot … any more than there is a plot to gravity or the role of electrostatics in the crystallization of salt. Evolution is a mechanism that plays a role in a larger story. But we have to ask what that larger story is.

While admitting that human existence is bursting with plot and story, the grand scheme of scientific naturalism is plotless, or perhaps better the plot is anchored in futility. We exist as sentient beings constrained by the laws of physics and in some 7 or 8 billion years the earth will die as the sun dies. More than this, the expansion of the universe will eventually reach a point where life anywhere will be completely impossible. Not only will each individual die along the way, but life itself will simply vanish – no more sentient beings to wonder about the plot.

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Posted in Christianity, Evolution