Understanding Origins

This last week I received a new book from IVP Academic: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins. This book is the joint effort of five Wheaton professors and grew out of a course they’ve been team teaching for two decades or so (along with a handful of other colleagues). Their collected expertise ranges from Physics to Old Testament. Robert Bishop is professor of physics and philosophy, Larry Funck is a chemist (now retired), Raymond Lewis is a biologist, Stephen Moshier a geologist, and John Walton, an Old Testament specialist. They have the necessary background and training to deal with the scientific and biblical issues involved in questions of origins along with a strong faith and commitment to orthodox biblical Christianity.

This is a textbook – it is large, long (630 pages from introduction to postscript), well illustrated, and well written. It is a book, however, that should be of interest to anyone who wants to delve into the issues. From the introduction:

This is a book about mainstream scientific theories of origins in astronomy and cosmology (origins of the universe), chemistry (origin of life), geology (origin of the Earth and solar system), biology (origin of species), and physical anthropology and genetics (human origins), But it is more than a book about these theories and the evidences and inferences supporting them. It is also a book about biblical and theological perspectives on the science of origins. We believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God for faith and practice as believers. As God’s inspired revelation, even though it was written in historical and cultural contexts very different from ours, the Bible gives us insight for how to understand and engage these scientific theories. (p. 1)

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Posted in Bible, Origin of Life, Science and Faith, The Fossil Record | Tagged , , , ,

The Light of the World

The Apostles’ Creed has more to say about Jesus than God, the Holy Spirit, or anything else.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.

I Believe in the Holy Spirit.

Yet the nature of Jesus as ‘his only Son our Lord’ was the focus of much controversy in the early church. The council of Nicaea was called to address the issue and the Nicene Creed, both 325 and 381, add much detail to the description.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.

Concerning the person of Jesus 3 lines become 13. The description of the Holy Spirit also required elucidation – one simple statement becomes five lines. The Trinity is not an easy concept to understand. It wasn’t easy in the first few centuries of the church and isn’t easy today.

Without claiming to find modern science in the pages of the Bible, Andy Walsh (Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science) suggests that science – particularly quantum physics and the nature of light – can help us understand more about the nature of the trinity, and particularly mutual divine and human nature of Jesus as “true God from true God” … become incarnate and made man. Andy reflects: “While Jesus was on Earth, he described himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12). Fitting, then, that we should examine different properties of light in order to understand Jesus better. … I find our present understanding of light provides a conceptual framework for further exploring what Jesus was like.” (p. 87)

Light is not easy to explain. At times it behaves like particles – photons – that can be counted one by one. Yet these photons interfere – even with themselves – and behave like waves. Pass them through slits onto a screen and they diffract (the double slit experiment). Each individual photon goes to one place, but send a thousand through one at a time and an interference pattern emerges. Cover one slit and a completely different pattern is seen – even though in both experiments the photons can be separated by seconds – they don’t interact with each other at all. The same thing happens with electrons. It boggles the mind because photons, like other elementary particles including electrons and protons, behave in ways that do not fit into the neat categories we have based on our “normal” and macroscopic intuition. In fact, if we rely on our experience, the properties seem incoherent and irreconcilable.

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Playing God?

Elaine Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle (Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think) asked religious Americans about their impressions of scientific technology. On many issues (for example, social media technology), most Americans religious or not have similar opinions. The concerns are not particularly theological. When it comes to reproductive technologies the situation changes. There are distinct differences arising from religious beliefs and moral convictions. The reasons are theological, related to the sovereignty of God and his role as creator. Three specific classes of technology were considered: reproductive genetic technologies (RGT), in vitro fertilization (IVF) and human embryonic stem cell research (hESC).

Reproductive genetic technologies can be divided into two groups – those employed to identify (and potentially treat) diseases in utero and those designed to create “designer” people (i.e. manipulate eye color, athletic ability, intelligence and so forth). Over all evangelicals are more likely to find these technologies morally wrong, while those who are atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated, or from non-western religions are least likely to find them wrong. The differences are significant. Continue reading

Posted in Public Issues, Resources for Discussion, Science and Faith | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Chemistry Rules!

Denis Alexander is a molecular biologist and it is to the molecular basis of life that he turns in Chapter 3 of his book “Is There Purpose in Biology?” As a chemist, I find this chapter fascinating. Biology is nothing without chemistry. To set the stage: in chapter 1 Denis introduced a historical perspective on the discussion of purpose in biology, in chapter 2 he outlined the Grand Narrative of biology. The increase in complexity in undeniable, from early single-cell organisms to the biodiversity that characterizes life today. The development of this biodiversity is characterized by convergence. Similar structures developed from very different directions. The eye provides one well known example of such convergence. Evolution is not a random process operating in a flat landscape. Rather there are physical constraints and optimal solutions.

There are chemical constraints as well. The cell is a complex bag of chemicals with proteins providing structure, transporting molecules, generating signals, sensing stimuli, and catalyzing critical chemical reactions. These proteins are composed of various arrangements of 20 common amino acids (although chemical modification can provide some additional variation exploited in the cell) along with various metals and other cofactors. The self-replicating DNA chains found in the chromosomes store the information that allows the production of the various proteins and other biological molecules required for life. Four nucleobases labeled A, C, T, and G are arranged in triplets code for the common amino acids. These are paired via hydrogen bonds in the well known double helix of DNA (Image credit).

Stephen Meyer (Signature in the Cell) suggested that the specificity of the DNA code was evidence for an intelligent designer. Denis does not refer directly to Meyer’s book, but offers a counterpoint to this argument. Although it is possible that the specific genetic code used by life on earth is a “frozen accident,” evidence is accumulating that this code has been shaped by chemical factors and preferences. There are clear patterns in the relationship of the triplets to the chemical properties of amino acids (their affinity for water, their size, and so forth). A combination of stereochemical factors, error minimization, and coevolution may well have shaped the specific code we find. The code was chemically optimized as it developed. Denis concludes:

But there appear to be good reasons why the code we now have appears to function so well in all living things today on planet Earth: physical and chemical constraints ensured that its generation was shaped by the needs of optimum functionality. If we find life on another planet, as seems very likely (and assuming we don’t contaminate it with Earthly molecules), it also seems a reasonable expectation that information-containing molecules like RNA and DNA will be present in its life-forms, and it would not be at all surprising to find a genetic code if not the same, at least similar, to the one we have on planet Earth. (p. 114)

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Books of the Year

When it comes to science and Christian faith several outstanding books have appeared this year.

My personal favorite is Andy Walsh’s Faith Across the Multiverse. In this book Walsh mixes fiction (usually science fiction of a sort), math, science, and the bible to explore our understanding of the Christian faith and the ways it can be made to live in our times. I’ve been slowly working through it and will continue. This is a good book for the science student, engineer or other interested Christian. It also provides insight into the coherence between modern science and Christian faith and may be useful to any one interested in evangelism today. This is for the science geeks among us (and I put myself in that category).

Speaking of evangelism … Mere Science and Christian Faith by Greg Cootsona came out of his experience working with emerging adults that questions surrounding science and Christian faith are often in play, either overtly – leading to explicit conflict and questions, or under the surface. His book is aimed at pastors and ministry leaders as well as 18-30 year-old emerging adults. It is designed to help people think through the issues involved and to develop the tools for interaction and engagement as new challenges arise.

If social science is more your bent … Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, explore the myth and reality in religious views of science. Religious people do like science and the benefits it offers, but the myth of conflict is reinforced by some elements of reality. Ecklund and and Scheitle studied the views of religious Americans on creation, climate change, environmentalism, and more.

Finally, 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 is an excellent overview of the evidence for evolution and the relationship between this evidence and a purposeful trajectory for the world. There is room for purpose in biology.

Are there any books that you would add to the list?

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

You may also comment on Books of the Year at Jesus Creed.

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The Grand Narrative

It is common to use concepts such as purposeless and random to describe biological evolution. Stephen Jay Gould famously describes evolution as a tape which if run over would reach an entirely different result. We are a contingent accident in an impersonal and purposeless world. Denis Alexander explores this idea in his new book Is There Purpose in Biology?

Purpose and purposelessness are metaphysical concepts that have little real meaning in biology. Yet, we are intelligent reasoning animals interested in such abstract concepts as purpose. This is a marvelous reality. Nothing in the impersonal view of nature requires the development of such as us. Is purposelessness and luck a necessary conclusion of evolutionary biology? Denis argues that this is not the case. In fact there is a grand narrative to our evolutionary history. This narrative is driven by increasing complexity and convergence.

The initial lifeforms on our planet were single cells under a millimeter or so in size … for some 2.5 billion years this was it. The great oxidation event between 2.4 and 2.1 billion years ago was precipitated by the development of green photosynthetic bacteria and algae. These organisms use sunlight to split water into oxygen and protons and produce carbohydrates from carbon dioxide. Other energy sources and even photosynthetic mechanisms are possible and found in nature – but this development produced oxygen as a byproduct and set the stage for more complex lifeforms.

Multicellular organisms soon followed – presumably precipitated by incomplete separation following cell division and stabilized from the benefits offered by cooperation and specialization. Denis notes that “multicellularity has evolved at least 20 times since life began” (p. 60) This might not have been a rare, and certainly not a one-time, occurrence. Cooperation and specialization provide a running theme in biology as powerful as the themes of competition or predation. The Cambrian explosion of body forms a little over half a billion years ago took multicellularity to a whole new level leading to a broad diversity of life on this planet.

The grand narrative of biology is one of increasing complexity. Denis defines complexity as it is understood in biology.

In biology, increased complexity generally refers to a higher number of cell-types or to the number of parts of an animal or plant, leading in both cases to an increase in specialized functions. Complexity can also refer to the variety and interrelationships of species of plants and animals with their accompanying food-chains and competition for similar ecological niches (p. 62)

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A Matter of Grace

Andy Walsh, Faith Across the Multiverse mixes fiction (usually science fiction of a sort), math, science, and the bible to explore our understanding of the Christian faith and the ways it can be made to live in our times. This is not some “new” gospel or modernized faith, rather it is using imagery and understanding to tell the same story again. Parables, as it were, for the 21st century. In chapter 3 he tackles grace, determinism, and the sovereignty of God.

The theme of grace can be found in a number of stories – often tied directly to biblical themes. Walsh points to a story line in the X-factor comics by Peter David where Rahne Sinclair was found by grace (Road Trip #237 Road to Redemption). A few years ago my husband brought another story to my attention (he even suggested that I post on it sometime), this one Man-Kzin Wars XIV that starts off with a story “A Man Named Saul,” and distinctly Christian themes of forgiveness and redemption. “I spent my entire life screwing up” von Hohenheim said bitterly … It took a lot of walking and thinking and talking to the abbot to see it, but What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” A gift of mercy, an awareness of the wretched smallness of his soul, and a chance to make amends.

Grace requires failure – and an element of freedom. “Rather than insisting that we conform to a particular mold, God accepts us as we are and tells a story of our lives that weaves into his overall story for the universe – at least if we agree that we want him to do so.” (p. 66) But, Walsh asks, are we free to do what God wants? or even to fail to do what he wants? These are stories and if we take them seriously – as conveying elements of truth through story – we confront the issue of God’s sovereignty and our (free?) action.

Circumstances like these raise questions of whether every outcome is foreordained by God and if we bear any responsibility. One solution is to introduce free will and assert that we are agents who make independent choices. This reintroduces the possibility that we can be held responsible for our choices, because our own agency and no other force realized those choices. But once we add our own free will, then what becomes of God’s will and God’s sovereignty? In what sense can God claim to be in charge or have a plan if we can do whatever we please? Is God always playing catch-up, adjusting his plans to account for our choices? Can any such being claim any sense of sovereignty, or must he acknowledge that he is in fact secondary to the agents making the choices that he has to react to? (p. 67)

The tension is not only found in stories of our own making such as the two alluded to above, or the Lord of the Rings, or many others we could name, but also in the pages of the Bible. Walsh points to Moses in Exodus 4:10-14 as an example (here I’ve included v. 15).

Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”

Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.

Moses resists and refuses. The Lord becomes angry but adapts to Moses’ reluctance and fear to speak. In this passage God asserts his sovereignty and sends Aaron along – presumably not his original intent, at least not in exactly this role. “If Moses can act independently, then doesn’t that mean he has the capacity to screw up the mission regardless of God’s preparation?” (p. 68)

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