Monday, July 24, 2017

Believing in God After Hume and Kant

I begin with a story I’ve told before, but it’s worth retelling for the sake of the theme of this post.
At age seventeen, having grown up outside the church, I began college at U.C. Berkeley and not too long after, I became a follower of Christ. I admit it—“Grow up in a secular home. Go to Berkeley. Become a Christian”—is an almost laughable oxymoron. But that’s what happened. I certainly didn’t have every answer clearly figured out, but still I had enough—by reading the Gospels, studying other religions, talking with intelligent friends, and just thinking it through—that I committed my life to following him.
This means I find myself often balanced between a faith I’ve practiced now for decades as an adult and a secularism I learned from the cradle. (Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I ever spent time in an actual cradle.) Even today, it’s not hard for me to imagine the mindset of Nones (those who reply “None” when asked, “What is your religious affiliation?). Nones often look for anything that offers a convincing way to deny God’s existence—and for many science does as a satisfactory job. For others, it’s a scientifically-informed philosophy.
These guys don't look too scary, do they?
Like many, I heard at Cal that there’s no way to put together faith and science, and this brings me to a particular evening during my junior year. I had invited one of my favorite professors, a visiting scholar from Germany, Friederike Haussauer, to have dinner with my parents, who had come to visit from Menlo Park about fifty miles south. We had just enjoyed canapés as we sat across from one another at Upstart and Crow Café and looked out at Bancroft Avenue. (Actually I’m not sure it was canapés—I just like the word because it sounds refined). Our discussing turned to various topics about Germany and the States (my mother’s side of the family is German so the motherland was a topic of common interest), Dr. Haussauer heard an incidental remark that I believed in God. Almost immediately, she presented a challenge (which we could even call the Hausser Problematik),
“What possible sense does that make after modern science and the Enlightenment? How could you believe in God after Hume and Kant?”
That comment right in the middle of eating our quiches and hamburgers! I, not really thinking there was much conflict because of Hume and Kant and still a bit stunned, had little to say. The conversation continued, and later we said our goodbyes. In her class on Enlightenment literature and thought, it wasn’t many weeks later that we read Voltaire, d’Alembert, the other philosophes, who joined their French voices to my Deutsch professor’s—true intellectuals of the Enlightenment concluded that science presents decisive reasons for not believing in God.
I wish this were simply my experience. Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed students who similarly experience antagonism from other students and their profs and other students. As one of my current students told me, 
“The world doesn’t want to mention both religion and science in the same sentence. But it shouldn’t be that way.” Eliana (age 19)

I have answered these challenges a time or two on this blog—and certainly will do so in the future—but for now I want to let the question dangle in the air a bit, 
“What is it about an age of science and technology that challenges our faith in God?”

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Time for Yes (#1 in a series)

By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. Hebrews 11:8, The Message
Recently, I've been looking at how we discern God's will for our lives, and this produced a bit of conversation in social media. All of which brought me back to A Time for Yes, the book I wrote in 2012. I figured it might be good to serialize a few entries as a way of keeping the conversation going. As a ramp-up, it seemed worth recounting why I wrote the book in the first place.

I had written Say Yes to No with a period of struggle in 2001 (and finished it around 2008) where I had said, and tried to live out, too many yeses. I’m happy to say that I’m no longer enmeshed in the stress outlined in the first chapter of Say Yes to No, but now the struggle is subtler and never fully leaves. Healthy practices that fight the gradual onset of what I earlier described as “schedule obesity” (an over-fed commitment to tasks) are habits that take time to cultivate. And then dogged insistence… I keep working on the right rhythm of yeses and nos and realize that this is an ongoing project. (You won’t believe how many times friends have quoted to me, “Greg, I think you need to learn to ‘say yes to no.’”)
The global economy also helped my cause a bit, or at least made the need for no even more apparent. The serious economic crisis of 2008 and its continuation over the past four years, the meltdown of the stock market, the crisis of confidence in our banks and Wall Street leaders, all led us to the recognition: we had declared too many yeses for too long—yeses to buying things we can’t afford. The United States government has spent too much without sufficient revenue. We’ve bought houses we couldn’t afford and too many HD TVs on lines of credit.
There is also one additional, subtler element:  With the public relations campaign for Say Yes to No, I began to focus more on the marketplace. I found myself engaging more business-related topics and commenting on’s blog, in interviews on Business News Network and, as well as the American Management Association’s publications like MWorld and Executive Matters. I began to ask why and realized that calling—or to use a bit more expensive term, vocation—is critical to what I’m doing with yes and no.
This experience led to one conclusion about calling and yes: it’s not just about work, it’s about how we respond to the whole Triangle of life—our personal life, work, and love.
Finally, yes is basic to faith. As the noted author Kathleen Norris has written in the introduction to Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, human infants “build a vocabulary, making sense of the chaos of sound that bombards the senses.” She continues, “Eventually the rudiments of words come; often ‘Mama,’ ‘Dada,’ ‘Me,’ and the all-powerful ‘No!’ An unqualified ‘Yes’ is a harder sell, to both children and adults.” Actually I had always thought that nos were harder, that setting out boundaries in a world of seemingly infinite possibilities posed the greatest challenge. But Norris ties saying yes to realities of faith.
To say “yes” is to make a leap of faith, to risk oneself in a new and often scary relationship. Not being quite sure of what we are doing, or where it will lead us, we try on assent, we commit ourselves to affirmation. With luck, we find that our efforts are rewarded. The vocabulary of faith begins. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith 
Yes is also central to understanding Jesus Christ, at least according to the early Christian writer Paul who declared,
In him [that’s Christ] it is always “Yes.” For in him every one of God's promises is a “Yes” (1 Corinthians 1:19-20). 
By that, I believe Paul is leading us to see that God’s final word in Christ is an affirmation. Our nos, as it were, are to make way for yes. And yes is the main message of this book.
One final note: faith is also basic to saying yes. The shift in emphasis from no to yes has required that I become more explicit about God in this pursuit of finding the time for yes. I realize that we can say yes “to the Universe” and say yes “to the way we are made.” If you translate my references to God in that way, I won’t quibble. I have always wanted to communicate to those who are spiritually open, but not religiously identified. But I do write as a Christian. And, as Kathleen Norris pointed out, yes is a bit of a leap of faith, and it opens us up to their being a greater Yes behind this universe. Or perhaps put another way, saying yes to our calling implies that someone calls us. In my mind, this means God’s call, expressed definitively in Jesus.

Monday, July 10, 2017

On God's Will, Free Will, With a Bit of Science Thrown In

Recently, on a Facebook page dedicated science and faith (which I manage), there's been some discussion of whether science allows for us to have free will. Is there a place within scientific research for true human agency, where our decisions actually affect the world and our lives? Or is life, and particularly our actions, fully determined? Some, like Francis Crick, conclude that science, and especially the cognitive sciences and genetics, indicate that we are "nothing but a pack of neurons."

That's fairly bleak, but a similar kind of anti-free will thinking can enter into Christian conceptions of life. It's the conviction that somehow God has an iron-fisted will that determines our life like automatons.

These two modes of thought led to some questions that raced through my head when I preached yesterday on Proverbs 3:5-6. 
Are we free in any sense? What does it mean to "trust in God" and "submit to him," or as another translation (NRSV) puts it, "acknowledge him"? 
To answer those questions, I stepped back to my core conviction and worked from there: Our lives flourish when we follow God’s will. Sometimes our misconceptions of how to follow God’s will get in the way of God’s simple wisdom for us. It strikes me that this verse and others like it (e.g., Psalm 37:5-6) lead us to a gracious and interactive God whose will is (at some level) simple.
(A sidebar: We often let misconceptions that get in the way. First of all, we think that God’s will is decided by us individually, outside of community; and secondly, that God’s will is a detailed roadmap instead of following a Person, Jesus Christ.
My mind then journeyed to two images: First of all, a rigid view of God's will, as well as the deterministic view of our live as "nothing but" our neurons, that set us on a railroad track view of life. Either we somehow find this rigid will of God, get ourselves on the track and stay there. Woe to those who get derailed! Or we're stuck on a very similar track by our biology and it's "nothing buttery," and we're not getting off. 

Neither option sounds much like the "abundant life" that Jesus talked about (John 10:10) nor the "broad place" that psalmists celebrate as God's redemptive work (e.g. Psalm 18:19). 
Image two (I'm a jazz drummer): the God who improvises with us by the Holy Spirit, and we are called to follow God’s will in a dynamic, improvisational way. 

This is God who didn't let the the persecutor of the church, Saul fall off the track and get derailed, but who met him on the Road to Damascus, changed his name to Paul (Acts 9:1-9), and then led him in dynamic ways in his mission journeys. (Read the final eight or so chapters of Acts to see how many unexpected twists and turns God takes Paul on). It's this gracious God who doesn't set us on a narrow track, but in a broad expanse in which we can listen and try out and even make mistakes. As Psalm 18:19 declares, "He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me because he delighted in me."

From God's perspective, the Eternal One who is able to transcend time while still being intimately involved it, we might say it all looks a perfectly organized scheme. But from our perspective, we experience the One who "works all things together for good" (Romans 8:28), even in and through our mistakes, our attempts, and our decisions. It's the God who leads us in a truly free life. This is at least part of what Jesus means when he tells us that he will make us free indeed (John 8:36).
And all this strikes me as both good science and brilliantly liberating theology. And it's a great life to lead.

Monday, July 03, 2017

On Climate Change and Christian Faith

I was reading The New Yorker this weekend, and I came to a remarkable quote from the senior David H. Rank, the senior American diplomat in China. He was contemplating President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Actually, I should have written, “the former senior American diplomat in China” because he resigned over Trump’s decision, a decision he would somehow have to sell to the Chinese:
“I’m not a great theologian, but, just in my gut, I thought, We’re stewards of creation and the world. As a parent, I’ve spent my life trying to make my children’s life O.K. And, finally, in terms of national interests, it’s just dumb.”
As Rank put it quite simply, global climate change represents a pressing issue that we cannot avoid, but global stewardship even more. We need to concern ourselves for the poor who bear the brunt of climate change. We also need to think about the future, for our children. What earth will we leave for them? When the planet is threatened by our actions over which we are stewards, we have to re-evaluate all these calculations. 
So why do we resist?
Frankly, the resistance to climate change does not strike me as primarily scientific. As a member of the largest scientific organization in the world, the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I can affirm that I hear the call to take climate change seriously and urgently.
Money is one big issue. I remember my church business administrator expressing more than a modicum of resistance to the sustainability committee I started by saying “The only greening in the church we need to seek is saving money.”  Some resist for economic reasons—and those motivated by greed need to be openly rejected. “Put to death,” is Paul’s command to his fellow Christians about a list of sins that ends with “greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). (On the other hand, others truly fear a livelihood in industries that are threatened—like coal—and I believe that we need to be sensitive to these concerns. That’s not my focus here.)
Following the connection Rank makes between climate change and stewardship, I’ve argued for a particular strategy: Let’s move away from a focus on climate change to the broader concerns of stewardship (or, if you prefer, creation care). Partly, I advocate this change because “climate change” has literally become politicized—with more Democrats subscribing to its reality and more Republicans expressing skepticism. In all this, I don’t want to lose all the other ways that pollution, and recycling, and lowering our carbon footprint—i.e., “greening” our lives—are simply good Christian spiritual practices.
What can we do? We can learn to decrease our carbon-based footprint. We can make changes in our congregations. Many churches, like my own Presbyterian Church USA have a zero-carbon neutral statement. Others have adopted creation care as a part of their ministry.
This is the flip side of my central concern: Let’s not expect too much of science. Let’s not expect science to make the change that we’d have to imbed in our lives as (generally) wealthy United States Christians who are often wedded to consumption. That’s something the transforming work of the Holy Spirit has to do. It is the hope that I hear in Paul’s stirring words, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:18).

Finally, we believe as Christians that Jesus might return at any moment, but when he comes like “a thief in the night” according to 1 Thessalonians 5:2, I want to be found caring for a world that our children—my daughters and their millennial colleagues—will inherit. (Back to Rank’s comments one more time.) It’s not hard for me to imagine that one of Jesus’s questions will be this: “How have you taken care of this planet that I entrusted to you?”

Monday, June 26, 2017

Next Steps: How to Integrate Mere Christianity with Mainstream Science

In various posts, I've presented reasons why we need to bring science to church, why we need to integrate mere Christianity (to use C. S. Lewis's term) with mainstream science.

With this in mind, what do we do?

Francis Collins, after his talks, offers his audience copies of Mere Christianity. That’s one effective way to counter atheism. (And why not add N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian or Tim Keller’s The Reason for God?) 

But if that’s all I wrote, I suspect you might sense I’m passing the buck.
Ideally, in order to respond to these trends, we’d all have degrees in science, theology, philosophy, or all three. This, however represents an ideal and not the reality. Most of those who lead emerging adult ministries or simply care to talk with 18-30 year olds, will be learning science on the side or as a component of their wider ministry skills. We have to learn who the key influencers are, and to know what’s Top Ten Hits on the Science music list. Similarly, youth workers and theologians Andrew Root and Erik Leafblad advocate, “While it is unreasonable to become scientists, as youth workers we need to become knowledgeable about the ways in which science helps frame reality for our students.” Encouraging ministry leaders to read the New York Times “Science Times,” attend public lectures at their colleges, or read Best Science and Nature Writing.
Second, get to know the thought leaders and those who know about them. This is even more critical for college ministries, but also easier—get to know scientists in local congregations and those in university positions nearby. Attend a talk at a library, community center, or college nearby.
Finally, know where honest science finds its own limits (not where popularizers want to use science to promote their aims). Even more where it invites deeper wonder and worship. Science may just be playing the intro to a much broader song, even a symphony.
“Science can be one piece of a broader and ongoing invitation to wonder and adventure, as well as doubt and uncertainty in life with God.” Andrew Root and Erik Leafblad
In many cases, this evokes wonder and awe at the natural world God has created and lead to deeper worship. In others, this investigation of science leads to a realization that there are limits to scientific insight and discovery and faith and wonder in the God beyond the natural world is the only reasonable conclusion.
Only God is God, and his book of Scripture complements, but is certainly beyond the book of Nature. Blaise Pascal, who lived in the seventeenth century and contribution to the birth of modern science, knew the limits of scientific and philosophical reason:

"If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous . . . There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason." Blaise Pascal

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sexuality: When We Ask Too Much of Science (Part Two)

Last week I touched on climate change and the ways we ask too much from science.

With sexuality, we often ask too much in an almost diametrically opposed way. We demand that scientific studies tells us more than it’s able, believing that science can determine and not inform our ethics. This is another mistake of relating the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture (to use that well-worn analogy). But there are fundamental limits to what we can learn from the natural world.

In one of my interviews with emerging adults I talked with Tracy, age 19, who told me quite confidently: 
“It’s proven in science that you don’t choose to be gay. Denying that makes you look ignorant.” 
And I can assure that this position is popular with 18-30 year old (according to surveys and particularly in my conversations). Our genes fully determine our sexuality and sexual behavior. 
“The genes made me do it. and will always make me do it.” 
Whatever the “it” is.

But if our genes made us do it, then where is our moral agency for any action? These are questions that our theological and philosophical traditions have wrestled with for centuries.

It may be necessary to understand any genetic correlations with sexual orientation, but I believe that’s insufficient for our ethics, sexual or otherwise, and I call on the best ethical and biblical minds in the church to keep engaging these questions using science as a guide but not a dictator. How we end up on all this is not entirely clear. Put thought leaders like Rachel Held Evans, N. T. Wright, Jen Hatmaker, Tim Keller, and Rob Bell in one room, and I think there’d be more than one opinion. In fact, I’d direct you to any of their works for thoughtful ethical conversation about sexual ethics.

The point of all this is that the Two Books must be read as complementary. To respect their differences is to realize that they have different insights to share.

Where are you on sexual ethics and science? How much do scientific studies tell us about sexuality?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Gratitude & the Good Life (excerpt)

This piece appears on my HuffPost blog (and more can be found here), but I thought you might want a taste.
“There are two types of people—those who divide people into two types and everyone else.” Mark Twain
With Twain in mind (as he indeed did cleave humanity in twain with this quip), 
I’m willing to say that there are two basic approaches to our existence: 
Life either bursts with meaning, and we can receive it as a glorious gift. 
Or it is meaningless and that makes life a dull fact.
It doesn’t take much scrutiny to find that the Bible teaches the first alternative is better. 
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” as Paul summarized it in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. 
Well, in addition to the Scriptures, it also seems like several contemporary sciences are doing the same thing.
This may not be news to some, but studies of gratitude and its positive benefits. 
(I’ll use thankfulness as a synonym to avoid repetitiveness) have become a cottage industry. 
There’s a wealth of information on both the benefits of thankfulness and the ways to cultivate it. 
Simply put, it seems that gratitude makes us healthy. [I close with this....]
Gratitude is intimately tied with praise, which is, as C.S. Lewis put it, "inner health made audible." 
Gratitude is the proper stimulus to love the other. 
And maybe that’s where praise, gratitude, and love come together.