Thursday, November 14, 2019

Being Born Again and Again

Here's a little something pulled from my upcoming book, Negotiating Science and Religion in America.

The topic--a religious revival--is also worth taking in as we watch Kanye West tour the country and bring what many are calling a new surge of God's Spirit. (It's attracted the attention of Joel Osteen and the American Bible Society.) 

I remain open--and I've always liked Kanye's music--but I'm not yet convinced this is really a reviving of our country's spiritual life. At any rate, here I look at the question of whether revivals are beneficial. They certainly are American!

A central component of the story of America is the sensational change that religious revivals promise. As Winthrop Hudson makes clear in his classic, Religion in America: An Historical Account of the Development, one effect of the various revivals was missionary zeal: 
“Above all, this surging tide of evangelical religion supplied a dynamic which emboldened the Protestant churches of America to undertake the enormous task of Christianizing a continent….” The late Princeton University historian Winthrop Hudson
Our country maintains a revivalist zeal and the distinctive hope that life can begin again. To our continual human question, Can I change?, revivals offer a resounding unmitigated Yes. And for a country founded by people seeking the New World, definitive spiritual renewals fit beautifully. As the Romanian poet Andrei Codrescu once quipped, 
“The spiritual pastime of Americans [is] getting born again, over and over.” Romanian poet Andrei Codrescu
A radical moment of change or conversion indelibly marked our consciousness and hopes. Instead of continual incremental change—e.g., the notion of kaizen, cherished by Japanese culture—we applaud radical, dynamic disruption, with lives marked by a specific before and after. But, of course, revivals don’t always deliver.

P.S. Insofar as this is a blog about faith and science, and about what makes a flourishing faith, fully alive, revivals tend to direct Americans away from the rationalizing side of life--the "head," as it were--that we associate with science. America has often exhibited a dialectical relationship with science and religion, often expressed with rationality and order in conversation, feeling, and intuition. In James Gilbert’s view,
Science and religion “are words suggesting two great and opposing philosophic systems—materialism and idealism—that, in a variety of forms, operate as polarities in American culture.” Historian James Gilbert
Head vs. heart? Materialism vs. idealism?  Are these dichotomies that we're facing right now? What would a true revival tell us about how we relate science and religion today?

In the end, this revival (if it is one) may not be so much a rejection of our culture's saturation in science and technology as about Kanye's fame.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Two Hemispheres

I've been meditating on a quotation from C.S. Lewis as he struggled to come to terms with his budding interest in believing in God in Surprised By Joy. Lewis struggled with becoming a believer, finding himself restricted by the influence of a materialist culture around him. 

“The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” C. S. Lewis

Partly, this is a science-faith question. It's often where we're left when we take in the natural world that science describes in purely physical terms (which is what it's designed to do) and try to bring that together with our subjective experience, which so often includes non-physical concepts like love and beauty and meaning and, for most people, includes a search for God.

By the way, the quotation was brought to my attention by an Alister McGrath book I'm reviewing on Albert EinsteinMcGrath brings together insights from a variety of Einstein's comment like "the eternal mystery of the world its comprehensibility." In other words, why should this world make sense if it is really is just facts and numbers? Einstein's understanding of religion was idiosyncratic, preferring to to hold to Baruch Spinoza's god of the mathematical equations and order in the universe, a deity that certainly didn't engage in human affairs and thus present individual lives' with answers to question of life's meaning.
McGrath then considers the physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, who also appreciates science's profound ability to discover the stunning interconnected complexity of the natural world:
"Theology can render this discovery intelligible, through its understanding that the Mind of the Creator is the source of the wonderful order of the world." John Polkinghorne
Does that bring bring together the mind's two hemispheres in a satisfying way? Lewis found his resolution through belief in God. And though not a scientist, he would probably have agreed.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Somebody Else's Problem (A Musing)

I'm part of a conference at Fuller Theological Seminary this week called,"Techno-Sapiens in a Networked Era: Becoming Digital Neighbors." 

While I'm here I've still pondering a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, "Religion and Science," which discovered this. And I'll bold one sentence to make my point.
People’s sense that there generally is a conflict between religion and science seems to have less to do with their own religious beliefs than it does with their perceptions of other people’s beliefs. Less than one-third of Americans polled in the new survey (30%) say their personal religious beliefs conflict with science, while fully two-thirds (68%) say there is no conflict between their own beliefs and science. Pew Research Center
It’s probably not a surprise that the synopsis for the piece reads: “Highly religious Americans are less likely than others to see conflict between faith and science.”

So whether we are "highly religious" or not, when we look at religion and technology (which, for many today, is relatively synonymous with science), I think some introspection is needed. As we ponder technology--and now I'm speaking to older peeps like me--we love the tech we're familiar with, and fear the newer stuff. The laptop was great, but how about VR (Virtual Reality)? We probably have to take a look at ourselves and ask, "Am I the problem? Is my approach bringing an unnecessary conflict?"

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Faith, Dogmatism, and Other Atheistic Cavils

I've been reading and/or listening to Sam Harris (for example here) with some Richard Dawkins and a measure of Jerry Coyne thrown in. It doesn't take much time to realize that one of their biggest beefs with "religion" is that it relies of faith, which to them means resolutely believing something when there is no evidence. In fact, many of the arguments of scientific atheists like these three lean heavily on this assertion. 

For them (and in service of their atheism) faith equals blind, dangerous dogmatism. 

May I point out that this is a rickety foundation for their arguments? And that since I actually teaching comparative religion as a profession, that their scholarship is noticeably lacking?

Certainly there are religious people who believe based on no evidence--that I won't deny. But there are dogmatisms of those who have no religious faith as well. Stalin and Mao's purges for the glories of atheistic communism come to mind as do much more mundane examples (like memes on Facebook and Twitter).

Even more, these leading voices misunderstand faith, which is essentially "fidelity, reliance, or trust" exemplified in the key New Testament Greek word pistis and its cognates. As C.S. Lewis wrote--certainly one who has a right to speak thoughtfully about Christian faith--it means trusting in God based on good reasons and then holding on even when times are tough. In this case, faith actually is grounded on rational reflection and open to conversation. At least that's the kind of faith I see among mature Christian believers and the kind I seek to live out.

Oh, why can't atheists be more rational?




Thursday, October 17, 2019

Notes on C.S. Lewis: One Outcome from Suffering

I came across this post this week, which lays down a fairly clear challenge to those who
believe in a good God from a senior editor of Free Inquiry, James Haught:
"Actually, there’s clear proof that an all-loving, all-powerful Father-Creator god doesn’t exist. It’s called 'the problem of evil.' Such a merciful deity wouldn’t have created hideous diseases or natural tragedies, and do nothing to save people from them. And he wouldn’t have designed nature to be a bloodbath of carnivorous slaughter. That clinches it for me. It doesn’t disprove a cruel god, but it wipes out a compassionate one." Atheist James Haught
The undeniable presence of evil and suffering offer a strong counter argument to the existence of a good and all-mighty God. But, is that, as James Haught argues, "clear proof"? Moreover, would it make any difference we can find a purpose for evil and suffering? This is an honest question, not simply a rhetorical one. As I write this post, I'm also working on an entry in our online faith-science newsletter, looking this week at the work of C.S. Lewis on suffering (or more specifically, theodicy), the defense of God's existence in light of evil in the world).

Suffering is never something that human beings look forward to. As Lewis phrased it succinctly in The Problem of Pain, “Pain hurts.” We do not naturally seek it. One key realization for Lewis was that suffering breaks down our idea of the divine that we always want to make in our image. Instead God is the great “iconoclast” who breaks down our overly simplistic images. We want to believe in a God who provides us with constant pleasure, what a friend of mine once called a world of “bubbles and kittens.” 

As Lewis writes after the death of his wife, Joy, in his searingly honest struggle with loss, A Grief Observed:
"My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He
shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not." C.S. Lewis
At the end of the day, Lewis realized that God used pain in his life to form him. As he once wrote about the Christ figure, Aslan, in his Chronicles of Narnia, "'Course he isn't safe. But he's good." God's goodness seeks to make us more into the image of Christ, even if pain is part of that process.

Coda: I realize this isn't, for many, an entirely satisfying response (let alone an answer) to evil. As I worked on this piece, I had an interchange with my colleague, Drew, who told me his concerns about such "soul-making" versions of how to respond to the problem of evil. I replied that, yes, there are problems, but I sense that today we've somehow lost our nerve--Christians of the past would often find strength that God offers a why in the midst of a terrible what. But the question lingers: How do you feel about this concept today?

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Providence and the Persistence of Care

I've been working on the problem of evil for the science-faith newsletter I help edited (because it's a topic that comes up in science and religion discussions). Closely related is the doctrine of God's providence. Since that topic didn't make into the installment of the newsletter I just wrote (due to space), I'll put it in this blog. Here's an excerpt from my book Creation and Last Things.

Maybe a few of us, when we were kids, memorized the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism. It confesses—really almost proclaims—that God did not just wind the watch and let it keep ticking. 


Q: What do you understand by the providence of God?
A: The almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
These are comforting words that stand at the heart of the Christian faith. I know more than one crisis where they have strengthened me and others. Still, the reality of life forces “and yet” upon the catechism’s answer. And yet… those same people who make this stirring affirmation have also held a dying father in our arms. And yet… others have heard those three cruel words: “You have cancer.” And yet… almost all have watched scenes of war broadcast over satellite TV or dispersed through the Internet. Each of these presents a case against the goodness of creation. The comfort and assurance of God’s presence can fade. Evil hits us everyday like a prosecuting attorney, cross-examining nature as God’s witness, arguing a case against God’s care for the world.

At these moments, the doctrine of providence comes to the test. So it is important to understand what the term means. The word derives from two Latin roots (pro-videre) that mean to “fore-see,” which also includes the concept of looking ahead so as to “provide.” Webster’s definition is rather concise: “divine guidance or care.” From this foundation, Christian theologians have sorted out three related components to providence. (If you read again the question from the Heidelberg Catechism you will find each of them):

  • Preservation: God sustains all creatures in their distinctive natures and powers
  • Cooperation: God not only sustains but actively concurs in these creatures’ action in such an intimate way that every action of these beings can be ultimately explained only by reference to both their and God’s actions
  • Government: God fulfills the purpose of all creatures by guiding them
Theologian, Thomas Oden, who has worked tirelessly and effectively to rejuvenate classical insights, summarizes providence this way in his book The Living God
“Three affirmations summarize the Christian teaching of providence: God is preserving the creation in being. God is cooperating to enable creatures to act. God is guiding all creatures, inorganic and organic, animal and rational creation, toward a purposeful end that exceeds the understanding of those being provided for." Thomas Oden
What then is the bottom line? God continues to interact with creation.

If I were to choose the basic biblical text on providence, it is that sometimes mis-applied passage from Romans: 
“We know that God works for the good in all things to those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
The eminent English pastor and biblical scholar, John Stott, lists “five unshakable convictions” from this text. He first points out that what “we know” contrasts to verse 26, where Paul admits that “we do not know how to pray as we ought…," and then he writes,
  1. God works: even when we do not see it—or believe it—God’s action on our behalf is constant. This is the essence of faith and the central conviction of providence.
  2. for the good of the people of God: All things are done for our benefit. This affirmation does not mean that every single event is good!
  3. in all things: In our lives, in the natural world, and even in suffering (verse 17 says that we “suffer with God” and that we have “groanings” with all creation in verses 23 and 24).
  4. to those who love God: This is not a general statement, but one directed toward believers—and one should add not focused on individuals, but on the family of God as a whole.
  5. who have been called according to his purpose: the key factor in determining “the good” is that it is ultimately for God’s plan
Even after these affirmations, Stott is quick to add, 
“These are five truths about God which, Paul, writes, we know. We do not always understand what God is doing, let alone welcome it. Nor are we told that he is at work for our comfort. But we know that in all things he is working towards our supreme good." John Stott
We must never deny evil because of our belief in God’s providence. Evil experiences are really evil. God, however, can work through them to make good. Ultimately this is a statement about God’s power, creativity, and goodness. God can improvise over bad notes to create a beautiful song. Therefore, Christians can echo Jeremiah’s declaration to the Israelite exiles: “’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29.11).
-->

Thursday, October 03, 2019

A Curious and Disturbing Blend of Progressive Christianity and Eugenics

This is adapted from my new book, Negotiating Science and Religion in America, set to meet the waiting world in December.

When today I hear evangelical concern about integrating with culture, I also hear this phrase: "We can't just have the social gospel." Allied is the often unexpressed fear that the gospel doesn't do well when it integrates too comfortably with other cultural forces like science. 
And we'll see how that was accurate with early 20th century theological progressive Walter Rauschenbusch.

With any move to integrate a wider variety of voices, there’s a backlash that creates further division. Certainly Protestants often split in their interaction with American culture. The modernists generally welcomed culture and its contributions to their beliefs, while the fundamentalists perceived in the world as evidence for the Fall. At least that's a useful generalization.

In contrast to this rising fundamentalism of the early 20th century, a new understanding of the Gospel was arising that contained some specific characteristics that could also be described as modernist but also did not correlate entirely with other liberal theology. 

Rauschenbusch, minister at the Second German Baptist Church in close proximity to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen (now renamed “Clinton”), observed deep human suffering and proclaimed the Christian church’s responsibility to respond. He had already come to national attention with his 1907 Christianity and Social Crisis, but his most profound and enduring contribution remains his 1917 A Theology of the Social Gospel. Though late in the progressive era, it articulated well its characteristic concepts with clearly Christian notes. 

But what is the social gospel? The venerable historian of 19th and early 20th century Christianity Claude Welch commented, 
“The social gospel has recovered the authentic message of the Hebrew prophets’ demand for justice and Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as a call to new righteousness under the law of love.” Historian Claude Welch
Rauschenbusch formulated the “social gospel” clearly and brilliantly … and therefore controversially. As he phrased it, “The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified.” An individualistic message of salvation may have its place, but “it has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guild of oppression and extortion.” The progressive era had found its theological voice, which resonates to today.

In his early 1912 book Christianizing the Social Order, Rauschenbusch also transformed evolutionary discourse into a religious zeal that would change society: 
“We now have such scientific knowledge of social laws and forces, of economics, of history that we can intelligently mold and guide the evolution in which we take part.” Walter Rauschenbusch
Lest we who champion social justice put Rauschenbusch on the side of the angels, he combined this zeal for a kind of democratic socialism with a racially based Aryanism, or eugenics, 
“the study of methods of improving the quality of human populations by the application of genetic principles. Positive eugenics would seek to do this by selective breeding programmes, a strategy that is generally deemed reprehensible. Negative eugenics aims to eliminate harmful genes (e.g. those causing haemophilia and colour blindness) by counselling any prospective parents who are likely to be carriers.” Oxford Dictionary of Biology's definition of eugenics
Historian of eugenics Thomas Leonard in his book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Eracommented on this “mishmash of the social gospel, economic reform, Darwinism and anti-Catholicism” with this summary: according to Rauschenbusch, “Cooperation and common property were ‘dyed into the fiber of our breed’ innate to the Anglo-Saxon.”

It’s important to mention that, around this time, most modernists, whether theological or not, adopted eugenics as a rising form of science. And that's what makes Rauschenbusch, for all his important contributions, a cautionary tale.