Thursday, July 17, 2014

C. S. Lewis, Scripture, and Science

Here's and excerpt of something I just wrote for The Thoughtful Christian blog...
There are two things I’ve been doing the past few years. First of all, I’ve been reading a lot by C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), especially his take on scientific materialism, human suffering, the nature of Jesus, and the Bible. The primary reason for this is writing, and recently finishing, my new book C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian. Besides that, November 22, 2013 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death—and on that day, a memorial was dedicated in his honor in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, where he joined Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and the like. This honor for a scholar of the Middle Ages and Renaissance literature who dubbed himself a “dinosaur” and yet whose books still sell millions of copies, whose children’s fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia, has its fourth feature film in process, and who was dubbed today’s “hottest theologian” just a few years ago by Time.
I’ve also been wrapping up a project, Scientists in Congregations, which funded congregations to develop programs that engage science. These churches and their seventeen thousand members ran the gamut along the theological spectrum, but all find scientific insights fascinating, powerful, and important for faith.
Can these two projects could speak to one another. More specifically, can Lewis’s words offer insight for Christians living in a world saturated by science?
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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Jesus and TED: A Musing…

Who is Jesus, and what has he done for us and our world? These are questions I’ve been
 pondering this summer. What does he mean for us as 21st century believers who live in a technological and scientific age? I mean, especially about salvation. If there’s anything I’ve learned by watching and listening to TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talks—which is one of my favorite past times—is that these erudite, hype, and compelling TED speakers preach that salvation comes through technology. I even heard a TED talk employ the theologically tinged phrase, “resurrection biology,” to describe a process in which DNA from extinct species (like carrier pigeons) could be manipulated and placed into similar living species to bring this extinct bird species “bring them back to life.” If that’s true—and a host of other problems technology will fix—then who needs Jesus’s resurrection? And do we even know if he’s planning to bring back birds from their graves? 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Darwin, Adam, and the Fall: My Contribution to the Historical Adam Debate

The third grade Sunday School teacher is stumped as his student distills the problem Charles Darwin laid at our feet: “Who came first, Adam or the dinosaurs?” 
Neo-Darwinian evolution raises the question of how the narratives of archaeology and the Bible interrelate, if at all. And for the purposes of this post, it poses the question of whether Adam was a single, historical human being or not. And if not—if Adam was not uniquely fashioned by the Creator’s hand—what then do we make of his fall from grace?
And we know that this question is not confined to third graders. Many of us saw the recent news from BryanCollege in Dayton, Tennessee about the statement of belief for faculty. It includes explicit affirmation that Adam and Eve “are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms,”
This, and much more in the news, certainly makes this question of Adam—and Eve—pertinent. Were they historical?         
There are two poles on a spectrum of Christian responses for relating Adam and Eve to the theory of evolution. On the one hand, there is the approach of the literal Adam: Although many do not hold to this view, I want to make room for this perspective. It has an entirely respectable history, and many thoughtful Christians today hold this view. I hope not to forfeit their good will if I, in the end, offer differing conclusions. We cannot completely discount the possibility that God specially created the literal Adam and Eve. God can do unusual acts. In this view, Genesis 1 and 2 present an historical description of the first human beings. God specially created the first human beings, Adam and Eve. They initially lived in perfect relationship with God and their environment. By an abuse of free will—eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—they severed these relationships. Human beings lives under the curse of their sin but can be redeemed through the obedience of one “new Adam,” Jesus Christ. Though even earlier theological heavy weights like Augustine and Origen represented contrasting interpretations, this view has garnered strong support over the centuries. It offers a relatively straightforward reading of Genesis 1-3, and makes sense of God’s making creation originally “good,” and then falling to its current state. It also offers a space-time fall from grace, and the response of a space-time redemption in Jesus Christ.
To be honest, it also has considerable difficulties: for example, the word adam is simply a generic name for “the human being.” The texts themselves slide between adam as a generic “human being” (Genesis 1:26; 4:25) and as “the adam” (1:27; 2:7-8, 15-16, 18-23, 25; 3:8-9, 12, 20, 22, 24). Theologically and ethically, it’s also hard for many to understand that by this one man’s sin, all subsequent human beings are cursed to death and separation from God. It is difficult to reconcile with the macroevolution of human beings from earlier life forms, especially the recent discovery that the smallest grouping of early humanoids was about 1500. For this and other reasons, it is an uphill push against the weight of scientific evidence.
The other alternative might be called the typological Adam. Many today read Genesis as a representation of human existence, in which Adam represents a type of human being. Many Christians believe that to be thoughtful believers in an age of science means accepting macroevolution. Today’s homo sapiens evolved from earlier primates. This view understands Adam as a type or representative for our existence as human beings who struggle to use or freedom responsibly. In this view, hominoid evolution involves the dawning of self- and God-consciousness. As one of the leading commentators on religion and science, Cambridge professor John Polkinghorne, has written:
At some stage, the lure of self and the lure of the divine came into competition and there was a turning away from the pole of the divine Other and a turning into the pole of the human ego. Our ancestors became, in Luther’s phrase, “curved in upon themselves.” We are heirs of that culturally transmitted orientation. One does not need to suppose that this happened in a single decisive act; it would have been a stance that formed and reinforced itself through a succession of choices and actions. Death did not come into the world for the first time but rather mortality, the sad recognition of human finitude.
Thus Adam’s creation and subsequent fall are what we all face—a creation in God’s image toward freedom as well as the pull to use that freedom destructively. Like Adam, we are glorious and horrible. And though we are currently in this state of fallenness, the historical life and work of Jesus of Nazareth redeems us.
And I don’t want to miss this affirmation: The key for Christians is Christ and his salvation. For that salvation, we need to be in state of need. It doesn’t really matter whether Adam was a representative type or an historical person, it matters that we are fallen and that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are redeemed.
Therefore, although I affirm a commitment to creation by God over evolution, fortunately I am not compelled to choose between the two. In fact, the doctrine of creation makes two primary affirmations: we are created in God’s image, and the world is not fully consistent with God’s intentions. We can also be open to reading the Bible and seeing Adam as a type and representative for all humanity. Put another way,

Put simply, Christians believe God created us and our world. We can remain open as to how this was accomplished it and avoid dictating the best way for God to create. Instead we are to look concretely and openly at the evidence as to how God has created (in this case, largely through the evolutionary processes). And we confess as Christians that, like Adam, we are created good, but we have chosen to be separated from God, and therefore we have responded to redemption in Jesus Christ.

(Adapted and updated from my book, Creation and Last Things)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

C. S Lewis and Science: A Sktech and a Blog Entry

I continue to work on this theme of how C. S. Lewis interacted with science... maybe it'll grow up to become an e-book someday. In any event, here's a sketch of the major ideas.

The first thing we have to say on the topic of C. S. Lewis and science is that Lewis was no scientist. He did not hold a degree in science, and even famously had troubles with mathematics—so significant in fact that these deficiencies almost prevented his entrance into Oxford. (This fact is something of a surprise considering his mother held a masters degree in math.)
We might conclude concede that there is nothing to say specifically on the topic of C. S. Lewis and Science.
Nonetheless, Lewis did discern a rising tide of scientific thought that set itself against Christian belief and that sought to remake western civilization. Here science did not promote its findings per se, but offered them as the basis for a philosophical change… or put differently, a transformation of worldviews. This worldview would be mechanistic, thus materialistic, and therefore implicitly atheistic. It would not only destroy the basis for Christian belief, it would also implicitly deny the need for literature (which, of course, was Lewis’s great passion and his professional discipline).
So, in this sense—of science as the basis for a worldview—Lewis had plenty to say, and the topic winds its way into a considerable percentage of what he wrote.
I would therefore like to unfold the topic of C. S. Lewis and science more systematically.
  • First of all, using Lewis’s 1954 inaugural address at Cambridge, Lewis summarized decades of reflection and expressed grave concerns about the growth of the Machine, especially man as a Machine, and the way it set a new course in the West for intellectual development, or really in his view, degradation.
  • This realization, which had been building for decades, led him to make three interlocking moves in his apologetic work, that is, in his defense of Christianity, and more broadly, his defense of the humanities as the basis for a sound worldview. The first of these moves was to argue that the materialistic philosophy was self-defeating. Materialism, according to Lewis, left no place for true thought, or put another way, thought that led to truth.
  • The next move was to demonstrate that this materialist philosophy was existentially unsatisfying. Materialism left no place for joy, for what Aristotle called human flourishing.
  • He then continued by arguing that all human cultures implicitly hold to an objective standard of right and wrong. This Lewis took as a sign of God’s character and of the way God created this world.
  • Lewis concluded that science had a rightful place in intellectual work and in the development of the West, but had no right to determine all truth and knowledge. Scientific materialism diminishes our humanity and distances us from the earth. Instead, Lewis argued that belief in a Creator God offered the best alternative, which also left a substantial place for the humanities in Western culture.      
In sum, Lewis’s thoughts on science interest me as a scholar of Lewis and therefore have considerable relevance for his vast readership. Though formulated over fifty years ago, they also have some considerable contemporary relevance as we continue to face onslaughts from those who promote scientific materialism as the final arbiter of truth and rationality.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Problems of Science and the Machine

One of the finest pieces that C. S. Lewis ever delivered was his November 1954 inaugural lecture for his chair at Cambridge in medieval and renaissance literature (which, in many ways, they created for him). He considers the periodization of western thought. Not only is he one of the first I’ve read to describe post-Christendom and its effects, but he also highlights (as I’ve mentioned at other times in this blog) “the birth of the machine.” As he put it simply, “It alters Man’s place in nature.” The rise of the metaphor of the world—and therefore us—as a machine has great consequences for how we understand the relationship between science and religion. For one thing, it leads us to believe that scientists are mechanics, studying and analyzing machine-like objects. It also places a distance between us and nature.
As I’ve thought more about this topic of the growth of the machine, I do think Lewis hit the taproot of much of what has altered the relationship of faith and science. Yes, it’s not science per se, it’s that science has given us a different picture of ourselves because the model of life as a machine works so well. It certainly is inadequate for biology—despite how the metaphor of a processing unit has expanded into how we understand consciousness and thus ourselves. It's beginning to have its effects on how we understand the brain and the mind—in this case, that the machine is a computer that “processes” information and that is engaged in “uploading” and “downloading.” The metaphor of the machine probably doesn’t work that well for physics either. 
The metaphor also therefore changes our place with nature. Lewis lamented the growth of the machine. RenĂ© Descartes famously described humanity as “masters and possessors of nature.” Put another way, living in a technological world has distanced us from true, good human values and thus from nature. The reader of Lewis’s fiction finds this exemplified in N. I. C. E., National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, from That Hideous Strength, a depiction I find telling, but somewhat overwrought. A better example can be found in one of his most notable poems, “The Future of Forestry,” where Lewis describes a world that has forgotten the beauty of the forest, and thus of nature, in its headlong pursuit of technological advance, and of roadways. (I am reminded of the work of Lewis’s friend and fellow Inkling, Tolkien, who placed in the hands of Saruman, the evil wizard, the destruction of the forests for the sake of production.)
How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart;…

These problems derive from scientific materialism, the assertion that this world is all there is, that we and the world around us are a machine, and that science has demonstrated this fact. Lewis looked toward a re-enchantment of the world through myth and story to bring us to the place where we can find joy. For these reasons, it might be worth reconsidering the effect and effectiveness of the rise of the machine.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Genetic Determinism, Materialism, Freedom, with a Coda by C. S. Lewis

Excerpted from this book
Click here for more info
Put simply, Christians believe God created us and our world. We can remain open as to how God accomplished it. I find no scientific argument that disproves God’s creation. With that assertion in mind, I now turn to one such counter-arguments: that genetic determinism proves neither we nor Adam have the ability to make free choices. To that argument I now turn. 

God is free. We, as bearers of God’s image, possess freedom. We as creatures are called to respond to God, to choose right over wrong. For that, we need freedom. At least that is our tradition…. But are we really free? Determinism—the philosophy that everything we do has been programmed by forces beyond anyone’s control—has supplied a recurring motif in the history of ideas. In the early nineteenth century, Pierre-Simon de Laplace stated baldly:

An intelligence knowing, at a given instance of time, all forces acting in nature, as well as the momentary position of all things of which the universe consists, would be able to comprehend the motions of the largest bodies of the world and those of the lightest atoms in one single formula, provided his intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to him nothing would be uncertain, both past and future would be present in his eyes?

This suggests that everything, from a decision to marry to the outcome of the battle of Waterloo, has been fated.
Today determinism is back in a new form and tied with the revolutionary discoveries in genetics. The world-famous scientist, Francis Crick, who co-discovered DNA, has laid down the gauntlet for those who defend the existence of human freedom. He comments on the title of his well-known book:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “you,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carrolls’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”
If Crick is right, then we have some problems with our sense of freedom. In fact, it does not exist. And without freedom, we also have problems establishing ethics. The Christian tradition has located the ability to transcend our human, bodily limitations through the notion of the soul. Unsurprisingly, Crick subtitled the book, “The Scientific Search for the Soul.” Theologians have used “soul” and “spirit” for this component of the human being. For simplicity’s sake, I will stick with “soul.” The soul offers us freedom and the ability not just to be determined by our body. How then can we respond to Crick?
Of the many ways to refute his position—or most forms of determinism—the easiest is this: it is self-defeating. In a playful phrase, the biologist and theologian, Arthur Peacocke has labeled the position “nothing buttery.” (Remember Crick’s rephrasing of Alice: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”) Take Crick’s argument to its conclusion. If our thinking processes are “nothing but” the interaction of bio-chemicals in the brain, then we have no way if what we know is true. It just is. We might as well call the size of our feet or the color of our hair “true.” They are simply facts, neither right nor wrong. This makes Crick’s wonderful discoveries “nothing but” the movement of electrical charges in his predetermined brain. But in fact, we know that some genetically-influenced behavior patterns—a tendency toward violence or alcoholism—are not beneficial. Crick does not offer any means for assessing or responding to them.
Thankfully, we are not stuck with genetic determinism—or any determinism for that matter. Our faith has long taught that we are not just our bodies, but that our soul offers us transcendence from bodily processes, giving us freedom. Scientifically-minded theologians talk about the soul as a capacity for transcendence and freedom rather than a “thing” that can be located through scientific experiments. In addition, Crick’s arguments rest on reductionism, the notion that the workings of any system can be reduced to its smallest parts. But reductionism misses the point. Ted Peters, a theologian constantly exploring the effects of science on belief, has summarized it this way: “Determinism at the genetic level does not obviate free will at the person level. Genetic determinism just like all conditions of finitude place each person in his or her particular situation, readying the person to exercise freedom.” Our genetic makeup set the boundaries for our choices—not choices to “do anything” (as we often want freedom to mean). Our genetic structure is the chord structure over which we improvise our lives.

Coda excerpted from this book
Click here for more
A coda: I think this is what C. S. Lewis was getting at when he criticized the scientific atheism of the 1940s. The specific reason Lewis rejected the “Scientific Outlook” lies in the self-defeating nature of the two claims “we can think” and “nature is all there is.” Here we come to a key theme: the Scientific Outlook asserts the truth and reasonableness of its claims without thereby providing a place for reason. Or as he phrased it:
If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.

Lewis called this atheistic science, "the Scientific Outlook." He conclude that it tries to fit in reason in an irrational—or maybe arational—world. Lewis concludes that this move is self-defeating.
As an alternative, Lewis discovered in his own life (around his conversions in 1930 and 1931) something he argues here: Belief in a Creator God who endows humanity with reason makes entirely more sense. The divine Logos creates human reason. The primary Cause undergirds all secondary causes. Lewis says that is why he does not believe in the “Scientific Outlook,” but instead believes in Christianity, which includes reason and science. As he closes the lecture, he writes,

Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality.... The [atheistic] scientific view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Lewis believed that Christian theology gave grounds for reason and thus reasoning about what is true. It’s a vision of life that makes sense of all experience, and therefore it makes sense of science.

Monday, May 12, 2014

C. S. Lewis on Science and the Rise of the Machine

Why care what C. S. Lewis had to say about science, a topic that his filled the past few posts? In one sense, this theme could seem to border of the trivial. Lewis—though a renowned scholar in his field of Medieval and Renaissance literature—had no particular insight into scientific discoveries. His inability to grasp mathematics, which almost caused him not to be accepted at Oxford—is well-known. We might decide the subject has little to offer and move on.
But I demur. Why? Lewis, as an intellectual historian, engaged science because he knew its effect on, and contributions to, Western European culture. When Cambridge University asked him to deliver the inaugural address in 1954 for the newly-formed chair he was to occupy there, he spoke on the historical epochs in western thought. He noted that the greatest change occurred as Europe became “post-Christian” and particularly, not when science arose in the age of Copernicus and Galileo, but when western culture took on the metaphor of the birth of the machine. “Between Jane Austen [1775-1817] and us [1954],” Lewis comments, “but not between her and Shakespeare [d. 1616] … comes the birth of the machine.” The west had displaced a more organic or sacramental view of the world with that of clock, or more generally, a machine. And Lewis notes that with this concept emerging from scientific thought arose the notion that old is inferior to the new.

For today, I have only two notes: This demonstrates that it isn’t often science qua science that determines its effects on culture. It’s more often the worldview that emerges. It also tells us something about 2014. Does this “birth of the machine” lead us to Ray Kurzweil and transhumanism, particularly the idea that we will achieve a technological singularity in which artificial intelligence can upload an entire human brain/mind into an immensely powerful computer? I suppose I wouldn’t be the first to note that once we make human beings a machine, it’s not a far leap that they become infinitely improvable and therefore upload-able.