Thursday, January 17, 2019

What Does It Mean to Be Human? Reflections from the Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright

So often “faith and science” is not a dialogue, but a science monologue with theologians listening in. 

That’s why this piece from the prominent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright caught my attention. He begins by citing this passage from Revelation 4:
6 In the middle of the throne, and all around the throne, were four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind. 7 The first creature was like a lion, the second creature was like an ox, the third creature had a human face, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four creatures had six wings, and they were full of eyes all round and inside. Day and night they take no rest, as they say, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who Was and Who Is and Who Is to Come." 9 When the creatures give glory and honour and thanksgiving to the one who is sitting on the throne, the one who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down in front of the one who is sitting on the throne, and worship the one who lives for ever and ever. They throw down their crowns in front of the throne, saying, 11 "0 Lord our God, you deserve to receive glory and honour and power, because you created all things; because of your will they existed and were created." Revelation 4
Wright then begins his reflection with the central question—our nature as human beings.
Scientists and anthropologists have often asked themselves, “What is it that humans can do that computers can't do?” Computers, after all, can play chess better than most of us. They can work out answers to all kinds of questions that would take us a lot longer. Some people have boldly declared that, though at the moment computers can't do quite everything that we can, they will one day overtake us. The writer David Lodge wrote a powerful novel on this theme, entitled Thinks . . . The heroine eventually discovers the answer: humans can weep; and humans can forgive. Those are two very powerful and central human activities. They take place in a quite different dimension from anything a computer can do. But without them, we would be less than human.
I stepped back for a moment—is forgiving and weeping the best answer? In a way, it seemed to me like a trick. Of course, the laptop on which I’m typing can’t produce tears. Let's see what he does next.
A similar question is often posed: 'What can humans do that animals can't do?' Again, some scientists have tried to insist that we humans are simply 'naked apes', a more sophisticated version of apes perhaps, but still within the same continuum. This is a trickier question than the one about computers, but to get straight to the point: in our present passage, the main difference is that humans can say the word 'because'. In particular, they can say it about God himself.
I’ll leave it there for this post and return next week, but not before asking a question, “What does it mean to say ‘Because’”? I take it signify that we are able to draw conclusions, to be able to make connections. As human beings, we're able to transcend, to step back, to say about ourselves “I am a person thinking, weeping, or worshiping." That’s why. 

That seemed like a “because,” and not just any “because,” but one that defines our humanity. 

What do you think?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Science and Religion in the United States

More from the book on science and religion that I'm currently writing...

To some, religion is solely emotional. And that notion is worth problematizing, especially when we set “religion” (as diverse a category as that is) with “science” (not much more specific, really). Whitehead comments in a chapter devoted to “Religion and Science” in his book Science and the Modern World that 

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest. (A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World)

That is to say, religion seeks to put us in connection with a broader Reality behind the reality we see. It is not simply an emotion, but an intuition of Something or Someone greater than we are.
As I noted a moment ago, some might say that science and religion set up the contrast between “head” and “heart.” That idea is somewhat distorting—since, at least minimally, we know that emotions and rationality are intertwined and take place in various functions of our wonderfully complex and often chaotic brains—and yet that contrast begins to bring us to the right position in understanding our heritage in the United States. Historically, we want either to be warmed in our feelings about the world around us—to see meaning and order and beauty—or to have our thinking kindled—to analyze the particulars of how things fit together.

The eminent historian of American religion Claude Welch labels the three main threads in the eighteenth century “pietism, rationalism, and romanticism.” In my view the former and latter are both cut from similar human cloth where Romanticism is often a secularized religion, and rationalism is the thread of science in our culture.
If we imagine science (or rationality) on one pole and religion (or feeling) on the another, some have fully given themselves to one pole or its other; many tend toward one as a major, and the other as a minor theme; and some have been able to bring the two together, or at least hold them in a dialectical tension. 
The story I’m telling in the book I’m writing is this: To bring us to the present, and then the future, of religion in the United States, where no generation ever arrives at fixed relationship between these two cultural forces (or sets of forces), but in which we continually negotiate how religion and science will relate.

As historian James Gilbert wrote in his study of religion and science in the United States,

The dialogue between science and religion in America expresses essential ideas and deep-seated structures of culture. It reveals a theological problem and a profound concern of philosophy; it also shapes a significant portion of everyday popular culture. It provides categories for thinking about modern existence: to structure the world as divided between science and religion, or to imagine it united with their convergence. (James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in the Age of Science)

If I am convinced that we have done best as a country when we have held both religion and science together, it’s related to my conviction that human beings are at their best with this same combination. My interest, however, is to observe more than to promote. And a way of understanding this is to ask how these two cultural forces interrelate, as well as to chart them on this spectrum the key thinkers and movements. And yet, it almost immediately becomes more complicated because those who privilege science and rationality may seek to bring feeling under its aegis. 
To take in the intellectual history of the United States in this way necessarily means that “science” and “religion” are often symbols in wider cultural currents and not only what scientists and religious leaders practice and teach about. What we today call “science” and “religion” doesn’t map exactly onto our history. In the case of the eighteenth century, these two weren’t even separate disciplines and certainly “science” as a discrete field did not exist. It was often called “natural philosophy” or more simply “science” from the Latin word for knowledge, scientia. Not until 1834 did Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell coin the term “scientist” to replace such terms as “cultivators of science.”

And this places us in an uneasy relationship with the two today.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

"New Year, New You?" A New Year, And An Enduring (and Quite Captivating) Topic

Two early resolutions for a new year
It is common practice to look at a new year and make resolutions.

Here goes for 2019. I resolve to start this year’s posts by looking back. Right now on the
left side of my blog you’ll find the top ten list from 2018—that is, which blog posts had the most readership. By and away the most viewed was “A Parable that Arrived Bit too late.” In it, I describe the surprise at how the Greek I learned at UC Berkeley worked just fine at Princeton Seminary, but the science I took in was often rejected by the church. 

This shock really led me to spend the last three and half decades or so, working to put those two together for others and hoping to tell others what I’ve learned. On that note, have my online course on how to relate mere Christianity and mainstream science?

Another result of this question is that I’m writing a book on the past, present, and predicted future state of religion and science in the United States. I imagine many posts will circle around the set of topics I’ll be writing. So I suppose that’s my second resolution for today.

And this leads me to a brief meditation.

A brief meditation on religion and science in the U.S.
America has always had a dialectical relationship with science and religion, that is to say, with rationality and order, as well as feeling and conversion. And if I began by reflecting on 18thcentury European settlements in the East (e.g., the Pilgrims), it is even anachronistic to speak of “America” or “the United States.” Nonetheless, a dialectical—and sometimes contentious—relationship exists between these two forces, which of course, continues to the present day.
This comment by theologian Robert Jenson’s comments (as he unfolds the thought of Jonathan Edwards) struck me, 
“American has been more than other nations undone by alternate fear of science itself and capitulation to usually jejune science-inspired ideologies.” Robert Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards
For a nation as unusually religious as ours—we are outliers as a developed country with a far higher degree of religiosity than any other—an uneasy antiphonal response to science merits our attention.
To Alfred North Whitehead’s categories for religion and science, as Americans, we are often poised between 
“The force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.”(A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World)
If this is at all accurate, how do we bring the two together as Americans? Let me know what you think. I'll be working with these theme in the early part of 2019

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Science of Christmas Present 2018 Edition

I just graded about 30 essays from my science and religion class on the question, What do science and religion bring to the Camp Fire?  

The more thoughtful students noted that science and technology bring answers and that religion brings compassion. One student wrote something like this:
“We have science to thank for things like phosphate-based fire retardants, which helps slow the fire, and technology to spread the word of evacuation orders, but religion also plays a part in providing comfort and emotional support to people in these times. Religion and science can come together and integrate especially in times of need and this was exemplified in the aftermath of the Campfire.”
This offers one rejoinder to the off-stated contention that religion has no place in a scientific age, a world of facts and concrete proofs. Sometimes this leads into a discussion about the virginal conception of Jesus, or the nature of the "star" of Bethlehem (which might be a comet). Those specific topics have answers. But of course a raw assertion that no scientifically-minded person can believe in Christ is way too simplistic because we know many Christians who are also firmly convinced of the power of science--in other words, believing in the goodness of science doesn't obviate an ability to believe that there's a Creator in and through all of it.

In fact believing in the power of science actually leads to why we can trust science. As Albert Einstein once quipped,
"The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." Einstein.
And once that truth sinks into our brains, we might say it this way instead: The deep science of Christmas in fact is that this God has created this world, given it meaning, and come into this world in Jesus. 

Among other things, that divine miracle is replicated in our ability to make sense of the world God has made. As C. S. Lewis put it in his 1945 book Miracles

“The discrepancy between a movement of atoms in an astronomer's cortex and his understanding that there might be a still unobserved planet beyond Uranus, is already so immense that the Incarnation of God Himself is, in one sense, scarily more startling. We cannot conceive how the Divine Spirit dwelled within the created and human spirit of Jesus: but neither can we conceive how His human spirit, or that of any man, dwells within his natural organism.” C.S. Lewis
And once we take in this miraculous act of our Creator, we realize that there's even one deeper: that this God can transform our lives. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote,
“God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.” Kierkegaard
In fact, faith in Christ leads us to believe in a God who created this world in love and who can create us a response of compassion.

As far as I can tell, this is my final post for 2018, and so let me close with this: May this be the best kind of Christmas, filled with the conviction that God has come in Christ and that reality is still seen in lives of compassion and grace.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Not Sentimental Gush, but Love Appropriate for the Crisis

Last Sunday Preaching at St. John's
Since Chico continues to feel the effects of the Camp Fire devastation, I kept up the theme of reflecting on how we can respond.

I preached last Sunday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chico, and since it was Episcopalian worship, I was preaching from four lectionary texts. 

Three were about prophecy (Malachi 3, Psalm 126, Luke 3). And one was an outlier—Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1. Here’s a key section, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson:
“So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.” Philippians 1, The Message
Obviously, this isn’t a standard prophetic text… except insofar as it tells forth (instead of forth-tells) what the community in Philippi was called to do in light of their faith in the promised Messiah, Jesus.

It seems like this prayer is critical for us in Chico as well.

Why? Paul directs the early Christian communities at Philippi to pray for both “hearts” and “heads”—to be filled by Christ that they might respond to the gospel. The most standard rendering goes like this, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.” 

The Problem of Sentimental Gush

Do we need that at times like this, as we live in the devastation of the Camp Fire? We need to have deep emotions of compassion for those affected by the fire (as Ann Lamott has written, moral action comes from our guts in the New Testament). It may start there, but it has to be informed. How are we going to make it for the long haul in front of us without a love that’s “sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush”? I can say that one thing I’ve learned from Laura’s work at the Jesus Center is that good, compassionate care for the homeless among us takes really clear thinking, planning, and implementation. 

You see, sentimental gush can very quickly become compassion fatigue and moral blame. I have to say I was challenged by this article in Aeon, “The Bad News on Human Nature, in 10 Findings from Psychology.” And how, especially as the problems continue in the aftermath of the Camp Fire that we might begin to blame the victims.
We believe in karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate. The unfortunate consequences of such beliefs were first demonstrated in the now classic research from 1966 by the American psychologists Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons. In their experiment, in which a female learner was punished with electric shocks for wrong answers, women participants subsequently rated her as less likeable and admirable when they heard that they would be seeing her suffer again, and especially if they felt powerless to minimise this suffering. Since then, research has shown our willingness to blame the poor, rape victims, AIDS patients and others for their fate, so as to preserve our belief in a just world. By extension, the same or similar processes are likely responsible for our subconscious rose-tinted view of rich people." Aeon, "The Bad News on Human Nature"
This kind of moral fatigue can lead to frankly immoral attitudes and behavior.

You see, sentimental gush can also very quickly become frustrated outrage.
Laura happened to be at Bidwell Presbyterian Church parking lot the week after the fire. And the church, after putting together a “pop-up” free store for a week to provide clothes and supplies for those devastated by the fire, decided to not open for donations on Saturday. 

As my wife, Laura, was there, a car that drove up with donations. They obviously hadn’t checked first about what was needed or whether the church was at the gunwales with donations (which they were). They asked if the church was accepting donations. She replied that she doesn’t work at Bidwell Pres, but that she thought they were taking closed today. And the person shot back indignantly, “What kind of church closes?” I’m not sure what Laura replied—and whether any reply would be helpful—but maybe it’s the kind of church that takes a break because it wants to be there for the community for months and years to come—the kind that’s been in Chico since 1868—and the kind that’s expressing love and compassion that’s sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.

Real, Compassionate Action Needed 
And maybe that’s why our Butte County Sheriff, Kory Honea, has become a bit of a rock star in Chico—because he combines caring and strength. Which is what we need in a time of crisis. At downtown Chico’s “Christmas Preview,” where the shops are open on a Sunday night and families stroll the streets with vendors and activities all around, we saw Kory, and everyone wanted to take selfies with this guy, not Santa Claus. Because he’s not just about sentimental gush, but real action.

Our questions then are this: “What do we hear from this text today? And how do we respond?”

For Chico-Paradise, for Butte County, we need to pay attention to the science of climate change and how best to manage our forests and fight fires, to know the needs around us and to respond in compassion. 

Are we ready to care and to bring a love that’s “sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush”? 

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Can Science Save Us in Times of Crisis? A Camp Fire Reflection via Kierkegaard

One question I’ve posed to both my humanities class and science and religion students at
Chico State University is, 
“Can the truth of science save us in these time of the Camp Fire crisis, should we look to the great humanists like Pico, Shakespeare, Kant, and Austen, or maybe all of the above?”
It’s not clear to me that either science or the humanities is perfectly poised to offer salvation. Science—and technology—seem, however, to offer the most immediate solutions. Of course, I want all the best science and technology to fight a massive fire. Drones and helicopters, accurate reports and effective evacuation orders distributed through the web and email… and above all, leaders who listen to the science of forest management and global climate change. 

We need this, but I’m not sure it feels the human soul.
Instead, is the truth that saves, to quote the 19thcentury philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, subjective? This week in my humanities class we arrived at the early 1800s and thus Kierkegaard (or SK). When SK stated that “truth is subjectivity,” he meant that we can’t simply put any truth out there as something simply to observe—especially the truth of authentic religious faith in Jesus Christ—instead it needs to affect us as subject. It has to change us. 

Here’s how SK phrases it through the persona of Johannes Climacus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments:
“The problem we are considering is not the truth of Christianity but the individual’s relation to Christianity. Our discussion is not about the scholar's systematic zeal to arrange the truths of Christianity in nice tidy categories but about the individual's personal relationship to this doctrine, a relationship which is properly one of infinite interest to him. Simply stated, ‘I, Johannes Climacus, born in this city, now thirty years old, a decent fellow like most folk, suppose that there awaits me, as it awaits a maid and a professor, a highest good, which is called an eternal happiness. I have heard that Christianity is the way to that good, and so I ask, how may I establish a proper relationship to Christianity?’” Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
This, of course, trivializes the profound self-involving truths of Christian faith. Again to SK:
“For an objective reflection the truth becomes an object, something objective, and thought points away from the subject. For subjective reflection the truth becomes a matter of appropriation, of inwardness, of subjectivity, and thought must penetrate deeper and still deeper into the subject and his subjectivity.” Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
And finally, in his conclusion:
“Subjectivity culminates in passion. Christianity is the paradox; paradox and passion belong together as a perfect match, and the paradox is perfectly suited to one whose situation is to be in the extremity of existence.” Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
I find this compelling. Trained as a scholar, I find it fun to play with ideas like a baby who ponders the objects in the mobile above his crib. They entertain, but don’t change, us. 

SK wrapped himself up in the truth of Christianity (as do I), and yet this passionate subjective engagement with truth relates to a wide variety of issues. Like the Camp Fire… And so I ask, Which truth will change us as subjects? Do science, technology, or human thought change us as subjects enough to foster compassion and wisdom and action?

Though I love science and its glorious insights, I lean toward the great humanist thinkers like Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, and Pascal—perhaps because they’re all Christian. Thankfully I don’t ultimately have to choose between science and the humanities. But I do have to decide whether the truth I find is subjective. And I wonder what truth you’re finding in this time of crisis—are you engaging with that truth subjectively?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

During the Month of St. Clive

I write this as my community of Chico-Paradise is still feeling the devastation of the Camp Fire. This is also the "Month of St. Clive" (i.e., Clive Staples Lewis). So here's something to honor his memory and to celebrate his gift at speaking in times of crisis because he lived through many himself

I've adapted a piece I wrote that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few years back.

November is a notable month for fans of C.S. Lewis: He was born on this day (29 November) in 1898 and left the world on the 22nd of the same month in 1963. The passing of this major figure in Christian thinking thus became a footnote to the day of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Lewis deserves to be remembered as one of the great lights of English academics for his scholarship on Medieval and Renaissance literature. But he is best known as a spokesman for Christianity. If anything, Lewis’s work is more widely read now than during his lifetime, thanks in part to the Hollywood films based on his landmark fantasy series, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” It appears that a fourth Narnia film is reportedly in the works.

His more theological books—such as The Screwtape Letters, in which devils discuss how to corrupt a well-meaning human—have broad appeal because they defend Christian belief by answering questions that a doubting public might be struggling with. Author Anthony Burgess once wrote that “Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.”

The crises that Lewis faced were substantial (although to the best of my knowledge, he never faced a literal fire storm)—his mother’s death when he was 9; being sent to a series of boarding schools that he detested shortly thereafter; fighting and being wounded in World War I; living through the Great Depression and World War II; caring for his alcoholic brother; and, finally, the death of his wife, Joy. 

How did he work through those crises? His stepson, Douglas Gresham, comments on Lewis’s response to Joy’s death, 
“He did what he always did under extreme stress. He sat down at his desk, and looking into himself and carefully observing what was happening deep in his mind where we keep our inmost secrets, he picked up his pen and an old exercise book and began to write.” Douglas Gresham about his stepfather, C. S. Lewis
He wrote about the crises he faced with atheism, with the Christian faith and the crises he faced simply because he was human. Lewis tells us that he became an atheist around age 14, but that he sought something more. 
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis
In his early 30s he became “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” as he put it. He struggled on his way to prominence as a champion of Christian orthodoxy, and that struggle animates his writing.

As he pondered conversion, Lewis grappled with his love of myth, which he called “at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” How could he believe in the Bible in light of all the other myths he treasured?

Here his love of literature helped him. “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life,” Lewis determined in his 1936 academic study The Allegory of Love.

He believed that the Bible was a book full of narratives and meaningful stories that “carries” the word of God and that derives its authority from Jesus Christ. He was not a fundamentalist, believing every word from scripture contains truth that's best uncovered through a literalist interpretation. Instead of literalism, Lewis interpreted the Bible as a literary text.

With the Bible as a source, Lewis took on crises that no human being can avoid—suffering, death and what one might call “the crisis of feeling.” The latter is that problem everyone faces when emotions simply don’t lead us to contentment. If life is supposed to feel good, what happens when it doesn’t? Feelings—particularly the emotional rush of life—remain for many the final arbiter of truth.

Yet Lewis found his feelings hard to handle when his wife died. Not only had he lost a
CSL (Hopkins) and Joy (Winger) in the film Shadowlands
cherished spouse, but he saw his own life replayed—Joy had two young sons whom she left behind at almost the same age as Lewis and his brother at their mother’s death. His searing honesty remains the most arresting feature of A Grief Observed, the book he wrote after Joy’s death: 

“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.” C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed
But later in the book he resolved that even God does not respond to every inquiry: 
"When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'No answer.' It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.'" C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed
Accepting that not every question receives an answer brought Lewis the resolution and peace that lie beyond human understanding. He put himself into the One who doesn't always give answers, but who is the Answer.