Thursday, January 16, 2020

Can We See God from Einstein’s Tower?

I've excerpt this post from my recent article for Christianity Today
Here's McGrath's book
When I was a grad student in Germany, I remember visiting the city of Ulm. Two particular, commingled sights come to mind: first, pausing at the marker for Albert Einstein’s birth in 1879 (before his family moved to Munich six weeks later); and second, ascending the dizzying heights of the 530-foot cathedral tower. The combination strikes me as instructive: Most of us see in Einstein a mind that seemed to unlock the deepest mysteries of the universe. He sought a “theory of everything.” And many have sought to ascend with him into higher realms of insight, through many tiring steps.
Can Einstein bring us closer to God’s view of the world? Oxford University’s Alister McGrath takes up this question in his book, A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God. McGrath—who holds advanced degrees in theology, intellectual history, and molecular biophysics—is a leading light in the dialogue of faith and science.... 
[The article continues and concludes as follows.]
In the final paragraph of the book, McGrath sums it up: 
“I do not suggest that Christianity alone provides a way of seeing things that allows us to hold together these objective and subjective worlds: that would be arrogant and inaccurate. Yet I cannot overlook the fact that it does hold them together and allows them to be seen as a part of a greater whole, rather than disconnected realms of thought.” Alister McGrath
As I worked my way through A Theory of Everything (That Matters), ascending the steps of the intellectual tower erected by Einstein and his many pathbreaking discoveries, I was stunned by the breadth of knowledge on display. McGrath’s command of the facts is truly encyclopedic, and his grasp of Einstein’s theories is firm. Yet I’m doubtful that one can climb Einstein’s tower all the way to the celestial realm. Getting there requires other sources of illumination.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

A Park Bench in DC and God's Yes (A New Year's Reflection)

The full version of this piece appeared in our Science for the Church website newsletter. Here's an excerpt.

Physicist Charles Townes had a significant problem. 
Towne's (on the left) with the laser he developed
He’d been trying to figure out a solution to a long-standing conundrum of how to create a pure beam of light—one that’s short in wavelength and high in frequency. More than three decades earlier, the great Albert Einstein had in fact theorized that it could be done. But no one had yet managed the feat. And despite Townes’s best efforts, this brilliant young professor hadn’t figured it out either.
It was 1951, and Townes was in Washington, DC waiting for a breakfast restaurant to open. He sat down on a park bench.
I’ve read this story numerous times, and it seems that this brilliant future Nobel Laureate let his mind wander. That morning, he said No to trying and took a moment to pause.
Last week, I looked at the process of quieting ourselves, of taking Sabbaths as a way to renew ourselves. We need to slow down and stop striving. Not only Scripture, but science teaches us that this changes our brain chemistry in ways that allow for new insights.
That’s the practice of saying No. And this week I want to emphasize the Yes. Scripture also tells that No is never the final word. Instead, God wants us to hear a Yes because in Christ 
In Christ “every one of God’s promises is a “‘Yes.’” (2 Corinthians 1: 20) 
And so when we wait for answers, we wait with expectation. As we read in the Psalms,
“I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word, I put my hope. I wait for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” Psalm 130:5-6
In Townes’s case, God had a profound Yes for this young Christian physics professor as he waited for an answer. In fact, something happened on that park bench fifty-eight years ago—I would say, Townes heard God’s Yes. Here’s how the event was reported:
“On that bench, surrounded by blooming azaleas, the solution came to Townes, then a 35-year-old Columbia University researcher. It involved a flash of bright light, a population of excited ammonia molecules and a mechanism for limiting the wavelengths they could then emit. On the back of an old envelope, he ‘just scratched it out,’ he said of his brainstorm.”
That solution led first to the development of the maser and then the laser, and ultimately Townes’s 1964 Nobel Prize. Few other modern inventions have had the wide-ranging effect of the laser. They are at the core of home DVD players, military rangefinders and altimeters, grocery store bar-code scanner, and police speed detectors, to name just a few applications.
How might we find God speaking to us in 2020? 
In my view, after we’ve made our “No Year’s resolution,” we wait with hope for God to bring a new vision. Put another way, it is a new year, 2020, and a time to say Yes.

Townes listened to the God who can speak a Yes and who guides our lives… especially when we’re listening. He often spoke about this moment as a "revelation." But maybe it's about how he lived and what he was always ready to hear. In an interview with UC Berkeley News, Townes commented that God was present in everything he did: 
“I feel the presence of God. I feel it in my own life as a spirit that is somehow with me all the time.” Nobel Laureate physicist Charles Townes
May we take his words to heart as we begin this new year.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Pondering a No Year's Resolution

Here's an excerpt from a piece that just appeared on our Science for the Church website.

An enthusiastic admirer once rushed up to the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. What was his secret? How did he sculpt The David, the epic 17-foot statue of the biblical king and hero that now stands in the Accademia Gallery in Florence? Michelangelo’s answer was simple and profound: He looked at the unformed block of marble and “chipped away all that wasn’t David.” His indeed was the work of negation—the art of No. And through this Michelangelo found the deeper beauty, the more profound yes. That’s why on this December 31, I’m pondering my “No” Year’s Resolution.
This New Year’s Eve I’m looking to Scripture and science to tell me where my life is a block of unformed marble that needs some chipping away.
It all begins for us with the power of no in God’s gift of Sabbath—whether that’s for a day or something much shorter. In these times, Scripture tells us that God gives us a new vision and energy: 
“For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa 30:15, NRSV).
Honestly, the brain science behind this is easy to grasp. When we take breaks and reduce stress, we think better. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School suggests that this comes from the release of nitric oxide that fires up feel-good neurotransmitters and slows down stress hormones. 
“It’s a matter of learning to shift our internal biology at will so that we increase production of nitric oxide and the neurotransmitters associated with well-being and increased creativity” Bronwyn Fryer, Harvard Business Review
Will you join me in making a No Year's Resolution? 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Three More Trending Topics in Science and Religion

I'm back to my Top Eleven List of topics in science and religion, many of which are trending in importance. They are excerpted from my just-published book (!), Negotiating Science and Religion in America: Past, Present, and Future.

Genetics, medicine, and the specter of eugenics 
This is the first topic that I see trending; that is, entering into the conversation of  science and religion with a new prominence. Here I will note a specific discovery in genetic editing, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat). Francis Collins remarked in 2019 that CRISPR “came out of nowhere  five years ago,” a technique that works via an “enzyme like what you have in a word processor that does search and replace,” which makes it relatively easy. And he added, “High school students can do this. And that should worry you.” CRISPR makes germline interventions, which affect future generations, unlike somatic cell interventions, which do not. This leads to the question of how to use this powerful and simple technology and whether to cure diseases or create “designer babies.” It also raises issues of what to do about undesirable traits. And who decides what or who needs to be edited out? The specter of eugenics is on the horizon. Finally, who will be given the power to decide? Will religious ideas play any part in these conversations? 

Psychology, neuroscience, and the cognitive science of religion 
Functional Magnetic Imaging Resonances (FMRIs) seem to show what’s happening inside our brains. Is God all in our head? And do the insights of neuroscience finally rid us of believing there’s a soul? Here Buddhist approaches to the non-self, or anatta, and some forms of cognitive science and neuroscience seem to have striking similarities. In addition there’s a growing interest in appropriating the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and its relationship to secular psychology, and especially positive psychology. Finally, the Cognitive Science of Religion, which powerfully brings together the cognitive sciences in the service of understanding religious belief and practice, has also provided fruitful insights for further discussion and research. 

Cosmology and astrobiology 
Key to many religious traditions is an emphasis on the nature of the world, or the  universe, and our place in it. Recent astronomical discoveries have highlighted the vast number of exoplanets (planets beyond our own solar system). In the seventeenth century the scientifically and theologically minded Blaise Pascal considered his “brief span of life” and 
“the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which knows nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed….” Blaise Pascal 
And there are medieval hints and certainly eighteenth-century antecedents. Still, some assert that exoplanets and the possible (or probable) existence of extraterrestrial life mean the sudden death of the Christian scheme of salvation since, according to the biblical texts, Jesus came to save this world (such as in John 3:16). The biblical cosmos was vanishingly small compared to our current understanding. Where is our place in the universe? Conversely, if this seems like a loss for Christianity, could it be a gain for other religions?

Some of these topics I've addressed in this blog, and I'll certainly tackle as many as I can in 2020. As always, feel free to let me know what you think.


Thursday, December 19, 2019

An "Upgraded" Apologetics

This week a piece of mine appeared on the BioLogos website, and I thought I'd give the first two paragraphs and direct you there to read the rest.

When I was a college student at UC Berkeley—and a new convert to Christian faith—my pastor offered this stunning definition of apologetics: 
“Proclaiming the gospel, fully aware of the arguments presented against it.” Presbyterian Pastor Earl Palmer
Honestly, I’m probably paraphrasing Earl Palmer’s insights a bit, but still, I think it expresses the gist of his interpretation of how the church needs to do apologetics. He was talking about C.S. Lewis as an apologist and why he was so effective in the 20th century, and I’m convinced this definition holds for us today. There’s wisdom in moving away from primarily defending the Gospel (which, I admit, is embedded in the Greek word apologia) toward presenting our message with skill. Embedded in our presentation is often a skillful and winsome defense.

And this brings me to the heart of the mission of BioLogos and the question before us: What are the arguments against the Gospel we face today? I am convinced that, if we want to do apologetics in age of science and technology, Christians have to recognize the challenges presented by the arguments swirling around the minds of emerging adults (age 18-30), who are actively leaving congregations in droves and not coming back....

Thursday, December 12, 2019

My Top Eleven List in Science and Religion (The First Three)

I've worked up a list of the critical topics for science and religion today and for the future
for my upcoming book. Somehow I just couldn't do it in with a mere Top Ten. 

So here are the first three from my Top Eleven list (stated with brevity and therefore probably some distortion):

1. Religion and Rationality

A common slogan I hear from my college students and read in various kinds of  media is, “Science is about evidence. Faith is about having none, but believing  anyway”; or the gauntlet that Richard Dawkins threw down, “Faith means blind  trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.” Naturally, many  religions look to an unseen reality, God or gods, while science seeks to understand  the workings of the natural world, and so there needs to be a healthy analytical  independence. Nonetheless, faith in monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity,  and Islam is essentially reliance or trust. Or as C.S. Lewis defined it, “the art  of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing  moods.”  

Certainly, not all religious traditions emphasize faith, and so an antireligious  cavil against “faith” can represent a category error. Buddhism, for example,  focuses on enlightenment, since indeed the word Buddha has as its root “enlighten” or  “awaken.” In addition, Buddhism offers an openness to change its teachings based on new information (cf. the 250 BCE Kalama Sutta). Fruitful conversations need to continue unfolding in at least two directions: how to integrate various sciences and technologies with religious traditions that do not privilege faith; and how to engage with mature definitions of monotheistic faith and avoid simplistic, unhelpful slogans. 

2. God's Action

David Sloan Wilson once commented in a discussion about evolution and religious faith, “I can see how some sort of deity is possible with evolution, but not a personal God who intervenes in the world” (my paraphrase). Not all religions believe in a deity, but for those who do, how do they conceive of God’s action? Quantum physics in supplanting Newtonian mechanics described a new concept of the world, and some thinkers find in  quantum indeterminancy fresh opportunities to frame God’s work. Others, through a process of Whiteheadian metaphysics, portray a deity who is persuasive and non-coercive. And still others take recourse in the more traditional Thomistic dual causation. 

To be sure, I’m listing just three of several possible religious options. Others head in an opposite direction and talk about science as “atheistic,” meaning God doesn’t play a factor (e.g., Lawrence Krauss), which also contrasts markedly with some scientists (e.g., Francis Collins) who see nature as a place to witness God’s creative action. 

The bottom line is this question: does God act in the world? Most religious Americans answer by saying that scientific descriptions should include God’s action and that scientists should be open to miracles.

3. Evolution

To many it’s either the Bible or Darwin. The problem is that the clear consensus of mainstream science is with evolution as a theory that has guided scientific research  in a variety of fields for over a century and a half. The topic of evolution naturally encompasses more than simply origins—i.e., how can we put Genesis 1–3 together
with evolution and the Big Bang? 

This also raises the question of human uniqueness, since evolutionary thought connects all life. Hindus commonly affirm that, “All living things have Atman (self or soul), and all Atman are parts of one Brahman, the one universal mind or consciousness that is the source of all things,” and the Jains hold that “all living things have a soul of jiva.” Which religious views then connect most effectively with evolution?

Friday, December 06, 2019

G.K. Chesterton on Eugenics

Last night, at the month meeting of the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology and Science,
we discussed eugenics in early 20th century. One of the key members of the group, Bill, brought up the work of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) who produced one of the few, and perhaps only, criticism of eugenics. 

Of course, Chesterton was English, but recall that in the United States, about 12,000 forced sterilizations under the rubric of "negative eugenics" (removing bad genes from the collective gene pool) had occurred by the time he wrote this book, namely 1922. 

Chesterton is always provocative, and for those like me who are pro-science as a rule, it's always good to remember that science, and the theory of evolution, can be used for some very evil purposes. 

I submit Chesterton's is a voice worth pondering, even if we may disagree at particular points.
The thing that really is trying to tyrannise through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen—that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.... I am not frightened of the word 'persecution' when it is attributed to the churches; nor is it in the least as a term of reproach that I attribute it to the men of science. It is as a term of legal fact. If it means the imposition by the police of a widely disputed theory, incapable of final proof—then our priests are not now persecuting, but our doctors are. The imposition of such dogmas constitutes a State Church—in an older and stronger sense than any that can be applied to any supernatural Church to-day. There are still places where the religious minority is forbidden to assemble or to teach in this way or that; and yet more where it is excluded from this or that public post. G.K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils
Always worth pondering is the contemporary question: What is our contemporary misuse of science? That is, What is today's eugenics?