Thursday, August 15, 2019

Let’s Follow Leonardo and His Renaissance Blend

I’m preparing for my fall humanities class at Chico State (HUMN 222), and one of the best parts is rediscovering the breadth of insight in the thought leaders of western culture since the Renaissance. One of those is Leonardo Davinci (1452-1519), whom I’ve discovered partly through reading Walter Issacson’s biography, but certainly also through looking at Leonardo’s brilliant works of art like The Mona Lisaand The Last Supper. (And, by the way, please don’t be through off in understanding that latter painting by taking Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code seriously—that is truly a work of fictional speculation, not of art history, let alone religious insight.)


I’ve been struck by the way Leonardo expertly blended what we think of as science and the humanities… or at least what we call “science” since in his day it would have been natural philosophy. Much of this he collected in the 13,000 pages of writing in his assorted notebooks, some of which contain proto-helicopters and a near discovery—through his extensive studies of anatomy—of the circulation of blood about a century and a half before William Harvey’s definitive work in 1628. 

Natural philosophy—that is, at its root looking at the natural world though a love of wisdom—is descriptive because nature was the source of Leonardo’s inspiration. He is quoted, 
“Nature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity.” Leonardo Da Vinci

Nature offered insight into peerless paintings like the Mona Lisa, which emerged from a lifelong study of optics, psychology, and artistic technique.

Most of this blog (at least in the past few years) has been focused on topics in science and religion. And though Leonardo demonstrated a sensitivity to the subtleties of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas in The Last Supper, most commentators take Leonard to be relatively uncommitted to any particular religion… or perhaps religion at all. Today science has become much more complex and those who practice science often need highly specialized skills. (I’m thinking of a friend who does research at CERN).


Still, I think Leonardo has something to offer us today: a curiosity unbounded by the boundaries of discipline, but instead relentless pursuing nature and its wisdom. Why do most of have to niche ourselves in artistic, humanistic, or scientific pursuits? Let’s follow Leonardo.

Might I add that we can follow the creation back to the Creator and find in both numerous topics worthy of our wonder? 

Thursday, August 08, 2019

ETs and the Incarnation (with Insights from C. S. Lewis)

I wrote this week's eSTEAM, online newsletter, on whether the existence of extraterrestrials would invalidate our teaching of the Incarnation, that is, that God became human.

(If you want to subscribe to eSTEAM, by the way, you can do that here.)

This post complements  C. S. Lewis and ETs from three weeks ago. Here's a lightly edited excerpt from this week's eSTEAM...


Does the possible existence of ETs invalidate the Incarnation? 
Some assert that the discovery of other planets and the possibility of extraterrestrial life (ETs) mean the sudden death of the Christian scheme of salvation since, according to the biblical texts, God came in the unique person of Jesus to save this world or kosmos (John 3:16).

In his 1958 essay, “Religion and Rocketry” (originally titled, by the way, “Will We Lose God in Outer Space?”), C. S. Lewis took on the great Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle’s claim that the vastness of the universe makes the Christian teaching of Earth's special place in God's work of salvation essentially silly. 

As a scholar of history, Lewis steps back and cools down the argument’s heat:

"When the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism…." C. S. Lewis (or Clive Staples Lewis, aka "St. Clive")

St. Clive then focuses, addressing Hoyle's assertion: this is about the Incarnation:
“If we find ourselves to be one among a million races, scattered through a million spheres, how can we, without absurd arrogance, believe ourselves to be uniquely favored?” C. S. Lewis
What might the existence of an extraterrestrial “hypothetical rational species” mean for Christian message? Lewis, an avid amateur astronomer, who mounted a telescope on the balcony of his bedroom at his home near Oxford, The Kilns, worked out answers more thoroughly in his three-part Space Trilogy. 

There and in this essay, he concluded that a good God could have created life on other planets—no problem with that—but we have no reason to assume that they are fallen. Human beings need redemption because we’ve sinned. This also implies that the great distances of the universe might be an act of grace. 
“I have wondered before now whether the vast astronomical distances may not be God’s quarantine precautions. They prevent the spiritual infection of a fallen species from spreading.” C. S. Lewis
Moving to a close, he refers to Augustine, who pondered the theological implications of the creatures whose existence was bandied about in the fourth and fifth centuries: “satyrs, monopods, and other semi-human creators. He decided it could wait till we knew there were any. So can this” (meaning the existence of ETs).

Lewis then takes this in an unexpected direction. Ultimately, the lesson is not the particulars of any discovery, scientific or otherwise, that would irrevocably validate or invalidate our faith. 
“Christians and their opponents again and again expect that some new discovery will either turn matters of faith into matters of knowledge or else reduce them to patent absurdities. But that has never happened.” C. S. Lewis
And so St. Clive directs us back to trusting in the goodness of our Creator, perhaps looking up at the stars and planets God has made and wondering whether there are other creatures looking at us, and who might be also looking to the gracious God and Creator in faith.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Notes on the Terms "Natural Philosophy" and "Scientist"

When this blog takes up topics of "religion and science," it's fascinating to note that historically these have not been fixed terms. In that light, here are few notes:

Science did not exist as a discrete field for most of American history (and of course for centuries before that). It wasn't until 1834 that the Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell coined the term scientist to replace cultivators of science (and the like). More on that in a movement... Until then, Latin was the language of the scholars, and the Latin word for knowledge, scientia, covered a variety of disciplines. In fact, what we 
generally call "science" today was previously natural philosophy.

This shift in naming had collateral effects. In his brief treatment of the advances in science between Copernicus's ground-breaking work on heliocentricism in 1543 and Newton's iconic Principia Mathematica in 1687, the Johns Hopkins University historian of science Lawrence Principe offered this pithy analysis in his succinct The Scientific Revolution:
"Natural philosophy is closely related to what we familiarly call science today,
Recommended read!
but is broader in scope and intent. The natural philosopher of the Middle Ages or the Scientific Revolution studied the natural world—as modern scientists do—but did so within a wider vision that included theology and metaphysics. The three components of God, man, and nature were never insulated from one another." Philosopher of Science Lawrence Principe
Changing the name also signaled a shift in scope.

As I mentioned above, in 1833 the Rev. William Whewell (1794-1866), English polymath—poet, astronomer, philosopher of science, among other things—coined many hybrid terms, ion, anode, cathode, but especially scientist in the same paragraph in which he coined physicist. Interestingly, Whewell sought to avoid gender connotations of the phrase man of science for at least two reasons: first of all, because of its appearance in a positive review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, and secondly because of “the newness of Somerville’s endeavor—her attempt to connect all the physical sciences with one another.” (See Renee Bergland's Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of the Science.)

This new word scientist also signaled that the practice of what we know today as “natural science” was becoming sufficiently complicated in the 19th century that it needed specific practitioners and that it had therefore drifted away from the kind of common sense science. This is partly the story of the specialization of academic fields that breaks apart the unity of knowledge. At any rate, as a result, the study of nature now became increasingly difficult for those outside this newly coined cadre to evaluate. Non-specialists need not apply! 

Thus scientific specialists begin to dominate the conversation of how, or if, God can be found through science.

How else this change the conversation about science and religion? I'd be interested to know what you think.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Karin Öberg: C. S Lewis is a Voice Worth Listening to

Mainstream science
meets mere Christianity
I want to introduce you to a new-found contributor (at least to me) in the science-faith connection, but first let me say--on a topic related to integrating mainstream science with mere Christianity--that my book, Mere Science and Christian Faith is currently on sale for $4.99 in the Kindle edition. 

Here's a comment from one Amazon reader that offers an introduction:
“I absolutely loved this book. I found it to address most of my concerns involving Christian faith and proven science. The book really takes on so many tough topics that matter in the context of attracting and retaining Christians. This honest reflection truly empowers the church to be more inclusive and inspires 'nones' to see the love of Christ and scientific reason as compatible with one another. Thank you Greg for such a thoughtful book which I am excited to share with others!” Marc, an Amazon reader of Mere Science

Ok, now to Karin Öberg, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and leader of the Öberg Astrochemistry Group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I encourage you to read her recent interview with BioLogos (the faith-science nonprofit that the head of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins helped start). 



She was commenting that, after finishing her undergraduate studies at Caltech and beginning her Ph.D. in Leiden, and her path toward Christianity and especially Catholicism. She is a walking rejoinder to those who assert that you must decided between being a top scientist and a Christian. By the way, guess who shows up? C.S. Lewis 
“The next book I ordered was Mere Christianity, which is a dangerous book to read if you are trying to stay agnostic, especially if you’re primed, as I was…. Being well-primed, I got through about half the book before acknowledging that I believed what C.S. Lewis believed.” Karin Öberg, Harvard astronomer

“Believed what C. S. Lewis believed”—let’s let that sink in for a moment...

St. Clive keeps showing up

OK, has that settled? Lewis a non-scientist, has affected scholars of Christians in the sciences to consider faith. Francis Collins, of course, is Exhibit A. (You can find even more about Lewis's influence in this excellent PBS interview with Collins.)

In the interview she was asked about the alleged conflict between faith and science.
Q: Why do you think the idea of a conflict between science and faith persists for many students? 
I don’t think students come into college with an intellectually rigorous reason for why there should be a conflict between science and religion. I think they just pick it up because when they see things about science and religion in media, it’s always a conflict. The Catholic leadership is very clear that there is no conflict between science and religion, yet many Catholic students I talk to think that to be good Catholics, they can’t take seriously some scientific claims. So I think it’s something they’ve subconsciously absorbed through society rather than deeply thought about. Most of the time when I talk to students, we can very quickly remove major barriers. For example, a common one is, how can you accept that there are miracles and at the same time do science? I think this misunderstands both natural laws and miracles." Karin Öberg
I'll close then with one last question on what it means to bring Christian faith to a top-notch secular environment. I find the answer inspiring and don't need additional comment. (Res ipsa loquitur, as the saying goes.)
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 
I feel like there are so many stories of Christians that have had a great struggle in academia and for whom living out their faith has been problematic in different ways. While these people do exist and those struggles are real, I want people to know that this is not always the case. I have had a smooth and joyful journey being very open about my faith at the very secular place that Harvard is. And by being open about my faith, I’ve had many meaningful encounters at Harvard and many good discussions with my colleagues. I think it’s important to have both kinds of stories out there—academia is often painted as a very dark environment for Christians, but it doesn’t have to be." Karin Öberg


Thursday, July 18, 2019

C. S. Lewis and ETs

Remember this guy from Spielberg's 1982 movie?
I just finished a review of Olli-Pekka Vainio's Cosmology in Theological Perspective: Understanding Our Place in the Universe (which I quite liked) for the Journal of Inkling Studies, and I thought it might be worth adapting a slice of the review for this blog.

Vainio's book adapts C.S. Lewis's ideas
-particularly his work in intellectual history (such as his brilliant posthumous 1964 The Discarded Image)--as he reflects on the theological implications of contemporary cosmology, especially the implications of extraterrestrial life, or ETs. 

Lewis and exoplanets? Why not? Even if, we've discovered over 4000 planets outside our solar system since CSL died in 1962.

Lewis offers to Vainio’s project a serious critique of “chronological snobbery," namely,

what is newest is best and the past essentially is always surpassed by what's most recent. Instead Lewis demonstrates that past thinkers, despite what they didn't know about exoplanets, have a great deal to teach us. In fact, I learned from Vanio that the existence of ETs isn’t something that just happened since the somewhat recent explosion of exoplanets discoveries. Medieval thinkers, who used other names for intelligent life in addition to angels and human beings. (Lewis employed the term longaevi, for example.) As a result, the medieval writers and thought leaders pondered other worlds. Even more, Enlightenment commentators assumed their existence. 
“From the early eighteenth century on, it became widely accepted that life on other planets was at least possible.” Theologian Olli-Pekka Vainio
Lewis made it clear that, when human beings look at the cosmos, they "are standing at the steps of a magnificent cathedral, which welcomes them inside." "The heavens," as it were, "declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1). This becomes, in the best sense of the word, a religious experience. And here I imagine CSL at the Kilns, pondering the night sky through the telescope he set on his bedroom's balcony, perhaps reciting the Psalter. 

Or as Vainio phrases it, 
“A proper Christian attitude toward the cosmos is one of awe and wonder—and the desire to understand it more deeply." Theologian Olli-Pekka Vainio

Friday, July 12, 2019

Surprising Discoveries About 19th Century Religious Embraces of Evolution

UC Berkeley's LeConte Hall
In doing research over the past few years on the relationship of science and religion in America, I've had some discoveries, and even had a few surprises, which I intend to blog about in upcoming posts. One of those is that that liberal theological approaches to integrating science sometimes sound as crazy as the fundamentalist ones in rejecting it.

Let it be said--because this is a common misconception--that certainly not all religious responses to Darwin's theory of evolution were critical. Some might even sound a bit too enthusiastic.


I'll offer two examples. 

The first is Joseph LeConte (1823-1901), educated under Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz at Harvard, proposed a philosophy of creative evolution. (For what it's worth I first encountered his name as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley where a building is named after Joseph and his brother John). LeConte described himself in 1868 as
an evolutionist, thorough and enthusiastic . . . not only because it is true, and all truth is the image of God in the human reason, but also because of all the laws of nature it is… the most in accord with religious philosophic thought. It is, indeed, glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all peoples.
It's probably that last part--a clear allusion to Luke 2, equating the proclamation of Jesus's birth with evolution--that sounds discordant to my ears.

But LeConte is certainly not alone. The late nineteenth century version of evolution as a  theory of progressive improvement melded exquisitely well with liberal theological postmillennialism (that each day we are getting better and better, as a sign of Christ's thousand year reign). And here enters Henry Ward Beecher, whose 1885 Evolution and Religion adapted evolutionary concepts for the purpose of Christian proclamation. 

Incidentally, it isn't clear to some that Beecher clearly grasped evolution. William Schneider offered this evaluation with more than a hint of snarkiness: “there was scarcely even a pretext of science in him. 

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87)
At any rate, gone is the brutality of "survival of the fittest" and Alfred Lord Tennyson's nature "red with tooth and claw." In its place is a serene progress, which, according to Beecher, mirrors the teachings of Jesus. All of this is worth a lengthy citation from his preface to this collection of eight sermons:
Slowly, and through a whole fifty years, I have been under the influence, first obscurely, imperfectly, of the great doctrine of Evolution. In my earliest preaching I discerned that the kingdom of heaven is a leaven, not only in the individual soul, but in the world; the kingdom is as a grain of mustard-seed; I was accustomed to call my crude notion a seminal theory of the kingdom of God in this world. Later I began to feel that science had struck a larger view, and that this unfolding of seed and blade and ear in spiritual things was but one application of a great cosmic doctrine, which underlay God's methods in universal creation, and was notably to be seen in the whole development of human society and human thought. That great truth—through patient accumulations of fact, and marvelous intuitions of reason, and luminous expositions of philosophic relation, by men trained in observation, in thinking, and in expression—has now become accepted throughout the scientific world. Certain parts of it yet are in dispute, but substantially it is the doctrine of the scientific world. And that it will furnish—nay, is already bringing—to the aid of religious truth as set forth in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ a new and powerful aid, fully in line with other marked developments of God's providence in this His world, I fervently believe.
Beecher subsequently considered the core teaching for Christian life, and he offered this: “The Bible is thus a grand evolution of the nature of God. It is the unfolding of his progress, that is to say, of the progress of the human mind respecting him."

I suspect this is enough citing to establish how and why I find some of these late nineteenth century theological approaches to evolution excessive, and even rococo, in their rhetorical flourishes.
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But maybe you don't agree. Feel free to comment one way or the other.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Paranoia, Politics, and Science (A Meditation on July 4th)

I'm beginning to work on a review of Antony Alumkal's Paranoid Science, and given the book's title, the word paranoid is key. In fact, Alumka's book builds on a speech (which later appeared in a magazine article) that addresses the growth of paranoia in American politics.

Consider this citation and try to figure out the era in which the article is written. (I've
suppressed one word with [x] to remove an easy clue.)
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the [x] movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
The writer, an eminent historian (I'll throw in that clue), a few paragraphs later offers this insight for the paranoia:
If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high. 
Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. 
Alumkal argues in his book that the Christian Right has a paranoid resistance to science. I'll have more to say about that in future posts, but for today, I have two questions:
  1. Do you see a paranoid response from the political right to mainstream science?
  2. Who do you think the author of this piece is? Was it, for example, written about the rise of Trump and the influence of the Christian Right/white evangelicals in 2016?
I won't answer the first--that's for you to comment--but to the second, the [x] above was for "Goldwater" (or Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for US President in 1964). Does that help?  The author is Columbia Professor of American History Richard Hofstadter, speaking first at Oxford University and then publishing a piece for Harper's in November 1964 "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

A coda: Hofstadter's closing line is brilliantly phrased, "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."