Saturday, April 25, 2015

Chico Religious Life in 2026 (Written in February 2006)

In 2006, I was asked by the Enterprise-Record to write a piece on the future of religious life in our city twenty years hence for their issue "Coping with Growth." That's now nine years ago. Since I just found this piece today, I thought it might be fun to see how my portrait sound about halfway there. Let me know what you think.

By 2026, it’s pretty clear that Chico won’t be “chico” anymore. By this, I mean it won’t be small. It won’t be a quaint university town. Instead it’ll be an urban center in the midst of a swelling Butte County, full of problems and possibilities. My job here is to offer some reflections on what that growth in the next 20 years will mean for religious life. People of faith, when they imagine the population of Butte County increasing by the size of Chico, will probably range in responses from cold sweat to shouts of Hallelujah. I’m more in the second camp, but since Presbyterians aren’t generally given to religious enthusiasm, my mode instead will be to prepare for what’s to come. So I offer just four observations—and not necessarily my preferences—for the next two decades in this great county.

First of all, Butte County will see a greater religious diversity through the growth of Judaism, Islam, and new religious movements, as well as within the Christian church. In a world that’s violently divided along religious lines, this trend speaks for itself. Twenty years will also bring an increase in those not affiliated with any religious community. According to a telephone survey conducted by Bidwell Presbyterian Church (where I’m a pastor), we estimate that only around 5% of Chicoans between 15 and 25 call ours, or any, church their home. From a marketing perspective, that lack of “reach” is either cause for discouragement or excitement.

I’m convinced that technology, already a key player in my life as a pastor, will continue to play a great role in houses of faith. The worship trend in the past 20 years has been toward more electronic instrumentation, projected lyrics, and sophisticated audio and lighting systems. With the level of production Americans see on TV, it’s impossible for me to imagine ever going back. In addition, we’ll see greater use of the web, including blogging and podcasting (and, by 2026, their successors). A 2004 Pew survey found that 64% of internet users in this country, or 84 million Americans, use the web for religious purposes. I’ll let the Enterprise Record decide on the future of print media; nonetheless I’m certain that speaking one’s message in a house of worship won’t be the only way “to preach the Gospel.”

Less certain—but certainly intriguing—is the return to a parish model for houses of faith. By this, I mean that people will attend the house of worship in their neighborhood and conversely, the religious community will care for its locality’s concrete needs. (Full disclosure: Bidwell Presbyterian is currently in consultation with New Urban Builders to create a “satellite” church within the upcoming Meriam Park development.) I believe a faith community’s central mission is to those outside its walls and therefore see this as a boon. In other words, the day of the commuter church, sprouted in a suburb in which few of its members live, may be ending and with it the common religious detachment from concrete social concerns. Here I think the traditional African-American church provides a model: where the church offers daytime tutoring programs and revival preaching in the evening. (On a related note—and in tension with trend—is the increase in Chico real estate, which could bring economic stratification in Butte County. In response, worshipping communities in Chico will have to work harder to create economic and racial-ethnic diversity.)

One final observation comes from my years as a pastor in New York City: as Chico grows in complexity and sophistication, the great enemy of spiritual growth and participation in a faith community will be lack of time. Currently, it’s Chico’s love of the party—of drinking beer as we float in the pool, that kind of thing—which prevents people from committing to a life of faith. In 2026, it’ll probably also be that we’re stuck in traffic, making sure we take care of all our timesaving devices, and attending to the demands of a packed weekly schedule. This means that we’ll have to learn some Nos in order to say Yes to spiritual life.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Final Thoughts on the Problems for the Science-Religion Dialogue with a Concluding, Largely Unscientific Postscript

I’m concluding my reflections on the predicated future state of the dialogue of science and religion based on my research with emerging adults (18-30). It’s probably worth emphasizing that I am primarily outlining problems that have come to me. I am seeking first to understand, then to be understood (to quote both Stephen Covey and the famous St. Francis prayer). The next task will be to formulate responses.

These recent posts have also been sketches for something more substantial. Being sketches, I now realize something: the six main problems facing the integration of science and faith for emerging adults, which I've outlined in these posts, can be grouped into four main areas--perception of conflict; resistance to intellectual work; ancient faith, modern problems; and pluralism and decisions. (If you read the previous posts, you'll see how these categories fit.) 

Accordingly, I now move to one final problem in the third category, two problems in the fourth category, and a concluding postscript.

Ancient faith, modern problems
In terms of the church’s often not embracing the lesbian-bisexual-gay-transgendered community, religious communities often seem to the wider public uninformed by science.  
The majority of emerging adults support same-sex marriage. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll states, “The new survey finds 67% of ‘Millennials’ – born since 1980 and age 18-32 today – are in favor of same-sex marriage.” And though some denominations (e.g., Episcopalian, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ) solemnize same-sex ceremonies, the strong majority of Christian churches today is, and its historical consensus has been, marriage is a covenant between one man and one women. The church’s stance on this and the related set of issues does set it in conflict with mainstream culture.

Partly, this question relates to how science relates to ethical questions, let alone what the science is that helps us understand same-sex attraction. Certainly, science can inform, but not entirely decide ethics. Indeed, ethical deliberations can stand on their own without needing science as the final arbiter of truth. Nonetheless, science can help us understand to some level the genetics and psychology of same sex attraction. And it’s fairly clear whether mainstream science is on same-sex attraction: For example, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973 from its DSM II. Less conclusively, there appears to be some genetic predisposition toward same-sex attraction, but in this and other areas, no one can demonstrate a direct link between certain genes and specific behaviors. My reading, nonetheless, is that most young adults believe that science supports the equivalence of heterosexual and homosexual attraction.

Thus, this problem relates to the previous post (on how to interpret and live by an ancient text, namely the Bible) since the means by which the church uses its key Scripture will determine how it makes decision about its ethics, and particularly how it changes its views.

Pluralism and decisions
Many emerging adults would rather Google than go than go to a congregation in pursuing of answers about science and religion. For the people who come from faith to this question, Jonathan Hill’s in his forthcoming Emerging Adulthood and Faith indicates that a pastor’s voice is probably more important than the Internet or the college classroom: “For most students, then, it matters little what their professor teaches… What their friends, parents, and pastor thinks is going to be far more important, because their social world is inextricably tied up with these significant others” (p. 71). In contrast, for religious seekers (in all varieties), there needs to be further work here in bringing out integrationist views of science and religion, and they are often distrustful of the church as a place to seek out answers about science and religion. Partly, this reflects a distrust in the institutional church as a repository for truth-seeking. Faith in the Internet (as it were) also returns me to earlier reflections about the general tone about the Internet and religion—that it’s largely negative. For those outside, the Internet appears to neutral, perhaps even objective.  In addition, the conflict model seems to predominate in its ability to provide “click bait.” We are naturally, neurologically stimulated by threat and thus by conflict.

It’s hard to decide on one religion in light of all the possibilities for spirituality, which makes it difficult to know what religion to bring to science. This is partly the simple problem of pluralism, which has become exacerbated by the explosion of knowledge on the Internet, which is approaching a trillion websites (a number that can even be monitored on http://www.internetlivestats.com/total-number-of-websites). But I don’t think we can evade the issue simply by asserting that this problem has been in play for a long time; it certainly continues.

Concluding, largely unscientific postscript
Overall, the integration of faith with scientific insight becomes best resolved by employing good rhetoric for mature, thoughtful religious faith—in other words, making its truth interesting and beautiful. I don’t think this task is any different for emerging adults than any other generation. Truth must become beautiful. And by that sentence I mean that rhetoric—as the engagement with beauty—should be used in concert with philosophy—as the pursuit of truth. Truth is only worth engaging if it’s beautiful, and beauty is that which allures us. By this, I mean a particular beauty, the beauty of life making sense, of satisfying needs we have for deep abiding happiness or Aristotle’s “human flourishing.”
      
I concur here with the great French physicist Henri PoincarĂ©, who commented, 
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living….”
I join hands with the ancient Eastern church's view of theology as philokalia, the love of beauty. In fact, my goal is to join these two disciplines so that science and faith can together lead to a thoughtful life that is both truly beautiful and beautifully true. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Problem of The Bible: More on the Future of Science and Religion...

I continue in this post with another problem with young adults' embracing an integration of science and faith...

Speaking specifically of Christianity, the Bible seems outdated and unscientific. This problem is directly related to the the topic of my previous post because it takes intellectual work to engage texts that are thousands of years old. In this case, the problem also stems from emerging adults’ decreasing engagement with books generally and any ancient text specifically. (This is a trend, in my reading, that doesn’t appear to be reversing in the foreseeable future.)
            
And sometimes the Bible does need to be updated and correlated with good science; frankly, there are some notions that may sound “biblical," but that have to be jettisoned in order to bring the Bible to bear on issues that young adults face. The dualistic versions of the soul, for example—that there is an entirely separable substance floating within our bodies—owes much more to Plato than the Hebrew Bible. Accordingly, we can update and correct our doctrine of the soul by looking at the Bible, which see human beings as body/soul, a psychosomatic unity. We can also learn from contemporary neuroscience, which certainly cannot find an immaterial soul. In this, we need to follow the truth wherever it leads and this, by its nature, updates our biblical interpretation. As John Calvin rightly commented in his
1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion
“If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.”
If the truth appears in natural science, we follow it. For this reason, a six-day creation is untenable if Christians want to take on mainstream science. Thankfully, this is not a new idea. As C. S. Lewis pointed out (and I have much more to say about this here), Genesis 1-2 probably “derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical,” or as the church Father Jerome put it, was written “after the manner of a popular poet” (and thus a myth, or what I would call, "a meaningful narrative"). Indeed and paradoxically, this hermeneutic probably requires a conviction that science is not the sole arbiter of truth, and that our biblical interpretation is about learning to live within the narrative of the Scripture, to let God’s story become our story, as it were. We don’t memorize the Bible as we do the Periodic Table. Again I’ll cite Lewis. The Bible, he commented, 
“carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone and temper and so learning its overall message.”            
If these statements make some nervous—that soon we will jettison all biblical truth—I need to clarify that this process goes both ways and along with Imre Lakatos, there are certain teachings (the divinity of Christ, for example) that are at the “hard core” of Christianity’s “research program,” and which are not jettisoned easily or lightly, even in the presence of some anomalies. (I’ll leave the full exposition of a Lakatosian research programme until a later time.)
            
Finally, not only does it take effort to grasp the meaning of two thousand year old Gospels, it requires work to find a meaning in Aristotle or Lucretius—so this difficulty is not unique to Christian Scripture. Needed here is something akin to what Stephen Greenblatt was able to do with ancient Latin poet-philospher Lucretius through his book The Swerve—demonstrate his relevance today. And it’s not “rocket science”… It’s what any good preacher or biblical expositor has to do in the church classroom or pulpit. 

In a word, thoughtful interpreters of the Bible—who also understand contemporary science—are critical helpful in addressing this problem. Whether they solve it is another issue...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Another Problem for the Future of Science and Religion


(I'm continuing this series on the future of the dialogue of science and religion by citing the problems I've observed in emerging adults' engagement with this topic.)

For many young adults, the topic of science and religion seems too heady, takes too much effort, and is not connected with pressing life issues.

 

This is a problem that is not too different from the general cultural trend away from intellectual engagement. When I look over the U. S. cultural context, I see a nation that doesn’t spend excessive time in working its brains. Thinking does in fact involve work--if nothing else, the use of glucose in brain activity. It may also disturb formerly held patterns of thought. 

I have also mentioned in other contexts (e.g., chapter 7 of C. S. Lewis and theCrisis of a Christian) that the American context places an enormous weight on how we feel and what we’ve experienced. In some ways, this is a part of our marketing-advertising culture. In another, it’s a legacy of religious revivalism. What I emphasize in Lewis's writing is his conviction that letting emotions serve as the sole arbiter of truth isn't beneficial, but neither is entirely detached intellectual speculation. The resolution is to bring together feelings and thoughts. I'll insert an excerpt below:
Lewis was not given over simply to intellectual abstraction either. He believed that what we know must affect our lives. In this way, he mirrors the biblical emphasis on the heart not as the arbiter of emotions but as the center of action. So it’s neither feelings nor abstract cognition that matters. Eugene Peterson, when he paraphrases the Bible in The Message, gets it exactly right in his rendering of Galatians 5:25: “Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives” (italics are mine).  Mere ideas and changeable feelings do not themselves lead to action. Or as Lewis put in the mouth of Screwtape, his nephew Wormwood must “prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it . . . Let him do anything but act.” (C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, pages 112-2).
A strategy for responding might also imply an angle of approach. It is also an issue of strategy for any number of topics—how do we help young adults want to engage intellectual issues, to bring thought to life? Generally, a key method is to demonstrate how the intellectual issue is not simply detached, but has practical relevance. In this case, it could be tapping into the topic of technology. 18-30 year olds seems more connected with how their iPhone might affect their happiness than whether the quantum theory supports belief in God. Minimally, it’s going to require engaging communicators who in many ways, want to reanimate intellectual work as a good human endeavor. Besides that, I have to admit we are swimming here against a strong cultural current.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Problems for Young Adults' Integrating Religion and Science

I’m not one of those people who believes that you can transform every problem into a “challenge” or an “opportunity.” With that in mind, as I think back about my interviews with emerging adults (18-30 years old) for my current research project on science and religion, Science for Students and Emerging Young Adults (or SEYA), I see several problems we have to face. I'll be posting those on this blog in a sort of raw form. So don't be surprised if they feel unfinished, and the incomplete nature of these posts implies that I'd be really interested in your comments.

First, emerging adults sense that religion is against—is at war with—science (and vice versa, to some degree). They may not actually feel it themselves, but they hear it on the news. 

This is one of the biggest problems to face when discussing religion and science with emerging adults. There are certain statements from prestigious organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, which states, “Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.” According the noted researchers Christian Smith and Kyle Longest (behind paywall), 70% of 18-23 year olds “agree” or “strongly agree” that the statement that the teachings of religion and science conflict.  The discussion on the Internet is similarly largely critical and hostile toward religious faith. As one post stated: “The Internet will kill religion.” And another opined: “Jesus will soon go the way of Zeus and Osiris.” And there’s the series of memes like “Let me introduce you to my bronze age sky god.” Another key problem here is that emerging adults don’t seem to be aware of the key voices, such as Francis Collins, which are presenting an integration of these discipline.

Therefore many don’t think the integration of religion and science is possible. 

This point is really a subset of the previous one—many emerging adults don’t see a possibility for bringing the two together. This is fairly close to tautological: if 18-30 year olds don’t see a possibility, one had to overcome inertia for there to be a dialogue.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A New Creation Story (A Guest Blog)

The debate on this blog about the fine-tuning argument continues. Here's a contribution from friend, fellow scholar, and philosopher Ric Machuga.


In the beginning there were ten gazillion Possible Universes floating about in absolutely nothing. The vast, overwhelming majority, however, were very uninteresting, even ugly, because hidden deep within their inter workings were the “Laws of Nature.” These Laws were even more abstract and ethereal than the ten gazillion Possible Universes, yet the Law’s hegemony was complete. They reigned omnipotently over all the mere “possibilities.” Nor was their reign a benevolent reign. You see, these Laws dictated that in all but one or two cases, any of these Possible Universes which ever saw the light of day would either collapse in a tiny, fraction of a second after their birth or they would expand endlessly and mindlessly without forming anything even so interesting as a single star, much less galaxies, supernovas, or elements other than hydrogen. Nonetheless, all these Possible Universes hoped and prayed that they would be picked by that Something or Someone who confers existence upon their mere possibly.
13.7 billion years after “Possibility 3,456,784,890,231,567” was chosen by the mysterious Something or Someone, scientists discovered what the Laws of Nature had timelessly dictated: of all the ten gazillion Possible Universes that could have been selected by the mysterious Conferer of Existence, only “Possibility 3,456,784,890,231,567” had hidden deep in its bowels the mathematical ratios that would allow it to create Stars, and then, iron, then stable solar systems, and finally scientists themselves.
Yet, this so called “fine-tuning” of their own universe came as a big surprise to many of these scientists. Ever since Copernicus and Galileo, scientists had adopted the metaphysical principle that there could be nothing special about the place where they lived. So when they discovered that there were ten gazillion other “possible universes,” all which would have been either totally boring or a mere flash in the pan, a heated debate began. Some scientists were bold enough to say that the fine-tuning of our universe strongly suggested that the “Conferer of Existence” must have been an extremely Intelligent Selector, elsewise how could she or he have known which of the ten gazillion possible universes would be able to produce them?
Other physicists and cosmologists were not willing to give up their metaphysical principle of non-specialness, and argued that in some strange place and way all these ten gazillion Possible Universes actually existed, so the fact that we happen to exist in this possible universe does not violate the supreme metaphysical principle of non-specialness. After all, if Possibility 3,456,784,890,231,567 had not been selected, then no scientist would exist to be surprised!
When St. Thomas Aquinas first heard this new creation story he was struck by its audacity. He had thought that the old story was sufficiently audacious—to be told that God literally spoke the universe into existence using nothing more than his own Word is not an easy concept to grasp! And even when we consider our mundane corner of the universe where we have direct experience, the intricate functionality of its organisms makes “our knowledge is so incomplete,” as he used to say, “that no one has ever been able to completely understand the nature of a single fly.”
Sure, Aquinas was willing to grant that since his time scientists had learned much about how things worked in our universe. But what new discovery permitted these physicists and cosmologists to speak with such confidence about what must happen in every conceivable universe? Doesn’t our understanding of the “laws of nature” derive from experience? So how could we have a clue about what “laws of nature” operate in merely “possible universes,” which by definition don’t even exist?
Besides, physicists and cosmologists are not the only kind of scientists. Biologists have also learned much, one of which is that the hegemonic “Laws of Nature” physicists and cosmologists so revere don’t reign unchallenged in the world of evolutionary biology. There “stochastic processes” (what Aquinas called accidental causes) also play a significant role. So are physicists and cosmologists really claiming to have figured out how these “stochastic process” work in the ten gazillion “other” (non-existent!) universes?

The more Aquinas thought about the developments in physics and cosmology over the last twenty years, the more audacious they appeared. Then he read a popular piece by Alan Lightman, himself a physicists, explaining that “Theoretical physicists are Platonists” whose hope and goal is to one day demonstrate that the entire universe is “generated from a few mathematical truths and principles of symmetry, perhaps throwing in a handful of parameters like the mass of the electron.” With a twinkle in his eye, Aquinas then exclaimed, “Now I understand. Today’s physicists and cosmologists prefer Plato’s world of ideal forms to Aristotle’s world of actual things and organisms!”

Friday, March 13, 2015

AAAS "Perceptions" Conference

Is there any way to bring together religious and scientific communities? The early church thinker Tertullian famously posed the question, 
“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” 
What can the church have to discuss with those outside? Or more contemporarily, the physicist Lawrence Krauss has asserted, 
“Science is only truly consistent with an atheistic worldview.”
 There would seem to be, from either the religious or scientific, no connection.

But we’re about to hear some different answers this week through a conference put together the world’s largest scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, as it’s better know. “Perceptions,” is a day-long event that certainly has its share of superstars: Nobel Laureate physicist William D. Phillips, well-known Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, celebrated author and speaker Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, and President of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson.

All this arises from the work of AAAS’s DoSER, or Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, a program, which is 30 years old and is now headed by Jennifer Wiseman, an MIT and Harvard-trained astronomer of no mean standing. Having served as Senior Program Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA, she’s now Senior Astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. As she commented, 
I believe it is important to rejuvenate our congregations with a sense of joy and unity in contemplating the magnificence of Creation, with forefront scientific knowledge.”
That summarizes quite a bit about this conference.

Yes, the participants may be worth listening to, but what are they going to address? I know there will be origins (which means evolution versus creation), climate science, global health, science and the religious communities. I mentioned that last one, because that’s where I’ll make a contribution, through a project I’m directing on how 18-30 year olds view science and faith, is to take part on a panel with other members of religious communities (both Jewish and Protestant) which have sought to bring science to faith.

My experience is there’s a lot to talk about and that the students I’ve been interviewing want to know how to bring the two together. In fact, one sophomore told me religion and science are like “peanut butter and jelly—you can’t have one without the other.” The metaphor may not work for all of us, but I got the point. Despite the fact that over 2/3rds of 18-23 year olds see—or perhaps better, hear about—a conflict between religion and science (may they caught Lawrence Krauss on YouTube), many want to find reconciliation.

Here's my summary for today's talk in just three points:
  1. Yes, integrating faith and science can be done, and it’s an important task.
  2. Do this work through relationships, particularly with scientists we know.
  3. Take it in steps. Begin the dialogue. You don’t have to finish it in our conversation.


To be sure, there obviously some contrasting perspectives, like the 20-year old sophomore who told me, “A lot of people think we’re going to figure everything out one day.” If that’s the perception, it’s going to be hard for this conversation to gain much traction. But, I suppose, that’s what this conference is designed to help sort out.