Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Souls Old and New

My brother (a philosophical sort, to be sure) came to me many years ago in a bit of consternation and announced, 
“I’m not sure I believe human beings have a soul. But, if I don’t have an enduring soul, in what sense am I the same person in the past, as I am today and will in the future?”
This is what I grew up with.

At the time, I have to admit that, I didn’t have a readymade answer. (To be honest, I was somewhere in my teens probably trying to figure out other weighty questions like who my prom date would be.) Nonetheless, the subject of soul endures through time, and is the topic of this week’s post. Why? 

First of all, I’ve been in Oxford, England the past few days talking with two philosophers and a pastor (this sounds like the lead up to a joke) about various philosophical topics. (The central theme has been the meaning of life, but I’ll leave that for another time.) In our time together, I’ve realized again how important the soul is. 

First of all—and this brings me into my usual realm for this blog, that of science and religion—it seems to me that the current trend of many scientific worldviews is toward a materialist conception of human life in which our selves are a constantly changing, thus non-enduring, collection of molecules. (As a scholar of religion, I’d have to add that this sounds a great deal like the Buddhist teaching of anatta,or “no soul.”) And this materialist version of science takes us away from an enduring, persisting soul. Another way to put this is that our souls are really simply our minds and our mind is, to quote Marvin Minsky, 
“The mind is what the brain does.” Marvin Minsky
Secondly, what is it?
If we were to rely on Webster’s dictionary for the its definition, the soulis this: “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” Webster’s dictionary
Fair enough, maybe not sufficiently theologically nuanced, but the definition will work as long we don’t fall into the “substance dualism”—that body and soul are two distinct entities and that the soul fills the body in some way similar to air filling a bike tire. The biblical texts teach us that we are much more interconnected in a body-soul unity. 

Christians, it seems to me, are convinced that there’s something more than just the material body, something that God has given us. If we’re created by the God who loves us then we need to have some way to relate to our Creator, and the soul provides us a way to do just that. It is also who we are. We talk about the soul as “the embodiment of some quality.” “She is the soul of this institution.” That’s the sense I’m talking about.

So how am I the same person as in 1978 (see the picture) as I am today? In some ways, I hope not. But at the same time, I’m thankful that the core of whom I am endures, repents and thus changes. And through it all, there’s a God who loves me.

P.S. If you want to go a bit further with the question of "What is the soul?" try this lecture from psychiatrist Iain McGilchrest.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Sage Advice

Here’s a piece of sage advice:
“The easiest thing to create is a pile of garbage. Just throw a piece of paper in the corner of a room, and watch what happens in just a few minutes.”
Think about it—when some expresses an attitude that brings down an organization or a community, it doesn’t take long for others to follow. When you, as one particular example, create garbage discussions of faith and science, almost anyone can come along
and thrown in a piece of garbage advice.

Incidentally, I like this proverb better than the better known, “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” (despite of course the Jackson Five’s contributions), which is essentially a more passive image. A garbage pile elicits active, if at times unconscious, contributions, but it demonstrates that we indeed play a part with our actions.

And that’s the problem with any number of societal ills and our discussion of them. Today, it often involves assuming a victim’s role in. And I’m tired of that. Because frankly, there are some true victims in the United States (which I know, to some degree, because my wife Laura directs our local ministry for the homeless in Chico). The true victims rarely get the mic, as it were. So if you hear victimization loud and clear, be forewarned.

Take our consistent cavils by our President about the “mainstream media” as if his cozy relationship with Fox and Friendsisn’t an alliance with a wildly popular news program. How can we, except by a certain perverse logic, describe this top-rated TV show as anything but mainstream? And then of course, the media outlets that dislike President Trump return the favor by ready themselves to spin everything to the negative and pronouncing a daily dose of everything dire.

Ah, it’s tiring…

That’s also the problem with the "conflict thesis" as the most accurate relationship of science and religion (first promoted by Andrew Dickson White and William Draper in the 19th century, and that still lives on today in Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins). When we start throwing garbage out there, it attracts other pieces of similarly useless opinion to be thrown in the garbage corner. 

That’s why I found this radio interview last week about my book, Mere Science and Christian Faith to be some needed oxygen. Al Kresta is a Catholic thinker who grasps the topic of science and faith with sensitivity and insight, which meant of course that he knows how to ask questions that push the conversation forward. Instead of into the garbage pile. If you want to here it, start at about 22:40 here.

Can we make a pact? Let’s be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Let’s not create garbage.

(And, by the way, it was my father—a true sound lay philosopher—who gave me this advice, and though he’s gone, who’s insights I still treasure.)

Thursday, June 07, 2018

“Let Others Wrangle, I Will Wonder,” A Travelogue

Since the last post, I’ve participated in some truly invigorating conversations about faith and science, especially as they transpire in Christian congregations. These discussions raised various thoughts in my brain—conclusions, questions, and a few big insights.
Last week, I and my colleague on the STEAM project, Drew Rick-Miller, invited ten Christian thought leaders to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena last week. Our task was to evaluate the 2011-14 Scientists in Congregations project, which paired a scientist and a pastor in 37 congregation in the U.S., Canada, and even Paris, France for purpose of integrating bring faith and science in the form of classes, conferences, sermons, small group discussions, and whatever other creative and productive formats they created. 
Among I heard many insights worthy of recording (though I won’t do that here), the resounding answer was that it—this integration—has to feel like it’s vital. I really mean vital, as in its root, the Latin vitalis “of or belonging to life.” Does this make a difference to my life, especially my life with Christ?

Sure, the ten core thought leaders we invited didn’t need to be convinced, but as a result one wondered if we were simply hearing ourselves in an echo chamber. If we let the echoes fade away, a lingering question speaks in the silence, Why would anybody else find this interesting?I used to denigrate this approach, but in order for this conversation to take place, it has to attach to some conviction, some interest, some need that’s deeply felt. 

More recently—in fact, Tuesday—the leading sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund curated a conversation at Rice University Religion and Public Life Project and brought together various thought leaders (including several pastors) to discuss her recent research and book on the topic of “what Christians think about science.” But it was much more. In the discussion, we considered why indeed this might be a topic of consideration for the church, which it isn’t entirely self-evident.

Again, there were so many notable insights, but I will only note my favorite quote from the day together:
 “Let others wrangle, I will wonder” (Augustine). 
I love that. Because there is a great deal of fairly loud static, whether it’s the shrill cries of Richard Dawkins “Belief in God is a delusion,” or the equally disturbing declaration of Ray Comfort that greeted me as I thumbed through pages a Santa Ana Airport store on my way to Houston and thus Rice University: “If evolution is true, then the Bible is false.” Just to emphasize the obvious--this was inside a public place not within the walls of a fundamentalist church. (See the pics.) 

At the heart of the church’s enterprise is to help us wonder at the mystery of God and at the beauty of creation. Let's not lose that in the midst of din of media voices.

Augustine of Hippo
And it was this great intellectual voice from antiquity, Augustine from the African city of Hippo, that carried our conversation toward something that we in fact needed: to move past the “conflict thesis”—the idea, promoted by Cornell founder Andrew Dickson White in the late nineteenth century, that religion and science have been, and will always be, in conflict. This was Fox News vs. CNN before television existed (which, by the way, I watched on the plane home). 

Certainly, some feel the conflict—and it needs to be addressed—but that’s not going to sustain the inherent question of wonder that drives science and interests those who don’t practice science.

“Let others wrangle, I will wonder.” 

That’s something worth remembering.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Speaking Sense to a Listening World

This post is an adapted form of the message I preached on the Friday following Pentecost at the final worship gathering of the STEAM (Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries) grantees. It summarizes so much about why I believe this engagement of faith and science is critical for the church and for the world.
We closed the worship in a circle singing "Amazing Grace."
The year was 1710, the year (I’m told) that Queen Anne approached the architect Christopher Wren and offered her assessment of his newly finished St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. She declared three simple words: “awful, artificial, amusing.” 
To us, who don’t understand the vernacular of 18thcentury British English, this might sound incredibly offensive. But instead of offense, Wren felt flattered. Her words? “awful” (inspiring awe), “artificial” (full of artistry), and “amusing” (amazing).
Which brings me to my central point: It is important to know words at a particular time and contest in order to understand their meaning.

My wife Laura and I lived in Germany between my Master of Divinity and my doctorate. It was a glorious year in some many ways, and one of the glories consisted in learning the German language. But the subtleties of the complex German language can be tricky. I studied theological texts with my Duden dictionary by my side, sometimes looking up 20 to 30 words a page and written meanings in the margin. I also had to pick up household German and mastered words, which proved advantageous for everyday life, like Steckdose(electric outlet or socket). One other trick consisted in listening to the radio, and in the process I learned news and how to speak about heavy traffic, or ein Stau,on the A4 autobahn. 
One day in fall, Laura got a head cold and didn’t quite know the right word to tell the doctors. I was so excited, and blurted out, “I know—I’ve got the perfect phrase!” And so I taught her. We headed into downtown Tuebingen. She walked up the pharmacist (which in Germany is where some of our medical consults happen) and exclaimed with utter confidence, “Ich hab einen Stau in der Nase!” which essentially means “I have a traffic jam in my nose.” 

Learning the intricacies of any language presents significant challenges. Today, in our scientifically and technologically saturated world, one of the languages in which we are to speak is the language of science. We’ve got to get it right. Let’s look at the text of Pentecost and discover some electrifying truths about the Spirit’s gift of languages that help us speak sense to a listening world.

Acts 2 (NRSV)
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 
         5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native languageParthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

The pouring of the Spirit
From this text, we learn three major truths: the first two I will only outline, but the third I will develop at greater length.
The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost is the birth of the church. Put simply without the Spirit, the church has no life. And sometimes it’s better to know the Spirit through what the Spirit does. And what does the Spirit do? Create in the Christian community two fluencies.

The Jewish celebration of Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks, celebrated the giving of the law. Notice in verse 2 that the Spirit comes in the style of God’s appearances from the Hebrew Scriptures. Just like when God came “a whirlwind” to speak to God (see, for example, Job 38:1). Here too the Spirit comes “with a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” 
The second aspect to notice is a contrast with the Hebrew Bible. There, the Spirit was given to specific people at specific times for specific tasks (such as with Othniel in Judges 3:1). In this case, verse 4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Not just some, but all. This is very important: the Spirit is given to the young and the old, to women and men, to slaves and to free.

A fluency in the Gospel
The first fluency is a fluency in the fundamentals of the Good News about God’s work in Jesus Christ. This is a critical task for any church.
If you want to experience this fluency, read ahead. See what story Peter tells in verses 14-36: the fulfillment of prophecy in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and especially the call to respond to this message. That’s fluency in the Good News of Jesus the Christ.

A fluency in dialects
But I'm focusing on the the second fluency: learning the native language of those who have not yet heard the Gospel. This theme I would like to develop most of all.
It has been said that we all tell jokes, experience pain, swear, and dream in our native language. The Spirit leads the church to speak languages that outsiders can understand. This is the “fluency in the culture.” But in this passage, the abiding meaning is that God wants us to speak the vernacular, the “native language” (verse 8) that people can understand. (Notice as well the related word, translated as “tongues,” appears four times in the passage.) 
The impressive biblical scholar I. Howard Marshall, in his commentary on the book of Acts, sets out an answer to the question, How could Galileans speak in all the people’s languages?
“It has been objected that probably most of the crowd would speak Aramaic or Greek, the two languages which the disciples would also speak, and that therefore the miracle of tongues was unnecessary. But this difficulty must surely have been obvious to Luke also. What was significant was the various vernacularlanguages of these peoples were being spoken.”
Most of people coming to Jerusalem would have known Greek or Aramaic, but here God leads the church to speak in the common language of each person. Philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists and others tell us that language is the root component of who we are. God is communicating here that we aren’t simply known by the God as “a person,” but as Siri, or as Michelle, or as Ron, or as Melissa, or John.
This means we have to work hard to get the words just right. As Mark Twain once quipped, the difference between the right word and almost right word is the contrast between “lightening” and “lightening bug.”
I believe one of the main areas today is the language of science. Let’s make sure we find the right words.

The language we dream in
The first time I preached this message was at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City on Sunday School recognition Sunday. Why did the topic concern me and what did it have to do with the day? I thought of my then-5 ½ year old daughter Melanie. You see, she often mentioned to Laura and me, “I want to be a scientist.” (In fact, just last year she graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University with a degree in anthropology.) Here’s the problem: as a scientist in our congregation once said about much of natural science today: “They’re atheists, and they have the best science.” I never wanted my daughter, or any other church kid for that matter, to be forced to decide to between good science and her faith. I don’t want any of the Sunday school children to have to split their Christian faith from their thinking.

The angular effect of ethical engagement
Speaking the language of technology and science means that sometimes we in the church have to speak challenging, ethical words because science does not have within it the ability to boundary itself. 
During those WWII years, the Nazi regime had very few resisters. One of the few was the small Confessing Church in Germany led by the theologian Karl Barth. They said a distinct No to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews because—as they put it—Jesus Christ is the “One Word we have to hear and to obey in life and in death.”
One young physicist expelled from German was Albert Einstein who later said of the Barmen declaration. (I’d like to think it’s possible he reflected on as he walked past my alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary on Mercer Street on his way home.) He made this observation:
“Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration for it because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual and moral freedom. I am forced to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”
Work out all y'all's salvation
I conclude by turning to a final text, Philippians 2:12-13 (NRSV):
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;  for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Just so we understand this passage, this is about not working for our salvation, but about working out our salvation. It’s not a faith versus works text. The verb katergazomai means to “work out the implications.” Work out what God has worked in. Even more interesting, in this passage, the Greek word for “you” in verse 13 is plural, and “salvation” is singular. In others—and here I’ll lean what I’ve learned from the Southern dialect: “All y’all, work out your singular salvation.”
What does that look like? 
  • What does speaking the language of science and technology mean when you’re sharing the Gospel in light of evolutionary science in Canada, or witnessing to the integration of mainstream science and mere Christianity on Facebook?
  • What does it look like when you’re ministering to students at Cal Tech, NYU, and the University of Madison?
  • What does engage faith and science sound like in the dialects of Oklahoma City, Nashville, and New York City?
I don’t entirely know. I’m not in your contexts. I don’t know your specific dialects. So you tell me.... Or better, you tell them--those to whom you’ll go back to after this conference.
And so I close with this prayer: May you STEAM grantees know the Power of the Spirit to speak languages that a listening world wants to hear. May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Thinking Like a None

Last week I stopped by setting out questions from the nones (i.e., those who profess no religious affiliation). In a way, since I’m a Christian, this is an act of imagination. But in another, it’s clearly not. I grew up in a non-religious environment. This leads to a number of things, but one is that I often fall prey to thinking that God might just be inside my head. (This I learned from the 19thcentury philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach that we make a god in our image.)

As I post this blog I've briefly snuck of out a conference this week. This event has brought together over 50 leaders in Christian ministries throughout the United States, with a couple in Canada, who have received money through I grant I manage (called STEAM) to bring together Christian faith and mainstream science, especially as it relates to the lives of 18-30 year olds.
Conference of STEAM grantees

The current cultural moment is important. We are grasped by a culture war that pits one side against another—one that holds to traditional Christian values against radical secularist, atheist, scientific values. The first rejects the science behind climate change and evolution, and other ungodly ideas in order to assert beneath mainstream science lurk forces that are anti-God. This is certainly the case with the more radical elements of the science and religion like Answers in Genesis, who teach that the earth is only thousands of years young, but even the more intellectually credible Discovery Institute who often complain—in shorthand—that scientific agencies like the NAS and AAAS are “out to get them.”

If this were a real dichotomy and I were thinking like a none, I know the choice I’d be forced to make. I’d go for the truth we find in science and conclude that Christianity has nothing to offer. I’d say, I want to go where the evidence is. I want to support people who believe in a planet for future generations and the best description of how we as humans came to be. 

Thankfully, there are other options.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Peering Into the Horizon of Faith-Science-Technology: Some Questions

This is part two on where we’re headed in the interaction of Christian faith with science and technology. 

There's a particular reason for these reflections. I’m working on a talk for next week that’s giving me a bit of grief. At my own urging (i.e., I have no one else to blame), I’m going to address the recipients of the science-faith grant (STEAM) with the question, 
“Where is this conversation about Christian faith and science—as well as the closely related issue of technology—headed?” 
As I mentioned this question is giving me grief, and I'd like to think it shouldn't. I’ve often thought that I’m the kind of futurist, always seeking to discern what’s on the horizon, what storm is on the way, or what sun is just beginning to peer into my world. But these topics seem honestly opaque to me. So continuing from last week's format, instead of answers, let’s begin with questions. Last post, I addressed scientific topics, but I found in 
one study I directed, SEYA, that 18-30 year olds see technology and science as inextricably linked, even coterminous. I would even say then that this is an emerging trend. 

Technology in general and "the technique": The topic is, to use legal jargon, “overly broad,” and my two chapters in Mere Science and Christian Faith just begin an exploration. Nonetheless, techie toys, like smart phones, social media, laptops, video conferencing, define our world. How is this world something that is still (to quote the hymn) “My Father’s World”? Or is it, in fact the world of another power? The key to all this—certainly in its harmful effects—is what the famed 20th century French sociologist Jacques Ellul named technique
Jacques Ellul
“Technique is the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute  efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” Jacques Ellul
Is there room for our humanity even in a world that's been over-run not just with technology, but with an obsession with "technique." 

AI and Transhumanism: I have separated this from technology because the promise of technology to create minds like we have (Artificial Intelligence) or at least something works better than Siri. It also brings out the question, if we do create intelligence robots, will they be persons and thus, will they have to pay taxes? (There may even be a few more serious questions than that, but I'll start there."
Do you ever feel, in light of these questions, like these guys?

Growth of the nones: As I’ve mentioned in other places, I grew up in a happy secular Silicon Valley and had minimal religious input before adulthood. So in short I vibe with the nones, with those who mark “none” on surveys that ask, “What is your religious affiliation?” With the increase in scientific and technological thinking, unaffiliation or disaffiliation in churches and other religious communities will increase. It’s already running almost 40% for 18-30 year olds. Is there any way, for those of us who would like the church to exist, to forestall this trend?

There you have. A number of tough questions and pretty much no answers. At least from me at this moment...

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Thinking Like the Devil's Advocate

Many don’t appreciate the role of “The Devil’s Advocate.” But that’s the part I’m going to play in this post. So it’s important to set things straight.

The first thing to grasp is that Devil’s Advocate or (Advocatus Diaboli in Latin) is a
Reeves as lawyer (or advocate) for the Devil (Pacino)
Not what I'm talking about here
technical position in the Roman Catholic Church. To clarify, I’ll let the online Catholic Encyclopedia do some heavy lifting. 
"A popular title given to one of the most important officers of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, established in 1587, by Sixtus V, to deal juridically with processes of beatification and canonization. His official title is Promoter of the Faith (Promotor Fidei). His duty requires him to prepare in writing all possible arguments, even at times seemingly slight, against the raising of any one to the honours of the altar."
And though I believe in the importance of integrating mainstream science with mere Christianity, I thought I’d think like the Devil for this post (and maybe the next one) and pose some demanding questions. They aren’t entirely a surprise, many make their way into Mere Science and Christian Faith and are part of my research for an upcoming book, Science and Religion in the United States: The Present State and Future Directions.

Nevertheless, what are the toughest issues facing science and Christian faith? Here are four categories.
  1. Evolution: To paraphrase Jesus (cf. Mark 14:7), “Evolution you will always have with you.” In fact, it may represent an eternal hot button issue. (In fact, some say that by accepting evolutionary theory we may be placing ourselves in an eternally hot place. That seems to me like hyperbole.) Since I, listening to the consensus of mainstream science, don’t see this is a theory that has guided scientific research in a variety of fields for almost 160 years going away, I have a question or two. What does it mean to assert that God creates through evolutionary processes? What do we do with those who see this as contradictory to God’s creation? How does this make us, as homo sapiens, nothing entirely special in the animal kingdom?
  2. Sexuality/LBGTQ: We used to think science wasn’t that sexy, now that’s changed. Whenever I talk about science with emerging adults, I hear the questions like, “Doesn’t science tell us that we don’t choose to be gay?” Is it true that the church that doesn’t embrace gay and lesbian Christians appears ignorant? 
  3. Genetics: Let’s just take one example: CRISPER gene editing represents a powerful means of changing ourselves through gene therapies in ways that will affect future generations. Why not use this technology for the good? Why is the church standing in the way like they’ve always done? And in general, are we “nothing but” our genes? 
  4. Cognitive science and neuroscience: Functional Magnetic Imaging Resonances (FMRIs) seems to show some fairly clear things about what happens inside our noggins. As the Harvard scientist Stephen Pinker asserts, “I want to convince you that our minds are not animated by some godly vapor or single wonder-principle.” Does science rid us finally believing there’s a soul? Is God all in our heads? Or even more, is my thinking and feeling—the components that make me—simply a physical process like digestion? 

This heads in a slightly different direction, but I like it...
The Catholic dictionary continues on the role of the Advocatus Diaboli
“The interest and honour of the Church are concerned in preventing any one from receiving those honours whose death is not juridically proved to have been ‘precious in the sight of God.’”
In closing, I sense deeply that I may be able to formulate some questions and a few responses, but the horizons are beyond my vision. I know I need colleagues on this journey. Even more, I hope that’s what I’m trying to do here as the Advocatus Diaboli for the integration of mainstream science and Christian faith. Let’s not declare honorifics on too easy resolution. Maybe this work is even precious in the sight of God.

What do you think? Are there tough questions about Christian faith and science that you’d like to post below?