Monday, June 19, 2017

Sexuality: When We Ask Too Much of Science (Part Two)

Last week I touched on climate change and the ways we ask too much from science.

With sexuality, we often ask too much in an almost diametrically opposed way. We demand that scientific studies tells us more than it’s able, believing that science can determine and not inform our ethics. This is another mistake of relating the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture (to use that well-worn analogy). But there are fundamental limits to what we can learn from the natural world.

In one of my interviews with emerging adults I talked with Tracy, age 19, who told me quite confidently: 
“It’s proven in science that you don’t choose to be gay. Denying that makes you look ignorant.” 
And I can assure that this position is popular with 18-30 year old (according to surveys and particularly in my conversations). Our genes fully determine our sexuality and sexual behavior. 
“The genes made me do it. and will always make me do it.” 
Whatever the “it” is.

But if our genes made us do it, then where is our moral agency for any action? These are questions that our theological and philosophical traditions have wrestled with for centuries.

It may be necessary to understand any genetic correlations with sexual orientation, but I believe that’s insufficient for our ethics, sexual or otherwise, and I call on the best ethical and biblical minds in the church to keep engaging these questions using science as a guide but not a dictator. How we end up on all this is not entirely clear. Put thought leaders like Rachel Held Evans, N. T. Wright, Jen Hatmaker, Tim Keller, and Rob Bell in one room, and I think there’d be more than one opinion. In fact, I’d direct you to any of their works for thoughtful ethical conversation about sexual ethics.

The point of all this is that the Two Books must be read as complementary. To respect their differences is to realize that they have different insights to share.

Where are you on sexual ethics and science? How much do scientific studies tell us about sexuality?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Gratitude & the Good Life (excerpt)

This piece appears on my HuffPost blog (and more can be found here), but I thought you might want a taste.
“There are two types of people—those who divide people into two types and everyone else.” Mark Twain
With Twain in mind (as he indeed did cleave humanity in twain with this quip), 
I’m willing to say that there are two basic approaches to our existence: 
Life either bursts with meaning, and we can receive it as a glorious gift. 
Or it is meaningless and that makes life a dull fact.
It doesn’t take much scrutiny to find that the Bible teaches the first alternative is better. 
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” as Paul summarized it in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. 
Well, in addition to the Scriptures, it also seems like several contemporary sciences are doing the same thing.
This may not be news to some, but studies of gratitude and its positive benefits. 
(I’ll use thankfulness as a synonym to avoid repetitiveness) have become a cottage industry. 
There’s a wealth of information on both the benefits of thankfulness and the ways to cultivate it. 
Simply put, it seems that gratitude makes us healthy. [I close with this....]
Gratitude is intimately tied with praise, which is, as C.S. Lewis put it, "inner health made audible." 
Gratitude is the proper stimulus to love the other. 
And maybe that’s where praise, gratitude, and love come together.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Global Climate Change: We Ask Too Much of Science

(One note: Check out the new gadget where you can sign up to have my blog posts sent directly to your email. It's just to the right of this sentence!)

One of the tried and true ways to relate the Bible and the discoveries of science has been the Two Books model. There’s the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, and God is their sole Author. Francis Bacon, one of the pioneers of modern science, phrased it this way, 
"God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation." Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
So ultimately a contradiction between the Two Books is impossible.

But I often ask myself, “Are there times when I’m asking too much of science? Can it really answer more directly the questions that Christians have puzzled over for centuries by looking at Scripture, seeking discernment in prayer and community?” 

Responding to those questions is what this blog post intends to do.

Like any association between two different entities—in this case, science and faith—resolving contradictions can be tricky. This makes it tempting to think that both parties are exactly the same. (I won’t go into the marriage analogies, but they’re there.) If we give the Two Books the same weight and voice, the Book of Nature can itself become sacred and direct the Christian community and its ethics. 

Put another way, misreading the book of Nature leads us to make too much of science. And I hear that done in two different ways with a duo of contemporary issues: global climate change (this week) and sexuality (next week).

With climate change, many Americans are under-informed by the science and particularly the fact that many scientists and Christians today are calling for a response to global climate change. A large majority of scientists are convinced that climate change is occurring and that human activity is responsible. 
“97% of the scientists surveyed agreed that global temperatures had increased during the past 100 years; 84% said they personally believed human-induced warming was occurring, and 74% agreed that ‘currently available scientific evidence’ substantiated its occurrence.”
They are joined by leading voices like Pope Francis and the National Association of Evangelicals, along with leading climate scientist and evangelical Katherine Hayhoe
“Climate change is here and now, and not in some distant time or place. The choices we're making today will have a significant impact on our future.”

But why does Hayhoe think it’s human caused? As she points out, when we look at the rise of global temperatures since 1900—in other words, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and its release of carbon dioxide—the signs of human causes for climate change are fairly clear.

It strikes me that the consensus is clear enough. We resist (e.g., President Trump’s withdrawing from the Paris climate accords) not only for scientific reasons. Some certainly see the economic loss—and those motivated by greed need to be frankly resisted. Others truly fear a livelihood in industries that are threatened (like coal), and I believe that we need to be sensitive to these concerns. Others don’t believe government should enforce the solution. 

But let's not ask science to tell us what our moral wills don’t want to do.Global climate change represents one pressing issue that we have to consider as stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). When the planet is threatened by our actions over which we are stewards, we have to re-evaluate all these calculations. Most of all, we need to concern ourselves for the poor who bear the brunt of climate change. We also need to think about the future. Yes, Jesus might return at any moment, but I want to be found caring for a world that our children will inherit.

What do you think? Why don’t we listen to scientists about climate change? And more generally, how do you relate the Book of nature to the Book of Scripture?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On Creation, Beauty, and Science

I just finished up a manuscript for InterVarsity Press, Mere Science and Christian Faith. There's a round of editing to come before it appears in early 2018. Until that happens, here's an adapted excerpt on creation, beauty, and science.

We are created to relate to the creation around us. The thrill of scientists is that the natural world is exciting to discover. And that begins the process of science. There we almost spontaneously praise our Creator. Jeff Hardin, zoologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, summarized it so well at a recent BioLogos science and Christian faith conference: “Why be a scientist? Worship.” In this very sense, the Psalmist was acting as a natural scientist when he exclaimed,
What a wildly wonderful world, God!    You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,    made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.
Psalm 104:24, The Message
The study of nature is the beginning of science and thus the calling for scientists. But it’s really for all believers. Back again to the psalms, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1, NIV). Many of us have become dulled to nature’s divine speech, and scientists help tune our ears to the mystery of a starlight night, the sophisticated order of our bodies, and the glorious structures of physical systems. In a graduate seminar on theology and science, I listened to a Berkeley biochemist describe for us non-scientists the formations of polymers. (Full disclosure: Until that moment, I had never carefully observed polymers.) He showed us a magnified picture and in the midst of a careful description, he just couldn’t help himself with a surprising re-discovery of something he already knew: “Look how beautiful these are!” After forty years of university teaching, his wonder and excitement was still fresh.

This is wonder based on beauty. When we grasp beauty in nature, we are drawn to the Source of beauty. And the nature of beauty is that it draws us in. I was reminded by David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite that in Eastern Orthodoxy, theology begins with philokalia, or “the love of beauty.” I've also been reading Jonathan Edwards for the next book I'm writing, who, like the great Puritan pastors of the eighteenth century, studied both nature and Scripture as sources for finding beauty. Edwards wrote,
For as God is infinitely the greatest being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.
And there truth becomes beautiful. And I hope my meaning in that sentence isn't lost: rhetoric—as an 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.
This is a particular beauty, the beauty of life’s making sense, of satisfying our need for deep abiding happiness, for Aristotle’s “human flourishing,” and for Jesus’s promise of “abundant life” (John 10:10). Drawing on these ancient, wise voices indicates that this obviously is not a new idea, and I concur here with the great French physicist Henri Poincaré,
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….
Let’s can join hands with Poincaré and with the ancient theologian’s philokalia. Let's weave together mainstream science and mere Christianity into what is truly beautiful and beautifully true.

Friday, February 24, 2017

God's Eternity Now (A Sketch)

I'm working on a paper about God's eternity and specifically whether God is timeless or temporal in some way. Here are a few notes. (It's been way too long since I posted here....)

The decisive Christian analogy concerning time is that between the eternal indwelling in time and the incarnation. Brilliantly, the classical exegetes taught that the creation of time is analogous to the incarnation in this way: The Father inhabits time, just as the Son inhabits human flesh.
Thomas Oden

“I am God and no human,” Hosea 11:9 declares boldly, and this declaration seems to mean that God is everything we as human beings—and mortal at that—are not. Thus, if we have temporality, God must not. If God is eternal, we are temporal. Theologians today—well, actually, for at least now and the past century or two—have questioned that claim and posed this question anew: How does Christian theology best understand God’s eternity?
      This paper sets out to construct the most adequate way to understand God’s eternity by beginning with the Incarnation, and thereby engaging contemporary science, the needs of Christian life, as well as our scriptural and confessional heritage.   
      Before proceeding further, I would like to build on three interlocking theses.I realize that there is considerable scholarly output on the topic of God’s eternity—which I do not intend to upend—but I offer this three-step process as my contribution to the discussion of whether God is better described as temporal than as timeless. I argue for the former. (Thankfully, my reading of twentieth and twenty-first century theology is that the timelessness camp is in the minority. So at least I’m not facing an uphill battle.) I do not offer this three-step process as a necessary, deductive argument. Instead, I present each successive thesis is a reasonable conclusion from the preceding one.
  1.  Jesus as the paradigm: Because the central revelation of Christian faith is Jesus Christ, the relation of God and the world is definitively understood through the person of Jesus.
  2. If Jesus is the paradigm, then God is intimately engaged in the world: By finding the most definitive nature of the Godhead in Christ, this implies that the Incarnate God is related to the world. In Christian theology, as defined, for example, by the Chalcedonian Definition, we worship the God who is not distinct from the natural world, but intimately engaged with it.
  3. If God is engaged with the world, then God’s eternity is best understood as supratemporality and not timelessness. One central implication of this relation is that the eternal God embraces, and yet transcends, temporality. Put another way, God is “supratemporal,” that is, God is not timeless or atemporal, but is also not defined by earthly time.
(The paper then extrapolates on key biblical texts and there three theses.)

I close with three theological implications for the eternal God who transcends time and is also intimately engaged with it.

      First of all, the relationship with science and the question of the “block” universe: As I mentioned above, I, I like other theologians who conclude that God is temporal in some way, arrive at a conundrum. On the other hand, the concept of God’s temporality coheres brilliantly with evolutionary science as applied to biological life and even to the universe itself—that the world evolves. And yet, many physicists present the “block universe” concept, i.e., that time is epiphenomal and, at a basic level, does not exist. I am in agreement with the physicist and theologian Robert Russell’s work on this—the flow of time we experience is real and that we can have a non-natural flowing time that still takes the insights of special relativity seriously. Russell’s book, Time in Eternity, is brilliant and careful, and though I do not agree with every particular, I do commend it as one excellent way to bring relativity theory into the discussion.
      Secondly, the eschatology of our spiritual life requires temporality: Spiritually, human beings have commonly held to a concern about change. We do know that time brings decay, loss of vitality, and pain. Thus, By God’s ensuring our life in a divine supratemporality, we have an ongoing defined existence. This makes sense of our fundamental temporality—and the temporality of the “new heavens and new earth” where there is music, and language, and thus history, all of which require temporality in some way. What do we do with our inherent temporality—indeed, is it a fundamental problem of existence and spiritual life? How could we have music, and prayer, and song, and conversation, and all the other forms of Christian life without some experience of time? These all require a sequence and progression. Music without temporality would be a drone. To conceive of our eschatological hope as timeless buys into the kind of Platonic “heaven” against which the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, among others, consistently inveighs. And our view of the end, our goal, our telos, forms our Christian life today. To quote bishop Antje Jackelén, “If detemporalization is the goal of life, questions regarding the concrete shaping of life lose their urgency.” In sum, we certainly realize there is loss in our experience of time, but there is also something beautiful even as we desire the fulfillment of this life, which is not timelessness but everlasting time. Because life, as we know it—and as God created it—is about time. 
    Thirdly, the concept of the God involved in our human lives in a real way is essential to our experience of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here I am making an incredibly basic, intuitive point for the average churchgoer: Christians believe that God is intimately involved in their lives, for example, noting that Jesus has friendship with his followers in John 16, that God accompanies us as we worship in hymns and praise songs (“inhabits the praises of his people,” Psalm 22:3), and that the Holy Spirit prays with us with “grownings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Plainly stated: I was in conversation with a fellow Christian yesterday who simply commented, “It’s good to know that God responds to prayer.” The most commonsensical conclusion is that God is involved in our temporal process. This means that for the Church, without some level of interaction of God and the world—without some interaction of God and us—there really is no relation and thus no Gospel. Here I note that the “scandal of the Cross” (as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1:18-21) is exactly here—this did not make sense to Judaism monotheism, nor may I add, to the early opponents of Christianity, nor to philosophical theism generally. But indeed it’s true. Put another way, if we can’t work out a theology where God is intimately involved in the world, then I find no reason to be a Christian, but to be a general monotheist. Rather than adjust the experience of God in the Scripture to an impassive, deity who has no relation with us, we need to change our doctrine of God.
      I certainly do not hope to change all minds, but to add my voice to those contemporary and twentieth-century theologians who have let go of divine timelessness. R. T. Mullins closes his recent study of divine timelessness (The End of the Timeless God) with these words, “Divine timelessness has had a long run in Church history, but it is time to bury it and move on. We should not mourn its passing. It shall not be missed.” That goes too far. I am not so sure the doctrine will not be missed or mourned. I still hope that any resistance will not prevent the church from moving toward a fuller experience of the God who loves us and has a time-filled interaction with us in Jesus Christ. There we find the God who inhabits our time, just as the Son inhabits human flesh. That, to my mind, is the good news of the Gospel.