Thursday, February 28, 2019

Exoplanets and the Gospel

I'm continuing to write on the upcoming book, tentatively entitled, Negotiating Science and Religion in America: Past, Present, and Future. Here's another excerpt.


The discovery of exoplanets (that is, planets beyond our own solar system) has substantially expanded in our time. Some assert that this means the sudden death of the Christian scheme of salvation since, according to the biblical texts, Jesus came to save this world or kosmos (such as in John 3:16) and since the cosmos, in the biblical view, was vanishingly small compared to our current understanding. 

In some ways, the logic is disastrously circular—the known world of the biblical times was small, and so why should we assume that the texts would address a gigantic universe of the 21stcentury

Before this recent explosion of information about life outside our solar system, even as early as the 1950s, C. S. Lewis took on these claims in his 1958 essay, “Religion and Rocketry.” (Lewis himself was an avid amateur astronomer, who mounted a telescope on the balcony of his bedroom at his home near Oxford, The Kilns.) Lewis addressed Fred Hoyle’s claims in an essay, “The Seeing Eye,” from February 1963. 

Hoyle, along with several other thinkers, asserted that life must have originated in many times and places, given the vast size of the universe. Referring to a series of broadcast talks that Hoyle had given in 1950 (later published as The Nature of the Universe), Hoyle argued against a Christian view of origins and the uniqueness of the Christian faith, based on the size of the universe. I hear similar arguments almost seventy years later from my students.
      
Lewis recalled that, as a child, he heard an almost antiphonal view of the cosmos.
When we were boys all astronomers, so far as I know, impressed upon us the antecedent improbabilities of life in any part of the universe whatever. It was not thought unlikely that this earth was the solitary exception to a universal reign of the inorganic. Now Professor Hoyle, and many with him, say that in so vast a universe life must have occurred in times and places without number. The interesting thing is that have heard both these estimates used against Christianity. 
Lewis then addresses what the Christian message might mean to these “hypothetical rational species," who might be good and not need redemption (as the fallen human race does). They might also be “strictly diabolical." To Lewis, it seems most likely that this species would contain both good and bad. He concludes that, like any missionary work, the Christian duty is to preach the Gospel, and then ends with this question, 
Would this spreading of the Gospel from earth, through man, imply a pre-eminence for earth and man? Not in any real sense. If a thing is to begin at all, it must begin in some particular time and place; and any time and pace raises the question: “Why then and just then?" One can conceive an extraterrestrial development of Christianity so brilliant that earth’s place in the story might sink to that of a prologue.
How do we evaluate this proposal?

I find it stunning that Lewis, this still visionary thinker, was already looking at perceiving the threat to the veracity of the Gospel and responding. And the question of exoplanets, and his response, are still relevant. I'll have more to say, I hope, as my book progresses... But on the way, why not listen to one of the greats?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Problem Presented by the View on the Street

John H. Evans
One of the most important articles I’ve read in science and religion comes from the pen of the UC San Diego sociologist, John H. Evans. Its title: “The View On the Street” (in the book, The Warfare Between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn't Die).

Evans notes that most treatments of science and religion focus on the epistemic conflict—that is, how we arrive at knowledge about the natural world? How do we assess the truth claims that religion and science present?

As quick and dirty research to assess Evans’s claim, I googled “science and religion” and found this article in the top five from the American Humanist Association, “the War Between Science and Religion Over?”
“It appears to be a widely accepted opinion in America that the long conflict between science and religion is at an end. It is often assumed that science and religion are two nonconflicting bodies of knowledge, equally valuable complementary paths leading toward an ultimate understanding of the world and our place in it. The conflicts of the past are said to be due to excessive zeal and misunderstanding on both sides. Peaceful coexistence and even a measure of syncretism are assumed to be possible as long as each concedes to the other’s authority in their separate worlds of knowledge: that of matter and facts for science, and that of the spirit and values for religion.”
Here I’ll insert that it comforts me to hear that the long-standing putative conflict, part of our national consciousness, is decreasing. And the top hit in my Google search was an excellent, short article from UC Berkeley, “Science and Religion: Reconcilable Differences.

That is not, however, the conclusion of the these two writers from the American Humanist Association.
"Let us be blunt. While it may appear open-minded, modest, and comforting to many, this conciliatory view is nonsense. Science and religion are diametrically opposed at their deepest philosophical levels.And, because the two worldviews make claims to the same intellectual territory— that of the origin of the universe and humankind’s relationship to it — conflict is inevitable.”
Please notice—which is easy because I bolded particular words and phrases—their authors’ emphasis on bodies of knowledge, deepest philosophical levels, and same intellectual territory.

And this is where I, as an academic in science and religion, live. But it has distorted my views. The public, according to Evans’s sociological research, simply doesn’t overly worry about systematic truth claims. Those who write about science and religion, however, represent an unusual frame for this discussion because we hold PhDs in academic fields. “In sociological terms, certainly every person with a PhD,” as Evans writes, “is a member of the social elite.” And he adds, “This elite reasoning can be described as an ‘ideology’ or ‘worldview.” And the work of elites resides in their ability to see whether their worldviews and ideologies are consistent. 
“But, the public has much less logical consistency than elites do. This is not an insult but a matter of sociological realism. The reason for the difference is that the only people who have the time and motivation to develop airtight, logically consistent beliefs all the way back to first principles are those rewarded for doing so. Academics are rewarded for this with tenure—analytic philosophers are an extreme case.” John H. Evans
And so the study of science and religion has gone askew. The problem is that we’ve taken one approach from a particularly limited perspective.

What to do next? Will this resolve the fight that the Humanists presented? For now—that is, for this entry—I’d like to let the problem sink in. 

I'd also like to know: What do you think? Is Evans right? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

My Spiritual Birthday and Keeping the Change

Just a few days ago, I celebrated my spiritual birthday--the day, at age 18, when I confessed faith in Christ for the first day. (Recently, I was interviewed by To the Best of My Knowledge about being "born again," which helped me remember and recreate this significant event in my life. See what you think.)
      
In a reasonably hard-line evangelical college group, I was once taught to formulate this as the most relevant question for spiritual discernment: Am I really 38 years old in Christ? Decades later, I’m not sure that’s the right approach. I think it’s more illuminating to ponder how I’ve lived now two-thirds of my life as a follower of Christ (counting, of course, my infancy in that math) and the ways my life has been formed quite substantially around Christian doctrines, practices, and community. 
      
All this leads me to reflection on being an American and our fixation on a conversion date, which represents a vestige of the American history of revivals. We need to own a specific day and time that we came to faith, and more broadly, when our life changed forever. As if that’s all there is.
      
I admit that there are some salient elements to a conversionist approach to faith and life. There are moments that change us forever. There are moments where God meets us decisively. But most of my life has been lived by slow, incremental change, by the habits of the heart
      
That last phrase finds its way into the profound 19th century study of our culture by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He wrote in French and his exact phrase was “habitudes du coeur." Cœur sounds a lot like coreIn commenting on Tocqueville, Parker Palmer, in a captivating video, notes heart shares an Indo-European root with Latin cor or cord—which echo core and coeur. Finally, to round this out, habits derives from habitus, which means things we do continually. That leads me to what I’ve learned from the science of change via Charles Duhigg and the other commentators on research about changing habits. It's slow and gradual. It's about forming habitual practices at our "coeur." Or habits of the heart.
      
The past few years, after years in large, evangelically-oriented congregations that highlight the excitement and event-nature of worship services, Sunday mornings Laura and I are now in a quiet, smaller Episcopalian Eucharist service. Every Sunday we confess our sins and find Christ’s forgiveness and reconciling love in the bread and wine. Whether we particularly feel sinful or not. Whether we sense God’s immeasurable love or not. But we do it every time we're there worshipping.
      
Worship, in this mode, seems more about creating habitus than conversion. That’s working for me... as I try to keep the change.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

New Topics in Science and Religion: Contours of What's to Come

I’m fascinated by the future. Often I’m trying to discern the contours of what’s to come. And so I’ve asked friends who seem to know, “What do you think are the top ten topics to come in science and religion?” 

Before I get to the list, I heard one as-yet under appreciated answer: Big Data. This reality, 
“extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions,” 
exists and, in some ways, describes billions of human beings. It's also the religious significance of this new reality bequeathed to us by the power of computing.

Admittedly, the presence of Big Data doesn’t have the directness of creation and evolution (How do we read Genesis 1-3 as authoritative revelation and take in human evolution?) or astrobiology (If there is life on other planets, what does that mean about God’s coming in a human being to save the world?). And yet, with a moment’s reflection, if you’re one of the 250 million or so smart phone users in the U.S., then we realize that little seven ounce device tracks us and records us and presents a data picture of who we are.

And some promote Big Data as the scientific cutting edge.
“Data is the new science. Big Data holds the answers.”Pat Gelsinger, Chief Executive Officer of VMware
Frankly, I’m just beginning to reflect on this topic. Still, I can imagine that Big Data raises at least three issues: 1) How do we as human beings conceive of the sheer volume of information? What tools do we need to help us manage these teraflops of information about us? 2) What should we do with this information? Who’s is it? This is especially tricky ethical question with healthcare. If my genetic information, for example, might lead a health care insurer dropping me from my coverage, do they have a right to know? 3) How do we cope with the “roving eyes” on us at all times? How does the Eye of Big Data relate to the omnipresence of our God? Does this give us comfort, concern, or some mix of both? Should information ever be discarded, especially that reveals our sin and separated from us “as far as the east is from the west”? (Psalm 103:12)
            
So what are the other nine? Here’s how I’d finish out my top ten (in some kind of loose,
descending order). The way to read this like could be “Finish the phrase ‘Religion, Science, Technology and Their Relationship to…”
  1. Artificial Intelligence and Transhumanism
  2. Climate Change
  3. Sexuality, especially Same-Sex Attraction and Gender Identity
  4. Evolution and God’s Creation (which will always be with us)
  5. Neuroscience and the Cognitive Science of Religion
  6. Genetics, especially Technologies like CRISPR cas9
  7. Astrobiology, Extraterrestrial Life
  8. Medicine, especially End of Life and Reproductive Technology
  9. Race
What do you think? What would you add?
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