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?

Thursday, May 03, 2018

A Parable That Arrived A Bit Too Late

I have to admit that not every great idea in my head made its way into Mere Science and Christian Faith. (And I'm sure some bad one inserted themselves. I just don't know which ones they are!) 

There’s a parable that arrived after the book was published, but that's found its way into almost every talk I’ve done since its publication. (For example, you can find it in this interview.) In this “laying alongside of two things”--the technical definition of a parable--I draw from my experience in two academic institutions: a marvelously secular ivory tower, the University of California at Berkeley, and an icon of rigorous theological scholarship, Princeton Theological Seminary.

The comment below from Mere Science and Christian Faith presents a convenient springboard for my parable:
“I’ve discovered, for the Christian message to have any impact today, it must engage science. To appropriate the term Lewis made famous, mere Christianity needs to meet mainstream science. That’s why I’ve focused much of my life’s work on science and faith. Moreover, since I’m trained in theology and biblical studies, I can help sort out whether scientific insights and assertions are neutral, helpful, or antithetical to our faith.”
But why “mainstream science”? 
And--with a quick glance at last week's topic--why not take alternatives to the mainstream like the research programs of Intelligent Design or Creation Science, paths which some Christians follow?

Here’s why. 

At Berkeley, when, as an undergrad, when I first start studying the history of ideas and the great questions that literature and philosophy have presented, I decided to be sure I learned ancient Greek, and more specifically Attic Greek (around the 4thcentury BC), namely the language that was spoken in Athens around the time of Aristotle and Plato, and the sort that encompassed koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. I wanted to read the sacred scripture of Christianity in its original language. And I can tell you that by my senior year of college, I found myself in an independent study with two other students and a professor, sitting together in a dusty room in Dwinelle Hall on Cal’s campus, reading the Gospels in the original. It was profound. It was intellectually challenging. And it was an almost overwhelming gift.

The next four years I owned and managed a small business (and tried to keep my Greek active). At the end of that life chapter, Laura and I sensed that it was time for me to pursue a dream of studying theology, the Bible, and a host of other things for a Master of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary. And so we got our U-Haul, and with some friends, moved across country. I found myself almost immediately in biblical studies.

Here’s the thing: When I started investigating the New Testament at Princeton, the Greek I learned at UC Berkeley—this glorious cathedral to liberal secular thought—the Greek (its grammar, vocabulary, syntax, et al.) was exactly the same. There were no concerns that now I had to learn some new “heavenly” Greek in my divinity studies. Princeton trusted the education at Cal in a critical tool for understanding our most sacred writings.

And so I look at the grand consensus that mainstream science has forged—a consensus built on great theories like special and general relativity, and the related theories of gravity, as well as the weird world of quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution, all of which have been around for at least 100-150 years, and I ask myself, 
“Why is it that people go to seminaries or to churches and learn a different form of thought from mainstream science? Why don’t our theological voices trust the sciences to offer an accurate picture of the world when we trust the science of classical Greek studies to offer us the tools to study the most sacred texts, the words that bring us to the knowledge of Jesus Christ?”
I’m not sure I can answer my own rhetorical question except to affirm that’s why I seek to engage mainstream science with mere Christianity.


P.S. To be perhaps unduly repetitive, I've switched the date for my posts to Thursdays instead of Mondays.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The State of the Conversation

Last week I received a long critique of my latest book Mere Science and Christian Faith from an unnamed author at the Discovery Institute, which promotes the theory of Intelligent (or ID).

It led me to think about the state of the conversation of faith and science. 

Did I make some mistakes in Mere Science and Christian Faith? Yes, I misspelled Stephen Meyer’s name and credited his degree to Oxford not Cambridge. (Typos and incidental factual errors simply multiply like locusts and are the bane of writers!) This irks me because the errors distract from my main point—I was trying to underline that Meyer is a really good scholar and that his ideas shouldn’t be quickly dismissed as many university scientists do when I mention ID. Here’s the quote: “This movement has some heavy hitters in its ranks, among them Oxford-trained philosopher of science Stephen Myer, university biologist Michael Behe, and, perhaps most surprising, prominent UC Berkeley constitutional law professor Phillip Johnson. So it cannot be immediately written off as a farce proffered by thoughtless creationists.”
 
The article also took on my statement about the connections between statistical complexity and design. I would have rather added there is no necessary connection between the two because this is more consistent with my comments on the fine-tuning argument/anthropic principle (pages 78-80). In that light, the author presented some good reminders about “specified complexity” as a component of ID theory, which, due to space limitations, I did not address. Still I can’t quite tell why the author switched the topic from “irreducible complexity,” which is relevant for my charge that ID promotes a “God of the gaps” theory.

I’d rather not journey too far here because it detracts from the central point I hope to address. I want these comments to underline that this kind of critique may be one reason people don’t want to enter the faith-science conversation. Ideas are criticized, and mistakes are highlighted. For what it’s worth, I'm used to this—it’s what we do in academics—but it’s not always pleasant.

But there are other reasons to avoid the conversation, to be sure. Here’s what I mean. 

This review presents the following evaluations. Mere Science is a “sloppy Anti-ID book.” (More on whether the book is anti-ID below.) In one section, in which I assess the state of ID after the infamous 2005 Dover case decision, the piece talks about my “misguided critique,” and that my statement about the decision is “absurdly sloppy and misinformed.” He/she concludes in the piece’s final paragraph with this: “Cootsona’s treatment of ID is pathetic.” (Is it worth repeating these? Sloppy, misguided, absurdly sloppy and misinformed, and pathetic. There’s more, but already that’s pretty harsh.)

I imagine you see my intent, or perhaps the author’s. This kind of evaluation is intended to score points with one’s base and to discount the author. I am a university lecturer after all and I take my scholarship seriously. Need I say that one of my first reactions was to imagine a point-by-point rebuttal? That, however, is not what I’m addressing here, and I don’t imagine a rebuttal would be fruitful. Instead I’m thinking about the state of the faith-science conversation and how we might be tempted to respond. Once again, I noticed that those who desire to see some integration of mainstream science and Christian orthodoxy might stray from taking part if it includes this kind of anger and derision.

Nevertheless, my actual concern lies much deeper: I am concerned, actually deeply troubled, about a writer who sees this as a job to attack a book—and three associated organizations (BioLogos, the Templeton Foundation, and InterVarsity Press) and five individuals whom I won’t enumerate—based on 3% of the material from the book. (My treatment of ID is 5 pages in a 163-page book.) 

And this may yet be one more reason that many stay away . Paul writes so wisely, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). If this is the state of the conversation, many of us would say, "Forget it. I’d rather save my soul and a few therapy bills in the process."

But, for a variety of reasons, that’s not me. I want to move toward joining with others who want to change the conversation. They are many who have even elevated it into something beautiful, to find the way best to bring together the glories of the science and the knowledge of God. 

That to me is still good news.

A postscript: My posts have been coming out Mondays, and this week I've made a change to Thursdays. So be prepared!

Monday, April 16, 2018

On God at Work

There is no secular-sacred distinction. 

Here’s how Paul sets that out:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. Romans 12:1-2, The Message
This weekend, I had the opportunity to lead a men’s retreat in Texas with St. Andrew’s
Presbyterian Church on the topic of faith and work. (And by the way, retreats in Texas are a bit different than in, say, Berkeley. The Saturday afternoon “free time” activity consisted of listening to country music, drinking beer, and shooting skeet. I can show you a video sometime. And a second by-the-way: In this blog, I usually address faith and science issues. Everything in this post can be easily translated into that mode since science after all is a form of work.)

As I prepared for to address how we bring together our faith in Christ with the reality of life in the marketplace, I realized that I had no reason not to trust business—growing up in what is now Silicon Valley—if anything, I learned commerce was god. It wasn’t until my first year at Cal that I decided to follow Jesus Christ and follow a different Deity. After college, I did the only respectable thing a comparative literature major could do (besides going to graduate school): I started a small business with my wife Laura, which we managed for four years. And since it was an extension of work I had done with my family since age 16, it really meant something like 9 years. In some ways, we felt like we completed a mini-MBA there: we learned learned profit and loss, balance sheets, customer service, and the need to suit up and show up. As my brother (also a part of the family business) taught me: in retail, you learn the essence of capitalism because there offering goods meets the buyer directly. The supply and demand curves find their intersection point directly and personally. During that time I also became involved, and took classes at, New College Berkeley, a Christian graduate school specifically designed for ministry in the marketplace. How do you interpret the New Testament in light of the realities of retail sales? What does theology mean to a realtor, a banker, and a teacher? Those were the questions I asked as I pored through George Eldon Ladd's A Theology of the New Testament and Bill Dyrness's Themes in Old Testament Theology.

My first pastoral job posted me in midtown Manhattan “at the crossroads of the world,” as our head of staff, Tom Tewell, described it. (Notably Fifth Avenue Presbyterian was directly across the street from the Disney Store and diagonal to Trump Tower. I’ll let you make any connections you’d like between those two.) The interns at Fifth Avenue were truly outstanding. One from Princeton Seminary, David Miller, had just finished a couple of decades in international investment banking. After his internship at Fifth Avenue and his Master of Divinity degree, David finished a Ph. D. in theology and ultimately to headed up the Princeton University Faith and Work Institute. During the time at the church, namely in 1999, he founded the Avodah Institute
Avodah is a Hebrew word used in the Bible whose root has three distinct yet intertwined meanings: work, worship, and service. The meanings of this ancient word offer powerful wisdom for modern times. The Avodah Institute was founded in 1999 with the mission to ‘help leaders integrate the claims of their faith with the demands of their work.’”
Oh, there’s so much more to say… the Roaring Lambs conference with Bob Briner on faith and work, where we had Bob speak, Mako Fujimura, Charlie Peacock, and the public lectures with speakers like George Gallup, Jr., Stephen Carter, and Tommy Hilfiger. And simply the ongoing interaction with business leaders and twenty-somethings in the marketplace in this mecca of commerce.

Several years later, I was working on my book Say Yes to Noand since it intersected with business literature (like Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), I began to study business literature and had a profound experience: “Hey, so much of this isn’t about raw profit and cutthroat competition, but about teams and values and serving your customer. It even sounds in spots strikingly like Christian ethics."

All this returned me to my roots. I could go on, but these memories came back as I led these men in seeing the connection between their lives in the office, or on the sales call, or in the law firm, and how all those places become posts where we live as ambassadors for God’s Kingdom. As I had heard—and therefore passed on—ambassadors, wherever they are, represent their home countries. And as Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) so each of our posts are embassies. It brought me to the Scripture in our final time together where we worshiped, listened for God’s Word, and sought to be God’s men for this world… to make, as it were, the Sunday-Monday connection.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 1 Corinthians 5:18-21, NRSV

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

What I Want to Do in the Next Book

Here's the current intro from my book on the present state and future directions of science and religion in the United States. The plan is to finish the manuscript by December 1.

It’s true that many people think science and religion are bad for each other—and even more critically, at least one is ruinous for our country. The sooner we get rid of one (religion for the “cultured elites” and science for “good old time” religionists), the better off we will be. 

      
I think that’s wrong-headed. A fair reading of American history demonstrates that our county has been at its best when we bring these two cultural forces together. Likewise, our future will be better without the warfare of religion and science. And emerging adults can lead this future and ultimately believe it’s best for us.
      
That’s one way of describing what this book is about.

In this book, I am seeking to discern the future of the interaction of science and religion based on how emerging adults (age 18-30) views.[1] In a way that often only an outsider can perceive a country he now lives in, the great British mathematician and Harvard philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote almost a century ago,  
When we consider what religion is for mankind and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them. We have here the two strongest forces (apart from the mere impulse of various senses) which influence men, and they seem to be set one against the other—the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.[2]
We are far from Whitehead’s generation, but the urgent appeal still has merit. Following Whitehead then I pose two questions: Will there be a détente between these two cultural forces in the coming twenty to thirty years? Or more generally, what will this interaction look like in the future?
      
How to answer is my first concern. Because emerging adults will increasingly become the thought-leaders for our country (and admittedly they already are), this book will utilize the best demographic research available, as well as my own interviews and surveys of emerging adults, to discern future trends. At this point, it is worth adding that I am not writing about what I hope will be the future. Instead, with the research data we possess, and by making reasonable judgments, what defensible claims can I make about what is to come?
      
As working definitions—or perhaps better, as heuristics—I will define my two key terms.[3] Science is knowledge about or study of the natural world, framed in theories based on observation, which are tested through experimentation. Religion, which is an even trickier term than science,[4] is the belief in God or in many gods or Ultimate Reality, as well as an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, sacred stories, and ethical guidelines used to relate to God, a plurality of gods, or Ultimate Reality.
      
These, of course, are contemporary definitions, which Peter Harrison has argued only existed in the past three hundred years or so. In that sense they are arguably “modern”—i.e., post-Enlightenment—concepts. Referring to the alterations in defining science, Harrison writes, 

Overstating the matter somewhat, in the Middle Ages scientific knowledge was an instrument for the inculcation of scientific habits of mind; now scientific habits of mind are cultivated primarily as an instrument for the production of scientific knowledge.[5]

In describing how views of religion have changed since the time of Thomas Aquinas in the twelfth century, “Between Thomas’s time and our own, religio has been transformed from a human virtue into a generic something typically constituted by sets of beliefs and practices."[6] This prodigious and erudite study, which represents his 2011 Gifford Lectures, is a fundamentally discipline-changing work and has enormous influence on how I describe these two terms in my reconstruction of past American views on religion and science. It is woefully inadequate in grasping contemporary definitions of religion, which he repeatedly states focus on “beliefs and practices.” Harrison does not countenance some of the formative commentators on religion such as Émile Durkheim, Robert Bellah, or Clifford Geertz. Nevertheless, I take from Harrison a sensitivity to the ways in which the terms religion (or religio) andscience(or scientia) have changed during the past three hundred years in the story I am telling.
      
In sum, here’s the burden of this book: If indeed religion and science are critical to our country, where is their future relationship? (This would be a worthwhile question without its centrality, but that fact intensifies the need for an answer.) What do we do with the fact that two-thirds of Americans see ultimate conflict between the teachings of science and religion, but that same percentage of believers don’t see their faith conflicting with science? The past will provide us with a guide to the present. And as we look at the past, we see a tension between the two and yet a profound fight to integrate them, despite challenges. 


[1] Incidentally, I am broadly employing, along with many other commentators (e.g., Christian Smith), Jeffery Arnett’s category of “emerging adulthood,” as a stage of life that is not still adolescence, but neither is it adulthood. I am not committing to all the implications, but find this to be highly usable paradigm. Cf. Arnett, “Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development From the Late Teens Through the Twenties,” American Psychologist,May 2000, Vol. 55. no. 5, 469-480.
[2] Science and the Modern World (Cambridge, 1926), 181.
[3] These are the definitions I have adapted from various dictionaries and standard texts in the field, which I then reworked and finally employed in teaching religion and science to undergraduates (i.e., 18-23 year olds). So far, these definitions have worked reasonable well, and so I will employ them in this book.
[4] Here I think of my first reading of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (Fortress, 1991), which made the definition, and study, of religion both more problematic and more interesting.
[5] Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago, 2017), 15.
[6] Harrison, 16.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Jesus, Death, and Our Life on Earth

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?" Acts 1:11 
As a faculty member in a department of religious studies, I read a lot of essays these days about the nature of religion generally and even about Christianity specifically. One of the most common misconceptions is that the reason people believe in a religion is that they want an answer to what happens after they die, but that modern science has invalidated that belief.
            
This idea might be accurate for the leaders of ancient Egypt, who seemed obsessed with how they would carry on in the afterlife. But that’s not the only story: if you were to look at many religions of the world—take Confucianism, for example—interest in life after death is about as low a priority as I can imagine. It wasn’t even true for almost all of the Old Testament, which doesn’t have much about life after death. When Jesus comes on the scene in the first century, reason the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead is that they couldn’t locate it in the Scriptures. Even more, it strikes me as false, at least for Jesus and Paul, who are much more interested in how we live today in light of the resurrection.
            
Jesus, and the Bible generally, just don’t seem that interested in answering every question about the afterlife. As I’ve heard the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright repeat on a number of occasions, we might say, “I’m so glad I get to go to heaven.”
            
But Jesus’s take is this: “Yes, I have been raised from the dead. There is victory over death, and you can be assured I’ll take you there. For now, get to work.”