Monday, June 15, 2015

More Thoughts on the Future of Science and Religion

Alfred North Whitehead wrote almost ninety years ago in his book Science and the Modern World
“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 are far from Whitehead’s generation, but the exhortation still has merit. Therefore, following Whitehead I pose the question: What will this interaction look like in the future?

To determine the future (as I have argued already in this blog), we need to ask emerging adults (age 18-30), because they will increasingly set the agenda for how this question is answer and particularly whether they find an easy d├ętente between the two. The most immediate response is that there are some challenging statistics. According the noted researchers Christian Smith and Kyle Longest, 70% of 18-23 year olds “agree” or “strongly agree” that the statement that the teachings of religion and science conflict. And more than half (57 percent) disagreed with the statement "My views on religion have been strengthened by discoveries of science.” 

It would seem that the forces of science and religion are locked in a deadly battle.

Various surveys  and my qualitative research, however, suggests something different—namely, that emerging adults are not as personally negative about the compatibility between science and religion, more that they have heard others argue for incompatibility. Perhaps they have heard about the conflict between the two (maybe they watched Bill Nye and Ken Ham on TV or seen some YouTube clips of Richard Dawkins or Ray Comfort), but they themselves are quite interested in finding a response. So, though they know that warfare is in the air, many emerging adults, when asked, generally are not adherents. If anywhere it would seem that the resistance is with religious dogma, which prevents those of faith from engaging with the insights of science. Yet, as Elaine Ecklund has pointed out, religious believers are remarkably interested in science, at about the same percentage as the wider culture. This all makes sense of one of the most consistent responses I received in interviews with students: Travis, after looking at the interaction of science and religion from the perspective of history and philosophical critique, concluded, “I’m really interested to hear from someone who’s thought about these issues.” Though many emerging adults may perceive conflict, they would like to hear thoughtful voices from either side that move beyond warfare. This generation has been fatigued by the culture wars.
But these nuances do not fully exhaust the varieties of responses to the question of how to related religion and science. I will simply mention some briefly now and plan to explicate them more fully explicate them in future posts. I note that there are emerging adults who are turned off by the church’s unwillingness to embrace mainstream science as David Kinnamon’s study, published in You Lost Me, demonstrated. That is one clear analysis of the growth of the “Nones” among 18-30 year olds (those who respond “None” to the question “What religious affiliation are you?”), which currently hovers around 30-35%. And there are remarkable amounts of emerging adults in the United States who pull together religion with “traditional American values.” That seems to be the best way to understand the growing voice of anti-evolutionists who combine that with conservative politics, which is notably contrasted with those who are in the mainline religions, who are more likely to ascribe to the truth of evolutionary theory than the wider public, according to the Pew Report. And there are certainly other voices, such as the students who blend a variety of spiritual insights, certainly not simply Christian, but other religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Wiccan practices, as well.

Ultimately,  the future is potentially fraught with less certainty than the past and does not yield a clear winner. Yet, despite whatever problems and/or challenges that lie ahead, the sketch of this variegated interaction of science and religion seems more interesting than any simple caricature. And then, one final question looms: what role will you and I play?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Review of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics IV/4

This summer I'm working to improve my scholarship through carefully reading significant books in three fields: systematic theology, science and religion, and literary fiction. For each book, I will write a brief review, which summarize the work and offer a short critique and which will appear on my blog. This then is the first in a series...

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/4 (1967), trans. G. W. Bromiley, T&T Clark

But the personal faith of the candidate is indispensable to baptism.”

Karl Barth introduces this part-volume by admitting that his magisterial Church Dogmatics, even after six million words and thirteen part-volumes, will remain “an opus imperfectum” (vii). He notes that this present Christian ethics, particularly the Sacraments, as a “free and active answer of man” to God’s work and word of grace (ix) and that his doctrine opposes “the custom, or abuse, of infant baptism” (x). He foresees out of this that, with this, his last major publication, he is “thus about to make a poor exit with it. So be it!” (xii) Through this introduction, I got the sense that the reason Barth decided to publish this fragment was his passion in attacking infant baptism.
      Barth begins the actual explication of his doctrine by affirming that the foundation of the Christian life is one’s “baptism with the Holy Spirit” (2), or alternatively, “the event of the Christian life” (3), how one becomes a Christian (4). My former teacher at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, Timothy Lull, used to quip that Barth’s one response to all theological questions was “Jesus Christ!” Though a quip, to a great degree, it is true and certainly a way of summarizing Barth’s concern here: the change that occurs in the individual “has its ground and commencement in the history of Jesus Christ” (17) and nowhere else. How? By the act of the Holy Spirit (27), or put another way, through baptism with the Holy Spirit.
      This act—the baptism of the Holy Spirit—is not identical with water baptism, as Barth makes clear, even though the Spirit’s baptism necessarily connects us to other believers (31-32). This is expanded in the reflections on a “distinctive fellow-humanity” (36ff.) Barth now moves to the specifics of baptism with water, which he is clear to state, is not excluded, but indeed made possible and demanded by baptism with the Holy Spirit (41).
      After seven points on the biblical practice of water baptism, Barth unfolds three key items that fill the majority (over 75%) of this part-volume: (I) the basic, (II) the goal and (III) the meaning of Christian baptism (50).
      In his first major subsection of this paragraph, Barth seeks to discover the basis of baptism, “Why is it practiced, as we have seen, semper ubique et ab omnibus in the New Testament Church?” (50). Though one can point to Matthew 28:19 as the key biblical text (50f.), it is actually John’s baptism of Jesus at the Jordan that forms the basis for water baptism (54ff.) To my mind, this is a somewhat unusual way to find the basis for Christian baptism, but naturally Barth offers an extended exegesis (61-7) to offer a biblical basis for his point. Essentially, Jesus was baptized from below, with water, at the same time as he was baptized from above, with the Holy Spirit (65).
      This act demonstrated both Jesus’s submission to the will of God and his commission as Son of God and Messiah (see 68), who will, as we’ll see in the next subsection, baptizes with the Holy Spirit (70). That then is the goal of baptism. Baptism with water looks forward to baptism with the Holy Spirit (71), that is, God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ through the Spirit (72). (Does one here begin to notice a move that will lead Barth to criticize infant baptism? Namely, that baptism is a “human work of basic confession” in which the church associates themselves “with those who are newly joining it” [73]). It is also, and decisively, different from John’s baptism for several reasons (75ff.), even if they are the same baptism (85) and that John’s baptism looked forward, baptism in Jesus’s name was in fulfillment.
      The third subsection, on the meaning of baptism, fills over half of CD IV/4 (100ff.). It does not take many pages (at least given his loquaciousness) for Barth to consider the meaning of mysterion and sacramentum (108-9), then all the passages in the New Testament (111-27) for him to make the case that baptism is not a “mystery or sacrament” as it has been understood theologically. In other words, baptism “is not to be understood as a divine work or word of grace which purifies man and renews him” (128). Its character is “as a true and genuine human action which responds to the divine act and word” (128). In that light, it is no surprise that baptism is not “part of the traditional and normative pattern of human life” because it must be seen by the candidate “in the obedience of faith” (133). Baptism, for Barth, is an act of obedience and hope. “They say Yes to this Yes [that is, God’s “valid, absolutely trustworthy and victorious Yes”]” (161).
A major part of this subsection begins with Barth’s turning to infant baptism, which either starts on page 164 with a short treatment of the history of baptismal practice (i.e., it has departed from the time of the New Testament Church when both baptized and baptizer knew what they were doing), or on 165 with the actual words “Infant baptism… is, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (Qu. 74) the baptism of young children, usually the newly born infants of Christian parents, i.e., of those who in some way belong to the Church by their own confession.” It has not been mentioned so far, but its rejection has been presupposed by the fact that the baptized must make a decision of faith (166). For this reason, Barth can speak of the “astonishing possibility of infant baptism” (166). He notes that infant baptism does not appear materially a part of the wider theology of the Reformers (169-70), and that both Luther and Calvin quickly move to carps and invectives toward their opponents on this front (170-1), even invoking Satan’s direct work in their attacks on infant baptism. Barth finds no exegetical basis for infant baptism, e.g., in Mark 19:13f where Jesus welcomes little children, or in Acts 2:39 where the promise if also for your children (179-83). These are simply not texts about infant baptism, nor applicable for its practice. Notably—at least to this reviewer—he asserts that infant baptism is—with a nod back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1937 phrase from The Cost of Discipleship—“cheap grace” (183). (Later, on page 209, Barth calls it “the grace that is disposable” and that “does not help, save, or sustain.”) Why? Infant baptism takes away the need for God’s liberation, their decision (184). Note that I am leaving Barth’s apposition because human decision and God’s will are inextricably linked for him. What of vicarious faith, as in the paralytic from Mark 2 that was brought to Jesus by his friends? This form of faith is only for others to be “liberated to believe for ourselves” (186). And subsequently, Barth makes this (for him) lapidary statement (one has to record these whenever they occur in his loquacious expositions): “But the personal faith of the candidate is indispensable to baptism” (186). Soon enough, and after responding to some final reasons often presented for infant baptism, Barth declares, “Enough of this tiresome matter! Theology can and should do no more than advise the Church” (194). Even though infant baptism is “an ancient ecclesiastical error” (ibid.).
      Starting on page 195, Barth returns to the theme of hope (as the twin to obedience, which he dealt with earlier and which led him to the pages on infant baptism). One has the sense that “the horse is smelling the barn,” and that Barth is moving swiftly toward the close of this part-volume. Indeed there are under twenty pages left. Christians don’t look back to baptism (Luther’s reditus ad baptistum), but forward in mission from it (“conversion and progressio baptizati,” 202). Baptism is “obedience to God’s command performed in freedom” and “a grateful response to God’s efficacious and manifest grace” (202). Even in spite of baptism “compromised and denied” (204), the Church does not look in hope to itself, but to Jesus Christ (206-7). And thus, “The final thing to be said is that the meaning of the act of baptism consists in this prayer [of hope]” (209). He finishes with an exposition of 1 Peter 3:21, “a description not unlike a definition”: baptism is “not as the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but as the request to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (210-13). This exegetical excursus is both formally and materially fitting for Barth’s theology, a theology based ultimately on Scripture’s witness as the Word of God. Since it is also a call to ethical action, or a “good conscience” (syneideseos agathos), this is also a fitting end to this part-volume on the “ethics of reconciliation.” Thus Karl Barth offers—and one senses a bit hastily—the final words of his magisterial thirty-six year project, Church Dogmatics.
      Overall, this commentator is led to write that, as in all of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the reader comes away having learned a great deal more about baptism—especially its history, its practice, and the theological controversies surrounding it. It’s hard to deny that Barth has done his homework. At the same time, there is the hint of some frustration that goaded him into publishing this unfinished part-volume, which, as he noted in the introduction, that goad is the practice of infant baptism. One might be tempted to read the entire part-volume as one long introduction to—and then briefer exposition of—his support for adult baptism only. But that seems a bit dismissive of the intensive work Barth does with biblical and theological traditions and of the broader theology of baptism he presents.
      Above all, the issue for Barth is that baptism must be a decisive change; baptism in the Holy Spirit leads to true Christian conversion. I, for one, have not yet decided to change my baptismal practice. Nevertheless, I can attest, as a Presbyterian pastor who has performed and seen many infant baptisms, that the primary concern of the congregation is the cuteness of the baby or toddler, and rarely an obedient and hopeful response to the Gospel. And I don’t take this as tangential, but as a signal that there is nothing the infants are doing to signal baptism as a response of faith on their part. Barth has done yeoman’s service as regards—even in, by his normal standards—this brief treatment of the doctrine of baptism. In the west, we live in a culture that has little use for cultural Christianity, or perhaps better, Christendom, of the kind that Barth cavils against and that is implied in the practice of infant baptism. (Since everyone in this culture is a Christian, whether they decide to be or not, why not baptize infants?) I am not certain how many minds he has changed since 1967 (and he writes on page 194 that had “only the faintest hope” that his theological reflections would be heeded), but I would advocate that the Christian community should still read CD IV/4 almost fifty years after its publication… because we are increasingly in post-Christendom even more than when it was first written. The question remains: As western culture continues to slip from the clutches of the Christian Church, will we be able to release this form of Christendom—or at least discuss letting it loose—or will it cling to infant baptism as a vestige of our diminishing power?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Eulogy for My Dad (Given on May 31, 2015)

It is almost impossible to summarize a life. I’ve tried many times in eulogies as a pastor to do this, but here I’m faced with someone I’ve known my entire life—and whom I’ve greatly loved and admired. And he’s my dad. All that makes the whole thing entirely more difficult. 

      Among other things, I will have to pass over my dad’s growing up near Seattle, his service in World War Two, his work at Syntex Corporation and Top Spin Tennis, his incredible dedication to his two sons and especially his treasured Ruth (which is legendary to me in its own right).
      But there’s one additional problem: I’ve already poured my heart into a eulogy I wrote for the Enterprise-Record’s obituary section. As Donald Fagen of Steely Dan once sang—in one of my father’s favorite songs of theirs, “Deacon Blues”: “I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I played it wrong.” Well, I cried when I wrote those words. So now, maybe my words are played out, and I’ll have to turn to my dad’s own. To his famous aphorisms, or as we like to call them, Thomisms.
      Marcus and I have put our brotherly brains together to remember a few of the choicest selections. I hope they at least summarize two aspects of his personality—that he was both humorous and philosophically profound.
  • “You shouldn’t give the gift of a car without tires.” (Quick translation: Don’t do something half way.)
  • “The easiest thing to produce is a pile of garbage.” (Quick translation: Slovenly behavior multiplies.)
  • “Sometimes pounding nails just makes more holes.” (Quick translation: A solution that hasn’t worked a few times isn’t the right one. Don’t keep trying. Try another strategy.)
  • “Never pass a drinking fountain or a bathroom without using them.” (Quick translation: Take care of bodily needs when you can. It makes life better.)
  • “Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. And while you’re lying down, why not sleep?” (Quick translation: Why overwork? Or work smart, not hard. Or rest is important for good work.)

      There was one semi-Thomism, at least as far as I recall, that we wrote together. It was sometime in grade school, or perhaps high school, after a frustrating day of fixing either the engine on my mini bike or go-cart, or replacing spark plugs in my parents 1971 Mercury Marquis. We simply failed at the job before us. So we regrouped and tried to learn from the event. As a result, we came up with a three-part conclusion: Always be sure to have (1) good light, (2) the right tool, and (3) enough time. 
Not exactly like my Sears mini bike, but close enough
      Being trained as a preacher, it’s worth a moment’s reflection (and homily on each).
      (1) Good light (be sure to see what you’re working on): One of the things my family can tell you is that I’m obsessed with flashlights, and in fact, any kind of portable light. I think light—the way it changes darkness into visibility and even revelation—is miraculous. Maybe I can blame my obsession on this saying. In the case of that particular repair job, it was light that would have guaranteed we had the wrench firmly on the bolt so we didn’t strip it. But I do think there’s something metaphysical here—Einstein told us that the velocity of light is the great constant of the universe; and the Bible, that it is light which God pronounced and which began the whole shebang. As a Christian, I affirm that in Christ we see God’s light and power over death, as well as the promise of light over darkness, which is shown in the Resurrection of Jesus (and which we celebrated at Easter, in the same month as my dad’s death). There were times that my dad, like many of us (maybe even all of us in certain moments), was concerned that he don't have enough light to understand the mysteries of death and what was promised beyond this life. Over the past few years, I saw my dad’s concern about death gradually diminish, and an increasing faith bring with it tremendous peace, which carried him to his final breath.
      (2) The right tool: This indeed is a bit of a variation on a classic Thomism, “Sometimes pounding nails just makes more holes.” Sometimes you need the right tool to get the job done, and it isn’t a hammer. But there’s something more subtle—one of the things we discovered is that, as amateur mechanics, we often didn’t possess the right wrench to turn the oil drain, for example, and that’s why we failed. We also comforted ourselves with this: “I could have done a good job if we had the right tool.” Moreover, at its best, this is a statement of realism and humility—sometimes the problem isn’t you, it’s the tool, but conversely, don’t think you can do everything because you’re so tricky—in fact, you cannot accomplish the task without the right implement. And above all, don’t be too cheap to buy what you need! That would be a violation of the principle—which admittedly is not an original Thomism—“don’t penny wise and pound foolish.”
      (3) Finally, enough time (don’t rush the repair job): Dad, I’m gonna say that there would never have been enough time with you. But I’m going to simultaneously confess that that statement arises from a bit of greed and a notable lack of realism. Everyone has their span of years—you sure outdid the “threescore and ten” (or seventy years) the Bible lays out as our common allotment. And all the good years we had together is one of the things that gives me peace in your passing. Yes—though sometimes I don’t feel it—it was enough time. And now we let you go. Thank you everything… including the Thomisms.

      I’m thankful to you for all your kindness, wisdom, love, inquisitiveness, humor, and dedication to mom, Marcus, me--to our familes--to all those here, and all to those others you touched with your ninety-one years of life. May you now rest in peace. Amen.