Monday, October 30, 2017

The Yes of Service

(One more installment from my book, The Time for Yes.)
Woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Ecclesiastes 4:10
It seems natural for us to seek what we want. That’s happiness. But I think we often get the seeking all wrong. 

I remember hearing the well-known evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson offer this question at a conference (and I paraphrase), “You put two groups on a desert island. One is completely self-centered. The other has learned to work as a team, to cooperate, sometimes taking so that others will survive. Which of the two groups is going to survive the longest—the self-seeking or the altruistic?”
Obviously, it’s those who cooperate. They will have bonded together against various foes. So, if we are altruistic in the sense that David Sloan Wilson describes, it’s good commonsense: we are more likely to survive.
It even seems natural for us to seek the betterment of our own—to care for our family, those close to us. Evolutionary psychology tells us that we are designed to act altruistically toward those who share our genes. We’d like to see those genes carried on beyond our life. So altruism is selfish in that view.
“But, wait,” writes one of the most influential scientists of our day, the head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins. “What about those people who give themselves to a cause beyond their own genes? What about Oskar Schindler? Why did this Nazi-party German save Jews at his own peril?” (I’m paraphrasing, but you can find this in Collins’s book The Language of God.)
Evidently, we can go beyond mere evolutionary survival. We have been implanted with the power to care for those beyond our kin.
Apparently, Jesus thought so too. He described his own life—as very God in flesh—this way in the record of his life: 
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’” (Mark 10:45). 
Actually, he even declared that we should do the same. Hearing his own followers’ clamoring to the head of the line, he responded with this: 
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44).
Jesus even described this in terms of seeking our best—“to gain our life” is the phrase he employs: 
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35 TNIV).
Here’s what that means for me: I grew up in the secular happiness haven of Menlo Park, California. Most people know that location today as the headquarters of Facebook, nestled in the heart of the Silicon Valley, a place of joyously unrelenting spring, oodles of wealth and beautifully tanned and exercised people. Or something like that… at least, it’s a place to be happy on your own terms. And to seek life for yourself.
But Jesus taught me that we find our happiness not in self-seeking, but in serving others… even those beyond our kin group: 
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” (Matthew 25:40).
So I have to have others around me—and here’s the importance of relationships, the “love” theme in this book. Who will help me serve? They will even serve with me. It’s fun. So I’ve discovered I need to surround myself with those who look out for others, who know the yes of service.
I’ve learned to team with my wife Laura to donate to nonprofits (and she’s taught me a lot about what that means). I’ve pounded nails with teams of college students in Baja, California, to build basic two-room houses for those who make $10/day. I’ve partnered with friends to serve meals at our local homeless shelter, the Jesus Center. And maybe even thrown in a little of the Boy Scout promise of doing something kind for someone else each day.
Otherwise, I’ll just sit around and do things to “keep my life”… which in the end, simply helps me lose it.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Yes Friends

I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother, Paul to his friend Philemon (Philemon 7)

(This is an excerpt from A Time for Yes.) I’ve just blogged that our hearts follow our dollars. Or to quote Jesus, “where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.” But here there’s another key element, “where our friends are, there will our heart be also.” That’s my paraphrase of Jesus… I mean, he liked his friends a lot… but I have to admit, it’s not exactly what the Bible says.
What does Scripture lead us to understand as the basis of good friendship? The Good Book, I've discovered, finds friendship an important topic.
A few key elements of “Yes friends” do find their way into the biblical book of Proverbs. 

First of all, we need friends to give us support and advice: 
“Where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Proverbs 11:14
If it’s true for a nation, I'm pretty confident it works for individuals. In fact, a somewhat recent survey (from 2006) found that 1 in 4 Americans don't have anyone to confide in. That to me is the definition of a lonely life. And that's why we need “yes friends.”
These “yes friends” give us encouragement in their counsel: They affirm what we may not see in ourselves. They celebrate our victories. And they stand by and encourage even when we’re not perfect. They grant us freedom to fail. 
“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24; I went NIV on this one).
On the other hand, “yes friends” doesn’t mean sycophants—those who will just tell us everything’s ok. That’s called a flatterer and they don’t fare too well in Proverbs. Who wants to be told “all is well” right before the tornedo arrives? Who wants compliments when a personality course correction is what’s needed? 
“Whoever rebukes a person will afterward find more favor than one who flatters with the tongue.” (Proverbs 28:23)
Though not a Christian—for one thing, he lived before the New Testament or Jesus existed—the philosopher Aristotle had some pretty good things to say about friendship. He philosophized that friendship isn’t just about people we like or have things to offer us, but that friends seek the Good together. Paul wrote rather rhapsodically, about four hundred years later, and yet in agreement with Aristotle, 
Love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). 
Still one more reason that flatterers make us feel giddy for a while, but also prove to be pathetic companions.
Finally and most importantly, our friendship—or intimate community—begins to define us, 
“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). 
We become who we hang out with.

When we get in the company of those who support your deep, true yeses, we come to our truest selves, and we realize our dreams, the important dreams—the one God puts in your heart, the ones where passion meets mission. That’s why I want yes friends.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Faith, Science, and the Role of the Translator

An adapted excerpt from my upcoming book, Mere Science and Christian Faith.

In a 1945 letter, an admirer expressed admiration for the immense gifts of the noted twentieth century Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, especially at the way Lewis made 
Christianity comprehensible to an increasingly unbelieving public. Lewis responded,
People praise me as a “translator,” but what I want to be is the founder of a school of “translation." I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors?
Translators and translation--I often think of these themes when I ponder how to bring together faith and science and how to communicate their interaction and integration. I also know that translation into the vernacular is God's way of doing things. It's even the essence of Christianity: Jesus, God's very Word, spoke in the simple language of stories (or parables). He translated the message of the kingdom of heaven into earthly language.

And God did the same thing at Pentecost: The Spirit used the church to speak in languages that all the listeners could understand, the languages they dreamed in. This is the essence of translation. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to preach on Pentecost, the birth of the church profoundly moves me. Ponder God’s strategy: one of most surprising element of Acts 2 is that everyone who heard the message that day knew Greek, and so God could have let Peter preach in that language. But to most it felt like alien--indeed it was a foreign tongue, which had forced on them by the oppressive Roman imperial government (and before that by the Hellenizing efforts of Alexander the Great). So instead of the common language of Greek, the Holy Spirit brought the message in their own native tongues. 

What is our native tongue? It's the languages of our dreams; it's the tongue we use to cry with despair and pain (and to swear, frankly), as well as to shout with joy. 
“Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” (Acts 2:8). 
As we take in the power of Pentecost, we realize that need to bring the Gospel in the vernacular, in native languages. And this leads to a question: What if we worked harder preaching the Gospel in the language that people work and dream in? For so many today, that’s the language of science and technology. We live in a science- and technology-saturated world. That’s the water we swim in. That's the air we breath. That's the language many of us dream in. 

And that's why the church needs translators.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Investment in our Yeses

Jesus presented a compelling connection:
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21)      
When I’ve heard this passage taught, preached, and commented on, usually—almost always—people declare, “Jesus is telling us that our internal world is the most important thing. When we have a heart for what matters, then we will give our money. Let’s be sure we change from the inside.”
This thought may be comforting, or even challenging, in many ways. But it’s not what Jesus said. Notice the order: It’s not “where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.” Instead: where our treasure is (first), there our heart will be also (second). Our heart follows our dollars. Not the other way around.
Our call in life is to say yes to what’s truly important. And what's one way to do that? The answer sounds slightly odd at first: By investing our money in it. (And I would be willing to add our time and our talents, but I’ll keep it focused for now.)
It’s actually commonsense. If I bought a sweet mountain bike (which I did), I’m going to take care of my Trek—I’ll make sure it’s clean, that the derailleur is adjusted precisely, the tires are pumped to the perfect psi, and that it’s appropriately locked at night and insured. That’s at least what I’m doing. Especially the latter… Because a bike of mine was stolen out of my garage a few years ago while I peacefully slept. And so again, I digress….
Whatever we invest our money in will be the place where our heart goes. Dollars lead the heart. And “heart” is the center of our lives—not just our emotions, but more so the will, the attitude, the way our lives are directed.
In order to deepen our yeses, we have to invest money in what’s important. As I’ve written before, we find our yeses where our passions meet God’s mission. That means that we put dollars into God’s mission, which Jesus defined as the poor, the marginal, the ones that society leaves aside because they are interesting and alluring. That requires giving to our local homeless mission, to overseas water projects, and to agencies that fight AIDS and waterborne diseases worldwide.
As we’ve learned to define our yeses, we know even more where that money should go. If we’ve completed and know the three words that define our personal branding—or at least that’s one way to do it—we learn to invest in these things. Want to be a great percussionist? Buy a good drum set. Invest in lessons. Download music that you’ll practice with. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll get better. But when you pay those bills, when you see that drum kit, you’ll be reminded. When you start playing that beautiful new Yamaha recording custom set, you’ll sound better. (And you’ll look cooler.) And that will make you want to play more.

And one hopes—at least I do for my life—that these yeses (even ones as innocuous as enjoying drums) may serve God’s mission (perhaps by leading worship, maybe by creating beautiful music or playing in the studio with a friend). Or because I enjoy it, these may simply make me more of who God calls me to be. As the great, ancient Christian writer, Irenaeus, phrased it so well, 
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Irenaeus
 When we invest our treasure so that our hearts follow—if we’ve done this in the right way—we become fully alive. And in that yes, God is glorified.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Short Treatment of My Upcoming Book on Science and Religion

I'm currently doing research and writing on an upcoming book for Routledge Press (2019) with the title, Science and Religion in the United States: The Present State and Future Directions. Since it's going to be several months before this sees the light of day, I thought I'd offer a glimpse into what I'm working on via a short treatment of the book's contents. Please feel free to comment with any insights and/or questions.

In 1925, a little under a hundred years ago, the Harvard scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead commented that the future of our civilization depended, to some degree, on how effectively we were able to relate science and religion, particularly “the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.”
And thus the burden of this book: If indeed religion and science are central to the United States, 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 science conflicting with their faith? The past provides us with a guide to the present. One problem, however, is that what we today call “science” and “religion” doesn’t map exactly onto our history. (The word “scientist,” for example, was coined until 1833.) Still, as we look at the past, we surely see tensions between science and religion. And yet, despite challenges, there are concomitant endeavors to integrate them. It might even be a way of describing U.S. cultural life.
I will sketch this answer out in three phases: past, present, and future.
The past I’ll define as approximately 1687 to 1966, with a clean division of 1859 in between. I freely admit that every historical division is clunky, somewhat arbitrary, and therefore distorting; nonetheless, I am employing three publication dates, Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687), Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), and Ian Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion (1966). Between Newton and Darwin, the United States was officially founded, and in that time, it maintained a tensive relationship between religious affections (to use Jonathan Edwards’s term) and rationality. This period is marked by an Enlightenment rationality that features prominently in our nation’s core documents, while also embodying a warm of emotional life that is no less characteristic of America. In fact, Edwards worked with his impressive intellectual skills to hold together these two American cultural impulses, even as the First Great Awakening was booming. This indeed, I argue, is the key way to understand America intellectually. Then, in the next chapter, I chart what happened post-Darwin through to the modern study of science and religion with characters such as Andrew Dickson White, Charles Hodge, and Asa Gray, as well as events like the Scopes Trial and the fundamentalist-modernist split. Here the United States was coming of age intellectually and culturally, and continued to find an uneasy relationship with a variety of impulses. Put another way, both scientific advances and religious expansion—sometimes in alliance, sometimes in antagonism, and sometimes in contented independence—mark this period of about a hundred years.
For the present, I use Barbour’s book because, at least for the academic study of religion and science, it defines the field and the massive splintering that defines the sixties through our present day, when a variety of religious traditions became more mainstreamed. It helps us understand a more nuanced and effective approach to religion and science (than, for example, White’s), even if it has significant limitations. It helps us see the emergence of ideas that broaden the dialogue such as Capra’s The Tao of Physics and the Gaia Hypothesis. Broadly speaking, this takes us to the new millennium (a term I like because it sounds so grand) where religion becomes more pluralized and secularized. In the next chapter, I look at how the early twenty-first century interaction of religion and science brought the increasing importance of technology, sexuality, global climate change, and religious pluralism. It also highlights new voices, and I will use Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins as case studies.

The final part peers into the future, analyzing research from key scholars on emerging adults’ attitudes about religion and science (seasoned with the author’s surveys and interviews) as signposts for the future. I conclude by analyzing these views as a way to discern the contours of both the present state and future directions of science and religion in the United States, a world in which evolution and creation will be present, but concerns about sexuality, climate change, technology, AI, and Transhumanism will rise in importance. There will also be a reduction of the influence of the Christian church, a modest rise in the influence of atheism, agnosticism, the “Nones,” as well as other religious and spiritual traditions. Nonetheless, the interaction of science and religion will most likely find a decrease in the antipathy that’s often been promoted between the two. One might hope that this is a conclusive answer to Whitehead’s challenge, but it’s most likely another set of responses in ongoing historical process.