Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Speaking Sense to a Listening World

This post is an adapted form of the message I preached on the Friday following Pentecost at the final worship gathering of the STEAM (Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries) grantees. It summarizes so much about why I believe this engagement of faith and science is critical for the church and for the world.
We closed the worship in a circle singing "Amazing Grace."
The year was 1710, the year (I’m told) that Queen Anne approached the architect Christopher Wren and offered her assessment of his newly finished St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. She declared three simple words: “awful, artificial, amusing.” 
To us, who don’t understand the vernacular of 18thcentury British English, this might sound incredibly offensive. But instead of offense, Wren felt flattered. Her words? “awful” (inspiring awe), “artificial” (full of artistry), and “amusing” (amazing).
Which brings me to my central point: It is important to know words at a particular time and context in order to understand their meaning.

My wife Laura and I lived in Germany between my Master of Divinity and my doctorate. It was a glorious year in many ways, and one of the glories consisted in learning the German language. But the subtleties of the complex German language can be tricky. I studied theological texts with my Duden dictionary by my side, sometimes looking up 20 to 30 words a page and writing meanings in the margin. I also had to pick up household German and mastered words, which proved advantageous for everyday life, like Steckdose(electric outlet or socket). One other trick consisted in listening to the radio, and in the process I learned news and how to speak about heavy traffic, or ein Stau,on the A4 autobahn. 
One day in fall, Laura got a head cold and didn’t quite know the right word to tell the doctors. I was so excited, and blurted out, “I know—I’ve got the perfect phrase!” And so I taught her. We headed into downtown Tuebingen. She walked up the pharmacist (which in Germany is where some of our medical consults happen) and exclaimed with utter confidence, “Ich hab einen Stau in der Nase!” which essentially means “I have a traffic jam in my nose.” 

Learning the intricacies of any language presents significant challenges. Today, in our scientifically and technologically saturated world, one of the languages in which we are to speak is the language of science. We’ve got to get it right. Let’s look at the text of Pentecost and discover some electrifying truths about the Spirit’s gift of languages that help us speak sense to a listening world.

Acts 2 (NRSV)
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 
         5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native languageParthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

The pouring of the Spirit
From this text, we learn three major truths: the first two I will only outline, but the third I will develop at greater length.
The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost is the birth of the church. Put simply without the Spirit, the church has no life. And sometimes it’s better to know the Spirit through what the Spirit does. And what does the Spirit do? Create in the Christian community two fluencies.

The Jewish celebration of Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks, celebrated the giving of the law. Notice in verse 2 that the Spirit comes in the style of God’s appearances from the Hebrew Scriptures. Just like when God came “a whirlwind” to speak to God (see, for example, Job 38:1). Here too the Spirit comes “with a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” 
The second aspect to notice is a contrast with the Hebrew Bible. There, the Spirit was given to specific people at specific times for specific tasks (such as with Othniel in Judges 3:1). In this case, verse 4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Not just some, but all. This is very important: the Spirit is given to the young and the old, to women and men, to slaves and to free.

A fluency in the Gospel
The first fluency is a fluency in the fundamentals of the Good News about God’s work in Jesus Christ. This is a critical task for any church.
If you want to experience this fluency, read ahead. See what story Peter tells in verses 14-36: the fulfillment of prophecy in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and especially the call to respond to this message. That’s fluency in the Good News of Jesus the Christ.

A fluency in dialects
But I'm focusing on the second fluency: learning the native language of those who have not yet heard the Gospel. This theme I would like to develop most of all.
It has been said that we all tell jokes, experience pain, swear, and dream in our native language. The Spirit leads the church to speak languages that outsiders can understand. This is the “fluency in the culture.” But in this passage, the abiding meaning is that God wants us to speak the vernacular, the “native language” (verse 8) that people can understand. (Notice as well the related word, translated as “tongues,” appears four times in the passage.) 
The impressive biblical scholar I. Howard Marshall, in his commentary on the book of Acts, sets out an answer to the question, How could Galileans speak in all the people’s languages?
“It has been objected that probably most of the crowd would speak Aramaic or Greek, the two languages which the disciples would also speak, and that therefore the miracle of tongues was unnecessary. But this difficulty must surely have been obvious to Luke also. What was significant was the various vernacularlanguages of these peoples were being spoken.”
Most of people coming to Jerusalem would have known Greek or Aramaic, but here God leads the church to speak in the common language of each person. Philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists and others tell us that language is the root component of who we are. God is communicating here that we aren’t simply known by the God as “a person,” but as Siri, or as Michelle, or as Ron, or as Melissa, or John.
This means we have to work hard to get the words just right. As Mark Twain once quipped, the difference between the right word and almost right word is the contrast between “lightening” and “lightening bug.”
I believe one of the main areas today is the language of science. Let’s make sure we find the right words.

The language we dream in
The first time I preached this message was at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City on Sunday School recognition Sunday. Why did the topic concern me and what did it have to do with the day? I thought of my then-5 ½ year old daughter Melanie. You see, she often mentioned to Laura and me, “I want to be a scientist.” (In fact, just last year she graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University with a degree in anthropology.) Here’s the problem: as a scientist in our congregation once said about much of natural science today: “They’re atheists, and they have the best science.” I never wanted my daughter, or any other church kid for that matter, to be forced to decide to between good science and her faith. I don’t want any of the Sunday school children to have to split their Christian faith from their thinking.

The angular effect of ethical engagement
Speaking the language of technology and science means that sometimes we in the church have to speak challenging, ethical words because science does not have within it the ability to boundary itself. 
During those WWII years, the Nazi regime had very few resisters. One of the few was the small Confessing Church in Germany led by the theologian Karl Barth. They said a distinct No to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews because—as they put it—Jesus Christ is the “One Word we have to hear and to obey in life and in death.”
One young physicist expelled from German was Albert Einstein who later said of the Barmen declaration. (I’d like to think it’s possible he reflected on as he walked past my alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary on Mercer Street on his way home.) He made this observation:
“Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration for it because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual and moral freedom. I am forced to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”
Work out all y'all's salvation
I conclude by turning to a final text, Philippians 2:12-13 (NRSV):
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;  for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Just so we understand this passage, this is about not working for our salvation, but about working out our salvation. It’s not a faith versus works text. The verb katergazomai means to “work out the implications.” Work out what God has worked in. Even more interesting, in this passage, the Greek word for “you” in verse 13 is plural, and “salvation” is singular. In other words—and here I’ll lean what I’ve learned from the Southern dialect: “All y’all, work out your singular salvation.”
What does that look like? 
  • What does speaking the language of science and technology mean when you’re sharing the Gospel in light of evolutionary science in Canada, or witnessing to the integration of mainstream science and mere Christianity on Facebook?
  • What does it look like when you’re ministering to students at Cal Tech, NYU, and the University of Madison?
  • What does engage faith and science sound like in the dialects of Oklahoma City, Nashville, and New York City?
I don’t entirely know. I’m not in your contexts. I don’t know your specific dialects. So you tell me.... Or better, you tell them--those to whom you’ll go back to after this conference.
And so I close with this prayer: May you STEAM grantees know the Power of the Spirit to speak languages that a listening world wants to hear. May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Thinking Like a None

Last week I stopped by setting out questions from the nones (i.e., those who profess no religious affiliation). In a way, since I’m a Christian, this is an act of imagination. But in another, it’s clearly not. I grew up in a non-religious environment. This leads to a number of things, but one is that I often fall prey to thinking that God might just be inside my head. (This I learned from the 19thcentury philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach that we make a god in our image.)

As I post this blog I've briefly snuck of out a conference this week. This event has brought together over 50 leaders in Christian ministries throughout the United States, with a couple in Canada, who have received money through I grant I manage (called STEAM) to bring together Christian faith and mainstream science, especially as it relates to the lives of 18-30 year olds.
Conference of STEAM grantees

The current cultural moment is important. We are grasped by a culture war that pits one side against another—one that holds to traditional Christian values against radical secularist, atheist, scientific values. The first rejects the science behind climate change and evolution, and other ungodly ideas in order to assert beneath mainstream science lurk forces that are anti-God. This is certainly the case with the more radical elements of the science and religion like Answers in Genesis, who teach that the earth is only thousands of years young, but even the more intellectually credible Discovery Institute who often complain—in shorthand—that scientific agencies like the NAS and AAAS are “out to get them.”

If this were a real dichotomy and I were thinking like a none, I know the choice I’d be forced to make. I’d go for the truth we find in science and conclude that Christianity has nothing to offer. I’d say, I want to go where the evidence is. I want to support people who believe in a planet for future generations and the best description of how we as humans came to be. 

Thankfully, there are other options.

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, 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. In fact, I carried the same Nestle-Aland Greek-English Bible that I used at Cal. 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. I've switched the date for my posts to Thursdays instead of Mondays.