Wednesday, October 24, 2018

C. S. Lewis: Re-Discovering Jesus in a Scientific Age

Last week, I mentioned that I’m teaching a class on C. S. Lewis. Well, I’m still teaching
Addison's Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford
the class, and this week I’m pondering Lewis’s famous conversion to Christianity. (Or perhaps, since he grew up with Christian teaching, return to faith.) I’m particularly intrigued by two elements—what confessing Jesus as the Truth meant to him in light of the scientific mindset of his day and how imagination, not simply rationality, brought Lewis to this conclusion.

Jesus as the “True Myth”
First of all, let me cite St. Clive’s famous letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, after the walk he took with Dyson and Tolkien on Addison's Walk in Oxford in September 1931. 

A pair of significant excerpts: 
“I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity… My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it”  And “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths.” (C.S. Lewis to his friend Arthur Greeves, October 1, 1931)
This is offensive because it makes an historical figure—hardly amenable to scientific proof, and bound to the culture in which Jesus lived, instead of the cross-cultural truths of science—at the center of what is true.

Erwin Schrödinger, Empirical Reality, Imagination, & Early 20th Century Science
It’s striking to me that Lewis used to walk around the same halls of Magdalen College where Erwin Schrödinger was from 1933-1938. I don’t know if they hung out, but it does signify that Lewis lived in an environment with top scientists.

And this brings me back to the question of the scientific thinking of his day. When he returned to faith in Christ as God, Lewis came to this conclusion based on imagination. When I referred to “science” in the previous post, I indicate with sufficient clarity that sciencenot only impliedrationality, but empiricism, that knowledge comes through the senses. And thus the materialism that accompanied much of early 20thcentury science. 

And yet it was Schrödinger and others that gradually built an understanding of physical reality that went far beyond what we can grasp with our human senses… or really understand with our brain. To picture a quantum world with “quarks,” “spin,” and “charm” probably already indicates that we have moved beyond bare empiricism to a least a fair dose of imagination.

As Neils Bohr expertly phrased it:
“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood a single word." And " If you think you can talk about quantum theory without feeling dizzy, you haven't understood the first thing about it.” Niels Bohr

In fact, we realize that so many elements of science—understanding the human genome, probing the nature of quantum reality—is way beyond human senses. The philosophy of science has moved beyond the Vienna School’s “verification” and even Karl Popper’s “falsification” to the saner and more accurate description by the late Oxford philosopher Peter Lipton, “inference to the best explanation."

Lewis’s Early “Imaginative Failure”
All in all, the pure empirical side of science has faded. But Lewis’s world hadn’t shifted entirely… at least, if thinkers proposed to be “scientific.” And so he had to move beyond those narrow boundaries and into the truth of imagination. As A. N. Wilson right notes what had restricted Lewis was an unwillingness to come to terms with life beyond empiricism.

“He stopped short of understanding Christianity because when he thought about that, he laid aside the receptive imagination with which he allowed himself to appreciate myth and became rigidly narrow and empiricist.”  Thus, not to believe in Christ was for Lewis, “an imaginative failure.” A. N. Wilson

The Reconciliation of So Many Things
But that September night in 1931, St. Clive’s imagination was operating fully, inspired by a sudden—almost divine—wind as they walked, and the masterful imagination of Hugo Dyson and the maestro of myth, J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed the reconciliation of rationality, empirical reality, and imagination—the truth of Jesus with the beauty of myths—all came together that fall night.

I’ll let CSL have the final word:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Thursday, October 18, 2018

C. S. Lewis, Increasingly Unsatisfied by His Materialist Age

As I work on a class I’m teaching Wednesday nights, “C. S. Lewis: Wise Mentor," I can’t help but bring to mind Lewis’s increasing frustration with the culture of atheism and materialism—putatively wedded to the advance of science—which he found ultimately unsatisfying and dehumanism. 

Is this something for Lewis alone? Why should we care? Because we living in an increasingly materialist age. And by that, I don’t mean that we like to buy lots of stuff while shopping. That’s a huge spiritual problem, and it’s a form of materialism, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about defining ourselves by the material world, not by anything transcendent. 

Stephen Pinker, the influential Harvard cognitive scientist, in his denial of the soul, says it so well, 
“The neuroscientific worldview—the idea that the mind is what the brain does—has kicked away one of the intuitive supports of religion. So even if you accepted all of the previous scientific challenges to religion—the Earth revolving around the sun, animals evolving, and so on—the immaterial soul was always one last thing that you could keep as being in the province of religion. With the advance of neuroscience, that idea has been challenged.” Stephen Pinker

Can I put in a shameless plug for my book?
Having quoted Pinker and before going further, I need to be a bit more precise. In that spirit, I offer this definition: 
Materialism (or naturalism) holds that matter constitutes the fundamental substance in all things, and thus that mental aspects and consciousness are purely results of material interactions.” 
This is different from methodological naturalism, which asserts that science restricts itself to the relations within the natural world. But sometimes scientists act as if both naturalisms are coterminous. 

But to conflate these two is destructive for science and for us as human beings. Because we naturally seek something more than this material world has to offer. Here I agree with Lewis, who was convinced that early 20thcentury materialism was desolate. It led him toward Christ. Why? Because he found, along with vast majority of human beings, that we have desire to something more than the material world can provide. Materialism left no place for joy, for the Bible calls “abundant life” (John 10:10) or Aristotle called “human flourishing.” Materialism is, in a word (or two), unsatisfying and desolate. 

And does this mean something to you and me today? If I’m reading the tea leaves properly, we also live in a time where the automatic reaction is that we’re “nothing more than a pack of neurons,” as the famous geneticist Francis Crick once phrased it.

And so I turn back to “St. Clive” Staples Lewis. Posted today on Addison’s Walk is a poem he wrote about the very path, but it’s not hard to see he’s talking about moving beyond the self-imposed gates of materialism to a wider world:
I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:  
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year. 
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees 
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas. 
This year time’s nature will no more defeat you, 
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you. 
This time they will not lead you round and back 
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track. 
This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell, 
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell. 
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart, 
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Thinking Scientifically About Scripture, Part Two…

Last week I looked at Scripture through the lens of some applicable sciences. Since I’m preaching this Sunday, I thought I’d try this technique on sections of the remaining lectionary texts. 

Amos 5:6-10, 15—Justice and Science in One God

We start with a stunning challenge from the prophetic tradition.  

In approximately 760-750 BC, during reign of the reasonably prosperous forty-year reign of Jeroboam II, Amos, who hailed from the Judean village of Tekoa, prophesied “harsh words in a smooth season” (as the Oxford Study Bible phrases it).

And Amos’s words remind us that (1) the God who created the universe (2) also formed us to do good.
Seek the Lord and live,    or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,    and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,    and bring righteousness to the ground!The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,    and turns deep darkness into the morning,    and darkens the day into night,who calls for the waters of the sea,    and pours them out on the surface of the earth,the Lord is his name,who makes destruction flash out against the strong,    so that destruction comes upon the fortress.10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate,    and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
This is the God who calls us to justice and life:15 Hate evil and love good,    and establish justice in the gate;it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. Amos , the 8thcentury BC prophet 

Let’s take those two key points one at a time. The God who makes the heavens (Pleiades and Orion) has power to care for the poor. Several Old Testament scholars hasten to assert that God as Redeemer—the One who brought the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage—arrived on the scene in Israel way before the God the Creator. It took later engagement with surrounding pagan cultures to push the concept of creating. I must admit I haven’t found that assertion entirely convincing, and here one reason why: an 8thcentury BC prophet—i.e., early in the actual writings of the Hebrew Bible and around the times of many of the Exodus texts—proclaims that God not only created this world, but the stars above. 

Admittedly, the astronomy of biblical times found a significantly smaller universe than that of the Hubble telescope. Still, set within a scientific framework, that means the God we know through astronomy is the One who creates through the long history of the universe. 

Indeed and secondly, the God who creates also forms in us, through these processes of evolution, empathy and cooperation. I remember hearing biologist Darrell Falk address an assembled group at the American Academy of Religion and tell us that, when he studied biology in graduate school, the discourse was almost entirely overwhelmed by the individual’s struggle to survive. As the zoologist Richard Dawkins so brilliantly phrases this in his 1970s book, it’s about “the selfish gene. But, much to Falk’s surprise, one of the lessons from evolutionary science in the past three to four decades is the importance of cooperation, as well as competition, in evolution. And that should shock us because popular uses of “Darwinian” largely refer to ruthless competition. But what evolutionary science (say, through the work of biologist David Sloan Wilson) asserts is, Yes, we do have to survive in order to pass on our genes, but we do that better in an environment in which we are protected and supported by our community.

Jesus in Mark 10—Calling Us to our Evolved Compassion

What does the New Testament add to this mix? It sets the conversation in another key, one that calls us to discipleship.
            We find this passage from the Gospels in the lectionary:
17 As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Jesus in Mark 10
Of the many things that could be said about this passage, one is Jesus’s call to care about someone beside ourselves, and particularly about our own accumulation of wealth and status. Jesus’s redemption undoes the sin of Adam and Eve. It is in fact how their original dilemma in Genesis 3 becomes replicated through all our lives as human beings. Listen to how one of the giants in theology and science, particle physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne puts it in Science and Theology: An Introduction:

At some stage, the lure of self and the lure of the divine came into competition and there was a turning away from the pole of the divine Other and a turning into the pole of the human ego. Our ancestors became, in Luther’s phrase, “curved in upon themselves.” We are heirs of that culturally transmitted orientation. One does not need to suppose that this happened in a single decisive act; it would have been a stance that formed and reinforced itself through a succession of choices and actions. John Polkinghorne

And so here we observe one of these choices Jesus of Nazareth forced a would-be follower to make. Extrapolating to our lives, the key to following Jesus is to moderate between these two central impulses—to care for our selves and for others. Here he’s saying, “Mr. Rich Guy [my paraphrase], stop building your barns for yourself. Instead care for others—it’s the subtler pull from our evolutionary history, but it’s the one that brings life.”

At least those of some of things I hear in these passages as I read Scripture scientifically. Tell me what you see.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Thinking Scientifically About Scripture (First Installment)

This week I’m preaching lectionary texts. Which I usually don’t do. I mean, I don’t preach much these days, but I rarely use the assortment of four biblical texts assembled each week by the great lectionary committee in the sky. Or at some denominational headquarters on earth.
      I’m preparing to give some talks on science and faith and my new book, Mere Science and Christian Faith. Part of that is preaching… And I’ve discovered that that thinking scientifically uncovers some important insights into Scripture. Let me start with the first sermon text.

Slow God
Psalm 90, first of all, describes a God who is much slower than we’d like. And that fact tries our patience. This God is sometimes achingly ponderous in bringing justice, as Amos
The Heliocentric Model of Copernicus
5 cries out. (I'll get to this next week.) This slow God, we know today, makes sense of the long 13.7 billion year history of the universe, and our place within it. It means that ultimately, God is eternal—and slow to us. 
      We must view life—and I love this phrase!sub specie aeternatis—viewed in relation to the eternal. It definitely contradicts a contemporary technological fantasy, what MIT professor Sherry Turkle calls “app thinking”—that some app on our smart phone can solve every problem quickly. 
      It also reminds me of when I heard former Fuller Seminary President and theologian Richard Mouw conversation with other theologians about creation and the way so many evangelicals hold, against the grand consensus of scientists, that the earth is 6,000-10,000 years old. In this group, there was a Catholic theologian who remarked, 
“Here’s the problem with you evangelicals—you want a fast God. But God is slow.” 
Mouw decided his Catholic colleague was right. And this indeed is the God of Psalm 90. 

Psalm 90
Here are a few lines from the 90thpsalm.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place    in all generations.Before the mountains were brought forth,  Note here that that  “were yet born” (according to biblical scholar Hans-Joachim Kraus)—which certainly has an evolutionary overtone. (Cf. Job 38:8.)    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.You turn usback to dust, Note that the return to dust echoes Genesis 3:19, which certainly connects with scientific evidence that we are certainly, at least, material beings and seeks to understand what that means.    and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”For a thousand years in your sight    are like yesterday when it is past,      or like a watch in the night.Note here two passages: Psalm 84:10, and especially 2 Peter 3:8, which heads in the opposite direction “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”

More next week…
Next week, I’ll bring in what the New Testament adds to this mix. I’ll also comment on Amos 5 where he tells us that the God who makes the heavens ("the Pleiades and Orion") has sufficient power to care for the poor. That, my friends, is science and justice rolled into one.

Hope you enjoy this. Feel free to comment below!