Saturday, December 28, 2019

Three More Trending Topics in Science and Religion

I'm back to my Top Eleven List of topics in science and religion, many of which are trending in importance. They are excerpted from my just-published book (!), Negotiating Science and Religion in America: Past, Present, and Future.

Genetics, medicine, and the specter of eugenics 
This is the first topic that I see trending; that is, entering into the conversation of  science and religion with a new prominence. Here I will note a specific discovery in genetic editing, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat). Francis Collins remarked in 2019 that CRISPR “came out of nowhere  five years ago,” a technique that works via an “enzyme like what you have in a word processor that does search and replace,” which makes it relatively easy. And he added, “High school students can do this. And that should worry you.” CRISPR makes germline interventions, which affect future generations, unlike somatic cell interventions, which do not. This leads to the question of how to use this powerful and simple technology and whether to cure diseases or create “designer babies.” It also raises issues of what to do about undesirable traits. And who decides what or who needs to be edited out? The specter of eugenics is on the horizon. Finally, who will be given the power to decide? Will religious ideas play any part in these conversations? 

Psychology, neuroscience, and the cognitive science of religion 
Functional Magnetic Imaging Resonances (FMRIs) seem to show what’s happening inside our brains. Is God all in our head? And do the insights of neuroscience finally rid us of believing there’s a soul? Here Buddhist approaches to the non-self, or anatta, and some forms of cognitive science and neuroscience seem to have striking similarities. In addition there’s a growing interest in appropriating the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and its relationship to secular psychology, and especially positive psychology. Finally, the Cognitive Science of Religion, which powerfully brings together the cognitive sciences in the service of understanding religious belief and practice, has also provided fruitful insights for further discussion and research. 

Cosmology and astrobiology 
Key to many religious traditions is an emphasis on the nature of the world, or the  universe, and our place in it. Recent astronomical discoveries have highlighted the vast number of exoplanets (planets beyond our own solar system). In the seventeenth century the scientifically and theologically minded Blaise Pascal considered his “brief span of life” and 
“the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which knows nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed….” Blaise Pascal 
And there are medieval hints and certainly eighteenth-century antecedents. Still, some assert that exoplanets and the possible (or probable) existence of extraterrestrial life mean the sudden death of the Christian scheme of salvation since, according to the biblical texts, Jesus came to save this world (such as in John 3:16). The biblical cosmos was vanishingly small compared to our current understanding. Where is our place in the universe? Conversely, if this seems like a loss for Christianity, could it be a gain for other religions?

Some of these topics I've addressed in this blog, and I'll certainly tackle as many as I can in 2020. As always, feel free to let me know what you think.


Thursday, December 19, 2019

An "Upgraded" Apologetics

This week a piece of mine appeared on the BioLogos website, and I thought I'd give the first two paragraphs and direct you there to read the rest.

When I was a college student at UC Berkeley—and a new convert to Christian faith—my pastor offered this stunning definition of apologetics: 
“Proclaiming the gospel, fully aware of the arguments presented against it.” Presbyterian Pastor Earl Palmer
Honestly, I’m probably paraphrasing Earl Palmer’s insights a bit, but still, I think it expresses the gist of his interpretation of how the church needs to do apologetics. He was talking about C.S. Lewis as an apologist and why he was so effective in the 20th century, and I’m convinced this definition holds for us today. There’s wisdom in moving away from primarily defending the Gospel (which, I admit, is embedded in the Greek word apologia) toward presenting our message with skill. Embedded in our presentation is often a skillful and winsome defense.

And this brings me to the heart of the mission of BioLogos and the question before us: What are the arguments against the Gospel we face today? I am convinced that, if we want to do apologetics in age of science and technology, Christians have to recognize the challenges presented by the arguments swirling around the minds of emerging adults (age 18-30), who are actively leaving congregations in droves and not coming back....

Thursday, December 12, 2019

My Top Eleven List in Science and Religion (The First Three)

I've worked up a list of the critical topics for science and religion today and for the future
for my upcoming book. Somehow I just couldn't do it in with a mere Top Ten. 

So here are the first three from my Top Eleven list (stated with brevity and therefore probably some distortion):

1. Religion and Rationality

A common slogan I hear from my college students and read in various kinds of  media is, “Science is about evidence. Faith is about having none, but believing  anyway”; or the gauntlet that Richard Dawkins threw down, “Faith means blind  trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.” Naturally, many  religions look to an unseen reality, God or gods, while science seeks to understand  the workings of the natural world, and so there needs to be a healthy analytical  independence. Nonetheless, faith in monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity,  and Islam is essentially reliance or trust. Or as C.S. Lewis defined it, “the art  of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing  moods.”  

Certainly, not all religious traditions emphasize faith, and so an antireligious  cavil against “faith” can represent a category error. Buddhism, for example,  focuses on enlightenment, since indeed the word Buddha has as its root “enlighten” or  “awaken.” In addition, Buddhism offers an openness to change its teachings based on new information (cf. the 250 BCE Kalama Sutta). Fruitful conversations need to continue unfolding in at least two directions: how to integrate various sciences and technologies with religious traditions that do not privilege faith; and how to engage with mature definitions of monotheistic faith and avoid simplistic, unhelpful slogans. 

2. God's Action

David Sloan Wilson once commented in a discussion about evolution and religious faith, “I can see how some sort of deity is possible with evolution, but not a personal God who intervenes in the world” (my paraphrase). Not all religions believe in a deity, but for those who do, how do they conceive of God’s action? Quantum physics in supplanting Newtonian mechanics described a new concept of the world, and some thinkers find in  quantum indeterminancy fresh opportunities to frame God’s work. Others, through a process of Whiteheadian metaphysics, portray a deity who is persuasive and non-coercive. And still others take recourse in the more traditional Thomistic dual causation. 

To be sure, I’m listing just three of several possible religious options. Others head in an opposite direction and talk about science as “atheistic,” meaning God doesn’t play a factor (e.g., Lawrence Krauss), which also contrasts markedly with some scientists (e.g., Francis Collins) who see nature as a place to witness God’s creative action. 

The bottom line is this question: does God act in the world? Most religious Americans answer by saying that scientific descriptions should include God’s action and that scientists should be open to miracles.

3. Evolution

To many it’s either the Bible or Darwin. The problem is that the clear consensus of mainstream science is with evolution as a theory that has guided scientific research  in a variety of fields for over a century and a half. The topic of evolution naturally encompasses more than simply origins—i.e., how can we put Genesis 1–3 together
with evolution and the Big Bang? 

This also raises the question of human uniqueness, since evolutionary thought connects all life. Hindus commonly affirm that, “All living things have Atman (self or soul), and all Atman are parts of one Brahman, the one universal mind or consciousness that is the source of all things,” and the Jains hold that “all living things have a soul of jiva.” Which religious views then connect most effectively with evolution?

Friday, December 06, 2019

G.K. Chesterton on Eugenics

Last night, at the month meeting of the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology and Science,
we discussed eugenics in early 20th century. One of the key members of the group, Bill, brought up the work of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) who produced one of the few, and perhaps only, criticism of eugenics. 

Of course, Chesterton was English, but recall that in the United States, about 12,000 forced sterilizations under the rubric of "negative eugenics" (removing bad genes from the collective gene pool) had occurred by the time he wrote this book, namely 1922. 

Chesterton is always provocative, and for those like me who are pro-science as a rule, it's always good to remember that science, and the theory of evolution, can be used for some very evil purposes. 

I submit Chesterton's is a voice worth pondering, even if we may disagree at particular points.
The thing that really is trying to tyrannise through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen—that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.... I am not frightened of the word 'persecution' when it is attributed to the churches; nor is it in the least as a term of reproach that I attribute it to the men of science. It is as a term of legal fact. If it means the imposition by the police of a widely disputed theory, incapable of final proof—then our priests are not now persecuting, but our doctors are. The imposition of such dogmas constitutes a State Church—in an older and stronger sense than any that can be applied to any supernatural Church to-day. There are still places where the religious minority is forbidden to assemble or to teach in this way or that; and yet more where it is excluded from this or that public post. G.K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils
Always worth pondering is the contemporary question: What is our contemporary misuse of science? That is, What is today's eugenics?

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

CSL on Praise and thus Gratitude and Generosity

Praise and gratitude are happy twins. They join together with God's grace and our generosity--an appropriate theme since I'm posting this on Giving Tuesday.

All this brings my mind quickly to C.S. Lewis's words from Reflections on the Psalms
"The most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless …shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least...Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.…I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: 'Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?' The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what we indeed can’t help doing, about everything else we value. 
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed… If it were possible for a created soul fully… to 'appreciate,' that is to love and delight in, the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, then that soul would be in supreme beatitude… The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is 'to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.' But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him." C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

These are insights worth pondering today and during this season.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

What the Science of Race Doesn't Show

As a part of my research on science and religion in America over the past two years, which resulted in my book coming out next monthI came to take in the recalcitrant history of the science of race.

And, of course, one all-too-common result has been--and still is--racism, which represents another indelible feature of our country and which some have called "America's original sin."

Maybe you know something about this topic already, but I was woefully underprepared. If you'd like a brief intro, here are three articles from the BioLogos website that offer a solid overview of the topic (and are brief enough that you don't have to do copious reading). 

Here are the links to the mini bibliography:
  1. Dave Unander, "Race: A Brief History of its Origin, Failure and Alternative" 
  2. Deborah Haarsma, "One Human Family" 
  3. Brad Kramer, "Science, Race, and the Bible: Coming to Terms with a Messy History"
  4. In addition to these thoughtful pieces that offer an overview, here's a scholarly article: Alan Templeton's “Biological Races in Humans” in the 2013 Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, 44 (2013): 262–71
The bottom line (or at least, one critical takeaway) from this research is summarized well by Deborah Haarsma:
No genetic basis for race” is referring to the way we define “race” in our culture. When the census asks you to identify as “white”, “black”, “asian”, etc., those are cultural categories, not scientific categories. While some aspects of these cultural categories (e.g. skin color) are genetic traits, those traits are a small part of all the genes that differ between any two individuals. Yes, there is a genetic basis for the many local ancestry groups. But as geneticist Alan Templeton points out, “If every genetically distinguishable population were elevated to the status of race, then most species would have hundreds to tens of thousands of races.” BioLogos President Deborah Haarsma
I'd be interested to hear your comments.

P.S. While I'm at it, I'll link one more article, this by Karen Norrgard, "Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs."

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Being Born Again and Again

Here's a little something pulled from my upcoming book, Negotiating Science and Religion in America.

The topic--a religious revival--is also worth taking in as we watch Kanye West tour the country and bring what many are calling a new surge of God's Spirit. (It's attracted the attention of Joel Osteen and the American Bible Society.) 

I remain open--and I've always liked Kanye's music--but I'm not yet convinced this is really a reviving of our country's spiritual life. At any rate, here I look at the question of whether revivals are beneficial. They certainly are American!

A central component of the story of America is the sensational change that religious revivals promise. As Winthrop Hudson makes clear in his classic, Religion in America: An Historical Account of the Development, one effect of the various revivals was missionary zeal: 
“Above all, this surging tide of evangelical religion supplied a dynamic which emboldened the Protestant churches of America to undertake the enormous task of Christianizing a continent….” The late Princeton University historian Winthrop Hudson
Our country maintains a revivalist zeal and the distinctive hope that life can begin again. To our continual human question, Can I change?, revivals offer a resounding unmitigated Yes. And for a country founded by people seeking the New World, definitive spiritual renewals fit beautifully. As the Romanian poet Andrei Codrescu once quipped, 
“The spiritual pastime of Americans [is] getting born again, over and over.” Romanian poet Andrei Codrescu
A radical moment of change or conversion indelibly marked our consciousness and hopes. Instead of continual incremental change—e.g., the notion of kaizen, cherished by Japanese culture—we applaud radical, dynamic disruption, with lives marked by a specific before and after. But, of course, revivals don’t always deliver.

P.S. Insofar as this is a blog about faith and science, and about what makes a flourishing faith, fully alive, revivals tend to direct Americans away from the rationalizing side of life--the "head," as it were--that we associate with science. America has exhibited a dialectical relationship with science and religion, often expressed with rationality and order on one side in contrast with conversation, feeling, and intuition on the other. In James Gilbert’s view,
Science and religion “are words suggesting two great and opposing philosophic systems—materialism and idealism—that, in a variety of forms, operate as polarities in American culture.” Historian James Gilbert
Head vs. heart? Materialism vs. idealism?  Are these dichotomies that we're facing right now? What would a true revival tell us about how we relate science and religion today?

In the end, this revival (if it is one) may not be so much a rejection of our culture's saturation in science and technology as about Kanye's fame.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Two Hemispheres

I've been meditating on a quotation from C.S. Lewis as he struggled to come to terms with his budding interest in believing in God in Surprised By Joy. Lewis struggled with becoming a believer, finding himself restricted by the influence of a materialist culture around him. 

“The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” C. S. Lewis

Partly, this is a science-faith question. It's often where we're left when we take in the natural world that science describes in purely physical terms (which is what it's designed to do) and try to bring that together with our subjective experience, which so often includes non-physical concepts like love and beauty and meaning and, for most people, includes a search for God.

By the way, the quotation was brought to my attention by an Alister McGrath book I'm reviewing on Albert EinsteinMcGrath brings together insights from a variety of Einstein's comment like "the eternal mystery of the world its comprehensibility." In other words, why should this world make sense if it is really is just facts and numbers? Einstein's understanding of religion was idiosyncratic, preferring to to hold to Baruch Spinoza's god of the mathematical equations and order in the universe, a deity that certainly didn't engage in human affairs and thus present individual lives' with answers to question of life's meaning.

McGrath then considers the physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, who also appreciates science's profound ability to discover the stunning interconnected complexity of the natural world:
"Theology can render this discovery intelligible, through its understanding that the Mind of the Creator is the source of the wonderful order of the world." John Polkinghorne
Does that bring bring together the mind's two hemispheres in a satisfying way? Lewis found his resolution through belief in God. And though not a scientist, he would probably have agreed.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Somebody Else's Problem (A Musing)

I'm part of a conference at Fuller Theological Seminary this week called,"Techno-Sapiens in a Networked Era: Becoming Digital Neighbors." 

While I'm here I've still pondering a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, "Religion and Science," which discovered this. And I'll bold one sentence to make my point.
People’s sense that there generally is a conflict between religion and science seems to have less to do with their own religious beliefs than it does with their perceptions of other people’s beliefs. Less than one-third of Americans polled in the new survey (30%) say their personal religious beliefs conflict with science, while fully two-thirds (68%) say there is no conflict between their own beliefs and science. Pew Research Center
It’s probably not a surprise that the synopsis for the piece reads: “Highly religious Americans are less likely than others to see conflict between faith and science.”

So whether we are "highly religious" or not, when we look at religion and technology (which, for many today, is relatively synonymous with science), I think some introspection is needed. As we ponder technology--and now I'm speaking to older peeps like me--we love the tech we're familiar with, and fear the newer stuff. The laptop was great, but how about VR (Virtual Reality)? We probably have to take a look at ourselves and ask, "Am I the problem? Is my approach bringing an unnecessary conflict?"

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Faith, Dogmatism, and Other Atheistic Cavils

I've been reading and/or listening to Sam Harris (for example here) with some Richard Dawkins and a measure of Jerry Coyne thrown in. It doesn't take much time to realize that one of their biggest beefs with "religion" is that it relies of faith, which to them means resolutely believing something when there is no evidence. In fact, many of the arguments of scientific atheists like these three lean heavily on this assertion. 

For them (and in service of their atheism) faith equals blind, dangerous dogmatism. 

May I point out that this is a rickety foundation for their arguments? And that since I actually teaching comparative religion as a profession, that their scholarship is noticeably lacking?

Certainly there are religious people who believe based on no evidence--that I won't deny. But there are dogmatisms of those who have no religious faith as well. Stalin and Mao's purges for the glories of atheistic communism come to mind as do much more mundane examples (like memes on Facebook and Twitter).

Even more, these leading voices misunderstand faith, which is essentially "fidelity, reliance, or trust" exemplified in the key New Testament Greek word pistis and its cognates. As C.S. Lewis wrote--certainly one who has a right to speak thoughtfully about Christian faith--it means trusting in God based on good reasons and then holding on even when times are tough. In this case, faith actually is grounded on rational reflection and open to conversation. At least that's the kind of faith I see among mature Christian believers and the kind I seek to live out.

Oh, why can't atheists be more rational?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Notes on C.S. Lewis: One Outcome from Suffering

I came across this post this week, which lays down a fairly clear challenge to those who
believe in a good God from a senior editor of Free Inquiry, James Haught:
"Actually, there’s clear proof that an all-loving, all-powerful Father-Creator god doesn’t exist. It’s called 'the problem of evil.' Such a merciful deity wouldn’t have created hideous diseases or natural tragedies, and do nothing to save people from them. And he wouldn’t have designed nature to be a bloodbath of carnivorous slaughter. That clinches it for me. It doesn’t disprove a cruel god, but it wipes out a compassionate one." Atheist James Haught
The undeniable presence of evil and suffering offer a strong counter argument to the existence of a good and all-mighty God. But, is that, as James Haught argues, "clear proof"? Moreover, would it make any difference we can find a purpose for evil and suffering? This is an honest question, not simply a rhetorical one. As I write this post, I'm also working on an entry in our online faith-science newsletter, looking this week at the work of C.S. Lewis on suffering (or more specifically, theodicy), the defense of God's existence in light of evil in the world).

Suffering is never something that human beings look forward to. As Lewis phrased it succinctly in The Problem of Pain, “Pain hurts.” We do not naturally seek it. One key realization for Lewis was that suffering breaks down our idea of the divine that we always want to make in our image. Instead God is the great “iconoclast” who breaks down our overly simplistic images. We want to believe in a God who provides us with constant pleasure, what a friend of mine once called a world of “bubbles and kittens.” 

As Lewis writes after the death of his wife, Joy, in his searingly honest struggle with loss, A Grief Observed:
"My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He
shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not." C.S. Lewis
At the end of the day, Lewis realized that God used pain in his life to form him. As he once wrote about the Christ figure, Aslan, in his Chronicles of Narnia, "'Course he isn't safe. But he's good." God's goodness seeks to make us more into the image of Christ, even if pain is part of that process.

Coda: I realize this isn't, for many, an entirely satisfying response (let alone an answer) to evil. As I worked on this piece, I had an interchange with my colleague, Drew, who told me his concerns about such "soul-making" versions of how to respond to the problem of evil. I replied that, yes, there are problems, but I sense that today we've somehow lost our nerve--Christians of the past would often find strength that God offers a why in the midst of a terrible what. But the question lingers: How do you feel about this concept today?

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Providence and the Persistence of Care

I've been working on the problem of evil for the science-faith newsletter I help edited (because it's a topic that comes up in science and religion discussions). Closely related is the doctrine of God's providence. Since that topic didn't make into the installment of the newsletter I just wrote (due to space), I'll put it in this blog. Here's an excerpt from my book Creation and Last Things.

Maybe a few of us, when we were kids, memorized the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism. It confesses—really almost proclaims—that God did not just wind the watch and let it keep ticking. 

Q: What do you understand by the providence of God?
A: The almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
These are comforting words that stand at the heart of the Christian faith. I know more than one crisis where they have strengthened me and others. Still, the reality of life forces “and yet” upon the catechism’s answer. And yet… those same people who make this stirring affirmation have also held a dying father in our arms. And yet… others have heard those three cruel words: “You have cancer.” And yet… almost all have watched scenes of war broadcast over satellite TV or dispersed through the Internet. Each of these presents a case against the goodness of creation. The comfort and assurance of God’s presence can fade. Evil hits us everyday like a prosecuting attorney, cross-examining nature as God’s witness, arguing a case against God’s care for the world.

At these moments, the doctrine of providence comes to the test. So it is important to understand what the term means. The word derives from two Latin roots (pro-videre) that mean to “fore-see,” which also includes the concept of looking ahead so as to “provide.” Webster’s definition is rather concise: “divine guidance or care.” From this foundation, Christian theologians have sorted out three related components to providence. (If you read again the question from the Heidelberg Catechism you will find each of them):

  • Preservation: God sustains all creatures in their distinctive natures and powers
  • Cooperation: God not only sustains but actively concurs in these creatures’ action in such an intimate way that every action of these beings can be ultimately explained only by reference to both their and God’s actions
  • Government: God fulfills the purpose of all creatures by guiding them
Theologian, Thomas Oden, who has worked tirelessly and effectively to rejuvenate classical insights, summarizes providence this way in his book The Living God
“Three affirmations summarize the Christian teaching of providence: God is preserving the creation in being. God is cooperating to enable creatures to act. God is guiding all creatures, inorganic and organic, animal and rational creation, toward a purposeful end that exceeds the understanding of those being provided for." Thomas Oden
What then is the bottom line? God continues to interact with creation.

If I were to choose the basic biblical text on providence, it is that sometimes mis-applied passage from Romans: 
“We know that God works for the good in all things to those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
The eminent English pastor and biblical scholar, John Stott, lists “five unshakable convictions” from this text. He first points out that what “we know” contrasts to verse 26, where Paul admits that “we do not know how to pray as we ought…," and then he writes,
  1. God works: even when we do not see it—or believe it—God’s action on our behalf is constant. This is the essence of faith and the central conviction of providence.
  2. for the good of the people of God: All things are done for our benefit. This affirmation does not mean that every single event is good!
  3. in all things: In our lives, in the natural world, and even in suffering (verse 17 says that we “suffer with God” and that we have “groanings” with all creation in verses 23 and 24).
  4. to those who love God: This is not a general statement, but one directed toward believers—and one should add not focused on individuals, but on the family of God as a whole.
  5. who have been called according to his purpose: the key factor in determining “the good” is that it is ultimately for God’s plan
Even after these affirmations, Stott is quick to add, 
“These are five truths about God which, Paul, writes, we know. We do not always understand what God is doing, let alone welcome it. Nor are we told that he is at work for our comfort. But we know that in all things he is working towards our supreme good." John Stott
We must never deny evil because of our belief in God’s providence. Evil experiences are really evil. God, however, can work through them to make good. Ultimately this is a statement about God’s power, creativity, and goodness. God can improvise over bad notes to create a beautiful song. Therefore, Christians can echo Jeremiah’s declaration to the Israelite exiles: “’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29.11).

Thursday, October 03, 2019

A Curious and Disturbing Blend of Progressive Christianity and Eugenics

This is adapted from my new book, Negotiating Science and Religion in America, set to meet the waiting world in December.

When today I hear evangelical concern about integrating with culture, I also hear this phrase: "We can't just have the social gospel." Allied is the often unexpressed fear that the gospel doesn't do well when it integrates too comfortably with other cultural forces like science. 
And we'll see how that was accurate with early 20th century theological progressive Walter Rauschenbusch.

With any move to integrate a wider variety of voices, there’s a backlash that creates further division. Certainly Protestants often split in their interaction with American culture. The modernists generally welcomed culture and its contributions to their beliefs, while the fundamentalists perceived in the world as evidence for the Fall. At least that's a useful generalization.

In contrast to this rising fundamentalism of the early 20th century, a new understanding of the Gospel was arising that contained some specific characteristics that could also be described as modernist but also did not correlate entirely with other liberal theology. 

Rauschenbusch, minister at the Second German Baptist Church in close proximity to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen (now renamed “Clinton”), observed deep human suffering and proclaimed the Christian church’s responsibility to respond. He had already come to national attention with his 1907 Christianity and Social Crisis, but his most profound and enduring contribution remains his 1917 A Theology of the Social Gospel. Though late in the progressive era, it articulated well its characteristic concepts with clearly Christian notes. 

But what is the social gospel? The venerable historian of 19th and early 20th century Christianity Claude Welch commented, 
“The social gospel has recovered the authentic message of the Hebrew prophets’ demand for justice and Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as a call to new righteousness under the law of love.” Historian Claude Welch
Rauschenbusch formulated the “social gospel” clearly and brilliantly … and therefore controversially. As he phrased it, “The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified.” An individualistic message of salvation may have its place, but “it has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guild of oppression and extortion.” The progressive era had found its theological voice, which resonates to today.

In his early 1912 book Christianizing the Social Order, Rauschenbusch also transformed evolutionary discourse into a religious zeal that would change society: 
“We now have such scientific knowledge of social laws and forces, of economics, of history that we can intelligently mold and guide the evolution in which we take part.” Walter Rauschenbusch
Lest we who champion social justice put Rauschenbusch on the side of the angels, he combined this zeal for a kind of democratic socialism with a racially based Aryanism, or eugenics, 
“the study of methods of improving the quality of human populations by the application of genetic principles. Positive eugenics would seek to do this by selective breeding programmes, a strategy that is generally deemed reprehensible. Negative eugenics aims to eliminate harmful genes (e.g. those causing haemophilia and colour blindness) by counselling any prospective parents who are likely to be carriers.” Oxford Dictionary of Biology's definition of eugenics
Historian of eugenics Thomas Leonard in his book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Eracommented on this “mishmash of the social gospel, economic reform, Darwinism and anti-Catholicism” with this summary: according to Rauschenbusch, “Cooperation and common property were ‘dyed into the fiber of our breed’ innate to the Anglo-Saxon.”

It’s important to mention that, around this time, most modernists, whether theological or not, adopted eugenics as a rising form of science. And that's what makes Rauschenbusch, for all his important contributions, a cautionary tale.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Limitations of Common (Mis)Conceptions

This blog is broadly about a flourishing, fully alive faith.

Because science has riches to offer our faith, sometimes as a challenge, but even more as a resource, these posts often address topics in science and religion.
This time I’m addressing the complexity of understanding that latter term. 

Why? I read two articles this week that made it really difficult to stick with stereotypes and their (mis)conceptions about religion in American. They also touch on topics of particular relevance in light of the opening of an impeachment inquiry.

The first posed the question, “Who’s an evangelical and who gets to decide?”

It noted that Beth Moore, the fabulously popular evangelical speaker, and Southern Baptist Convention leader Russell Moore, and even (I added “even” since he so often seems a walking stereotype of conservative evangelicalism) John Piper the notable pastor and author—all “white evangelical” leaders—have expressed significant concerns about President Trump. Not everyone is Jerry Falwell, Jr.
—a fact I'm quite thankful for. 

But even more, it demonstrated how… well, I’ll just quote it,
“Nonwhite evangelicals, especially African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos, were less enthusiastic about Trump. Polls often exclude such nonwhite evangelicals by design, as stories about ‘evangelicals and politics’ typically only look at “self-identifying evangelical white Republicans and politics.” Article, "Who's an evangelical and who gets to decide"? 
What seemed like a simple association—"evangelical” implies "Trump supporter"—became much nuanced, and to my mind, exceedingly more interesting.

The second was not actually an article, but a rather extensive report by the Pew Research Center with a somewhat boring title, “The Religious Typology,” but explosive implications—by which I mean, if we take this seriously, our stereotypical ideas about American religion will be exploded.

Pew's new religious typology breaks Americans into seven categories with much more captivating titles like Diversely Devout (traditionally religious, but open to reincarnation and psychics), Relaxed Religious (religion important to them, but not engaged in traditional practice), and Spiritually Awake (skew more toward New Age and untraditional religious practice). About 43% of Americans are in these three—spiritually open, but not entirely religious identified.

Since I can’t leave politics this week, the 12% Pew found to be God and Country—these fit most closely with the white evangelicals that support Trump. That’s like 1 in 8 Americans. These are the engaged Trump supporters. Not all evangelicals are full-throated in their support of the Republican Party and our President? Case closed? Not quite—but minimally some new insights.

All this reinforces what I discovered when I was writing Negotiating Science and Religion in America,

“'One day I woke up and wondered: maybe today I should be a Christian, or would I rather be a Buddhist, or am I just a Star Trek freak?'” And so Leigh Eric Schmidt begins his 2012 book on the American individualized spiritualty, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality in which he demonstrates that, while plenty of contemporary examples exist, so do precedents in our country’s history, and also charts (as Wade Clark Roof describes it inside its cover) the 'lineage from Emerson to Oprah.' Already in the nineteenth century, Philip Schaff described America as 'the classic land of sects,' and John Weiss offered this declaration, which summarizes so much: 'America is an opportunity to make a Religion out of sacredness of the individual.'
The American cultural tradition of religious pluralism, which chooses among various inputs for spirituality, is longstanding and venerable. The past directs our present. Americans have always held copious strands of religious threads in our hands, which we weave together in fascinating ways. An excerpt from my upcoming book Negotiating Science and Religion in America
At times of high political drama, or even when we just want to understand this unusual country, it’s entirely complicated to grasp American religious life—and probably better not to lean on stereotypes and (mis)conceptions.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Re-Animated Soul Dialogue, Part 3

As I mentioned last week, my brother Marcus, who is also a novelist, helped me rewrite one of my previously posted Soul Dialogues to make it funnier and more interesting. 
Since this blog often looks at themes in religion and science, the topic of the soul fits right in. What is the soul? Is it a solely religious concept? Is it something science can study? What am I doing talking to my imaginary friend Dan? And why are we now in Oxford's Addison's Walk at Magdalen College thousands of miles from where we started? (I suppose that's what happens when you converse with an imaginary friend.) 
So many questions to ponder... In any event, this is the third and final part.

Dan: Greg, knowing you as I do, I can’t believe we’re done with this topic already. I thought I’d hear about positive psychology, Scripture, and becoming fully alive. Let me hear it all—whatever you’ve got to say.
Greg: You are a true imaginary friend, wanting to so generously hear all that I have to say. And before you’ve had an imaginary lunch.Let me start with this: When I was trained in the humanities at Cal, I learned that Sigmund Freud called religion an illusion. (Today Richard Dawkins echoes this and calls religious belief a “delusion.”) Put in simple form: If you believe in God, you’re crazy. The more you believe, the crazier you are.
Dan: I’ve heard some of that myself.
GSC: But science doesn’t agree with either of them.  Research—the kind backed up by quantitative and statistical analysis—points to the opposite conclusion. By and large, religious belief leads to happier lives.
Dan: I want to believe it, but says who?
GSC: Well, first of all, the Greater Good Magazine at UC Berkeley (my alma mater—Go Bears!) has demonstrated the psychological benefits of forgiveness. Second, Health talked about the “Surprising Health Benefits of Religion” like lower blood pressure, more life satisfaction, more resilience, healthier immune system, and a longer life. You might say that, when we say yes to God, we say yes to happiness, the abundant life, and human flourishing.  Choose one of the three for a description, but if you ask, Do I want one of these? The answer is Yes.
Dan: The science sounds compelling. But what about Scripture and human flourishing?
GSC: There are so many examples, but here’s one. I remember attending a conference on technology and faith where, at a lunchtime conversation, a bright, young physicist, who struck me as both articulate and ebullient, told me how she had struggled with depression. One of her problems was perseverating
Dan: Perseverating?
GSC:Yes. Perseverating. Thinking about the same thing over and over.
Dan: Of course. Of course. Of course.
Greg pauses for just a moment. Dan shrugs.
GSC: Anyway, the cognitive response she learned through her therapist was to let her brain saturate on positive thoughts—to perseverate on positivity, perhaps. And she pointed to New Testament book of Philippians (which we talked about back in Chico) as a beautiful expression of that work. 
Dan: There’s that name again.
GSC: I’m telling you.
Dan: I’m hearing you.
Greg stops mid-walk, caught up in the moment and his thoughts.
GSC: Do you want to hear something else?
Dan: Yes.
GSC: Okay. (With some excitement and gestures) Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases the key verse I mentioned earlier: 
“I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”
Dan: We should probably start walking again. Folks are beginning to stare. But I like where you’re going.
Greg begins walking again.
Dan: So, Greg, my friend, it’s getting close to lunch, you’ve been philosophizing for a while, and I’ve been wondering if there’s some payoff from all this discussion of the soul. Greg, what’s your point?
GSC: Integration. That’s my point. Bringing all of our soul to all of God. 
To be one, wholly—and holy—God’s. That is the point of talking about the soul.
Dan: This is good – we’re back on the soul.
GSC:  Is it ok if I preach it?
Dan: Of course. Greg gotta Greg.
Greg stops again, taken over by the moment.
GSC: I’m convinced there’s just one you, and there’s simply one me that God created. We can talk about “body” and “soul” and “spirit” and “mind.” But God doesn’t want us separated. God wants us to be one person who relates to our one Lord. Now science does tell us that parts of the human brain developed in different ways, and so it’s natural (in that sense) to feel dis-unified. But spiritual life is the practice and power that brings us together and in some ways works to reverse what’s natural.
Dan: Greg is definitely Gregging!
GSC: Yes! Disunity is at least one huge component of sin. Isn’t that what Paul lamented in Romans 7—“I don’t understand my own actions”—that there were at least two selves fighting against each other? Sometimes it feels like a barroom brawl inside of my noggin!
And this seems to me to be one key element of monotheism—our belief in one God. We don’t go from deity to deity, like ancient pagans did—a god for our work guild, another god for love, another for the political life, and yet another for the home. And so on… As Christians, we know one God who loves, creates, and redeems all of us. At our best then, our souls aren’t separate parts of us, warring against everything else—against our flesh, or whatever else.Instead, being fully alive is bringing all of us to all of God. If anything, the soul ought to describe that unity. To be one, wholly—and holy—God’s. That is the point of talking about the soul.
How’s that for a soapbox moment?
Dan: You had me at “disunity.”  And now I’m really hungry. Soul food?
GSC: Sounds nourishing. Let’s go.
Greg walks on again.