Thursday, January 31, 2019

How to Relate Science and Religion in America? A Short Meditation

This post represents an excerpt from the book I'm currently writing on science and religion in our country.

I learned from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre that 
A “living tradition” is  “an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.” Alasdair MacIntryre
With that in mind, it remains worth discussing the traditions that constitute America, and particularly how science and religion contribute to this living tradition and its argument. A fair reading of American history demonstrates that our county has been at its best when we bring together these two cultural forces of science and religion. 

I have used the phrase “cultural forces," but why? It strikes me, having pored over the recent book by John H. Evans, Morals Not Knowledge: Recasting the Contemporary U.S. Conflict between Religion and Science, that science and religion’s conflicts consist more often or morality than a “systematic knowledge conflict.” True enough. (This exists in contradiction to Stephen Jay Gould’s remarks, “Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”) 

And this ethical conflict rears its head in the notorious case of evolution. As Whitcomb and Morris assert in their vastly influential 1961 creationist text The Genesis Flood, 

The morality of evolution, which assumes progress and achievement and “good” come about through such action as benefits the individual himself or the group of which he is a part, to the detriment of others, is most obviously anti-Christian.

When we read this, the cover is ripped off of a warfare between “creation” and “evolution” as solely cognitive.

And yet I am stepping back even further. I believe we are addressing what I’ve come to
see as the “dream of America.” In other words, what is this experiment of America (or "the American experiment") and what are the goods implicit in our common good? Who will be included? I’ve also been inspired by Columbia humanities professor Andrew Delbanco’s brilliant (and to my mind, underappreciated) reflection on our country, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, in which he argues—as the subtitle suggests, that our search for hope has fueled the American Dream. Delbanco offers a three-part typology through the first two hundred years with the Puritans, who grounded their hope in a covenant with God, the nineteenth century (broadly speaking), where Nation became our guiding light, and in the ending of the twentieth century, which focused our attention on Self. (Delbanco wrote The Real American Dream in 1999.) He found the final stage of this search for hope in the Self insubstantial.
The specifics of Delbanco’s argument are brilliant and brilliantly articulated, but my interest does not lie there. Instead, I have learned from him the importance of hope and even more a story and vision for what makes the good life, for what constitutes the American Dream. My rephrasing of that search as the “dream of America” is intended to demonstrate that our country’s yearning extends beyond financial mobility (as important as that is for the lower economic strata), to a gleaming vision for America as a concept and inspiration. 

I’ve mentioned above that MacIntyre above, and so I pose some questions: How are science and religion involved in an argument over the common good of America yesterday, today, and tomorrow? What is the experiment of America, and what are the goods implicit in our common good? Who will be included? Will it be only the voices or religious leaders? Or scientists? 

I'm not sure any generation has presented definitive answers to these questions, but I believe some are better than others. And that they have significant cultural implications for our country.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

N.T. Wright, Revelation, and The Unique Human "Because"

Let’s return to notable biblical scholar N.T. Wright’s insights on human uniqueness through his brief comments on the book of Revelation, chapter 4. 

Here's the key section of the passage:
8 "Each of the four creatures had six wings, and they were full of eyes all round and inside. Day and night they take no rest, as they say,'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,Who Was and Who Is and Who Is to Come.'9 When the creatures give glory and honour and thanksgiving to the one who is sitting on the throne, the one who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall downin front of the one who is sitting on the throne, and worship the one who lives for ever and ever. They throw down their crowns in front of the throne, saying, 11 '0 Lord our God, you deserve to receive glory and honour and power, because you created all things; because of your will they existed and were created.'" Revelation 4
Wright then writes about this passage, emphasizing the focus on worship:
Consider the two songs of praise in this passage, the first in verse 8 and the second in verse 11. The first one is the song which the four living creatures sing round the clock, day and night. They praise God as the holy one; they praise him as the everlasting one. 

Effectively, he comments that they summarize the animal kingdom: human beings, the king of the wild animals (lion), leader of tamed animals (ox), and king of birds (eagle). (Incidentally, they have also come to represent the four writers of the Gospels sometimes called the Tetramporh.) The takeaway for me is that human beings are animals… in the positive sense of the word… not angels. Too often we forget that fact to our peril.
"The song of these living creatures is simply an act of adoring praise and thanks. We are meant, reading this passage, to see with the Psalmist [in Revelation] that all creation is dependent on God and worships him in its own way. That alone is worth pondering as a striking contrast to how most of us view the animal kingdom. But the contrast with the 24 elders is then made all the more striking. Creation as a whole simply worships God; the humans who represent God's people understand why they do so. 'You deserve’, they say, 'to receive glory and honour and power, because you created all things.' There it is: the ' e' that distinguishes humans from other animals, however noble those animals may be in their own way. Humans are given the capacity to reflect, to understand what's going on. And, in particular, to express that understanding in worship." Biblical scholar N.T. Wright
And now we return to what makes us different—namely that we understand we are
worshipping. Wright concludes…
"Worship, after all, is the most central human activity. Certainly it's the most central Christian activity…. Worship is what we were made for; worship with a because in it is what marks us out as genuine human beings." N.T. Wright
That does seem to be a unique feature of humanity—this connection of saying “because” and worshipping our Creator. There also is one place where science, Scripture, and human uniqueness meet.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

What Does It Mean to Be Human? Reflections from the Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright

So often “faith and science” is not a dialogue, but a science monologue with theologians listening in. 

That’s why this piece from the prominent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright caught my attention. He begins by citing this passage from Revelation 4:
6 In the middle of the throne, and all around the throne, were four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind. 7 The first creature was like a lion, the second creature was like an ox, the third creature had a human face, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four creatures had six wings, and they were full of eyes all round and inside. Day and night they take no rest, as they say, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who Was and Who Is and Who Is to Come." 9 When the creatures give glory and honour and thanksgiving to the one who is sitting on the throne, the one who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down in front of the one who is sitting on the throne, and worship the one who lives for ever and ever. They throw down their crowns in front of the throne, saying, 11 "0 Lord our God, you deserve to receive glory and honour and power, because you created all things; because of your will they existed and were created." Revelation 4
Wright then begins his reflection with the central question—our nature as human beings.
Scientists and anthropologists have often asked themselves, “What is it that humans can do that computers can't do?” Computers, after all, can play chess better than most of us. They can work out answers to all kinds of questions that would take us a lot longer. Some people have boldly declared that, though at the moment computers can't do quite everything that we can, they will one day overtake us. The writer David Lodge wrote a powerful novel on this theme, entitled Thinks . . . The heroine eventually discovers the answer: humans can weep; and humans can forgive. Those are two very powerful and central human activities. They take place in a quite different dimension from anything a computer can do. But without them, we would be less than human.
I stepped back for a moment—is forgiving and weeping the best answer? In a way, it seemed to me like a trick. Of course, the laptop on which I’m typing can’t produce tears. Let's see what he does next.
A similar question is often posed: 'What can humans do that animals can't do?' Again, some scientists have tried to insist that we humans are simply 'naked apes', a more sophisticated version of apes perhaps, but still within the same continuum. This is a trickier question than the one about computers, but to get straight to the point: in our present passage, the main difference is that humans can say the word 'because'. In particular, they can say it about God himself.
I’ll leave it there for this post and return next week, but not before asking a question, “What does it mean to say ‘Because’”? I take it signify that we are able to draw conclusions, to be able to make connections. As human beings, we're able to transcend, to step back, to say about ourselves “I am a person thinking, weeping, or worshiping." That’s why. 

That seemed like a “because,” and not just any “because,” but one that defines our humanity. 

What do you think?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Science and Religion in the United States

More from the book on science and religion that I'm currently writing...

To some, religion is solely emotional. And that notion is worth problematizing, especially when we set “religion” (as diverse a category as that is) with “science” (not much more specific, really). Whitehead comments in a chapter devoted to “Religion and Science” in his book Science and the Modern World that 

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest. (A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World)

That is to say, religion seeks to put us in connection with a broader Reality behind the reality we see. It is not simply an emotion, but an intuition of Something or Someone greater than we are.
As I noted a moment ago, some might say that science and religion set up the contrast between “head” and “heart.” That idea is somewhat distorting—since, at least minimally, we know that emotions and rationality are intertwined and take place in various functions of our wonderfully complex and often chaotic brains—and yet that contrast begins to bring us to the right position in understanding our heritage in the United States. Historically, we want either to be warmed in our feelings about the world around us—to see meaning and order and beauty—or to have our thinking kindled—to analyze the particulars of how things fit together.

The eminent historian of American religion Claude Welch labels the three main threads in the eighteenth century “pietism, rationalism, and romanticism.” In my view the former and latter are both cut from similar human cloth where Romanticism is often a secularized religion, and rationalism is the thread of science in our culture.
If we imagine science (or rationality) on one pole and religion (or feeling) on the another, some have fully given themselves to one pole or its other; many tend toward one as a major, and the other as a minor theme; and some have been able to bring the two together, or at least hold them in a dialectical tension. 
The story I’m telling in the book I’m writing is this: To bring us to the present, and then the future, of religion in the United States, where no generation ever arrives at fixed relationship between these two cultural forces (or sets of forces), but in which we continually negotiate how religion and science will relate.

As historian James Gilbert wrote in his study of religion and science in the United States,

The dialogue between science and religion in America expresses essential ideas and deep-seated structures of culture. It reveals a theological problem and a profound concern of philosophy; it also shapes a significant portion of everyday popular culture. It provides categories for thinking about modern existence: to structure the world as divided between science and religion, or to imagine it united with their convergence. (James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in the Age of Science)

If I am convinced that we have done best as a country when we have held both religion and science together, it’s related to my conviction that human beings are at their best with this same combination. My interest, however, is to observe more than to promote. And a way of understanding this is to ask how these two cultural forces interrelate, as well as to chart them on this spectrum the key thinkers and movements. And yet, it almost immediately becomes more complicated because those who privilege science and rationality may seek to bring feeling under its aegis. 
To take in the intellectual history of the United States in this way necessarily means that “science” and “religion” are often symbols in wider cultural currents and not only what scientists and religious leaders practice and teach about. What we today call “science” and “religion” doesn’t map exactly onto our history. In the case of the eighteenth century, these two weren’t even separate disciplines and certainly “science” as a discrete field did not exist. It was often called “natural philosophy” or more simply “science” from the Latin word for knowledge, scientia. Not until 1834 did Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell coin the term “scientist” to replace such terms as “cultivators of science.”

And this places us in an uneasy relationship with the two today.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

"New Year, New You?" A New Year, And An Enduring (and Quite Captivating) Topic

Two early resolutions for a new year
It is common practice to look at a new year and make resolutions.

Here goes for 2019. I resolve to start this year’s posts by looking back. Right now on the
left side of my blog you’ll find the top ten list from 2018—that is, which blog posts had the most readership. By and away the most viewed was “A Parable that Arrived Bit too late.” In it, I describe the surprise at how the Greek I learned at UC Berkeley worked just fine at Princeton Seminary, but the science I took in was often rejected by the church. 

This shock really led me to spend the last three and half decades or so, working to put those two together for others and hoping to tell others what I’ve learned. On that note, have my online course on how to relate mere Christianity and mainstream science?

Another result of this question is that I’m writing a book on the past, present, and predicted future state of religion and science in the United States. I imagine many posts will circle around the set of topics I’ll be writing. So I suppose that’s my second resolution for today.

And this leads me to a brief meditation.

A brief meditation on religion and science in the U.S.
America has always had a dialectical relationship with science and religion, that is to say, with rationality and order, as well as feeling and conversion. And if I began by reflecting on 18thcentury European settlements in the East (e.g., the Pilgrims), it is even anachronistic to speak of “America” or “the United States.” Nonetheless, a dialectical—and sometimes contentious—relationship exists between these two forces, which of course, continues to the present day.
This comment by theologian Robert Jenson’s comments (as he unfolds the thought of Jonathan Edwards) struck me, 
“American has been more than other nations undone by alternate fear of science itself and capitulation to usually jejune science-inspired ideologies.” Robert Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards
For a nation as unusually religious as ours—we are outliers as a developed country with a far higher degree of religiosity than any other—an uneasy antiphonal response to science merits our attention.
To Alfred North Whitehead’s categories for religion and science, as Americans, we are often poised between 
“The force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.”(A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World)
If this is at all accurate, how do we bring the two together as Americans? Let me know what you think. I'll be working with these theme in the early part of 2019