Thursday, August 29, 2019

Keeping Faith in a Science-Saturated Culture

Recently, I was asked to answer the question of how Christians keep faith--and even provide a witness--in a science-saturated culture.

I came up with three answers.

First of all, I'd learn from the great scientists in the past and present and be inspired by the heritage of Christians in the sciences.

It’s clear that almost every great thinker of the explosion of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth scientific revolution were deeply affected by the Gospel: Copernicus, Pascal, and Galileo. Does that last name surprise you? At least in part, he was trying to reform the Catholic church of his time so that they would take in the emerging sun-centered (heliocentric) universe, and in the process he made remarkable statements about faith and his scientific work:
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” Galileo Galilei
And then, as science continued to develop, great thinkers like Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell were both profoundly committed to their Christian faith as they made their mark on 19th-century science. Today this legacy is carried forward by Jennifer Wiseman, who is Senior Project Scientist for NASA’s Hubble space telescope, and by Francis Collins led the Human Genome Project and now heads the National Institutes of Health. 
“I find that studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God's creation.” Francis Collins
Second, I'd remember the beauty in reading God’s two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Consider how this comes together in two verses in Psalm 19:
"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." Psalm 19:1 
"The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul." Psalm 19:7
These biblical verses speak about these two books, which are complementary (though not exactly the same) and have one Author. God has written the law (or Torah) to direct human life and has authored the natural world, which leads us to see God's glory.
Third, I'd continue to learn worship through insights into the beauty and intricacy of the natural world. As the 18th-century theologian and natural philosopher Jonathan Edwards wrote about the beauty in nature: 

“All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.” Jonathan Edwards

Friday, August 23, 2019

Minding Our Humanity

Mind: “the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons” (Webster's Dictionary)

Marilynne Robinson's third chapter from Absence of Mind analyzes the thought of Sigmund
Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud: The Three Atheists of My Undergrad Years
Freud (1856-1939), who clearly positioned himself as a "scientist," analyzing the depths of humanity. The mind is central to Freud and to Robinson's book and naturally represents a topic of considerable interest in the dialogue of theology with science, particularly with neuroscience and cognitive science. Robinson takes on the topic primarily from the angle of philosophy and the history of ideas.

Here is a representative quotation from the chapter. 
"If there is one thing Freud asserts consistently, from which every theory proceeds and to which every conclusion returns, it is just this--that the mind is not to be trusted.” Marilynne Robinson
Robinson's point in Absence of Mind is that modern thinkers--through people like Freud in the past as well as Stephen Pinker and E. O. Wilson today--have led us to an absence of mind, which represents a serious reduction of what it means to be human. (In that previous sentence, I wrote that "modern thinkers" were critiquing our trust in human thought, which of course is oxymoronic and probably a striking example of "sawing off the branch you're sitting on.")

I think Robinson's right in many ways, and yet I have to add the theological categories of

doubt and sin. Put another way, is the mind a single entity? For example, we might say, “I’m of two minds on that issue.” And the Bible describes doubt, as in James 1: 8 as being “double-minded." Moreover, Paul in Romans 7 seems torn up by warring minds,
"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." Romans 7:15, Paul
And yet, Jesus clearly believed that the mind is essential in responding to God,
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’" Matthew 22:37, Jesus
This indeed, is the "greatest commandment," which when added with love of our neighbor, summarizes God's will for us.

That leaves some questions to ponder because I think many Christians today don't trust the mind and consistently propose that we need to listen to our "hearts"--by which they mean emotions (which is not the biblical definition by any stretch) and thus reject the mind. Note above that Webster’s definition includes “feels, perceives, thinks, wills” and not simply “reasons.” 

Do you trust your mind? To what degree why or why not? Is your mind a gift from God? What gets in the way of a trustworthy mind? What makes it trustworthy or untrustworthy? 

P.S. If you're interested in viewing and/or hearing Robinson's fourth chapter, "Thinking Again," it was also the fourth of her 2009 Terry Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy at Yale, which appears in her book with the title.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Let’s Follow Leonardo and His Renaissance Blend

I’m preparing for my fall humanities class at Chico State (HUMN 222), and one of the best parts is rediscovering the breadth of insight in the thought leaders of western culture since the Renaissance. One of those is Leonardo Davinci (1452-1519), whom I’ve discovered partly through reading Walter Issacson’s biography, but certainly also through looking at Leonardo’s brilliant works of art like The Mona Lisaand The Last Supper. (And, by the way, please don’t be through off in understanding that latter painting by taking Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code seriously—that is truly a work of fictional speculation, not of art history, let alone religious insight.)

I’ve been struck by the way Leonardo expertly blended what we think of as science and the humanities… or at least what we call “science” since in his day it would have been natural philosophy. Much of this he collected in the 13,000 pages of writing in his assorted notebooks, some of which contain proto-helicopters and a near discovery—through his extensive studies of anatomy—of the circulation of blood about a century and a half before William Harvey’s definitive work in 1628. 

Natural philosophy—that is, at its root looking at the natural world though a love of wisdom—is descriptive because nature was the source of Leonardo’s inspiration. He is quoted, 
“Nature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity.” Leonardo Da Vinci

Nature offered insight into peerless paintings like the Mona Lisa, which emerged from a lifelong study of optics, psychology, and artistic technique.

Most of this blog (at least in the past few years) has been focused on topics in science and religion. And though Leonardo demonstrated a sensitivity to the subtleties of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas in The Last Supper, most commentators take Leonard to be relatively uncommitted to any particular religion… or perhaps religion at all. Today science has become much more complex and those who practice science often need highly specialized skills. (I’m thinking of a friend who does research at CERN).

Still, I think Leonardo has something to offer us today: a curiosity unbounded by the boundaries of discipline, but instead relentless pursuing nature and its wisdom. Why do most of have to niche ourselves in artistic, humanistic, or scientific pursuits? Let’s follow Leonardo.

Might I add that we can follow the creation back to the Creator and find in both numerous topics worthy of our wonder? 

Thursday, August 08, 2019

ETs and the Incarnation (with Insights from C. S. Lewis)

I wrote this week's eSTEAM, online newsletter, on whether the existence of extraterrestrials would invalidate our teaching of the Incarnation, that is, that God became human.

(If you want to subscribe to eSTEAM, by the way, you can do that here.)

This post complements  C. S. Lewis and ETs from three weeks ago. Here's a lightly edited excerpt from this week's eSTEAM...

Does the possible existence of ETs invalidate the Incarnation? 
Some assert that the discovery of other planets and the possibility of extraterrestrial life (ETs) mean the sudden death of the Christian scheme of salvation since, according to the biblical texts, God came in the unique person of Jesus to save this world or kosmos (John 3:16).

In his 1958 essay, “Religion and Rocketry” (originally titled, by the way, “Will We Lose God in Outer Space?”), C. S. Lewis took on the great Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle’s claim that the vastness of the universe makes the Christian teaching of Earth's special place in God's work of salvation essentially silly. 

As a scholar of history, Lewis steps back and cools down the argument’s heat:

"When the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism…." C. S. Lewis (or Clive Staples Lewis, aka "St. Clive")

St. Clive then focuses, addressing Hoyle's assertion: this is about the Incarnation:
“If we find ourselves to be one among a million races, scattered through a million spheres, how can we, without absurd arrogance, believe ourselves to be uniquely favored?” C. S. Lewis
What might the existence of an extraterrestrial “hypothetical rational species” mean for Christian message? Lewis, an avid amateur astronomer, who mounted a telescope on the balcony of his bedroom at his home near Oxford, The Kilns, worked out answers more thoroughly in his three-part Space Trilogy. 

There and in this essay, he concluded that a good God could have created life on other planets—no problem with that—but we have no reason to assume that they are fallen. Human beings need redemption because we’ve sinned. This also implies that the great distances of the universe might be an act of grace. 
“I have wondered before now whether the vast astronomical distances may not be God’s quarantine precautions. They prevent the spiritual infection of a fallen species from spreading.” C. S. Lewis
Moving to a close, he refers to Augustine, who pondered the theological implications of the creatures whose existence was bandied about in the fourth and fifth centuries: “satyrs, monopods, and other semi-human creators. He decided it could wait till we knew there were any. So can this” (meaning the existence of ETs).

Lewis then takes this in an unexpected direction. Ultimately, the lesson is not the particulars of any discovery, scientific or otherwise, that would irrevocably validate or invalidate our faith. 
“Christians and their opponents again and again expect that some new discovery will either turn matters of faith into matters of knowledge or else reduce them to patent absurdities. But that has never happened.” C. S. Lewis
And so St. Clive directs us back to trusting in the goodness of our Creator, perhaps looking up at the stars and planets God has made and wondering whether there are other creatures looking at us, and who might be also looking to the gracious God and Creator in faith.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Notes on the Terms "Natural Philosophy" and "Scientist"

When this blog takes up topics of "religion and science," it's fascinating to note that historically these have not been fixed terms. In that light, here are few notes:

Science did not exist as a discrete field for most of American history (and of course for centuries before that). It wasn't until 1834 that the Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell coined the term scientist to replace cultivators of science (and the like). More on that in a movement... Until then, Latin was the language of the scholars, and the Latin word for knowledge, scientia, covered a variety of disciplines. In fact, what we 
generally call "science" today was previously natural philosophy.

This shift in naming had collateral effects. In his brief treatment of the advances in science between Copernicus's ground-breaking work on heliocentricism in 1543 and Newton's iconic Principia Mathematica in 1687, the Johns Hopkins University historian of science Lawrence Principe offered this pithy analysis in his succinct The Scientific Revolution:
"Natural philosophy is closely related to what we familiarly call science today,
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but is broader in scope and intent. The natural philosopher of the Middle Ages or the Scientific Revolution studied the natural world—as modern scientists do—but did so within a wider vision that included theology and metaphysics. The three components of God, man, and nature were never insulated from one another." Philosopher of Science Lawrence Principe
Changing the name also signaled a shift in scope.

As I mentioned above, in 1833 the Rev. William Whewell (1794-1866), English polymath—poet, astronomer, philosopher of science, among other things—coined many hybrid terms, ion, anode, cathode, but especially scientist in the same paragraph in which he coined physicist. Interestingly, Whewell sought to avoid gender connotations of the phrase man of science for at least two reasons: first of all, because of its appearance in a positive review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, and secondly because of “the newness of Somerville’s endeavor—her attempt to connect all the physical sciences with one another.” (See Renee Bergland's Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of the Science.)

This new word scientist also signaled that the practice of what we know today as “natural science” was becoming sufficiently complicated in the 19th century that it needed specific practitioners and that it had therefore drifted away from the kind of common sense science. This is partly the story of the specialization of academic fields that breaks apart the unity of knowledge. At any rate, as a result, the study of nature now became increasingly difficult for those outside this newly coined cadre to evaluate. Non-specialists need not apply! 

Thus scientific specialists begin to dominate the conversation of how, or if, God can be found through science.

How else this change the conversation about science and religion? I'd be interested to know what you think.