Thursday, April 30, 2020

Transcending Mere Translation (A Musing)

A passage comes to mind when I ponder the nature and value of translation. It shows that there is a point in which we transcend mere translation. 

In his (sort of) autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes the experience of being tutored by William Kirkpatrick, the Great Knock, and particularly how Lewis learned to read ancient Greek literature in the original language. For those who have mastered another language, this experience reminds me of suddenly riding a bicycle without needing training wheels. In this case, it was "beginning to think in Greek."
"The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal
William T. Kirkpatrick (1848-1921)
without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle.
The very formula, 'Naus means a ship,' is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding." Oxford University scholar and writer C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (my underlining)
Last week I thought about translation as a way to frame how to bring together mainstream science and mere Christianity. To take the insights of science and translate them into a Christian framework is an art indeed. 

But here we see a higher stage. Translation might be necessary, but it isn't the final step--that is, to transcend translation means to think beyond the separate categories of "science" and "Christian faith" and simply to see them describing one reality and thus to see it all connected. 

This coming week I'll be published a Science for the Church newsletter article on our human drive we toward relationality as a profound and basic truth to which both Scripture and science point. In a word, we are made for relationships. But maybe "Scripture" and "science" aren't addressing different things that need to be translated into one another. As Lewis put it, the Greek word naus doesn't mean ship. They both point to something else. When Scripture tells us how we're created by the will of our Creator and when the relevant sciences essentially agree, translation is a great step, but there's something higher, even transcendent, beyond translating.

It might even be the way God thinks.

Thursday, April 23, 2020


There is an Italian saying I heard quoted in almost every comparative literature class I took as an undergraduate: "translator, traitor"—or, because the Italian sounds better
Traduttorre, traditore
In the quip’s cynicism and brevity lies its power, but we know that translation is not entirely betrayal because it promotes the material translated into a new audience. And sometimes it creates alliances and friendships. Translation can even be an act of courage and even defiance—taking insights in one language and daring to put them in another. But it is demanding, and sometimes translation feels like working on the electricity in a house while the power is still on. 

As I think about it, to bring together science and Christian faith—or any religious commitment, for that matter—means we have to be committed to translation.
This definition of translation found here

As I pondered that that idea, I realized that my life has been about translation. The first time I pursued this task intentionally was in college when I majored in Comparative Literature. And a few years later, I tried to hone this skill through reading biblical studies in their original languages. In the process, I learned about eight languages (and sometimes even got close to mastering one or two)

This, of course, is a literal form of translation. But, when I extend the term, I realize that, as a first year student at U.C. Berkeley, I was engaging in another form of translation. Having grown up in a religiously non-affiliating household, I became a Christian and found myself translating my Christian convictions into the language of a secular university. And then later, in my PhD, I took a deep dive into religion and science and worked at how these two could speak to one another.

The twentieth century Oxford and Cambridge scholar C. S. Lewis learned this in speaking about the Christian religion to a broad audience 
during World War II through, among other means, the British Broadcasting Company. (Later these "Broadcast Talks" were published as the widely bestselling Mere Christianity.) As he reflected on this and his various books for the public (meaning not the intellectual elites at Oxford, Cambridge, and the like), Lewis highlighted the theme of translation. 
"My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand." C.S. Lewis
This change implied simplification that, for scholars, felt at times like betrayal. (It's no secret that his good friend and brilliant philologist J.R.R. Tolkien largely disliked Lewis's books of popular theology.) From Lewis's perspective, translation required less nuance in language and simpler sentence structure. For many academics, it also requires simplifying ideas, even rounding off some edges of scholarly controversy—this is of course contained in the negative connotations of »popularizer."

I mentioned above that bringing together faith and science requires a commitment to translation. Maybe it's partly a temperament, or at least an acquired taste. And I wonder if the opposite inclination is why some are drawn to promote conflict or independence between science and religion (I think of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould and his non-overlapping magisteria): they just don't believe these two languages are translatable into the other's idioms. They don't accept, or believe in, translation. 

Maybe so. At any rate, it's those of us that promote collaboration between faith and science (or in Ian Barbour's words, dialogue or integration) that force us to translate. Or at least to try. Traduttorretraditore. I hope it's better than that.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Are the Historical Adam and Eve Like Jesus's Resurrection? A Musing

We don’t want to end up with the "God of the gaps." That's the idea that, when we can’t find God yet in the natural processes, we insert God into that gap. It may seem like a quick and easy solution, but it just raises more problems.

The 20th century theologian and Christian martyr under Hitler Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered the best rejoinder to that type of thinking when he wrote,

“It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some place for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man's life and goodness.”

God at the center. The God who inspires human discovery and knowledge. For those who want to engage faith and science, the problem is that science continues to fill in the gaps by finding natural causal links. 

And so I usually take recourse in a philosophical approach called dual causation. Here's one way to describe by way of the great medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas in which he distinguished between primary causation (God) and secondary causation (creatures)

“[Thomas] showed that this is true of God--or the First Cause--in the causality of being. The First Cause causes things to be or exist. Secondary causes (which are true causes) give their effects or outcomes limited being.”
Because I’m a fan of science, I’m also a fan of dual causation, which goes something like this: If God is going to work in the natural world, he will often do so through natural means. Here's an example. We can speak of an event through two means—God’s and the world’s. Let's consider Psalm 139:13 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” When God knits us together in our mother’s womb, that divine work occurs through natural processes that physicians and embryologists can study.

Since this is right after Easter, it's worth considering Jesus's Resurrection, which seems to me to one of those rare cases where God is acting unilaterally, that is, as the Primary and Sole Cause without secondary causation. Jesus's rising from the dead--and our resurrection, for that matter--doesn’t arise from inside nature, but from the One who is not bound by the natural world, the God who creates and upholds nature. Otherwise, we get the highly problematic ideas that of resurrection as the result of evolutionary optimism, the idea that we’ll keep evolving into something better. In a word, Yikes!

If that works so far, I'm happy. But let's say we accept the creation of the historical Adam and Eve? Is that like the Resurrection of Jesus? Is that also God's direct single causation? My friend, the computational biologist Joshua Swamidass, in his book The Genealogical Adam & Eve considers a connection between the Resurrection of Jesus and God's de novo creation of Adam and Eve. He writes, “The Resurrection is God’s direct, supernatural action in a specific physical event in history.” As he writes elsewhere in the book, could the creation of Adam and Eve also be a “direct act of God”?

In my reading, Josh doesn't say that Jesus's Resurrection and God's direct creation are exactly the same, but he infers that they both point to instances where God acts (now in my language) unilaterally. This is single causation.

In the Garden of Eden, the human being or "man" is said to be created "from the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7), which means existing elements of nature. It's actually a play on words in Hebrew: adam ("human being" or "man") comes out of the adamah ("ground" or "soil"). Note that this is a bit different from the earth that God uses "to bring forth living creatures of every kind" (Genesis 1:24), and yet both the man and the living creatures don't arise out of nothing (ex nihilo). And then there's "the woman": God makes her from the man's rib (Genesis 2:24). None of this sounds like the creation ex nihilo of the universe summarized in Psalm 33:8, "For he spoke, and it came to be," and stated more directly in Romans 4:17 when Paul describes God, "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist." And here, it should be noted, Paul compares God's creation out of nothing with resurrection. Hmmm... single causation.

But doesn't God's creation of Adam and Eve, even by the strictest standards of interpretation, use pre-existing material, the dust and a rib, respectively? And to return to the central question: Are the Historical Adam and Eve Like Jesus's Resurrection or something different? Could Adam and Eve's creation be seen as a direct act of God? The texts don't seem to lead in that direction. 

Still, I'm not sure. As I've written elsewhere, I'm more convinced--along with C.S. Lewis and Francis Collins and James Dunn--that it's better to think of Adam and Eve as typological rather than historical. But if we take a literalist approach, their creation is not, it appears, directly comparable to the Resurrection of Jesus. 

But then again, as I put right in the title, this is a musing, and therefore without a definite answer. I'd be interested to know what you think.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Easter Extras on Science and Resurrection

Just finished a piece on celebrating Easter in light of both COVID-19 and science... As often happens, I wasn’t able to include everything—even if I loved the insights—and so here they are, collected as “Easter Extras.”

William Stoeger: Cosmic Death is Certain
The late William Stoeger, world-class astronomer at Vatican Observatory, noted several possibilities exist for our terrestrial demise: destruction of earth by asteroids and comets, the decline of our sun, and the explosion of a nearby supernova in an article with the daunting title, “Scientific Accounts of Ultimate Catastrophes in Our Life-Bearing Universe.” As Christians we know that our own death is guaranteed, and that is why we hope for resurrection. Even more we are promised that God will not only raise us up at the last day (Job 19:25-27, John 11:24), but that God will create a new heavens and a new earth (Revelation 21).

Walter Kim: Is the Resurrection of Christ Unscientific?
A questioner at an American Association for the Advancement of Science panel on evangelicals and science presented a challenged: the center of the Christian faith, the Resurrection of Jesus, is fundamentally unscientific. And National Association of Evangelicals President Walter Kim answered this way:

“To say that the laws of nature were suspended at a particular moment is not to deny the laws of nature. The actual predication of a miracle is dependent upon a worldview that presumes regularity, scientific exactitude. So, Jesus' resurrection from the dead wouldn't actually be noticeable if people were popping from the dead.” NAE President Walter Kim
In fact, Kim continued, the Christian worldview necessarily assumes principles that are necessary for science, he continued.
“The very fact of a miracle is predicated on the notion that the Christian worldview affirms principles that are essential to scientific endeavor, [such as the] regularity of the laws of nature [and the] predictability of the laws of nature. And the fact that Jesus' resurrection contravened those things is in fact predicated on a wider worldview.... But it does introduce the fact that the laws of nature are not the only aspect of reality.” Walter Kim
The God who made this world and its natural laws can do greater things than we see in this world now. Because our God is not bound by this world.

John Polkinghorne: Easter and Irruption of Quantum Theory
There may be some analogies to the radical newness of the Easter message, or perhaps hints. 

John Polkinghorne has stated that the irruption of this new idea of Jesus’s Resurrection may in fact be like the experience in the 1920s with the newness, and oddness of quantum theory. After describing how the New Testament writers came to terms with Christ as the risen Lord while maintaining a commitment to Jewish monotheism, he writes,
“There are times in the history of science—the period 1900-26, in which quantum theory came to birth, would be one of them—in which strange and perplexing experience heralds a radical revision of previously cherished beliefs.” Physicist and Theologian John Polkinghorne
Susan Howatch on the Nature of our Resurrected Bodies
As a pastor, I knew that church members remain unsatisfied with only generalities. In fact, when I have taught this material in adult education classes, the specifics captivate the students. In fact, I have also been asked the practical questions: “What exactly will be the nature of my resurrected body? Will my father recognize me in heaven? On other hand, can I cremate my grandmother? What will my disabled child look like?” 

The critical element in our resurrected bodies as the New Testament understand it, is not our flesh and bones. It is our concrete selves. Our resurrected bodies will be us, but freed from the defects inherent in a fallen world. And we will recognize one another in heaven. Who and what we are on earth represents the concrete self that God created. The body-soul unity that now comprises us will dissolve at death, but our individuality—the “pattern of information” is another metaphor—will be instantly recreated at death into the resurrected body. Interestingly, Gregory of Nyssa, in the 5th century, believed that the soul watches over the atoms and reconstitutes them at our resurrection.

The English writer, Susan Howatch—who made her own headlines by funding a chair at

Oxford in science and theology—described this teaching in her novel, The Wonder Worker

She presents a dialogue on the bodily resurrection between a confused agnostic, Alice, and an Anglican priest, Nicholas Darrow, using the contemporary analogy of information. Alice’s aunt has just been cremated.
“But if Aunt’s now ashes, how can one talk of a resurrection of the body?”
“‘Body’ in that context is probably a code-word for the whole person. When we say ‘anybody’ or ‘everybody’ or ‘somebody’ we’re not talking about flesh and blood—we’re referring to the complex pattern of information which the medium of flesh and blood expresses.”
I struggled to wrap my mind around this. “So you’re saying that flesh and blood are more or less irrelevant?”
“No, not irrelevant. Our bodies have a big impact on our development as people—they constitute to the pattern of information, and in fact we wouldn’t be people without them. But once we’re no longer confined by space and time the flesh and blood become superfluous and the pattern can be downloaded elsewhere… Do you know anything about computers?” “No.”
“Okay, forget that, think of Michelangelo instead. In the Sistine Chapel he expressed a vision by creating, through the medium of paint, patterns of colour. The paint is of vital importance but in the end it’s the pattern that matters and the pattern which can be reproduced in another medium such as a book or film.”
That indeed may be a place to leave this post—with a vision for our personal Easter hope. Especially in a COVID-19 world.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

When the Church is a Gathering, Not a Building

"I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live" 
God declares this in Ezekiel 37 where our Creator causes dry, dead bones to come to life. I love this vision, and it animates this week's post because we're living in a time of COVID-19 dry bones, where church leaders might feel like they're in the midst more of death than of life. Even as we celebration Jesus's Resurrection, which is just around the corner...

Last week I ended here: As we look to the days when congregations can meet again in person, I believe there can still be hope if churches are willing to change. Maybe these dry bones yet will find new life. I think there's hope, even if we feel like the women, at the Cross, sobbing over the death of Jesus. 
As the preacher once proclaimed, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’!”

I move then the two suggestions in the previous post. First, there is hope for churches that integrate technology into their worship services. The key word here is integrate: This doesn’t mean simply sticking one camera on a tripod and filming what’s always been

done. I'll let the meme to the right do the heavy lifting on this one. 

One of the things I did this week was to find online links for a "virtual worship service site visit" assignment for the college class I teach on western religions. The research was was surprisingly edifying. For one thing, I pointed my students to the gorgeous livestream of Washington DC's National Cathedral online and also found a very hip and engaging online worship service through Hillsong San Francisco (no surprise about the hipness). Moreover, I'm excited by what I see already with worship leaders using montages of how people are spending their stay-at-home time and sharing those in virtual worship, like my pastor and friend Jeff Smith does at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Houston

My second point, however, might be even more important: There is hope for churches that emphasize relationships. I write this out of deep concern not for what we’re facing right now, but how we can use it to change the church for the better in the future. You might ask, How Body of Christ can withstand the coronavirus and actually become stronger? Too many worship services don’t help congregants connect with one another,
and it becomes a place where we simply see the backs of people’s graying and/or balding heads. 

I started last week by underlining the growing reality of religious "nones," those who no longer affiliate with a church or any other religious institution. On a Facebook post I was asked something like, What is the church's responsibility for an exodus from its pews? I thought it was partly implied in this statement from last: "Frankly, [the nones] found that it wasn’t worth their time to attend worship services." 

I don't want to sound too judgmental on my friends who are pastors! Still, I think many churches haven't lived into the relationships, the koinonia, that's part of the true meaning of "church" as the ecclesia, the gathering. We look at the back of people's heads during the worship service, and often don't do much to go beyond that. If church, as a gathering, will flourish when stay-at-home orders are lifted, we need to lean into the deep need we have for relationships.

(As a result of last week’s post, I’ve been asked if smaller communities may have an advantage. I don’t think they don't have a lock on this, but may have an advantage because it's more natural to have connections when you know everyone in the room. The key is whether relationships are highlighted.)

I believe the Church has a superpower (or perhaps, a gift directly from God's Spirit): the ability to unleash the awesome power of human relationality. And when the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, and we can be in the same room, let’s exploit that.

I'll close with this, which is in fact the power of the Risen Christ among us when we come together:
We need to see the church as a gathering and not a building. The coronavirus outbreak is reminding us that of that particular truth.