Thursday, May 28, 2020

I Finally Arrive at My Definitions of Science, Technology, and Religion

To define is to separate and, one hopes, to clarify. Sometimes, however, definitions also create problems. Do religion and science represent two clearly definable two things? 

In this post, I return to those questions and offer my answers.

This post again excerpted from my book

Peter Harrison has argued that some definitions that we take for granted have only existed in the past 300 years or so. In that sense they are arguably modern”—i.e., post-Enlightenmentconcepts. For that reason he would rather talk of the territoriesof religion and science, not their definitions. Referring to the historic alterations in defining science, Harrison writes on the shift from emphasizing an approach to focusing on what it produces: 

"Overstating the matter somewhat, in the Middle Ages scientific knowledge was an instrument for the inculcation of scientific habits of mind; now scientific habits of mind are cultivated primarily as an instrument for the production of scientific knowledge." Peter Harrison

Harrison then describes how views of religion have changed since the time of

Thomas Aquinas in the twelfth century: 

Between Thomass time and our own, religio has been transformed from a human virtue into a generic something typically constituted by sets of beliefs and practices.” Peter Harrison

This prodigious and erudite work, which represents Harrisons 2011 Gifford Lectures, is fundamentally discipline-changing and will influence how I describe these two terms in my reconstruction of historical American views on religion and science.

Nonetheless, Harrison repeatedly focuses on beliefs and practices,which is inadequate for grasping contemporary definitions of religion. True, one of the greatest minds in the sociology of religion, Émile Durkheim, offered this definition in his 1912 Elementary Forms of Religious Life: A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbiddenbeliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. But a great deal has changed in the past 100 years in the study of religion, and any number of more recent commentators such as Robert Bellah, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Huston Smith, Clifford Geertz, Robert Orsi, and Stephen Prothero do not solely emphasize beliefs and practices. 

Prothero is perhaps clearest in presenting his four Csof religion: 

creed, cultus, code, and community.” (Stephen Prothero's four marks of a religion)

Obviously beliefs (creeds) and practices (cultus) can be found in this palette, but these two do not exhaust his list. Similarly, Orsi, in his ground-breaking The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith And Community In Italian Harlem, 1880–1950coined the term lived religion as including the work of social agents/actors themselves as narrators and interpreters (and reinterpreters) of their own experiences and histories, recognizing that the stories we tell about others exist alongside the many and varied story they tell of themselves. At this point Ill add myth or storynarratives about how the world works and our place in itas central to what a religion does.

Religious narratives and practices form us. Or, put differently, as George Lindbeck pointed out in his brilliant The Nature of Doctrine, religious teachings do not simply express internal states of piety (the experiential-expressive model), but form how we experience life and the world. Lindbeck, appropriating the later Wittgenstein, summarized his cultural-linguistic alternative

a religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought. George Lindbeck

Finally, these comments lead to two related definitions—theology, the systematic study and development of religious beliefs and theory, and theologiansthose who produce theology.

In addition, what I hope is clear then is that these scholars do not equate religion with belief in a supernatural being. Buddhism, as is commonly known, has many nontheistic forms and it is not even clear that the Buddha himself had much use for a god. Belief in God or many gods may of course be a component of religion in the sense that Im using the word, but theres much more. The scholarly definition of religion brings us much closer to spirituality in common parlance, especially among emerging adults who play a major role in this book and my methods, which makes it difficult to interpret Im spiritual, but not religious.” Roughly speaking, to be spiritual is to be religious in the academic study of religion.

From Harrison Ive learned a sensitivity to the ways in which the terms religion (or religio) and science (or scientia) have changed during the past 300 years in the story I am telling. He thus highlights the problem of essentialism, which Joshua Reeves also raises, that there are enduring essences in religion and science, or, put another way, that these two are natural kinds; i.e., ones that exist in nature and not simply in the socially constructed world of human beings. 

Related to the issue of essentialism is the question Who speaks for a particular religion? I often tell my introductory to religion students that, in a lecture on Islam, for example, Im offering general contours for the religion as a whole, but they shouldnt think that this applies to every single 1.8 billion Muslims. If religion is a thing,then all who participate in this thing” ipso facto agree. But its not that simple. Religion, like truth, resists simplicity.

Jettisoning essentialism can lead to significant problems, as Reeves admits,

"If one rejects essentialismif one gives up the assumption that unique features unite science across time and disciplinesthen there is no straightforward way to prove the 'scientific' nature of theological claims or to assert the cognitive parity of theology and science." Joshua Reeves

Hes right. Although essentialism makes a scholars life easier, its deficient. In addition to mourning the loss of essentialism, we cannot comprehend the relationship of science and religion solely as cognitive categories. And yet, even if I dont swallow anti-essentialism whole in this bookor that we best grasp religion and science as sources of systematic knowledge (alluding to John Evans)I note these critiques as a way to chasten any overly enthusiastic conclusions. And below I will even propose two working definitions.

Finally, before asserting that I can propose those definitions I will further complicate the binary mode of science and religion by gradually slipping in a third term (one that admittedly does not even make it into my title): technology, which is replacing elements of what has been defined as science in the minds of many. In agreement with the comments by Willem Drees, technology is increasingly central to the science and religion dialogue: The practice of science is culturally and technologically embodied.” In studying the mindset of 1830-year-olds, have discovered that technology and science are closely related. That these two terms appear conjoined merits no particular power for determining their definitions. Nevertheless, we cannot comprehend Artificial Intelligence or genetic engineering, as two examples, except as both scientific and technological pursuits. 

Moreover, technology and science are actually quite close, and what affected the historical interaction of science and religionwas not only Charles Darwins Origin of Speciesbut also the development of geography and shipbuilding that brought the English and Spanish to the Americas and thus Darwin to the Galapagos.

With these considerations in mind I arrive at my working definitionsor, perhaps better, as heuristicsof my key terms. 

Science is knowledge about or study of the natural world, framed in theories based on observation, which are tested through experimentation.Science studies nature. 

Religion, which is an even trickier term than science, doesnt just study God,but it can be defined as the belief in God or in many gods or Ultimate Reality, as well as an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, sacred stories, and ethical guidelines used to relate to God, a plurality of gods, or Ultimate Reality.

Finally I define technology as the use of science in industry, engineering, etc. to invent useful things or to solve problems” and a machine, piece of equipment, method, etc. that is created by the use of science.

Which leads to a question: What do you think?

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Post You Should Probably Read

This post excerpted from my book

To define is to separate and, one hopes, to clarify. Sometimes, however, definitions also create problems. Do religion and science represent two clearly definable two things? Lurking in this blog may lie a desire to reify science and religion as one thing each because then we would have a singular relationship between them. And who wouldn't want that? If we simply could help these two dance in a beautifully orchestrated duet, life might be beautiful. But that convenient pairing was a convenient fiction, a useful heuristic device.

Even more, I often use the terms science and religion--and even  faith when I'm referring more specifically to the Christian faith--but I haven't really defined those terms, and so I decided to start to rectify the situation here... at least by noting why those definitions are problematic and complicated.

Not until 1833 did the Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell coin the term "scientist" to replace such terms as "cultivators of science." Indeed, even today there is no one Science with a capital S. In factas is the case in French and other languages, but not in Englishwe would do better to refer to the sciences(or less sciences) or the science of x,such as physics, biology, orto follow Thomas Torrance— even the science of theology.A.D. Ritchie offers this in his Studies in the History and Methods of Sciences, 

“There is no Science in the singular, for there are only sciences. 

And There is no one scientific method that is universally applicable.” A.D. Ritchie

The failure of the Logical Positivists in the 1920s to sustain their assertion of verification and then Karl Poppers later revision, also a failure, to promote falsification demonstrate that the scientific methodof fourth grade science fairs provides no real aid in comprehending what scientists actually do. By the middle of the twentieth century Thomas Kuhns paradigm shifts and Paul FeyerabendAgainst Method (a book title that apply describes its ethos and tone) further solidify the chaos. For my part, Im most convinced by Imre Lakatosresearch programme” as well as Peter Liptons Inference to the Best Explanation as meditating theories between the putative Scientific Method and scientifianarchy, which Ill simply note for now.

Despite these challenges, defining science represents the less complicated side of the ledger. The term religion also has no single consensual definition in the academic guild, nor among its practitioners. The classic five world religionsof Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism all tolerate at best an uneasy relationship with the moniker religion. For example, Stephen Prothero has written, One of the most common claims among Hindus in the West is that Hinduism is a way of liferather than a religion Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Law), and many Christians will say that their faith is a relationship, not a religion.And when one includes Native American cultures, the discussion becomes particularly intriguing. Severin M. Fowles has noted that there is no good word for religionamong the Southeast Pueblo peoples, but instead the best rendering is doing,and so he titles his study of their practices and beliefs, An Archaeology of Doings. 

Ill stop there, but the citations could certainly be multiplied. It is no less difficult to find an accepted definition among scholars such as Alister McGrath who, in his introduction to religion and science, was provoked to concede, there is no generally accepted definition of religion. 

While I appreciate McGraths intellectual humility, I cannot take recourse to this approach in this blog. My thoughts will await another post, but for now I leave with this question, "What do you think is the meaning of science and of religion?"

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Barth on Beauty, A Nexus for Science and Theology (and More)

Last week I looked at beauty as a possible nexus for theology, philosophy, science, and art. But I mainly set out the problems. In this post, I set out a proposal, this one from theology. 

On the way there, I submit a few preliminary clarifications. The first is my definition: 

Beauty is rightness and telos. More specifically, the telos of beauty is the perception and formulation of rightness that provides a lure for theologians, philosophers, scientists, and artists.

Thus, beauty represents rightness. It arises for both theologians and scientists through rightly perceiving and theorizing about how their objects of study. It is thus a perception of truth. Beauty also provides a lure for study. In this sense, it offers telos. For theologians, it can be grasping God’s true nature, God’s creation, and our ethical life. For scientist, it is the rightly perceiving, and theorizing about, nature. When this perception is made, it is accompanied by a sense of completeness. So beauty is the draw for truth and goodness.

Plato noted the linguistic play between the noun kalos, beauty, and the verb kalleo, “call” or “lure.” Beauty calls out to us. Sometimes beauty has been described as a criterion for truth. Here I am emphasizing that it is beauty that makes the quest for truth interesting. Without beauty, there would be no personal interesting.


Consequently, beauty in this sense is telic—it moves us toward a telos. Beauty offers telos in that beauty is motivation, fulfillment, and direction. Beauty offers direction by luring theologians and scientists in their work. Theologians might even point to a glimpse of eschatological wholeness. Something beautiful points to the One who is Beauty. This teleological element of beauty is a component of the well-known insight that beauty pleases us. Though this pleasure has often been focused on the eyes, I submit that we receive beauty through a variety of faculties, and perhaps most importantly intellectually, or through the “eyes of the mind.” 

In some ways—but certainly with regional variations—theology, philosophy, science, and art seek truth of expression, whether it’s God’s, the world’s, or other forms. My definition of beauty therefore relates to both ontology and epistemology. Beauty exists outside of the knower. As well, it can be understood by the human mind. Both of these assertions are important. (Accordingly, I am committed to a critical realism, in which reality exists outside of the mind of the knower and yet the interests and limitations of the knower interact with what is known. I take this position to be the current consensus in the dialogue of theology and science.)

One main candidate for a theological articulation of beauty is Karl Barth's. Ultimately, he writes, God’s glory finds its expression as beauty. Barth sets glory as a locus of theological reflection within the divine attributes—which he prefers to call “Divine Perfections.” In fact, glory for Barth constitutes “the sum of the divine perfections" (Church Dogmatics II/1, trans. G.W. Bromiley [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957], 653. Hereafter “CD II/1”). Here, of course, Barth channels the deepest traditions of Reformed theology. 

In the midst of unfolding his theology of glory, Barth offers this definition for God’s beauty: To declare that God is beautiful is
To say that God has this superior force, this power of attraction, which speaks for itself, which wins and conquers, in the fact that He is beautiful, divinely beautiful …. God loves us as the One who is worthy of love as God. This is what we mean when we say that God is beautiful." Karl Barth, CD II/1, 651
Thus, for Barth, God’s worthiness for human love is the basis of God’s beauty. This divine perfection also draws us to God. Whereas there is a tendency in Hans Urs von Balthasar almost to equate beauty and glory, Barth subordinates it to God’s glory: “We shall not presume to try to interpret God’s glory from the point of view of His beauty, as if it were the essence of His glory" (CD II/1, 655).

Nonetheless, because he focuses on glory, he finds beauty within its lexical field: “We must now point to the purely philological fact that the significance of the world ‘glory’ and its Hebrew, Greek, Latin and even German equivalents, at least includes and expresses what we call beauty" (CD II/1, 653).

There will, however, be no easy connection of beautiful things within the world as demonstrably revealing God’s nature. Barth’s theology is marked by his aversion to “natural theology,” and this characteristic ultimately limits his contribution to the theology-science dialogue. This fact, however, need not stop Reformed theology, which has always maintained a robust theology of creation and therefore of God’s intelligible beauty in the glory of the natural world. (Here, by the way, I am simply using “nature” or “the natural world” as synonyms for “creation,” though the latter has a stronger theological history.)

Finally, Barth argues, for theologians and philosophers to do their work rightly, and for the human being to live with right ethics, they are living and working beautifully. Accordingly, the Reformed tradition calls theologians to pursue their work as the quest for beauty. And since beauty pleases us, this is a joyful task. 

In another post, I will reflect on the statements of scientists who describe their work as the pursuit of beauty. Similarly, Barth has spoken of theology as a “peculiarly beautiful science" (CD II/1, 656). With a perceptibly wry smile, he writes, 
“The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science" Karl Barth, (CD II/1, 656). 
The object of theologians’ study is the God of beauty and wonder. Therefore the form of theology ought to mirror the glory of its content. The glorious beams of this object of study—who is also Subject—infuses and illuminates theologians’ work.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Reflections on the Challenges to the Concept of Beauty as a Nexus for Science, Philosophy, Theology, and Art

I’ve been there. I’ve been in the jazz combo, grasping for beauty, sitting and drumming while the upright bass thumps, driving the rhythm to my side, just to the left of my hi-hat. As my right hand rides the rhythm on the cymbal, the tenor sax soars and dips, improvising around the chord changes, my left hand and foot on the kick drum, alongside the piano, “comping” the soloist. 

And for some moments—and sometimes longer—it is truly magical: we find a right relationship among the rhythms and chords. We feel the groove. We improv. And beauty emerges. The beauty arises from the music while it is played. Beauty has movement and narrative. Beauty has a story. It is known by its dynamism. It is hypnotic and inspiring, luring us on. Somewhere in the process we find a truth.

And without beauty, what is the worth of truth? Augustine, with his voluntarist twinges, has convinced me that rationality, and its ability to grasp truth, must be accompanied by affections of the will, which is motivated by beauty. Playing jazz drums reminds me that it is when the combo actually finds that moment of rightness—where we groove and improv together—that I am lured to continue.

In fact, I'm convinced that beauty understood as rightness and telos, as reality fitting together—is a kind of beauty that can be grasped in science, philosophy, theology, and art. The beauty is a lure for theologians, philosophers, scientists, and artists.

I've presented previously, beauty stands at the nexus of these disciplines. But here—lest these initial musings make beauty sound irresistible in its allure and unmistakable and simplistic—l'll outline a few challenges to beauty. 

The first is the natural world itself. On many occasions, I walked through one of my

favorite sights, Upper Bidwell Park in Chico, California, struck by this realization: natural beauty doesn’t take us into account. In fact, nature frankly disregards us. 

Taking a walk on a misty, windy morning through Upper Bidwell Park’s rugged, bumpy, and austere lava rock, I felt like Jonathan Edwards as I encountered both Nature and Nature’s God where contemplation led him 
“... into a kind of vision… of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapped and swallowed up in God.” 
As I reflected on the natural world, I felt that I was understanding a bit more about God. God for Edwards is not a cozy Friend, but a transcendent and terrible Lord. Even more, I felt a bit like Simone Weil because I was most taken by the austerity of Nature’s beauty. It didn’t take me into account at all. And that fact was particularly alluring. This fact would give lie to the idea that beautiful things exist merely to please us in an unambiguous way. Beauty in fact may be stern and displeasing. When we come to beauty, we will do well to dispense with all types of sentimentality.

Just as challenging is the philosophical context. Though his work is well over a hundred years old, Friedrich Nietzsche laid down the gauntlet for Christian theologians to discuss beauty. He challenged the notion that Christians, following Jesus, care a wit about beauty. Beauty ought to be connected with power and nobility. We, he opines, care about notions of weaknesses and assign those to goodness.
 His complaints about the Christian notions of beauty and goodness swing into the twentieth century like a large, formidable door. As he put it,
"It was the Jew [Jesus] who, with frightening consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value equations good/noble/powerful/beautiful/happy/favored-of-the gods and maintain, with furious hatred of the underprivileged and impotent, that “only the poor, the powerless, are good; on the suffering, sick, and ugly, truly blessed. But you noble and mighty ones of the earth will be, to all eternity, the evil, the cruel, the avaricious, the godless, and thus the cursed and damned!" Friedrich Nietzsche
Nonetheless, as the century progressed, it was not Christianity, but secular thought that disentangled beauty from art. While strolling contently through at an exhibit in the stunning Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati in spring 2004, I came across a still life by the provocative twentieth century artist, Marcel Duchamp. The attached comment by The New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, is bombastic but not idiosyncratic. He wrote in July 1969,
"Art is not usually edible, but it is known to satisfy certain hungers. In the last century, it was thought that Beauty, that vitamin concentrate, was what we were after. More recently, Duchamp taught us that art is simply habit-forming, like salted peanuts, and that Beauty all along was the glutton’s alibi…. Nothing about art has ever been honest except our hunger for it." Peter Schjeldahl
Like Schjeldahl, the twentieth century generally impugns the notion that art and beauty belong together. Beauty in fact becomes merely a lure for purchasing art.

And there are more reasons to stop now: There is the argument from neo-Darwinian science that beauty exists merely a by-product of what creates fitness for survival. To this contention, I propose that pursuing beauty is central and definitive and that it solves the problem of good more effectively than a pure survival of the fittest. Just as there is the problem of theodicy, there exists the less discussed, but no less tenacious, problem of good: Why is there good in the world? The classic atheistic evolutionary perspective subordinates the elements of good and beauty to the ability to survive. Thus, for example, beauty in human beings must always relate to survival through fertility, strength, etc. But why then the purely creative elements of colored leaves in fall, the spectrum of the rainbow, the sound of the whales’ call? Hardcore evolutionary science must see this as a by-product. Instead, my research program sets beauty at the core of reality.

Is that enough?

For these reasons and more, many think that beauty seems like it's a far cry from being a viable candidate for bringing together theology, philosophy, science, and art. But, as I wrote above, I think it's a viable nexus. More on that next week.