Friday, November 12, 2021

The Hope of Improvisation

This brief post was actually a section that didn't make it to my recent piece on the Science for the Church's blog, "Grateful for Gratitude." 

So, I thought I'd put it here.

I’m a jazz musician, and I’ve brought improvisation not just to music, but to all of my life. In the process, I’ve realized that 
improv is an act of hope. And this hope emerges from confidence in two key things: the other musicians and your own skills (as I wrote in chapter 6 of Say Yes to No). 

The bottom line: in improv, we don't know what's going to happen yet--it's not scripted--and yet we have hope it's going to be good.

This leads then to the question. How can we be open to improvising our life, that is walking by faith? I find it's fairly simple: first, being grateful for what God has already done. 

Gratitude therefore is the basis of improvisation. It allows us to move forward with the ability to create a life without scripting everything before it happens. Gratitude indeed leads to improvisational hope.

(Because trying to script the future doesn’t really work, does it?)

Friday, October 08, 2021

When Spirituality Meets Science

What happens when spirituality meets science? 

In her brand-new book, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life, Columbia University professor of clinical psychology Lisa Miller describes why we need to move from an external form of “religion” to a more personally appropriated “spirituality.” 

She offers this working definition of spirituality, which certainly incorporates Christian spiritual life: 

“It includes a deeply felt and perceived connection with a higher power or a sacred world—a sense of engagement and relationship, such as asking God or Source for guidance in times of struggle.”

As one specific example, Dr. Miller found that spirituality often emerges from depression. 

“And for those who were highly spiritual and had gone through major depression in the past, the protective benefit of spirituality against a recurrence of depression was… a striking 90 percent.” 

More broadly, the kind of spirituality she’s researched leads us to experience a profound connection to the world around us and to a fully alive “awakened brain.”

That sounds pretty good to me. And, if you want to read more, this piece is excerpted from a longer piece on the Science for the Church website. Let me know what you think! 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

C.S. Lewis's Final Days and the Reality of Hope

Note: As I prepare for a course I'm teaching this fall at Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico, I've been thinking about C.S. Lewis. This post is adapted from my book, C.S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian.

In the classical and medieval tradition—which C.S. Lewis as a medievalist at Oxford University treasured—a good life was defined by knowing one’s death and thus dying well. Memento mori, which means “remember death” in Latin, were artistic depictions of mortality. They are meant to remind us that it's better not to die in one’s sleep or die quickly—as many today long for—but to know we’re dying and therefore to die prepared and peacefully. 

In this light, God did seem to prepare Lewis for his eventual passing. When he almost died in the summer of 1963, he expressed some regret that he was brought back. As he wrote to a fairly regular correspondent, Mary Willis Sherburne, who apparently was dying too:

"Pain is terrible, but surely you need not have fear as well? Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of?" (C.S. Lewis)

Similarly, writing to his long-term friend Arthur Greeves on September 11, 1963, he found it 

"rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best." (C.S. Lewis)

But this reprieve also allowed several final, precious weeks with his brother, Warren (or Warnie). When Warnie wrote a memoir about his brother’s life, his final lines express a pathos that still pierces my heart as I recall them. They remind me that death does point toward hope, but only if we also grasp the loss, the crisis of death. 

Warnie remarked on the return to the happiness of their boyhood in the imaginary games they played in the “little end room,” a place for Lewis’s fruitful imagination as well:

"The wheel had come full circle: once again we were together in the little end room at home, shutting out from our talk the ever-present knowledge that the holidays were ending, that a new term fraught with unknown possibilities awaited us both.... We were recapturing the old schoolboy technique of extracting the last drop of juice from our holidays." (Warren Lewis)

I type this as the summer is coming to a close and I am about to return to school, though as a teacher, not a student. 

At any rate, this brief respite from the specter of death was not to last. Just before his sixty-five birthday, the nibbed pen of C. S. Lewis would never dip into the inkwell and scratch out another of his insights. I find the words of his brother poignantly spare and profoundly moving as they relate Lewis’s last day on earth:

"Friday, 22 November 1963, began much as other days: there was breakfast, then letters and the crossword puzzle. . . . Our few words then [at four] were the last: at five-thirty I heard a crash and ran in, to find him lying unconscious at the foot of his bed. He ceased to breathe some three or four minutes later." (Warren Lewis)

Warren could only add, in his brief memoir, “nothing worse than this could ever happen to me in the future.” He too knew the sorrow of losing someone close. Indeed he could not bring himself to attend his beloved brother’s funeral. 

I don't want to end there, however, because for Lewis, death indeed was not the end. Indeed he believed about heaven and thus life after death. If he was right about what he wrote, his place is now secure. And it is also certainly better. 

As he wrote so movingly in some of the final words from The Chronicles of Narnia:

"All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before." (C.S. Lewis)

And so it is with our great hope as followers of Christ.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Why is Our Relationship with Nature So Broken?

I was walking across the street yesterday, but just before I did, instead of looking up, I checked my iPhone to see about the weather. Instead of looking up, and pondering the sky, instead of taking in what my body could clearly tell me about the temperature, the wind, the humidity, I let my smart phone make me dumber.

The statistics are staggering… about how many times we look at our phones. We check them between 56 and 96 times a day and on the average spend almost 4 hours looking at them, which is roughly 50 days/year.
It seems like science and modern technology is breaking our relationship with nature. But it’s not just our smart phones, and honestly it isn’t entirely new. 

Listen to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. An unusually gifted storyteller, he illustrates the fight between the technology of affluent societies and our ability to “view the stars.” Most philosophers can’t produce really winning parables like this—one that still resonates almost two hundred years after he told it. But Kierkegaard can, and that’s why he’s worth quoting at length. 
When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him and it is not dark close around him; but precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the starts, which the poor peasant driving without the lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in the prosperity and good days they have—as it were lanterns lighted and close about them—everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable, but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Benefits of a Messy Faith

I return to last week's topic. What follows is an excerpt of what you can find in full here.

I happily affirm that Buddhist-inspired Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Christian faith are compatible, as we wrote in a summary of the three-year study at the last church I pastored. 

And yet, even some of my favorite modern Buddhist writers—such as Thich Knat Han and the Dalai Lama—often present a limited form of Buddhism, known as "Buddhist Modernism," presented as particularly, even uniquely, compatible with science. This variety, which David McMahan says emerged in the 19th century in response to various cultural forces, frequently presents itself as “mind science,” especially based on mindfulness meditation. 

I’m certainly not denigrating Buddhism, but highlighting the limits of the version that speaks to the growing SBNR population (one of the largest segments in of the U.S.) who frequently tell me, “I want spirituality, not religion.” The problem is that this kind of spirituality generally has little to say to science. It’s “separate but equal,” which really means segregated to one small part of us—our inner life. 

Minimalistic spirituality has minimal interaction with science.

Let me simply offer one vector for how this guides our work as Christians. 

Listen to what physicist and Nobel laureate Ernest Walton put so well: 

“One way to learn the mind of the Creator is to study His creation. We must pay God the compliment of studying His work of art and this should apply to all realms of human thought.”

We can bring the questions and insights of science to church and admit that sometimes, yes, the interaction is messy. 

But the payoff is great. This kind of Christianity is not sequestered and limited, but expansive and beautiful because it speaks of the God who fills not just our inner lives, but also the entire universe.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Making Buddhism a Bit too Simple

Each semester, I ask my Chico State University Science and Religion students to write an essay on which religion is the most compatible with science. 

The overwhelming favorite is Buddhism.

This fact actually leads to a question: What do my students mean by "Buddhism"? Honestly, what they describe does not represent the conensus of the Buddhist tradition; but instead a particular stream: Buddhist modernism or “minimalist Buddhism.” (Christianity, in case you were interested, is often portrayed as maximally incompatible because it tells us that the world was created in six days.) 

What also interests me is that my students are talking about a Buddhism which walks in lock step with their tendency to be Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR).

As Buddhism scholar David McMahan points out, much of what we hear today in the U.S. as “Buddhism” was created largely by 19th century Transcendentalists (like Thoreau), and even more, by later thinkers who promoted the “warfare thesis” between Christianity and science. Even some of my favorite Buddhist writers today like Lama Surya Das, Thich Knat Han, and the Dalai Lama support this limited form of Buddhism, one that is seen to be compatible with science. Often it presents itself as “mind science,” based on meditation and especially mindfulness.

To be sure, often this Buddhist modernism presents mindfulness meditation as central and a practice for all. This is in striking contrast to Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism, which was created for monks, largely in monastic seclusion. The monks, not the laypersons, are the ones who meditate in Theravada.

Worth asking is, How does it work to present a specific Buddhism as if it's the whole shebang? Particularly, why does it work in a way that wouldn't with Christianity? The fact is that most Americans at least know Christians who are anti-science. But most are unaware of this history or of the variety of lived Buddhisms. Thus, modernist's Buddhism's frictionless compatibility with science represents an easy sell for one key reason: most Americans don’t know Buddhists, who represent less than 1% of the U.S. population.

And so Buddhism, especially the kind loved by many of my students, becomes a poster child for interacting with science. That strikes me as simple, much too simple. And real, lived Buddhism is far more interesting.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Beauty is Why I Bring Science to Church

I've often mentioned my father, but it was my mother who gave me a particularly acute sense of beauty. 

Beauty means seeing things as they really are, being stunned by the structure, proportion, and being drawn to learn more. 

This is a profoundly important nexus for faith and science. 

And sometimes scientists and theologians sound strikingly similar. I'll being with the brilliant writer, C.S. Lewis--which is always a good place to start.

Consider next the words of Henri Poincaré, an early 20th century quantum theorists (whom I've quote before, but it's worth repeating): 

“[The scientist] studies [nature] because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living….”

As Christian, we know this: 

We see the intricate patterns of the natural world and find beauty. We see in the natural world the beauty of God who is Beauty itself. 

The 18th century Puritan Jonathan Edwards is a model. In his late teens (1723), he sent a scientific reflection on the spider, in the form of a letter, most likely to the Honorable Paul Dudley, a member of the British Royal Society who contributed often to its Philosophical Transactions

“Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider.” 

As I mentioned in the previous post, I found beauty in the banana slug; Edwards found beauty in “flying” spiders common to New England. His observations about nature lead him to nature’s God. 

“For as God is infinitely the greatest being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and 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.”

Because both faith and science find a source of inspiration in beauty. Beauty is why I bring science to church. 

And that’s good for our souls.

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Beauty of the Banana Slug

Writer and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen has observed: 

“All that is, is sacred because all that is speaks of God’s redeeming love. Seas and winds, mountains and trees, sun, moon, and stars, and all the animals and people have become sacred windows offering us glimpses of God.” 

Sometime during these early years—I think it was sixth grade—I went on Outdoor Education. Growing up in the Bay Area, that meant we headed to the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains and studied how creation worked. We’d stay at a camp for several days, many of which we hiked through the moist Redwood forests. 

And do you know the animal I loved best? Banana slugs—those bright yellow—and thus the name “banana”—slimy slugs. They seemed to show up everywhere. (In fact, the banana slug is the mascot of University of California Santa Cruz.) 

Those banana slugs fascinated me. Perfectly adapted for their  environment, they were beautiful in their own way. 

I think a good deal of you are like me. If I asked you, "Where is one of the places where find God’s presence?" I’d bet most of you would say, Nature. That’s where you meet God our Creator. 

As one of the top scientists in our country—and also a follower of Jesus—Francis Collins commented, 

“I find that studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God's creation”

Nature—that is, God’s creation—draws us by its beauty and thus to the God who is the Source of all beauty. 

I discovered it early in the beauty of the banana slug.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Brad, the Leaves, and the Squirrel

[You'll find this story at about 20 minutes in this video.]

I grew up in what is now the Silicon Valley, and I went to Fremont School for kindergarten in Menlo Park, which was about a mile from my childhood home.
In those days, I used to walk home with my best friend Brad. It must have been early in the school year. And the fall had started and the leaves were coming down. After Brad and I turned the first corner—just a block from Fremont School—we came upon what seemed to me to be huge trees dropping beautiful brown, yellow, and orange leaves.

But it wasn’t only their colors; it was their flight pattern as they fell that was marvelous and mysterious. They would swivel and dodge as they descended. Brad and I discovered they were impossible to catch.

But we tried. We tried again. We tried but couldn't catch a single leaf.
We were mesmerized.

And while we were trying to catch these incredible, miraculous falling leaves, we saw a squirrel.

And being five at the time, it was fine to talk with this animal. So, Brad and I started chatting with him, 
“Hi, squirrel. What are you doing squirrel? It’s good to see you Mr. Squirrel”
Between the leaves, Mr. Squirrel, the fall, the friendship, time began to pass in the way the writer Anne Lamott describes childhood—in “big, round hours”

So, I was surprised—but now I realized I shouldn’t have been—when my dad arrived probably an hour later, worried about where his son was.
“Greg, what have you been doing? You should be home by now”
You might think I wasn’t worried—but no, I was still entranced by all the wonders of this autumn moment.

I told him, 
“Dad, Brad and I were just here talking to Mr. Squirrel—see him up there—and trying to catch the leaves. See, Dad, as they fall (and I demonstrated) you can’t catch them. Look.”
And here’s the proof that my father was truly the laid-back Greek: he just let us try to catch leaves—and ever after that day, he always talked about how wonderful it was that I took some time in the midst of a day to catch beautiful autumn leaves and talk to squirrels.

In fact, when I described this scene to my dad a few years ago, before he died, he responded with one word: 
Since then, I've spent a good deal of my energies on relating my faith with science. And I've discovered this is central: to read the two books--the book of nature and the book of Scripture--to see the beauty in life and the beauty of God and simply say, Marvelous.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Racism and Secularity: Two Notes on COVID-19

The first “postsecular pandemic”?

The London School of Economics (or LSE) hosted an online event in June 2020 called “Religious Communities under COVID-19: the first pandemic of the postsecular age?” Post-secular is ambiguous: It can mean either (1) after secularism has established itself as the norm or (2) after secularism's hegemony has ended. (This ambiguity plays into Luke Bretherton’s distinction of “secularism” and “secularity,” which more or less map on the first and second definition, respectively.)

Is secularism representative of this global pandemic in the twenty-first century, particularly in light of the rise in the United States of the “nones” who represent 25% of the population. Put another way, have we entered a new, fully secular way of engaging with the pandemic? There are vast differences between 2020-21 and the 1919 influenza pandemic or the 1832 cholera epidemic. I have not witnessed governmental calls for repentance, for example.

It would seem that a secular, or non-religious, or naturalistic approach is what is demanded. “Let the data speak” echoes what I hear from our California Governor, Gavin Newsome. 

And yet, I sense a growing dissatisfaction with the secular what Charles Taylor calls the “imminent frame” in Secular Age. As two countervailing examples, there are books on theodicy with booming sales from N.T. Wright Wright, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath (Zondervan, 2021) and Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World? (The Good Book, 2020), pondering God’s work in this challenging time. (For my part, I don’t find the questions of God's justice in light of the prevalence of evil and pain more poignant now than on almost any day on this planet, but their reflections intrigue me nonetheless.) In addition, searches on prayer via Google have spiked in the past year (as James Walter’s commented at the June 2020 LSE event).

Perhaps formally, we are less religious than in past pandemics, but it’s hard to argue that religious sensibilities are entirely absent. At times like this, human beings feel a sense of something bigger than us.

Enduring disparities of race and economics

One of the lessons from my research in writing Negotiating Science and Religion in America is the endemic and enduring racism in America and the central role science and religion have played. The current pandemic has intensified the disparities of race and economics.

Quoting from Vox, “Black Americans have fared worst of all, with about 1 in 1000 Black Americans dying from Covid-19 since February.”  

“For their share of the US population, Black people are dying in the pandemic at twice the rate of white Americans, of whom about 1 in every 2,150 people has died.” 

And why? The disparities of economics and the many issues are related to poverty among Blacks and LatinX and native Americans play a central role. In addition, as many have noted, the ongoing suspicion of science—e.g., the 1932-72 Tuskegee Syphilis experiments—raise challenges to fighting inequalities in this COVID-19 time. To be sure, Black churches, as one example, represent centers of community empowerment. Still, because religious communities are often racially segregated in the United States, inequalities of care are mapped onto communities of worship.

We could frame these two more generally as (1) the question of religion’s significance today in the face of death and suffering, and (2) as the enduring role that religion has played in the United States to reinforce oppression.

And however we frame these two, COVID-19 has intensified how we negotiate the relationship of science and religion in America.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Buddhism's Strategy of Scientific Apologetics

Before I head to the topic at hand, this week one of the living legends in science and religion, physicist-priest John Polkinghorne died. Thank you for your work. Rest in Paradise. 

I've been reading David McHahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernismand I think I've already mentioned Evan Thompson’s Why I am Not a Buddhist, which builds on McHahan’s work and others. Together these books analyze the creation of a “Buddhist modernism,” which Thompson also describes as “minimalist Buddhism.” Ronald Purser argues that this, combined with mindfulness meditation and market capitalism becomes "McMindfulness." 

At any rate, this Buddhism is often referred to, not as a religion, but a "science of the mind."

This intrigues me because Buddhist modernism is presented as entirely compatible with science, and in the circles I'm in, the intimate compatibility of Buddhism and contemporary science is taken for granted. For a religious tradition that is approximately 2500 years old, it represents a reasonably recent apologetic strategy that was formed in part to respond to scientific rationalism and late 19th century Protestant Christian tactics, who often complained about Buddhism's superstition, nihilism, and idolatry, arguing instead that Christianity produced superior societies with robust science and technology.

Bestselling works by international Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama,The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, and Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life--books I like and freely recommend--are vulnerable to the charge of constricting the full scope of Buddhism for the sake of presenting a relatively seamless integration with modern science. And yet, I have to admit these do not exhaust all contemporary accounts on how to relate Buddhism to modern science. 

In addition to various popular approaches, there are more nuanced scholarly offerings, such as Donald Lopez, Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, Francisco Cho and Richard K. Squier, Religion and Science in the Mirror of Buddhism, and B. Alan Wallace’s edited volume, Buddhism and Science, to name just three. Put simply, these texts engage with the wide varieties of Buddhism (even "Buddhisms") throughout the globe and not solely with Buddhist modernism.

As an observer and participant in the scholarship of science and religion, I find minimalist Buddhism to be a fascinating parallel with various forms of Christian apologetics that use science. I'm not against apologetics because, if we are convinced by the true of any idea, we'll want to persuade others. To return to John Polkinghorne, he exemplified this approach at times, and when he did, it was compelling.

What does interest me is not so much that the creation of a minimalist Buddhism has occurred, but why it has and particularly whether this strategy really helps us understand the various ways that science and religions interact. In fact, minimalist Buddhism ultimately limits our understanding of its full relationship with modern science... a topic I'll have to more to say about as I continue to learn.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Is it Good for Us to Go to Church?

What will church be like “post-COVID”? (And really, what does “post-COVID” mean?) Moreover, when the effects of the pandemic subside, will it matter if we don't go back to church?

As far as I can tell, it seems like the most important parts of religious life are what COVID is restricting (like being together in the same room), which makes these questions particularly relevant.

(By the way, I chose this pic because "fifty" is misspelled, which brought a smile to my face and reminded me of how many times the slides for worship singing had errors.)

Scripture: It's a bit ambiguous in my reading as to whether Scripture tells us "to go the church" in the way we generally do in 21st century America. This is a huge topic, perhaps to be addressed at another time. 

Nevertheless, I'll affirm that the New Testament does, of course, underscore that the first followers of Jesus met together in worship (Acts 2) and that "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing..." (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Science: In this post, I'm particularly interested in what science says--Is it good for us to go to church, or put another way, to be religiously active? 

Bottom line: Scientific research supports the conclusion that religious life, or being “religiously active,” is good for human health. 

By “good,” I mean that, for individuals, religious life correlates statistically with the following: 

  1. Good for physical health 
  2. Good for mental resilience and happiness 
  3. Good for prosocial behavior 

How about for the society as a whole?
  • Being religiously active can be good via altruism, but it bad by restricting the use of medicine (blood transfusions and Jehovah’s Witnesses) or lead to overpopulation (restrictions on birth control) 
But here's one big catch: Religion can increase prejudice. A few years ago, I heard a talk by Robert Putnam who drew a distinction between "bonding" (in-group), and "bridging" (inter-group), social capital. Attending church per se does not increase “bridging social capital.” Religious life tends to be good at the first but not the second, and that leads to the correlation between religiosity and prejudice (see Robert Jones on the research conducted by PRRI). 

And here's a second catch: Our religiosity (to use the academic term) needs to be “intrinsic” and not “extrinsic”--as I've blogged before--that, it has to be authentic and essentially, not something we do for someone else.

In sum: As far as I can tell, yes, generally there are some positive indications from scientific research about going to church, but how we approach religious life correlates with whether it diverges ultimately into negative or positive outcomes.  

Friday, February 12, 2021

Something from Luther that's Blowing My Mind

Recently, I wrote on science as a Christian vocation, and in light of that piece, and particularly the one that followed, this excerpt from Martin Luther is, yes, blowing my mind ("Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate") 

Written in 1520, it's still relevant five centuries later...

From all this it follows that there is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, "spirituals" and "temporals," as they call them, except that of office and work, but not of "estate"; for they are all of the same estate -- true priests, bishops and popes -- though they are not all engaged in the same work, just as all priests and monks have not the same work. 
This is the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 12:4 and I Corinthians 12:12, and of St. Peter in I Peter 2:9, as I have said above, viz., that we are all one body of Christ, the Head, all members one of another. Christ has not two different bodies, one "temporal," the other "spiritual." He is one Head, and He has One body. 
Therefore, just as Those who are now called "spiritual" -- priests, bishops or popes -- are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities -- they bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good. 
A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Why We Need to Bring Science to Church

Since the nonprofit organization I co-direct has a mission of “cultivating a stronger church through meaningful dialogue with mainstream science,” I thought I’d give the key reasons why the task of Science for the Church is strategic and valuable. 

Here are my top five.

  1. Why: Because the Church needs a viable Gospel.

    • In their research, the Barna Group found one of the top six reasons emerging adults are leaving the church: They see it as “anti-science.” Too often this perception is accurate, and we need to stop this. Barna also found that 49% of church-going teens believe the "church seems to reject what science tells us about the world."

  2. Why: Because, without this dialogue, the church loses the glorious insights of science. With it, the Christian community flourishes.

  3. Why: Because this is our heritage as Christians.

    • The Scientific Revolution arose in the Christian west. This, of course, isn’t to say that all of science arose from Christianity (that would discount Muslim science, for example). Still, I will say (along with many others) that the Christian doctrine of God’s creating a cosmos, and not a chaos, means that we can study it and understand it. This is our Christian heritage, and we must not forsake it. It’s also a key part of our American history. I think of the Puritan pastors, like Jonathan Edwards, who, as the most educated people of the day, regularly combined reflection on theology with “natural philosophy” (the name for science in those days).

  4. Why: Because the United States needs Christians engaged in the sciences.

  5. Why: Because, as people disaffiliate from churches, we need to Christians to be in the world of science and technology.

    • God gathers the church in worship, to be sure, but God also sends out the church scattered. This is naturally an evangelistic task, but also, as Makoto Fujimura calls it, the task of “culture care.”

Those are my top five. How would you prioritize them? Do you have any to add?

Saturday, January 30, 2021

C.S. Lewis and the Joy of Science

I found this as I was rummaging through some older computer files--some thoughts on C.S. Lewis and Joy (the experience, not his wife). I think it's still relevant because, if anything, I see scientific materialism or naturalism (all that exists is the material world) is on the rise.

As Lewis commented himself in Surprised by Joy

“The key to my books is Donne’s maxim, 'The heresies that men leave are hated most.' The things I assert most vigorously are those I resisted long and accepted late.” 

The “heresy” that he left was materialism, or Oxford Realism, for idealism. And then eventually, he turned particularly to Christian faith.

This leads to a famous argument: Human beings seek something that this world cannot satisfy, which points to a God beyond this world. This argument appears in The Problem of Pain and in “The Weight of Glory.” 


What is he saying? Is he arguing that this sense of transcendence—or better, this desire for it, which Lewis calls “Joy”—proves God? 

No, at least not as a deductive proof. Instead Lewis is making a suppositional argument here: We do not fully understand the desire for something beyond (or Joy) itself, but it opens to a wider metaphysical conclusion, one that points to God who created us. 

Or more systematically, the form of this suppositional argument from desire proceeds as follows: Suppose God created this world, we can imagine that God would leave a desire for more than this world offers. We experience a longing for more than this world offers. It is reasonable to see this as pointer to God.
Lewis’s argument from Joy or desire brings to mind the question of whether many of Albert Einstein’s words about “God” were really about, well, God, such as when he commented

“Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a Spirit vastly superior to that of man.” Albert Einstein

Richard Dawkins argues (not surprisingly as the arch-atheist) that this stuff in Einstein isn’t really about God, it’s about transcendence. In his Why Science Does Not Disprove God, the science writer and mathematician Amir D. Aczel, contends (as I understand him) that, no, this is really about the Deity, and in fact, believing in God is profoundly compatible with science. 

And my argument here is that Joy—in Lewis's sense—historically and philosophically, leads to science. I'll leave it there for now.

Friday, January 22, 2021

On Time and Beauty (Some Notes)

Beauty appears to be both temporal and timeless. Every human experience of beauty is in time, and yet, when we experience beauty, we seem to transcend, even to be removed, from time. To understand beauty, it seems to me that we need to figure out time.

I am continually drawn to Augustine’s profound reflections, which are often cited and for good reason, 

“What, then is time? There can be no quick and easy answer, for it is no simple matter even to understand what it is, let alone find words to explain it” (Confessions XI. 14).

What do science, philosophy, and theology say about time?            

The consensus view in physical sciences, following Albert Einstein, is that time and space are related, not independent aspects of reality (as in classical physics). One reason time cannot be entirely relative is what Hermann Minkowski identified as the “causality constraint,” that is to say, even within the relativity of time in an Einsteinian universe, observers in uniform motion find that causes occur before effects. More precisely, causes according to one observer are causes according to all other observers in uniform relative motion. In essence, causality is invariant, not relative.     

From a philosophical perspective, time can be understood (i.e., explained) as phenomenal, but not noumenal (Kant), or as the very structure of reality (Hegel, Whitehead). Similarly, beauty can be viewed as one of the atemporal Transcendentals (Thomas).      

Theological perspectives frequently explain and thus unfold time as a gift from God (Augustine), but are unsure about whether God’s eternity is atemporal (Thomas) or supratemporal (Barth, Russell). 

More personally, I’d like to see how time can be a component of human flourishing and a resource for the common good. 

This reminds me of a psychologist with a remarkable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (For what it’s worth, I once heard someone comment that he prefers “Mike” and that his last name sounds something like “Chick-sent-me-high.”) 

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, my buddy Mike presented a key idea for grasping how we find our passion. In the state of the mind he named “flow,” we experience deep enjoyment, challenge matched by our skills, creativity, and a sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller, way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience”—be described? He writes 

“‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Put another way and drawing from Emanuele Ciancio (“Time Flow in the Natural World: A Theological Perspective”), the beauty of time might be summarize in the Greek New Testament word kairos, which means “opportunity,” or perhaps better, "the fullness of time."

Does human flourishing mean living a beautiful life regularly imbued with kairos