Thursday, May 26, 2011


Tonight I am in Scotland, the land of my genetic ancestors, the land of my literary ancestors, and the land of my spiritual ancestors. My grandfather’s grandparents farmed in the Aberdeenshire region of Scotland. Driving through that area yesterday I was impressed with how similar it is to portions of Central Alberta where I grew up. If you substitute sheep for cattle, stone fences for barbed wire, and big hills for slightly smaller hills, Great Bend could be a New Aberdeenshire. I guess others thought so too because Alberta is filled with Scottish place names like Nevis, Erskine, Craigellachie, and Banff. We drove through “Keith,” the place, and the clan, from which I received my name.

We drove through Huntly where George MacDonald lived and wrote such literary classics as Phantastes, Lilith, and The Princess and the Goblin. I could see how his great imagination was stirred by the wonder of these hills, valleys, deer, and springs. It was MacDonald’s writing that would inspire writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. This is the land of Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

It is also the land of Eric Henry Liddell, the Flying Scotsman, upon whom I meditated as I went for a run in the hills near Dufftown. Liddell was the winner of the men's 400 metre race at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris but it was his faith in God and convictions about right and wrong that are most strongly depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.

And it is the land of Columba and the Celtic Monks. They brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the fierce Pict people and the murdering clans that lived in this area. They spoke much about the Trinity of God and used simple descriptions of how God was at once both Three and One. Columba came in the sixth century AD and he and his followers had great influence over the land for more than two centuries. Evidence of this influence can be seen in the architecture and art that survives to this day in Scotland.

Today we made it to the windswept North Sea and the Firth of Moray where Bottle-nose Dolphins swim and play. Tomorrow we head on to Inverness. What wonders lie in the highlands beyond?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tidal Pool

I am sitting on a rock on the edge of the Pacific Ocean on Galiano Island staring into a tidal pool carved into sandstone. It is completely detached from the rest of the ocean as it is each day when the tide goes out. I am having an E.O. Wilson moment. The pool is approximately 1 meter in diameter, slightly elliptical and about one meter deep. It is teeming with beings. About a thousand minnows in two sizes, crabs, bottom feeding fish, orange starfish, purple starfish, tiny jellyfish, and barnacles; and that is just the fauna. The flora is more diverse, kelp, several kinds of weed I cannot identify, a liver coloured weed with iridescent blue spots that look like eyes staring up at me. Is this the way this weed protects itself from being eaten?

I was at this same spot yesterday just before the tide came in and I wondered how many of these creatures would still be here today. I am surprised to see that all are present and accounted for. I often feel sorry for fish in a fish bowl because they have so little space to swim. But after seeing these fish who choose to live in 2000 litres of water (the mathematically inclined will find themselves wanting to check my calculations) every day, I have no such sympathy. These fish could leave when the tide comes in. They could say, "Let’s swim to Hawaii," for the equivalent of a piscine weekend. But these are the safe fish, the smart fish who know that, by staying in this tiny pool, they will not end as food in the belly of a baleen equipped grey whale.

I am awe-struck by this tidal pool and feel that I am teetering on the edge of something large and ominous. E.O. Wilson once came to a tidal pool just like this. When he walked toward the pool he was a child; when he walked away he was a scientist.

I stand in shallow water, staring down at a huge jellyfish in water so still and clear that it's every detail is revealed as though it were trapped in glass. The creature is astonishing. It existed outside my previous imagination. . . . why do I tell you this little boy's story? Because it illustrates how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder. - E. O. Wilson, The Naturalist.

Elsewhere, Wilson describes how he left his faith because he did not find a place for scientists in the church. When he found mystery and awe in nature and looked for ways to explore his world, he found himself alone. The church had lost interest in the mystics who delved into the wonders of nature. How many other small boys and fifty year-old men might lose themselves in a moment like this and teeter into the tidal pool of science. Will there be anyone in the church willing to dive deep with them? Can we love God and love the science of a tidal pool?

Click on images for a larger view.

Photo credit: John Van Sloten.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Proper Confidence

It has once again become fashionable to have large public debates on issues of science, faith, cosmology, and the God question. I have previously blogged about two recent debates. (Take a look at a previous blog post here and YouTube video here.) I find it interesting and a symptom of our time that we have public celebrities debating these topics rather than professional philosophers. Philosophers tend to be much more precise with their language and write everything in formal papers before debating with each other. They also tend to be less entertaining and more willing to admit they may not know everything.

One thing that is getting lost in such debates is epistemology. Epistemology is concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. It addresses the questions: What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? How do we know what we know?

In a short book (really more of a long essay) Lesslie Newbigin has written about how we set out to know things and what the limits of our knowledge might be. There are helpful distinctions between "cause" and "purpose." Many of the debaters of our time would do well to consider these words from Newbigin.
Cause is something that can be discovered by observation and reason. Purpose is not available for inspection because, until the purpose has been realized, it is hidden in the mind of the one whose purpose it is. Suppose that going along a street, we observe men at work with piles of bricks and bags of cement, and we guess that a building is being erected. What is it to be? An office? A house? A chapel? There are only two ways to discover the answer: we can wait around until the work is complete and inspection enables us to discover what it is. If we cannot wait until then, we must ask the architect, and we will have to take his word for it. If the work in question is not the building of a house but the creation and consummation of the cosmos, the first alternative is not available to us. We shall not be present to examine the end product of cosmic history. If the whole thing has any purpose (and of course we may decide, as postmoderns do, that it has no purpose), the only way we can know that purpose is by a disclosure from the one whose purpose it is, a disclosure which we would have to take on trust. There is no escape from this necessity. The modern antithesis of observation and reason on the one hand versus revelation and faith on the other is only tenable on the basis of a prior decision that the whole cosmic and human history has no purpose and therefore no meaning. It is possible to make this assumption, but it is not necessary. The question whether the cosmos and human life within it have any purpose other than the individual purposes we seek to impose on things is one that cannot be decided by observation. If we live with a prior assumption that human life has no purpose; then we shall act accordingly, and there will be no possibility whatsoever of discovering its purpose.*
Is Newbigin right? Have we assumed that the universe is without purpose? If the cosmos and human life within it have a purpose, how would we know that purpose? Does an assumption of a purposeless cosmos affect the way we approach life in this century? Newbigin affirms that indeed there is a purpose and the architect of the cosmos has revealed to us the purpose. We must take it on trust with "proper confidence" and "personal knowledge." The rest of the essay expands upon these themes.

*Newbigin, L. (1995). Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 57, 58.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Talking with a couple of friends last night I was reminded of a section of Annie Dillard's amazing book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The book was written while she lived beside Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and in it she records her thoughts on the flora and fauna she observes. She speaks of sitting under a tree and considers the activities of life going on beneath her.
The insects and earthworms, moles, muskrats, roots, and fungal strands are not all. An even frailer, dimmer movement, a pavane, is being performed deep under me now. The nymphs of cicadas are alive. You see their split skins, an inch long, brown, and translucent, curved and segmented like shrimp, stuck arching on the trunks of trees. And you see the adults occasionally, large and sturdy, with glittering black and green bodies, veined transparent wings folded over their backs and artificial-looking, bright red eyes. But you never see the living nymphs. They are underground, clasping roots and sucking the sweet sap of trees.

In the South, the periodical cicada has a breeding cycle of thirteen years, instead of seventeen years in the North. That a live creature spends thirteen consecutive years scrabbling around in the root systems of trees in the dark and damp – thirteen years! - is amply boggling for me. Four more years - or four less - wouldn't alter the picture a jot. In the dark of an April night the nymphs emerge, all at once, as many as eighty-four of them digging into the air from every square foot of ground. They inch up trees and bushes, shed their skin, and begin that hollow, shrill grind that lasts all summer. I guess as nymphs they never see the sun. Adults lay eggs in slits along twig bark; the hatched nymphs drop to the ground and burrow, vanish from the face of the earth, biding their time, for thirteen years. How many are under me now, wishing what? what would I think about for thirteen years? They curl, crawl, clutch at roots and suck, suck blinded, suck trees, rain or shine, heat or frost, year after groping year.

And under the cicadas, deeper down than the longest tap-root, between and beneath the rounded black rocks and slanting slabs of sandstone in the earth, ground water is creeping. Ground water seeps and slides, across and down, across and down, leaking from here to there minutely, at the rate of a mile a year. What a tug of waters goes on! There are flings and pulls in every direction at every moment. The world is a wild wrestle under the grass: earth shall be moved.*
The creation we see is amazing. There is so much more that we never see!

*Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999, p. 97, 98.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I like this sentiment from the band "Warped 45s."
"Let my headstone be my favourite jukebox loaded with the songs of my friends. . . .Push B24 and sway barefoot on my grave.” – “Radio Sky
Would you be one of the ones who would come by and sway?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Safety and Security

If I continue to quote from good books I may have to rename my blog, "What's in Keith's Book-bag?" At any given time I often have multiple books on the go and so it is not surprising that I want to introduce you to another fascinating book: The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods.

The book is a community development book and lays out a great plan for how we can get our cities and neighbourhoods back on track with community. Chapter one has some great ideas about safety and security.
As Jane Jacobs, author, activist, and icon of the importance of a vital neighborhood, wrote years ago, a safe street is produced by eyes on the street. It is produced by people walking around, sitting outside, knowing neighbors, and being part of a social fabric. No number of gates or professional security people on patrol can make us safe. They can increase arrests, but basically safety is in the hands of citizens. Citizens outside the house, interacting with others, being familiar with the comings and goings of the neighbors. . . .

This is an interesting paradox. We pay police to make us safe, and then they spend some of our money to send us police officers who tell us: that the strength of our own community ties is essential for our safety! There is a name for it: community policing. This police message is confirmed by all kinds of social science research. One of the best is a Chicago study by Robert Sampson and colleagues that found that two factors often predicted whether a neighborhood was crime prone:

Is there mutual trust and altruism among neighbors?
Are neighbors willing to intervene when children misbehave?

Of course, this trust and community responsibility can develop only when neighbors know and are committed to each other. So, the suburbanites whose local relationships are limited to a cheery hello to the neighbor, and the urbanites whose fear keeps them from even saying hello, are all increasing their chance to be a victim.
I passed these words on to my friends at my local Block Watch office. This is exactly what they have been telling us.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Descartes and Niettzche

Lesslie Newbigin (1909 – 1998) was a missionary and theologian in India and England. He has written some brilliant books including The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (SPCK/Eerdmans/WCC, 1989) and the one I am now reading, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995). It is a short book, not difficult to read, and Newbigin has a gift for summarizing great stretches of history and philosophical thinking in a few sentences.

In chapter two he refers to René Descartes who is best known for his statement, "Cogito ergo sum." Which translated to English means, "I think, therefore I am; or "I do think, therefore I do exist." Newbigin shows the tremendous influence of Descartes and how his pursuit for certainty has led to the great crisis of the postmodern world.
It was Friederich Niettzche (1844-1900) who, at the end of the nineteenth century, drew with inescapable clarity the necessary conclusion of the method of Descartes. . . . Rational criticism rests on beliefs which are, for the moment, held acritically. But these beliefs are themselves liable to critical questioning. If the critical principle is exalted to the supreme place in the enterprise of knowing, then the possibility of knowing anything is destroyed. "True" and "false," "right" and "wrong" - these are now words which have no objective reference. They are simply expressions of the will. The will to power is the real driving force of history. The "eternal truths of reason" so beloved during the Age of Reason are in fact nothing of the kind; they are the products of particular historic developments and of particular exercises of the will to power. The twentieth century has learned this lesson. Claims to speak meaningfully about right and wrong are discounted. Instead, one speaks of "values." These "values" are a matter of personal choice. They express what the person who holds them wishes to see enacted. They are precisely expressions of the will (albeit in a less brutal form than that suggested by Nietzche).

. . . .

The modern age began with the daring program of Descartes, a program encouraged by a cardinal of the church and designed to banish skepticism once and for all by establishing the method by which indubitable certainty could be obtained. Neither faith nor probability would suffice. Certainty was possible, and we ought to be content with nothing less. It is deeply ironic that this method has led us directly into the profound skepticism of the postmodern world. The greatest product of the modern age is the work of science, a work which has transformed the human situation and continues to do so. Yet, there is now a profound skepticism about science itself. It is recognized as a unique avenue to power (and the greater part of scientific work is now directed towards the achievement of power - military, industrial, and commercial), but it is not perceived as a pathway to wisdom. Modern science has placed in human hands the power to do things that were previously unimaginable. Technology, the development of ever more sophisticated means for achieving any end we choose, dominates modern and modernized societies. But there is a growing perception that science and technology are no substitute for wisdom - for the power to discern what ends are in accordance with the truth and the power to judge rightly between alternative ends.

Watch this blog for more insights from Proper Confidence.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Although I have thought about the subject for years, I learned a new term today: "exotheology." It is defined as the examination of theological issues related to extraterrestrial intelligence. Now lest you think I have completely lost my mind, let me point out that many gifted and creative writers have written on this topic. C.S. Lewis wrote a trilogy^ of books that grappled with the questions of what it might look like if humans travelled to other planets and found intelligent life. Mary Doriah Russell wrote The Sparrow and Children of God as a means of wrestling with complex questions of evil and suffering in the world. In these two books intelligent life is discovered on a distant planet and Jesuit priests organize a scientific expedition to investigate.

In addition to such fictional references, the Catholic Church has theologians dedicated to thinking about the implications of life on other planets. José Gabriel Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory, has said that "Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can't put limits on God's creative freedom."*

One of the first places I came upon the concept of exotheology was in the lyrics of a song written by Larry Norman and released on his In Another Land album in 1976. In the song "UFO" he writes,
And if there's life on other planets, then I'm sure that He must know. And He's been there once already, and has died to save their souls.

Norman's approach to exotheology is one valid perspective but is not the only perspective. Lewis, in the Cosmic Trilogy suggests that life on other planets may have taken a different path. He writes about other worlds where intelligent life had not yet fallen from grace with God; rather, they continued to walk in harmony with their Creator. Mary Doriah Russell is much more interested in the theme of how we reconcile a benevolent God with suffering in the world but her books allow exploration of other ways God might work with persons on other planets.

Of course, we do not know if there is such a thing as intelligent extraterrestrial life and we do not know if we will ever discover such if indeed it exists. Yet, the thought experiments related to such speculation are helpful as we think through our "endotheology" (my own word for the opposite of exotheology) and how we understand our own relationship with a Creator God. As is often the case, C.S. Lewis has some appropriate final words on the topic.

I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and our acquisitiveness, and establish a new colonialism. I can’t bear to think of it. But if we on Earth were to get right with God, of course, all would be changed. Once we find ourselves spiritually awakened, we can go to outer space and take the good things with us. That is quite a different matter.#

^The trilogy of books sometimes called the Cosmic Trilogy consists of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

*"Vatican scientist says belief in God and aliens is OK," Reuters, May 14, 2008, and "Pope's astronomer insists alien life 'would be part of God's creation,'" The Independent, 15th May 2008.

#A 1963 interview with C.S. Lewis