Saturday, April 30, 2011


“There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly…” In Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner.

Friday, April 22, 2011


"Everything is a subject on which there is not much to be said." C.S. Lewis

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name

Shakespeare's often quoted line suggests "that which we call a rose; by any other name would smell as sweet." The bigger question is how does it smell as sweet? Olfaction, the sense of smell, is still not well understood. There are multiple theories regarding how we actually are able to detect smells. One leading theory is that of a lock and key system. This theory suggests that if airborne molecules of a certain chemical can fit into the specialized sensory cells of the nasal cavity the nerve cell will respond and send a signal to the brain which is interpreted as a particular aroma. Another theory proposes that olfactory receptors respond not to the shape of the molecules but to their vibrations. This theory maintains that odours exist as a spectrum much as colour is detected as a spectrum of light by the sensors of the visual system. There is also a secondary system of olfactory receptors which may detect aromas without the brain being consciously aware of the smell. Some scientists suggest that this secondary system is highly tuned to pheromes and may be a basis for why we feel attracted to or warned away from certain situations. (Note added April 20th: Recent scholarly papers have concluded that this vomeronasal organ, although extremely active in most non-human animals, is non-functional in humans.# This is probably a good thing. The perfume and cosmetic industry would seek to exploit this function with irresistable sexual phermone fragrances. I can imagine the military creating phermone weapons which would cause the enemy to experience a sense of fear.)

As biological entities, we are always giving off fragments of ourselves and leaving a trail that can be detected by others. Think of a tracking dog that is able to follow the scent of one particular human based only on the specks of biology and their corresponding smells left behind as that individual walks through a forest containing thousands of other smells.

Dogs have a much greater capability of detecting odours than do humans. Some studies have found that dogs have as much as seventeen times more olfactory epithelium than humans and as much as one hundred times more nerves in that olfactory epithelium making it plausible that their sense of smell may be seventeen hundred times more sensitive than ours.* What a strange world this must be for a dog. To the dog, the air is alive with many more smells. Every human and animal in its environment is continually raining down a stream of biological bits with interesting aromas that the dog's discerning nose can codify and quantify to learn helpful information about its environment. What a different perception of this world we would have if our sense of smell were as sensitive. Imagine the smell of that hockey locker room!

One day we may have a more complete understanding of olfaction. For now we revel in the mystery of smell.

*Bear, Connors and Paradiso, Mark, Barry and Michael (2007). Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain. USA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. pp. 265-275.
#Wysocki CJ, Preti G (November 2004). "Facts, fallacies, fears, and frustrations with human pheromones". The Anatomical Record. Part a, Discoveries in Molecular, Cellular, and Evolutionary Biology 281 (1): 1201–11.
#Wyatt, Tristram D. (2003). Pheromones and Animal Behaviour: Communication by Smell and Taste. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This blog entry was inspired by The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Lives of a Cell

Yesterday I was given a book to read for a retreat that I will take in next month. The book is The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas. It arrived by courier in the afternoon and I have already devoured the first six chapters. How did I not discover this book earlier? It is a series of poetic essays on the wonder of biology. The only other book I have read that is quite like it is Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Thomas may be a little more technical and scientific in his writing but both authors share a sense of holy awe at the biology of our planet. They remind us of the mystery that is at the heart of biology. Some would explain all of biology as an extension of physics. Lewis reminds us that biology is also an extension of the divine, the holy, and the other.

Readers of this blog who share my interest in the relationships between science and faith will surely enjoy The Lives of a Cell. I will end with a sample of the first chapter of the book so that you can assess for yourself whether or not you might want to read this inspiring book. For those who may not find it to be quite their cup of tea, I recommend that you start instead with Annie Dillard.
We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits in the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsing legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet. In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds.
But it is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death. We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia. Nor is it a new thing for man to invent an existence that he imagines to be above the rest of life; this has been his most consistent intellectual exertion down the millennia. As illusion, it has never worked out to his satisfaction in the past, any more than it does today. Man is embedded in nature. The biologic science of recent years has been making this a more urgent fact of life. The new, hard problem will be to cope with the dawning, intensifying realization of just how interlocked we are. The old, clung-to notions most of us have held about our special lordship are being deeply undermined.
Item. A good case can be made for our nonexistence as entities. We are not made up, as we had always supposed, of successively enriched packets of our own parts. We are shared, rented, occupied. At the interior of our cells, driving them, providing the oxidative energy that sends us out for the improvement of each shining day, are the mitochondria, and in a strict sense they are not ours. They turn out to be little separate creatures, the colonial posterity of migrant prokaryocytes, probably primitive bacteria that swam into ancestral precursors of our eukaryotic cells and stayed there. Ever since, they have maintained themselves and their ways, replicating in their own fashion, privately, with their own DNA and RNA quite different from ours. They are as much symbionts as the rhizobial bacteria in the roots of beans. Without them, we would not move a muscle, drum a finger, think a thought.
Mitochondria are stable and responsible lodgers, and I choose to trust them. But what of the other little animals, similarly established in my cells, sorting and balancing me, clustering me together? My centrioles, basal bodies, and probably a good many other more obscure tiny beings at work inside my cells, each with its own special genome, are as foreign, and as essential, as aphids in anthills. My cells are no longer the pure line entities I was raised with; they are ecosystems more complex than Jamaica Bay.

I would like to express my appreciation to the Pastoral Science program at Regent College for introducing me to the writing of Lewis Thomas. You can see more about the important work of this group at the Cosmos website.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Self Reflective Faith

A few days ago I quoted Bradley Artson Shavit from a debate with Christopher Hitchens. In that same debate Rabbi Shavit noted that religion, like science, must be self-reflective. I would add that followers of a religion must constantly assess whether their understanding of God and faith fit with their experience of life. If we find a truth in the world we must reflect on how that truth fits into our understanding of the Bible. All truth - is God's truth. Alister McGrath makes a similar point in his book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life.
For an orthodox Christian theologian, the doctrine of the Trinity is the inevitable outcome of intellectual engagement with the Christian experience of God; for the physicist, equally abstract and bewildering concepts emerge from wrestling with the world of quantum phenomena. But both are committed to sustained intellectual engagement with this phenomena, in order to derive and develop theories or doctrines which can be said to do justice to them, preserving rather than reducing them. Both the sciences and religion may therefore be described as offering interpretations of experience.*
We must not fear an understanding of faith which includes an understanding of science. Our understanding of life must include a thorough reading of the Bible and a thorough reading of God's other revelation: the universe.

*Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1998) , 88.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Recently, atheists Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris debated two Jewish Rabbis, David Wolpe and Bradley Artson Shavit. One of the most cogent points made by Rabbi Shavit regarded "choice."
At the very core of traditional Judaism is the concept of bechira or choice. No miracle is so unambigious that it can't be explained away as secular. No miracle is so overwhelming that you have to accept it.
Christian theologian, C.S. Lewis made a similar point in the book The Screwtape Letters when he spoke of why it is that God does not make it clearer that He exists and is involved with our lives.
You must have often wondered why [God] does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo.
Christopher Hitchens will always have an easy time debating Jews or Christians since all he has to do is demand that his opponents prove that God exists. Yet, God has chosen to keep Himself veiled so as always to allow humans to choose whether or not to believe. Thus, Hitchens' fellow-debaters cannot prove the existence of God.

As the King James version of the bible puts it, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). If we could prove God, it would not be faith. It would not require faith to believe in God and would be purely a matter of logic. Those who debate Hitchens know that God will not over-ride our choice by proving His presence. Christopher Hitchens can go on demanding that God show Himself in a material manner, but God will not ravage Mr. Hitchens (or any of us) with His felt presence. Instead He woos us with the sense that, in the midst of all of the credible scientific explanations of the universe, credible scientific explanations of consciousness, and credible scientific explanations of life, there must be something more.