Monday, April 29, 2013

Mesons, Antimatter, and Why Things Exist

I enjoy reading about recent developments in science even when I find the specific concepts hard to understand. Particle physics is one of those areas in which my math is not up to reading the original publications so I read the summaries of recent discoveries on websites that give a simple explanation. Reading such articles causes me to reflect upon the philosophical, cosmological, and theological implications of scientific realities. The following headline caught my attention: "LHC detects asymmetry in particle's decay: While interesting, strange B meson's preference for matter over antimatter isn't enough to explain universe's existence." The LHC or Large Hadron Collider is the largest particle accelerator in the world and has allowed scientists to perform experiments that were previously impossible to carry out. Physicists accelerate and collide protons in a large ring 27 km in circumference. When the particles smash into each other they use detectors to observe the resulting debris. It is like every young child's dream of speeding things toward each other and watching the crash.

The basic concept in this article is that when certain sub-atomic particles are briefly created and then decay into other particles, some of these particles (the B Mesons) can oscillate back and forth between matter and anti-matter. Thus, they offer insight into the door between the worlds of matter and anti-matter. Although the degree of preference is still controversial, the latest results from the LHC suggest that these particles show a preference for decaying into matter rather than anti-matter. However, this asymmetry of particles is still not enough to explain why we live in a universe in which matter is dominant over anti-matter. It also does not explain why all matter and anti-matter did not collide long ago and annihilate everything that could come into existence.

In a universe in which stars, planets, black-holes, trees, dandelions, muskrats, and meerkats are made up of matter, one must still ask, "Where did all this matter come from?" Although these results from the LHC can fill us with wonder and awe regarding the world in which we live, they still do not answer the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

Suggested Reading:
"News in Brief: LHC detects asymmetry in particle's decay."
R. Cowen. Matter beats out antimatter in experimental echo of creation. Science News. Vol. 177, June 19, 2010, p. 8.

Friday, April 26, 2013

More "Crowish" Science

I have previously written about amateur science that all of us can do as we observe the world around us. In that article I commented on crows that seem to have learned to do "crowish science" and "probability predicting" in order to get their daily caloric intake from their harvest of mussels. Of course, my science is amateur and based on observation alone. By saying that the crows were doing science, I assigned complex thought processes to these crows. In order to truly explain what is going on with the crows along the seawall of Vancouver we would need to set up appropriate experiments. I recently came upon a marvelous article about new developments in the science of animal behavior. I encourage you to read the entire article.

The article speaks of experiments designed to distinguish between "human-like insight" and "careful observation." It turns out that crows are not so much "doing science" but rather they are keen observers of the world around them. In some circumstances they can use their observational skills to notice that something they have done gets them closer to their goal. This is what is at work when crows find a way to get at a tasty bit of meat hung on a string below them and out of reach.

It is also at work when crows find a way to raise the water level in a tube so that the treat floating on top is accessible. This looks like real thinking; but scientific experiments suggest that it is just plain observation and repetition. The crows just pay attention.

Regardless of what it is that is going on in the brain and actions of crows on seawalls or in the labs of scientists, the results are fascinating. The article goes on to speak of relatively complex tool construction and tool use that has been observed in crows. Next to humans, New Caledonian Crows may be the greatest tool makers and tool users on the planet. They are better at tool use than chimpanzees who, in some cases, cannot multi-task well enough to concentrate both on the skills needed to work the tool and the ultimate task toward which the tool is applied.

This article and other recent science on animal behaviour does make me wonder how many things separate humans and animals on the planet: tool usage, abstract thought, language, moral judgement, responsibility. How many of these might be the true elements of the imago dei found in humans?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Daughter in the Church

One of my daughters called me the other day. She asked me some questions about why we read words like, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet." (1 Timothy 2:12) and apply them in our present context but read words like "I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes . . ." and do not apply them in our present context.

I thought about all that I had to say on this topic and decided that I would at least start by saying something on this site. There are many other portions of the Bible that could be added to this list of "why this but not this?" Furthermore, we ignore much of the Bible with the practicalities of what we do: "But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved." (1 Corinthians 12:5) or "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6). On the other hand, we put a much greater emphasis on some verses than seems warranted:
"Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
This latter text is very interesting for, we do not actually apply it by requiring that women be silent in our meetings of the church, yet we use it as evidence in other discussions about how we will conduct ourselves in our gatherings and in the leadership structures. Some biblical scholars have good evidence to suggest that these verses are an editorial commentary added by a scribe1; but, even if we allow that they are part of Paul's original writing, we must read them next to words of Paul in which he encourages both men and women to teach, pray, and prophesy. Fee says, "these verses [1 Corinthians 14:34-35] stand in obvious contradiction to 11:2-16, where it is assumed without reproof that women pray and prophesy in the assembly."

More must also be said about the sloppy way in which we interpret our Bibles. I have previously blogged on how easy it is to open a few passages of scripture, read them, and then ask, "What does the Bible have to say about this?" It is much harder, but much more accurate, to "appeal instead to the 'broad sweep of Scripture' and to generalities regarding justice, love, and common humanity."2

What else would I want my daughter to investigate? I would want her to understand this statement by the Spirit filled, evangelical scholar, Gordon D. Fee.
Perhaps the worst thing the evangelical tradition has done on gender matters is to isolate them from the bigger picture of biblical theology. Indeed, I think we are destined for continual trouble if we do not start where Paul does: not with isolated statements addressed to contingent situations, but with Paul's theology of the new creation, the coming of God's eschatological rule inaugurated by Christ – especially through his death and resurrection – and the gift of the Spirit.
Two texts in particular serve as a proper starting point here. First, 2 Corinthians 5:14-17, where Paul argues with the Corinthians who are calling into question both his gospel of a crucified Messiah and his cruciform apostleship. He responds that the new creation brought about by Christ's death and resurrection nullifies one's viewing anything any longer from the age old point of view (Gk. kata sarka, "according to the flesh"). Christ's death means that the whole human race has come under the sentence of death (v. 14), so that those who do live (in God's new order) now live for the one who died for them and was raised again (v. 15). The result, he goes on, is that from this point on, to view either Christ or anyone/anything else from a perspective that is "according to the flesh" is no longer valid (v. 16). Why? Because being in Christ means that one belongs to the new creation: the old has gone, the new has come (v. 17). It doesn't take much reading of Paul to recognize that this radical, new order point of view – life marked by the cross – lies at the heart of everything he thinks and does.3

I want my daughter and all of us reading this post to begin to understand the culture into which the gospel came. Again, I call upon the excellent thinking of Gordon Fee.

As Demosthenes says in an offhanded, matter-of-fact way: "Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children."
The idea that men and women might be equal partners in marriage simply did not exist, evidence for which can be seen in meals, which in all cultures serve as the great equalizer. In the Greek world, women scarcely ever joined their husbands and his friends at meals; and if they did, they did not recline at table (only the courtesans did that), but sat on benches at the end. And they were expected to leave after eating, when the conversation took a more public turn. It is especially difficult for most of us even to imagine our way back into such a culture, let alone to have any sense of feeling for it. Which is what makes what Paul actually says so counter-cultural in every way. . .4

I want my daughter to look at passages like Acts 16:3-5 in which Paul greets Priscilla and then Aquila and praises them because they risked their lives for him. He also greets the church that meets in their, not Aquila's, house. This is sure evidence that some things have already been transformed by the gospel. In Colossians 4:15 Paul greets Nympha and the church that meets in her house. In Acts 16:13-15, 40 we see that the first believers in Philippi met at Lydia's house.

I would suggest that my daughter read other great books on the subject such as Finally Feminist by John G. Stackhouse Jr. Then, I would ask my daughter to pray with me and ask that God might make each of us a suitable vessel for all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That, regardless of gender or the church context in which we reside, that each of us might work within those confines and teach, prophecy, counsel, pastor, lead, and love the people of God. May there be joy, love, grace, and unity in the churches of the Body of Christ.

1 On the inauthenticity of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, see Fee, God's Empowering Presence, 272-281.
2 Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 50 and also at
3 (Hancock 2003, 64)
4 (Fee 2000, 68, 69)

Further Reading:
Fee, Gordon D. Listening to the Spirit in the Text. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
Hancock, Maxine, ed. Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003.
Stackhouse, John G. Jr. Finally Feminist. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Grace and Works

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10.
In many circles, it seems we read one sentence or the other of this passage. We seem to struggle to hold the two together at the same time. We either hang our spiritual weight upon grace by faith or we emphasize good works. Today, the words leap off of the page at me and it seems clear that we need to hang on every word of God. Yes, it is by grace we have been saved, through faith - and this is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God; and yes, as we are saved, we become a renewed creation, created for doing good works. There are good works to be done because God has prepared good works (in advance) for us to do. He is just waiting for each of us to respond to the free gift so that we can get on with what we have been created to do. As a new creation in Christ, we have things to do. We can now get on with the things that are waiting to be done. It is usually quite easy to see what needs to be done. There are plenty of good works that God has prepared.

We are his hands we are his voice
We are the ones who must make a choice
If it isn't now, tell me when
And if it isn't you, then tell me
Who will save the children. - Randy Stonehill "Who Will Save The Children."

I get so distracted by my bigger schemes
Show me the importance of the simple things
Like a word, a seed, a thorn, a nail, and a cup of cold water.
You know the number of my days
So come paint your pictures on the canvass in my head
Come write your wisdom on my heart
Teach me the power of a moment. - Chris Rice "The Power of a Moment."

What good works can I do today? Not as a means of achieving salvation; but doing the things I was re-created to do.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Follow-up to Home

Two days ago I posted the latest Key of Zed song on this blog. "Home" is a song that captures three impressions of the concept of home. When we use the word "home" it can mean a number of different things. For many of us that grew up in a good family,  "home" can be that family of origin and that place in which we grew up. Think about your own childhood and the sense of home which comes to you from this.

Home can also be that ancestral place; the place from which our family heritage comes. Many of us identify with our ancestry and recognize that, despite the fact that we may not have even seen the place from which they came, our ancestors and the place in which they lived has an influence upon the people we have become today.

Of course, the strongest sense of home is the home we build ourselves. We build a home with our spouse, our children, our family. This kind of home is independent of any location. Home is where we build significant relationships with others. In this sense, the song "Home" is a love song about the home my wife, Maureen, and I have built.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


(Lyrics and Music by Mike Charko and Keith Shields - SOCAN 2013)
(Click here to listen while reading the lyrics)


Follow this lane to the clothes on the line       
The garden, the trees, and the hills that we'd walk
The buzzing of summer, the ponds, and the hay
Blossom of thistle, and sweet evening stalks


Driving left hand roads to rivers and sheep
The heather, the wind, and the salt of the sea
Ruddy complexions and hair of light red
This lonely shore she is calling me


Turn up this way 'til I see your sweet face
Gardening gloves and your hair out of place
A smile, a kiss, I'm lost in your arms
Right here with you I have built this space.


Friday, April 12, 2013


I went away for a few days to be alone with God. I had some decisions to make about the future and I wanted to hear from God. I believe that he can and will guide me. I believe that I am to be open to his guidance in my life; but, it is hard to tune in God's frequency when much of my time is spent not listening for Him. I live a lot of my life going about my business and getting by on my own quite well. I tune into God once in a while and get an answer to a big question in life and then go about my business convinced that I can now do things on my own.  Annie Dillard says,
It is difficult to undo our own damage and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it. We are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind used to cry and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of the earth, and living things say very little to very few.1
How do I once again tune into the appropriate voice. I hear my thoughts all the time. God, are you in there somewhere? How will I discern which voice is yours?

I went for a walk and started tuning in. I see evidence of God in everything around me. His voice cries out that he is here and that he has created a good world for us. I see him in the muskrat that swims across the pond using his slender tail as a rudder. He is expert in swimming and finding his way in the world. He is a mammal which must breathe air; yet he dives under water never to come up again. The pond is small enough that I would see him if he broke the surface of the water. I stand patiently watching to see where he will come up. I wait longer than his tiny lungs could ever stand to go without breath. Then I realize, he is not coming up to the surface of the pond. He has an underwater entrance to a safe, dry, air-filled burrow somewhere in the bank of that pond. I go and look in the water close to where I last saw him go underwater but he is too intelligent to dive close to the entrance. He dove under while he was still far from the hole so that a predator would be fooled. He swam invisibly underwater for several yards before safely entering his subterranean world. He does not know it but his whole life is an elaborate song of praise to God. The God who teaches small burrowing mammals how to build homes away from predators. How long did it take him to build his home? How did he decide where to build? How did he start his home? Did he simply dive underwater and start digging? How does he ensure that enough air filters into this quiet little chamber? Does he have a family tucked away in the burrow that he comes home to at night? These are questions he never needs to ask. He is born with a knowledge of how to live and how to survive and how to do all of these things.

I found myself envious of the muskrat. He is not troubled about the future like I am. He does not have to choose a career. He does not have to find a new job when it is obvious that the employer can no longer pay the salary and the lay-off comes. There is a hint of this envy in the words of Robert Burns' poem, "To a Mouse: On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785." He speaks to the mouse whom he has disturbed and tells her that he will not chase after her and kill her. He does not mind that the mouse steals a bit of his grain for he will never miss it. Then he tells the mouse how blessed she is with these words.
Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
An forward, tho I canna see,
I guess an fear.2
Burns looked at the mouse and I looked at the muskrat and we both had a similar sense of envy. For mouse and muskrat do not think about past or future. They live only in the present and deal with what comes their way at that moment. We humans are much more self aware and are capable of worrying both about what we have seen in the past and what might happen in the future.

God could have made us like that muskrat. The muskrat simply avoids the predators and trusts that his tiny home is safe; and it likely is safe unless some human happens to dig up that area or a coyote happens to sniff out the air hole of a small muskrat den. But God has something more in mind for humans. He has decided to give us a special relationship and special responsibilities. He has made us in his own image with the ability to think and speak and make choices. He has not hard-wired us like a muskrat. He has given us free-will. The other animals of the planet are locked in time; they are temporal and temporary. God has made humans eternal beings. We live on this earth for a time and then we live in eternity. C.S. Lewis calls us spiritual amphibians3, part of our life is lived in the physical world and part of our life is lived in the spiritual realms. That is an apt description. Like an amphibian, this life we live on earth is an early stage of development. Frogs, the classic example of an amphibian, start their lives as tadpoles that hatch out of eggs and live the first part of their life totally underwater. They require oxygen but they scoop this out of the water through their oxygen permeable skin and tiny gills. They live out this first part of their existence in a form very different from their fully developed form. The pond is just the place where they slowly develop into the final creature.

As spiritual amphibians, we humans spend 60 to 80 or more years on this earth in a form very different from the one we shall one day take in the eternal realms. This physical world is the place in which we develop. We are just a tadpole compared to the elegant frog we will one day become. This is the place in which God prepares us for our place in his heavenly kingdom; therefore, he is most concerned with developing our souls. The challenges of pain and suffering in this world are definitely a concern to God; but they are not his chief concern. He is more interested in watching us develop our spiritual capacity. He wants to train us up to be sons and daughters of God who are ready to take our place in heaven. What we manage to become here on this earth will have an impact on what we become in God's spiritual kingdom.

To employ a different but similar metaphor, consider 1 Corinthians 15:37-40 which says,
When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the  heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another.
We have one type of body here on earth and it is just a seed of what it will become in the spiritual realm. At the end of our earthly journey a seed is formed based on all that we have done during our time on this earth. Then comes the judgement before the judgement seat of Christ (see 2 Corinthians 5:10) where it is determined what kind of seed we have become. Some will be found to be wheat seeds, perhaps one will be a seed that dies and germinates into a giant oak tree. Some may be mustard seeds that generate a mustard bush; while others became fern seeds in their journey in this life and will grow into ferns in the heavenly body. Some of the seeds may look very similar. A radish seed looks a lot like a poppy seed but each grows up into its appropriate structure. So too, two lives on earth may look very similar but each will develop into their appropriate heavenly body.

So, I return to my initial thoughts: how do I hear from God? I drew away from the world for a few days. I listened hard to see if I sensed his voice. It is important that I become the person he wants me to become. I want the oxygen of heaven. I do not yet have the lungs that will let me breathe the pure rarified air of heaven. I have only this porous skin and these tiny gills that allow me to suck a bit of oxygen out of this physical world. I must develop the lungs of heaven. I start by meditating upon the words he has already given me in the Bible. I will listen for his voice and I will listen for confirmation or correction from God's people, the Body of Christ.

1 (Dillard 1992, 88)
2 (Burns 2007, 27)
3 (Lewis 1980, 36)

Works cited:
Burns, Robert. Burns, Poems: Everyman's Library Pocket Poets. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Dillard, Annie. Teaching A Stone To Talk :Expeditions and Encounters. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Ltd., 1980.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

History of Humanity

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis offers this summary of history.
That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended - civilisations are built up - excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice. That is what Satan has done to us humans.1

In five brief and simple sentences, Lewis describes what has always happened in history. As far back as we have records we see that great civilizations have always risen up and come to prominence often controlling much of the known world only to fall while another civilization rises to prominence to take its place. From the perspective of our relatively short lives we look at the present situation of prominent cultures and imagine it will always be so. But history suggests something different. Greece rose to great influence before being assimilated by Rome. Spain, once a great empire which explored and conquered much of the new world is once again a small country of historical importance but little cultural clout. Great Britain was once the most dominant power on the planet. Today, she takes her place at the table with other countries of the world. The United States of America has, for some time, been the most powerful nation in the world; yet even as these words are written there are signs that this might not always be the case. What world power will next rise to be the dominant civilization of the future?

Lewis has certainly aptly described history. What of his explanation of why this is the case? Might his explanation also be right? Are we trying to run the world on the "wrong juice?" Has Satan done this to humans? What would it look like to run the world on the right juice? Certainly many have tried with the results looking very much the same as the attempts to run things on the wrong juice.

Our trust cannot be on any human forms of government. If history tells us anything it tells us that all civilizations will one day fall. Our trust cannot be in the banking systems, political systems, or in any country of the world. Civilizations, powers, and empires will come and go. The best we can do is ride the waves as they rise and fall. We must put our trust in something more than human institutions.

1 (Lewis 1978, 50)

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Glasgow: William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., 1978.