Friday, September 27, 2013

Follow-Up to Science and Faith

One of the bright stars of contemporary theology is a young woman by the name of Bethany Sollereder. I met her at Regent College when we were both completing Master's Degrees. She is currently working on her Ph.D. at the University of Exeter in the UK and is one who is asking good questions about how and why God created the dinosaurs and other now extinct creatures. She recently wrote a great paper called "The Purpose of Dinosaurs: Extinction and the Goodness of God."1

I encourage readers to read the paper and I entice you with the conclusion of her paper:

Thus God’s providential action is twofold: each individual creature and species is an end in itself, existing for the glory and delight of God in that moment; and the disparate story lines of all beings that exist or have existed are wound into the epic tale of earth’s history.
1. The Christian Century, September 23, 2013.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Science and Faith

Let me give you a little glimpse into a typical conversation with people I meet. A "get to know you conversation" often goes something like this. The person asks me what I do for a living and I tell them I am a pastor and they ask how long I have been a pastor. I tell them how long and that I used to work in a molecular diagnostic lab in the Alberta Children's hospital before that. Then they ask about my education. I tell them I have a Bachelor's degree from Alberta Bible College, a seminary Master's degree from Regent College, and a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology. About that time the person usually gets an odd look on their face and they say, "Wow, that must mess with your mind!" or "Wow, that is quite a wide divergence of careers!" or "Wow, how do you bring those two worlds together!" or "How do you deal with the conflict between the two?" It is assumed that there is something impossible about bringing together faith in God and an understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology. Some of you reading this may think that as well; or, at least, you may feel that it is impossible to bring together science as it is taught in most universities and the faith of your church.  Yet, if God has created the entire universe, why would we be hesitant to use scientific methods to explore the universe he has created?

I became a science enthusiast before I became a God enthusiast. In school, I loved all the sciences. I studied hard and learned much about each of the sciences. I became a Christian at 15 years of age when my interest in and knowledge of science were already well ingrained. When I became a Christian it never occurred to me that bringing together science and faith would create any difficulty. Eventually people started asking me questions about how I brought the two together and I was able to begin to answer from my science and faith perspective.

Now, some of my initial responses were naive; the truth is, bringing together contemporary scientific findings with our ancient faith does sometimes require adjustments to our contemporary theology. If we can trust at least some of the science of our day, how does it connect to the theology of our day? Does it? Should it? How important is it to have a holistic picture of the world?

Many people are wrestling with these questions. Allow me to suggest a few places where faith and science interact with one another. In astronomy, one of the big pushes right now is to find life on other planets inside of our solar system or outside of our solar system. What will it do to our theology if we discover life on another planet? What will it do to our theology if we discover intelligent life on another planet? Also in the area of astrophysics, we must ask how we understand God's will for end times in light of the fact that a large asteroid could strike the earth with catastrophic results.

In the area of biology and food, how does our faith speak into the fact that researchers in Holland have successfully grown in the lab enough raw bovine meat to make one hamburger? The hamburger cost £250,000 and did not taste very good but this is just the beginning of this process. Does our theology affect this? Does this affect our theology?

There are numerous other science and faith questions that we could ask but of course one of high interest is how science relates to our understanding of the creation of the universe that we read about in Genesis 1-3. There are a number of approaches that have been taken on understanding creation in light of contemporary science. One approach is to largely disregard science and think strictly in terms of the text of Genesis. For one such example, we can look to an address given by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in which he said,

The universe looks old because the creator made it whole. When he made Adam, Adam was not a fetus; Adam was a man; he had the appearance of a man. By our understanding that would’ve required time for Adam to get old but not by the sovereign creative power of God. He put Adam in the garden. The garden was not merely seeds; it was a fertile, fecund, mature garden. The Genesis account clearly claims that God creates and makes things whole. . . . it looks old because it bears testimony to the affects of sin. And testimony of the judgment of God. It bears the effects of the catastrophe of the flood and catastrophes innumerable thereafter. I would suggest to you that the world looks old because as Paul says in Romans chapter 8 it is groaning. And in its groaning it does look old. It gives us empirical evidence of the reality of sin. . . . I would suggest to you that in our effort to be most faithful to the scriptures and most accountable to the grand narrative of the gospel an understanding of creation in terms of 24-hour calendar days and a young earth entails far fewer complications, far fewer theological problems and actually is the most straightforward and uncomplicated reading of the text as we come to understand God telling us how the universe came to be and what it means and why it matters.

The other end of the continuum looks something like agreeing with everything that rationalistic philosophers and scientists say as we abandon the Bible all together. Neither of these extremes is appealing to me.

The comic strip, Non Sequitur, portrays the battle like this:

(Click on the image to enlarge the comic strip.)

Does that seem familiar? Why does it have to be antagonistic? We should not fear the findings of science. Truth is truth and all truth is God's truth. God is not surprised by our scientific findings. Now, we must distinguish between science that is done well and science that is not done well. We must distinguish between science that is objective and science that is done in a way that could skew the results or the interpretation of those results. Still, good science is God's science. We must also distinguish between theology that is done well and theology that is not done well.

When you want to pursue this further, try this: read Genesis 1 and 2 and 3:1; jump to Genesis 6:1-8; then read Genesis 11:1-9 and Genesis 12:1-5. What do you notice? Did you catch the stylistic differences in the writings in the first 11 chapters and chapter 12? Literary scholars suggest that Genesis 1-11 are more ancient, more poetic in their style. Genesis 12-50 have a more historical and prosaic form.

So, if we allow that Genesis 1-11 may be largely poetic, this tells us that it is written in a way that teaches the big picture and teaches big lessons about the fact that God did create the universe and gave humans a special place in that universe. It does not necessarily teach us how God created the universe; nor how he created humans; nor how he endowed them with his image.

If we allow that we may not have many details on how God created, but that he did indeed create, we are ready to look at some contemporary science that suggests how God made the universe, life, plants, animals, and humans. We can look at DNA sequences and other science and look for similarities and differences we see between species. This is a good starting point for deeper discussions. If we trust the science, which I would suggest there is plenty of good science we can trust (well thought, well documented, well controlled, peer reviewed), then we can ask questions about how the science might affect our understanding of how God created. It will then inform our theology about our God and his creation. There are some theologians that are working hard on this dialogue right now. Are we ready for the hard scholarly work and relational engagement this will require?


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

God's Voice

In a previous post I wrote about guidance from God. This present post must be understood within the context of that broader article. In the previous article I spoke of God's guidance coming through God's word, God's voice, God's reason, God's people, and God's circumstances. Today I would like to write about one part of how God guides those who seek him and submit to his will: God's voice. How do we listen for God's voice?

1 Kings 19:9-13 falls within a long section in which Elijah plays several key roles. It is hard to pull one part out from the rest. Elijah was a very complex prophet; but, read this section and ask yourself one question: "What does God's voice sound like?"
There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. . . .
Hebrew scholars note that one possible translation of the word that is here represented as "a quiet whisper" could also be "a silence." The emphasis is on God being faint, subtle, restrained. He is not in the powerful wind, he is not in the earthquake, and he is not in the fire. He is much more subtle with Elijah in this situation.

When we consider God's guidance, and in particular, God's voice, how do we hear him? What might his voice sound like to us? I stress again that we listen to his voice within the context of his word (the Bible), his reason (logic placed in our brains), his people (the community of faith), and his circumstances (the indications we have that point us in a certain direction). God's voice will likely sound different to each of us as he uses our personalities and nature through which he speaks. The key is we must carefully listen for the subtle voice and carefully separate that voice from all of the other things that might distract us from his voice.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Follow-Up to "Margaret Atwood and the Future of Food"

In the television series Fringe, there is an exchange between two scientists who recognize that they have gone too far in some of their research. Quoted here is a portion of the script as Dr. Walter Bishop (played by John Noble) and Dr. Nicholas Boone (played by Jefferson Mays)1 reflect on past mistakes, souls, redemption, and judgement.
WALTER: Well... that makes one of us. A little memory loss is often kind to the soul.
NICHOLAS BOONE: That a figure of speech? Or do you believe there is such a thing? The soul?
WALTER: There are days when I wish I did. There are days when I wish I didn't.
NICHOLAS BOONE: I often wake up at night, frightened, with the understanding that there are things man shouldn't know. That the scientific trespasses I've committed...
WALTER: ...will one day be judged. Belly and I would often debate this very thing. William Bell. You've heard of him?
NICHOLAS BOONE: Well, of course. Founder of Massive Dynamic, richest man in the world.
WALTER: We used to share a lab. Quite a fall, hmm? If indeed there is a soul, we must consider then that there is still time for redemption. We're not being hauled off to be judged yet, Nicholas.2
Similarly, one of the themes that can be picked out in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy is a critique of science. The books point us toward questions related to what should and should not be attempted in the scientific endeavour. There are many things that can be attempted; yet, humans must ask, "What are the costs involved in such a path?" To this date we have not been good at analyzing such questions or setting appropriate limits. Yet, "there is still time for redemption."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Margaret Atwood and the Future of Food

Most rolled their eyes when they heard of it; others laughed at the silliness of creating synthetic meat in a petri dish when millions of cows walk the earth; some were simply nauseated. Margaret Atwood had a quiet smirk. A Dutch lab invited the media to a press conference at which a researcher sat down to a hamburger with a meat patty that had been grown in the lab.1 They explained how 20,000 small strips of meat had been grown at the staggering cost of £250,000 per 142 grams of meat. Back to Atwood, she has increased her fame by prophesying that humans would one day make synthetic meat in the lab. An excerpt from her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, confirms her foresight:

"This is the latest," said Crake.
What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.
"What the hell is it?" said Jimmy.
"Those are chickens," said Crake. "Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They've got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit."
"But there aren't any heads," said Jimmy. He grasped the concept-- he'd grown up with sus multiorganifer, after all-- but this thing was going too far . . .
"That's the head in the middle," said the woman. "There's a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don't need those."
"This is horrible," said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber.2

Actual synthetic meat grown in the Dutch lab took three months to grow and was dry, firm, and required bovine stem cells to initiate the process. Some have suggested that it might be a bit like eating a rather large wart. Still, this is just the beginning of a potential food revolution that could change the very definition of food.

Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood signs her latest book completing the trilogy started in Oryx and Crake. Maddaddam,3 her new dystopian novel picks up where The Year of the Flood left off. All three of the books are a painful reminder of the implications of allowing scientists to define morality and the limits of acceptable experimentation. They readily point us to the need for moral and scientific boundaries as well as relationship with the Creator. Others will now attempt to perfect such experiments; other sponsors will want to get in on what Google co-founder, Sergey Brin has started financing. Is there any end in sight? Not according to Margaret Atwood.

2 Oryx and Crake, 2003 -; Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. 2009 Paperback Edition. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2003, page 202.
3 Maddaddam, 2013 -

Friday, September 13, 2013

V'Ger Has Left The Building

One of the more philosophical Star Trek movies was Star Trek: The Motion Picture released in 1979. The plot line wrestled with what makes humans human; what makes a machine a machine; what makes a sentient being sentient; and what might happen when an alien race encounters a human-made probe. The story revolved around a Voyager space probe (the fictional Voyager 6) that had been repaired by unknown inhabitants of an unknown solar system before being sent back to earth to find its creator. Commander Spock gets the most important line in the movie. In a rare expression of human emotions Spock cries for V'Ger and says, "Each of us... at some time in our lives, turns to someone - a father, a brother, a God... and asks...'Why am I here? What was I meant to be?'"1

These words came to me once more as I read the news that Voyager 1 had left our solar system (the first of two actual Voyager vessels) making it the first human-made object to explore interstellar space.2 Originally launched on September 5th, 1977, it is an example of "boldly going where no one has gone before." Crossing the boundary into this territory places Voyager into space in which the dominance of our star finally fades to imperceptible levels and allows for the measurement of interstellar magnetic fields, galactic particles, and high energy plasma ejected from other stars. Such measurements will enhance our perception of the universe and contribute to our understanding of fundamental questions like "Why am I here?" and "What was I meant to be?"

1 Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Directed by Robert Wise. Performed by Leonard Nimoy. 1979.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Second Coming

In 1919 William Butler Yeats wrote a rather dark poem that matched the mood of the time subsequent to the end of World War I. Yes, there was celebration of the end of the war but there was also a sense that something had changed. A darkness had crept into the world.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?1
This poem continues to be quoted and referenced and still has great relevance today. In 1996 Rolling Stone reporter Will Dana stated, “We used to think the center couldn’t hold,” referring to Yeat’s poem, “All of a sudden, there doesn’t seem to be a center at all.” We live in a “centreless” world. Such is the cultural experience of living in a world stipulated without any reference to the transcendent.2

This is what Nietzsche anticipated in 1882, in his book, The Gay Science, when he wrote,
“Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?” Nietzsche anticipated that with the decline of Christianity it will seem for a time as if all things had become weightless or without center. Nietzsche continues, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives—who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent?”3
Must the prophetic words of Nietzche continue to unfold? Or, is there is a Way back to God? Let those who have ears and eyes, hear and see.

1 William Butler Yeats (1865-1939); written in 1919.
2 As quoted in ; "Cultural PTSD" in Comment Magazine,  May 31, 2013.
3 As quoted in ; "Cultural PTSD" in Comment Magazine,  May 31, 2013.

Monday, September 2, 2013

I Can't Get No - Satisfaction

I find Solomon to be one of the most tragic figures in all of the Old Testament. Read about him in First Kings and particularly 1 Kings 10:1-11:13. He becomes king of the greatest kingdom in the world and is humble enough to ask God for wisdom in ruling over the kingdom. God granted him great wisdom and he is recognized by all as the wisest king ever to live. Other rulers came to visit and were enthralled with his wisdom and wealth. At that point, Solomon began to lose perspective. He began to believe that he was special and entitled to all that he had. Certainly making a huge throne decorated with ivory and overlaid with fine gold suggests that he was losing perspective and thinking highly of himself. Then there is his other weakness: sexual addiction. At least that is what I would call it when someone has had sexual relations with more than 1000 women. 1 Kings tells us that Solomon had 700 wives (of royal birth) and 300 concubines. In our present day, Tiger Woods has admitted to having sex with 120 women and has taken therapy for sexual addiction. Mick Jagger estimates that he has slept with approximately 4000 people. At one point Jagger went for therapy for his sexual addiction but seduced the therapist and slept with her.1

Practically speaking, many of Solomon's marriages would be classified as brief sexual relationships in our contemporary society. Solomon did not know each of these women as long-time partners with whom he confided. They were not wives in that sense of the word. I would speculate that perhaps there was something in his relationship with the Queen of Sheba which may have been a catalyst to this bad turn of his life. The Bible relates his rapid departure from a chaste life immediately after it speaks of her visit. If Solomon were a ruler of a country today there would most certainly be a public outcry to have him seek psychological treatment.

How did a man with such wisdom fall so low? The enemy of God took advantage of a weakness in the personality of Solomon. Solomon did not deny himself the finer things of life: a large throne, a beautiful palace, and the delight of multiple sexual encounters. Other kings of this time were allowed, indeed entitled, to the finest of the women in the land (rock stars and golf pros may also be seen as entitled in our time). These women gladly gave themselves to a powerful king or, in some cases, were so bound by slavery that this was the best of many bad options for them. But Solomon was not to be like every other king in the world. He was called to a higher standard; he was called to God's standard and he failed to live up to this. "The Lord was very angry with Solomon" (11:9); and yet he treated him with loving grace and continued to use him even as Solomon experienced serious consequences as a result of his self-indulgent lifestyle.

This is why I see Solomon as one of the most tragic figures of the Old Testament. I can learn from his prayer for wisdom and I can learn from his many wise decisions; but perhaps I learn the most from his failings. I learn that I must avoid indulging myself with good things. There are many things I have in my life that are good but they must be enjoyed with gratitude and self-control. Certainly, my sexual life with one wife must be guarded; but, also my entertainment, food, and drink must come under the Lordship of my God. "God, I pray for wisdom in all areas of my life and I pray for wisdom for the whole Body of Christ." May we who have known the grace and mercy of God live grateful, satisfied, and self-disciplined lives.

1 Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger, 2012, Gallery Books.