Sunday, October 15, 2017

Faith, Science, and the Role of the Translator

An adapted excerpt from my upcoming book, Mere Science and Christian Faith.

In a 1945 letter, an admirer expressed admiration for the immense gifts of the noted twentieth century Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, especially at the way Lewis made 
Christianity comprehensible to an increasingly unbelieving public. Lewis responded,
People praise me as a “translator,” but what I want to be is the founder of a school of “translation." I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors?
Translators and translation--I often think of these themes when I ponder how to bring together faith and science and how to communicate their interaction and integration. I also know that translation into the vernacular is God's way of doing things. It's even the essence of Christianity: Jesus, God's very Word, spoke in the simple language of stories (or parables). He translated the message of the kingdom of heaven into earthly language.

And God did the same thing at Pentecost: The Spirit used the church to speak in languages that all the listeners could understand, the languages they dreamed in. This is the essence of translation. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to preach on Pentecost, the birth of the church profoundly moves me. Ponder God’s strategy: one of most surprising element of Acts 2 is that everyone who heard the message that day knew Greek, and so God could have let Peter preach in that language. But to most it felt like alien--indeed it was a foreign tongue, which had forced on them by the oppressive Roman imperial government (and before that by the Hellenizing efforts of Alexander the Great). So instead of the common language of Greek, the Holy Spirit brought the message in their own native tongues. 

What is our native tongue? It's the languages of our dreams; it's the tongue we use to cry with despair and pain (and to swear, frankly), as well as to shout with joy. 
“Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” (Acts 2:8). 
As we take in the power of Pentecost, we realize that need to bring the Gospel in the vernacular, in native languages. And this leads to a question: What if we worked harder preaching the Gospel in the language that people work and dream in? For so many today, that’s the language of science and technology. We live in a science- and technology-saturated world. That’s the water we swim in. That's the air we breath. That's the language many of us dream in. 

And that's why the church needs translators.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Investment in our Yeses

Jesus presented a compelling connection:
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21)      
When I’ve heard this passage taught, preached, and commented on, usually—almost always—people declare, “Jesus is telling us that our internal world is the most important thing. When we have a heart for what matters, then we will give our money. Let’s be sure we change from the inside.”
      
This thought may be comforting, or even challenging, in many ways. But it’s not what Jesus said. Notice the order: It’s not “where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.” Instead: where our treasure is (first), there our heart will be also (second). Our heart follows our dollars. Not the other way around.
            
Our call in life is to say yes to what’s truly important. And what's one way to do that? The answer sounds slightly odd at first: By investing our money in it. (And I would be willing to add our time and our talents, but I’ll keep it focused for now.)
            
It’s actually commonsense. If I bought a sweet mountain bike (which I did), I’m going to take care of my Trek—I’ll make sure it’s clean, that the derailleur is adjusted precisely, the tires are pumped to the perfect psi, and that it’s appropriately locked at night and insured. That’s at least what I’m doing. Especially the latter… Because a bike of mine was stolen out of my garage a few years ago while I peacefully slept. And so again, I digress….
            
Whatever we invest our money in will be the place where our heart goes. Dollars lead the heart. And “heart” is the center of our lives—not just our emotions, but more so the will, the attitude, the way our lives are directed.
            
In order to deepen our yeses, we have to invest money in what’s important. As I’ve written before, we find our yeses where our passions meet God’s mission. That means that we put dollars into God’s mission, which Jesus defined as the poor, the marginal, the ones that society leaves aside because they are interesting and alluring. That requires giving to our local homeless mission, to overseas water projects, and to agencies that fight AIDS and waterborne diseases worldwide.
            
As we’ve learned to define our yeses, we know even more where that money should go. If we’ve completed and know the three words that define our personal branding—or at least that’s one way to do it—we learn to invest in these things. Want to be a great percussionist? Buy a good drum set. Invest in lessons. Download music that you’ll practice with. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll get better. But when you pay those bills, when you see that drum kit, you’ll be reminded. When you start playing that beautiful new Yamaha recording custom set, you’ll sound better. (And you’ll look cooler.) And that will make you want to play more.

            
And one hopes—at least I do for my life—that these yeses (even ones as innocuous as enjoying drums) may serve God’s mission (perhaps by leading worship, maybe by creating beautiful music or playing in the studio with a friend). Or because I enjoy it, these may simply make me more of who God calls me to be. As the great, ancient Christian writer, Irenaeus, phrased it so well, 
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Irenaeus
 When we invest our treasure so that our hearts follow—if we’ve done this in the right way—we become fully alive. And in that yes, God is glorified.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Short Treatment of My Upcoming Book on Science and Religion

I'm currently doing research and writing on an upcoming book for Routledge Press (2019) with the title, Science and Religion in the United States: The Present State and Future Directions. Since it's going to be several months before this sees the light of day, I thought I'd offer a glimpse into what I'm working on via a short treatment of the book's contents. Please feel free to comment with any insights and/or questions.

In 1925, a little under a hundred years ago, the Harvard scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead commented that the future of our civilization depended, to some degree, on how effectively we were able to relate science and religion, particularly “the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.”
      
And thus the burden of this book: If indeed religion and science are central to the United States, where is their future relationship? (This would be a worthwhile question without its centrality, but that fact intensifies the need for an answer.) What do we do with the fact that two-thirds of Americans see ultimate conflict between the teachings of science and religion, but that same percentage of believers don’t see science conflicting with their faith? The past provides us with a guide to the present. One problem, however, is that what we today call “science” and “religion” doesn’t map exactly onto our history. (The word “scientist,” for example, was coined until 1833.) Still, as we look at the past, we surely see tensions between science and religion. And yet, despite challenges, there are concomitant endeavors to integrate them. It might even be a way of describing U.S. cultural life.
      
I will sketch this answer out in three phases: past, present, and future.
      
The past I’ll define as approximately 1687 to 1966, with a clean division of 1859 in between. I freely admit that every historical division is clunky, somewhat arbitrary, and therefore distorting; nonetheless, I am employing three publication dates, Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687), Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), and Ian Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion (1966). Between Newton and Darwin, the United States was officially founded, and in that time, it maintained a tensive relationship between religious affections (to use Jonathan Edwards’s term) and rationality. This period is marked by an Enlightenment rationality that features prominently in our nation’s core documents, while also embodying a warm of emotional life that is no less characteristic of America. In fact, Edwards worked with his impressive intellectual skills to hold together these two American cultural impulses, even as the First Great Awakening was booming. This indeed, I argue, is the key way to understand America intellectually. Then, in the next chapter, I chart what happened post-Darwin through to the modern study of science and religion with characters such as Andrew Dickson White, Charles Hodge, and Asa Gray, as well as events like the Scopes Trial and the fundamentalist-modernist split. Here the United States was coming of age intellectually and culturally, and continued to find an uneasy relationship with a variety of impulses. Put another way, both scientific advances and religious expansion—sometimes in alliance, sometimes in antagonism, and sometimes in contented independence—mark this period of about a hundred years.
      
For the present, I use Barbour’s book because, at least for the academic study of religion and science, it defines the field and the massive splintering that defines the sixties through our present day, when a variety of religious traditions became more mainstreamed. It helps us understand a more nuanced and effective approach to religion and science (than, for example, White’s), even if it has significant limitations. It helps us see the emergence of ideas that broaden the dialogue such as Capra’s The Tao of Physics and the Gaia Hypothesis. Broadly speaking, this takes us to the new millennium (a term I like because it sounds so grand) where religion becomes more pluralized and secularized. In the next chapter, I look at how the early twenty-first century interaction of religion and science brought the increasing importance of technology, sexuality, global climate change, and religious pluralism. It also highlights new voices, and I will use Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins as case studies.

      
The final part peers into the future, analyzing research from key scholars on emerging adults’ attitudes about religion and science (seasoned with the author’s surveys and interviews) as signposts for the future. I conclude by analyzing these views as a way to discern the contours of both the present state and future directions of science and religion in the United States, a world in which evolution and creation will be present, but concerns about sexuality, climate change, technology, AI, and Transhumanism will rise in importance. There will also be a reduction of the influence of the Christian church, a modest rise in the influence of atheism, agnosticism, the “Nones,” as well as other religious and spiritual traditions. Nonetheless, the interaction of science and religion will most likely find a decrease in the antipathy that’s often been promoted between the two. One might hope that this is a conclusive answer to Whitehead’s challenge, but it’s most likely another set of responses in ongoing historical process.

Monday, September 25, 2017

On Discovery and Discernment

Truly successful decision-making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.Malcolm Gladwell
Once we discover our yeses—where passion meets mission—we then must test them to see if they work. (This is what Dave Evans and Bill Burnett call "trialing" in Designing Your Life.
    
But first, let’s take a look at the process of making decisions.
      
One of my mentors, the late psychologist and Princeton Seminary professor, James Loder, represents the type of thinker whose interests spanned Jean Piaget to John Calvin, Niels Bohr to Søren Kierkegaard. He was both one of the most brilliant men I’ve met with flights of intellection that would simply stun and who would also shed tears as he spoke about his and others’ “transforming moments” with the Spirit, times when lives were forever altered in God’s direction.
      
Jim Loder co-wrote a book with physicist Jim Neidhardt on the integration of theology and science, The Knight’s Move: The Relational Logic of theSpirit in Theology and Science, where they describe a five-step process of discovery or discernment.
1.        Incoherence (even conflict, where things don’t quite add up—and we’re searching)
2.        Search for resolution (where we’re looking around trying to figure out how to solve the incoherence)
3.        Construction of new meaning (when the resolution begins)
4.        Release of energy with the discovery of the resolution (We can think here of Archimedes running naked from the Greek bath house shouting “eureka”—which means “I found it”—because he had discovered the theory of the displacement of water.)
5.        Verification (I’ll return to that in a moment.)

In Loder’s understanding of these “transforming moments,” we interpret or verify our insight in this fifth step, particularly integrating our current resolution with the past and projecting its implications into the future.
      
I’d like to reflect on these five steps of discovery or discernment.
      
First of all, conflict or incoherence can be good. Sometimes we notice—and it can hurt when we observe this fact—that there’s a conflict between what we believe and our life in God’s calling, or we want to refine it. Loder helped me to see conflict as a necessary part of human development, as the fuel that moves us forward to greater growth. More specifically, we find our yeses because of this incoherence.
      
Second, I believe our intuition or imagination is powerful. Our intuition often grasps the right answer before we have the specific steps to prove it. But our intuition is inexact. And that’s why testing is key.
      
Loder and Neidhardt analyze Albert Einstein’s great intuitive leaps that lead him toward his theories of special and general relativity, theories that define physics almost a hundred years after Einstein’s discoveries. They describe Einstein’s use of imagination as “a jump of imaginative insight: a bold leap, an informed, speculative attempt to understand, a ‘groping’ constructive attempt to understand." Einstein talked about how his intuition guided the process and provoked him to ask more questions.
      
When we are searching and testing, we sometimes find that great imaginative insight, that “bisociation”—where we bring two ideas that seemed incompatible together—and we work to interpret our lives accordingly.
      
Third, discovering almost always includes continuity with the past. New insights have a connection with our past. They create a narrative that makes sense. It’s the story God is writing in our lives. If it doesn’t have continuity, then it’s not a real solution. If we’ve heard God direct us in the past, the future will make sense with what has gone before. Each chapter builds on the chapter beforehand. It’s a new chapter, but the story has continuity.
      
Finally, verification or testing is essential. And this is the key concept for this section of my book. As Loder writes of science, “many beautiful physical theories are simply wrong. The steady-state theory of the universe was indeed aesthetically very pleasing to the human mind but it could not account for such key astronomical observations as the background (black-body) radiation." We have to test our great insights and see how they work. Big bang cosmology (which is implied in Einstein’s theory of relativity) could account for cosmic background radiation as the echo of the initial creation of our universe. Thus it makes better sense.
      
So now it’s up to you to test your specific yeses. And this is partially how I understand Paul’s words to “work out your own salvation” (Philippians 3:11). (By the way, it’s clear that this is not working for our salvation because the passage continues with “God is at work among you.”) “Working out” our salvation means that we work out the implications of your salvation. We’ve already declared our big Yes to God and now we work out what that means for us particularly. How does a yes affect the twenty-four a day life as it’s really lived?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Chiseling: The Creation of the Universe and The Art of Negation

Chipping away represents God’s vision. Michelangelo believed that his creative power reflect divine inspiration. Late in life he received the moniker il divino (“the divine one”), though he was more modest than his fans: 
"The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." Michelangelo
I’m convinced the Creator knows what art--and especially the art of negation, of saying creative Nos--can look like. God, the supreme Artist, sees our lives as works of art. And this is true artistry since we’re not simply blocks of marble for God to sculpt. 

To shift artists, the nineteenth century master painter, Vincent Van Gogh once wrote his brother, Theo, about God’s amazing skill. 
“Christ… is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh; he makes human beings instead of statues.” Van Gogh 
It’s definitely more difficult to work with living beings—and to use us in the process of chipping away. We resist the chisel. And yet, you might even say that God’s chipping away becomes part of the healing of lives.
            
Saying No through chiseling away at possibilities appears to be God’s method. Scientific discoveries have confirmed that this is the way God has created the masterpiece we call our universe. In forming the world, God also chiseled away. The entire universe has come into existence through a gigantic quantity of No’s. 

Since the 1960s, an astounding set of discoveries reveal that the universe has certain, very specific conditions, which allow for the emergence of conscious, moral creatures. Using anthropos, the Greek word for “human being” (as in anthropology), it’s called the Anthropic Principle, which states that the cosmos is fitted from the beginning for the emergence of life in general and intelligent life in particular. In fact, about thirty discrete, precisely calibrated parameters—such as the expansion rate of the universe, the mass of the universe, the strength of the strong nuclear force, and the ratio of antiprotons to protons—all were needed to produce the universe. Otherwise, it simply would not exist. (Watch this video for a related discovery.) Oxford physicist Roger Penrose has described just one such parameter, the “phase-space volume,” with a number almost impossible to write—a “1” followed by 10123  “0s.” That’s amazingly precise and signifies an almost innumerably amount of No’s.

In other words, the Creator chipped away at an enormous number of possibilities to create this world. God said No many times to create the Yes’s of life. It looks like the creation of beauty, intelligence, goodness depends on what is rejected even more than what is selected. 

And here’s what I figure: if chipping away through the art of negation is good enough for God and the universe, it’s good enough for you and for me, and our lives.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How do I Know what I Really Want in Life?

"I'm confused about what I really want. All I hear inside in static? How can I hear a wiser voice to guide me?"      

Here then is the bottom line: As we seek God, we actually find what we desire.
      
One of the most cited passages in the psalms reads like this: 
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4, NRSV). 
Some construe this verse to mean that God will give us the things we desire—a new BMW, a vacation in Tahiti. That sounds nice, but if you look at the context of the psalm, it’s all about doing what’s right and following God’s way. “Take delight” first in the Lord. Order all other things around God. By putting God as my first love, and thus ordering my loves properly, other desires fall in place. And I find out what I really want.
      
When we look at God, we see a new set of priorities, a new vision of caring for others. And so, on the (b) side of Frederick Buechner's quote, what “the world needs to have done”—our environment, those outside of us—cannot be silenced. The list here is immediately evident: providing education, caring for health worldwide, creating beauty in the arts and culture. So it’s not just what we want to do—our passion has to meet some actual need. Here we move away from the siren voices of our culture that prize individual self-expression above all else. Here’s the control on our selfishness. It is not centered on what benefits us first, but on what is of greater need in the world.
      
So the first step of call—or our big Yes to God—is to listen: to obtain some sense of the direction that resonates deep in us and out in the world. 
      
Does this happen at once? Not for most people. Listening for the call is gradual. Each insight builds on the previous one. It’s something like a website coming gradually into view. (You have to imagine a slow connection speed for this.) It doesn’t happen all at once, and even at first, it’s not clear what’s emerging. But at some point, it begins to make sense.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Some Notes Toward A Theological Rebuttal of White Supremacy That Shouldn’t Have to be Made

I've been working on a response to the rise in white supremacy in our country and why it makes no sense as a follower of Jesus. I wanted it to be brilliant, but it never quite got there. Maybe my head is jumbled because I can't believe I'd even have to write such a post. But that's the world of 2017...

Question to answer: How much do we as Christians stand against racism generally and white supremacy specifically? Or do we stand for it?


It seems like every thoughtful Christian I know is trying to put together our President’s indulgence (or minimally, equivocation) toward white supremacists with his widespread support among some religious conservatives. I suppose we’d like to think that our country has learned something since 1865 or so about how to interpret the Good Book without supporting racism. 
      
So I returned to my Bible, and, as a theologian, I tried to figure out if there’s a case to be made for presuming one race has God’s favor over another.

I started with the first book and with creation: Genesis 1:26 clearly tells us the first humans, Adam and Eve (almost better translated as “Dusty” and “Life”) are created in God’s image. However we understand these two, creation means that we are all one in this pair. Paul in Acts 17:26 proclaims that God "made from one he every nation [ethnos in Greek, as in "ethnic group"].

I flipped to the New Testament and found that redemption has some strikingly universalistic (and need I say "non-racially segregated"?) themes. John 3:16 sets out that “God so loved the world” that God gave his Son, and In that same book (12:32), Jesus declares that “When I am lifted up from the earth”—in John’s Gospel, this means both being raised on the cross and in the resurrection—“I will pray all people to myself.” It’s not very nuanced, to be honest. Sort sounds like everybody.
      
What about the end of time or the consummation? Revelation 21: 24 sets out, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.”
That is, all the kings of the “nations” (again from ethnos) will bring their tribute God and the Lamb on the throne. By this time, I was running out of books to read….
      
All this means I couldn’t do it. I could not figure out how to read the Bible and be a white supremacist. Do those who take this book seriously believe that all are created in God’s image, that Christ came, taught, and died to redeem all, and that Christian hope is all tribes from all the ethne, will bring their tribute? The clearest conclusion is that white supremacy--any kind of racial supremacy--is supremely unbiblical.
      
Maybe there remains one easier solution—the religious conservatives who voted for and support Trump are white evangelicals.

      
I certainly hope that’s not the answer.