Monday, December 11, 2017

Today's Kinder, Gentler Atheism

This is another excerpt from my upcoming book, Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults. When I mention that I specialize in religion and science and, to some degree, the study of emerging adulthood, people often ask about whether the growth of the those professing no religious affiliation (i.e., the "nones") means a growth in atheism. My response is well summarized in the quote below from a student.
“I think most people are neutral—‘It’s cool if you believe it.’ If they want to believe, more power to ’em.” Amanda, age 19, atheist
Overall I don’t often encounter the sneer and hard-edged approach to Christian faith that
Richard Dawkins emits and embodies. The key value I find in eighteen- to thirty-year-olds is tolerance. The attitude of atheist students today is kinder and gentler than that of my Berkeley classmates in the eighties, who seemed intent on disproving my faith.

In addition, it’s important to note that these New Atheists don’t speak for all scientists. Consider what one nonreligious scientist had to say about Dawkins
“He’s much too strong about the way he denies religion. . . . As a scientist, you’ve got to be very open, and I’m open to people’s belief in religion. . . . I don’t think we’re in a position to deny anything unless it’s something which is within the scope of science to deny.”
This leads me to conclude that the future of science and religion will have a bit less antagonism even if, increasingly, our country will look beyond the church to figure out how to bring the two together. (Unless, of course, a large contingent of the church changes its course and stops rejecting mainstream science. But that's a subject for another blog...)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Living the Yes: Finding the Beauty of Life

I'm beginning to sketch out a book on Christian spirituality, very tentatively titled, Fully Alive. In that process, I've been drawn back to my book The Time for No and particularly its final chapter (or really, a meditation). In it, I begin with a quote from Søren Kierkegaard.
"The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived." Søren Kierkegaard
Beauty is found in doing what we are created to do. This suggests that we are created for
some activities (and not for some others). It implies that there’s a God who created us uniquely and purposely. As I mentioned from the start, saying yes is an affirmation of faith.
First of all, let me be clear: I don’t think this is about amassing more stuff.
If materialism could do it, we’d be fairly happy in this culture. It was the newscaster, Peter Jennings, who noted almost two decades ago, in 1997: 
“When I came back to my current job and began to wander around this country again, I was struck by how many Americans, in the midst of such plenty, were hungry for something more than our vaunted consumer society could provide for them.” 
Jennings pointed to religion, which is fine, as long as “religion” itself points to God our Creator.
Over a millennium and a half before Jennings, one of the greatest thinkers in western history, Augustine, began his autobiography with this prayer, a prayer of his own discovering that looking for fame and sex and even generalized spirituality left him unsatisfied. 
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine of Hippo
Then again there’s the French 17th century scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who realized in his famous “thoughts” (that’s what the French word means in its title, Pensées) that we all seek to be happy: “By nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? “Some seek the good in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.” 
But Pascal observed that all these various potential sources for happiness, for a beautiful life, leave us craving for more. He pondered what that meant:
What else does this craving, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. Pascal
C. S. Lewis echoed this conclusion about 300 years later with a simple, logically compelling phrase: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
In different yet complementary ways, these three realized that we are created to return to God. Our yeses find their satisfaction in the One who made us.
This journey then, of finding the time for yes, leads us back to God our Creator. We seek our yeses and really, we are seeking for God. When we get this right—when we say the right yeses in life and therefore the right nos—we find God right at the Center. That brings it all together. “In Him all things hold together” as the early Christian leader, Paul, wrote to the believers at Colossae (Colossians 1:17). God holds not only the universe, but our lives together.
That’s where I want my life to be found, centered in God. Because there is what’s best: joy, peace, power, happiness, excellence, success, and beauty. As one of my favorite bands, Future of Forestry, puts it: “I will go where beauty leads me home.”
And I have to admit, I like those things. I want to find my back to Beauty itself. 

So I’m saying yes.

Monday, December 04, 2017

On Emerging Adults and Faith

This is another adapted excerpt from my book set to be published March 6, 2018, Mere Science and Christian Faith(By the way, if you pre-order, I recommend using the discount code: PRE3814.)

In talking about the culture and attitudes of emerging adults (i.e., 18-30 year olds), we arrive a critical question: Is this new reality good or bad? Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith, along with Patricia Snell, who tends toward the negative in his assessment, still summarizes well both the positive and negative sides of the emerging adult experience in Souls in Transition:
The features marking this stage are intense identity exploration, instability, a focus on self, feeling in limbo or in transition or in between, and a sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope. These, of course, are also often accompanied . . . by large doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, disappointment, and sometimes emotional devastation. Smith and Snell
It’s worth noting that Smith’s follow-up to his first study highlights the shadow side of emerging adulthood, as the subtitle makes clear: Lost in Transition: The Dark Side ofEmerging Adulthood.Not all is right in Denmark—or at least with emerging adulthood.

It is, of course, entirely possible and utterly faithful for emerging adults to transform their experience of being “in between,” with its consequent worry, into a radical openness to what God can do. I’ve seen plenty of eighteen- to thirty-year-olds do just that. In that light, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Philippians 4:6-7 is brilliant:

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. (The Message)
Notice the displacement of worry with Christ. That’s a powerful image. I’m hoping this generation will take the raw material of emerging adulthood, center it on Christ, and let God do "a new thing" (Isaiah 43:19) in all kinds of areas, including science and faith.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thanks Leads to Giving

I think Thanksgiving might be my favorite holiday. And even though we tend to overeat on this four-day weekend--which may not be so good for our physiques--thanksgiving as a practice is so good for us.

Dr. Robert Emmons came to Chico last week and he spoke at Chico Adventist Church on gratitude. You might remember I mentioned him this summer. Emmons, UC Davis professor of psychology is a leading expert on the science of gratitude. (Here's a site that summarizes some of his work.) He reminded us that gratitude is good for our health, for our relationships, and for our giving to others.
“The practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.” Robert Emmons.
I could put this in lapidary form (and I even think this is what Emmons himself stated): 
Gratitude is one of the cheapest prescriptions for overall health we can find.

In a way this is nothing new. The psalms—and much of the rest of the Bible—know this. Let’s listen to one of the psalms describe this gratitude.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.  
Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. 
Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his;  
     we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.      
Give thanks to him, bless his name.For the Lord is good; 
     his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100
What then, from Psalm 100, is our theological grounding for a life of gratitude?
  • We belong to God because God has created us.
  • God is faithfulness and gracious.
  • We enter into a life of worship with thanksgiving or praise.

And when we live in the way that God created, we find life.

Here again to quote Emmons:
“Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness.” Robert Emmons
When we live in the way that God created, we find life.
And I’ll add one: when we live this way, in gratitude, we are generous.
If you don’t mind a cutsy saying, Thanks leads to giving.

I was just at the American Academy of Religion conference where about 6000-8000 theologians, biblical studies specialist, and scholars of religion meet in various cities that can hold such an event. This year it was Boston. I find it an amazingly enjoyable event. I see all kinds of friends I’ve known over the years, meet publishers, and have some great lunches and conversations. Still, I must admit some of the papers are a bit arcane for the uninitiated. Here is a sampling of a few titles:
“Hacking Perception”: Techno-Entheogens, Virtual Reality, and the Vulnerability of Subjectivity”
“Making America Humble Again: Humility and Magnanimity as Greatness in a Post-veridical World”

“’A Beau Ideal for Whosoever Hopes for God’”: Piety, Medicine, and Prophetics in the Medieval and Contemporary Middle East”
Besides this  I also heard some really important research. One was delivered that the cognitive science section, a group that looks (in very general terms) at how our brain functions in relation to religious life and practice. One paper (and here's a similar one) presented a study of people with two types of God concepts: God A, who is Authoritarian and B God, who is Benevolent. Here's the payoff: If we see God as benevolent, we are more likely to be forgiving, to give to those outside our inner circle, and generally to act with kindness.
We become like the God we serve.
And who, we should ask, is our God? Is it God A that we read in Psalm 100?
“For good is the LORD, whose mercy is everlasting;
      and whose faithfulness endures from age to age.”
Thanksgiving as a holiday is an amazing reminder for us to seek health and life to its fullest. But let’s not wait just for the holidays. Thanksgiving is far more important and far better than that. Indeed giving thanks might be the best prescription for health. And it is truly priceless. As the Psalm 92:1 declares, “It is good to give thanks.” Amen.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thankful for Two Reasons

As I enter this post, I'm thankful for two things--that we are created to know God and that a book, Connecting Faith and Science, which includes a chapter I wrote on the subject, was just published!

In the seventeenth century—right at the flowering of modern science—the mathematician Blaise Pascal offered another proof for God. He began, in a similar vein to Augustine with our existential search for rest: “By nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? “Some seek the good in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.” Pascal continued by observing that all these various potential sources for happiness, for a beautiful life, leave us craving for more. He pondered what that meant:
"What else does this craving, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself." Blaise Pascal
C. S. Lewis echoed this conclusion about three hundred years after Pascal with a simple, logically compelling, phrase in his apologetics: 
If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis
Lewis believed that this argument from desire constitute one of the strongest proofs for God’s existence.
It may surprise some in the Reformed tradition—at least those who have read Karl Barth’s cavils against “natural theology”—that the seminal voice of Reformed theology, John Calvin, wrote similarly of the “awareness of divinity.” Calvin was not out to prove God, but to state that inherent in human existence is a basic, vague, and powerful natural knowledge of God. Indeed, in Calvin’s vastly influential 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion, he wrote, 
“There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.” John Calvin
This awareness of divinity or sensus divinitatis is “beyond dispute” according to Calvin. It is the foundation of the natural knowledge of God.

Which indeed is cause for thanksgiving.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Yes of Teamwork: Our Service, Your Advantage

 It's been about two years since both my parents, Tom and Ruth Cootsona, died. I'm posting this as one more installment from my book The Time for Yes, but it's also a fitting tribute to their lives.
"None of us is as smart as all of us."
Ken Blanchard
Two prized possessions are my vacation time and my discretionary income. I figure I work
really hard, and time away from work offers me the opportunity to refresh and renew. I can’t imagine giving that up. Secondly, I like having a little extra cash for that occasional bottle of Champagne or maybe a nice weekend away with my wife.
That’s why it was all the more surprising when I finally grasped what my parents did for me when I competed as a kid in junior tennis. Over several years, they spent boatloads of dollars on lessons and a corresponding amount of free time—including my dad’s vacation days—to drive me (and my brother) all around Northern California to compete.
Paradoxically, I learned from one of the most individual sports imaginable, tennis, about the yes of teamwork. In this case, it was their service, my advantage. But teamwork can also be our service, our advantage.
From my reading in business literature, I’ve discerned a trend in the last ten to twenty years: there’s a focus, not on individual achievement, but on success by a team of individuals. I figured I’d check out my hunch, and so I asked Tim, a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology who now consults businesses, about the trend toward teams. “What’s it about?” Tim replied, “A lot of people talk about being a team, but most don’t really understand it.”
I realized Tim’s right, and the problem is right here: in order to be a good team, we need to put aside what personally benefits us. But, in our culture, the dominant slogan seems to be: “It’s all about me.” (I know it’s true—I saw it on a t-shirt.) And that “I” wants the credit.
The key to a good team is when you’re ok with someone else getting the credit. And this makes sense. Not only because I believe what goes around, comes around—so if you help others, they are more likely to help you when you need it—but also because you and your organization will do better when teams work best.
The Bible is fairly repetitive about the importance of teamwork. Psalm 133 shouts it out loud: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes unity of purpose and heart—almost to the point of “Ya, I get it already.” (But I suppose we don’t. And the early Christians didn’t either. That’s why it’s there in the Scripture so often.)
Consider what the early Christian leader, Paul, wrote to the first Christian church in Europe,
If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. (Philippians 2:1-3, The Message).
Unity has to do with laying down what we think is most important—my getting ahead—and seeing others succeed. Even taking joy in it.
That’s what Tom and Ruth Cootsona demonstrated for me. Although tennis is an individual sport, I needed a support team. After school, my mom would toss me tennis balls, hundreds of them to perfect my stroke. (This was before ball machines.) My dad would take those precious vacation days, and they would drive me and my brother in our Ford Monterey to various spots in California, like Monterey, Clovis, and Carmichael. They both invested family funds to pay for lessons, dollars I know they could have spent on themselves. (And maybe even bought a little more Champagne.)
A business writer who makes incredible sense to me, Stephen M.R. Covey, has recently focused on the importance of trust for any organization and that particularly holds true for one of the smallest organizational units, the team. He talks about the “speed of trust.” In fact, that’s the name of the book. His subtitle is somewhat bombastic: “The One Thing That Changes Everything" (See The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything.)
Simply put, embedded in any good team is trust. We trust in two ways: we trust others’ competence—they can get the work done well. We trust their character—they will follow through with their promises. Covey has taught me that the more we trust one another, the lower the friction and the greater the achievement. We can move fast when we trust each other in a team.
In my case, the trust level in my junior tennis days was so deep that I didn’t even think about it. I just knew that my parents were there to support me. Their sacrifice was absolutely invisible. But as I reflect now, I realize that the team support I took for granted was necessary and as a result I’ve had to bring that concept to the surface in the teams I direct.
I’m thankful I learned the lesson early in life: sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team. Because when later in life, I started leading teams, it made my work a whole lot more enjoyable and effective. And there’s an added benefit: When the team succeeds, so do all the individuals.
That’s a whole bunch of yeses.

Monday, November 06, 2017

The Crooked Path of Nature

This is a bit of an advanced look at my new book, Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults, through a brief excerpt.

In the process of advocating for our listening to scientists because they describe creation and that helps us better grasp our Creator, I write this...

Through that listening we find praise and wonder and mystery. Scientists have also taught me honesty and a somewhat recalcitrant commitment to avoid easy answers by pondering intricacies we would have never guessed. (This may be why, in fact, some believers resist science—because scientists resist easy answers.) 
“Consider what God has done,” Ecclesiastes 7:13 says. “Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” 
Sometimes the works of God in the ways of nature are not as straightforward as we would like, even though science has figured out numerous things ancient thinkers and New Testament writers didn’t know. Nevertheless, through all this beauty, awesome display, and puzzling natural reality, we still somehow discover the “eternal power and divine nature” of our Creator (Romans 1:20). It strikes me that affirming the “eternal power and divine nature” offers both a wide place for scientific discovery and a respectful silence and patience for future answers. I believe that scientists ultimately lead us to admit our limits and declare the majesty of God, echoing what Paul exclaimed ten chapters later: 
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).