Review: Mere Science and Christian Faith

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Mere Science and Christian FaithGreg Cootsona. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Many emerging adults think that science and faith should complement each other and are put off by church contexts that force a choice between faith and science. The book contends that it is possible to bring science and faith into fruitful conversation, and provides examples of how this is possible.

Emerging adults (18-30 year-olds) are leaving the church in record numbers. “Nones” or those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” are on the rise. There are a number of causes for this but one is that emerging adults encounter congregations where science is the enemy and the relationship between faith and science is defined as a conflict. Many of these emerging adults see beauty in creation that is enhanced by their study of science and don’t see science and faith as opposed. But if forced to choose, many choose science. Science and technology play a huge role in their lives, whether it is in their concern for their environment, their understanding of human sexuality, or the smartphones that are a ubiquitous presence and have changed their ways of relating to each other and the world.

Greg Cootsona writes about these trends and how Christians might foster a better conversation that aspires to intersection and integration rather than conflict and warfare. After profiling emerging adults, he discusses our engagement with the new atheism, often alienated by anti-science attitudes in Christian communities, principles for interpreting the Bible, recognizing both the good in technology, and where we may need to take a break from it.

These chapters are interspersed with “case studies” of engaging various contemporary developments–cognitive science, the Big Bang and fine-tuning arguments, Intelligent Design, climate change, and sexuality. Can cognitive science explain belief? How can we take fine-tuning arguments too far? What does Intelligent Design’s focus on irreducible compexity miss? How can we have a fruitful conversation about the highly politicized subject of climate change? How do we engage genetic understandings of orientation and gender?

The concluding chapter is titled “Moving Forward.” Cootsona articulates a compelling vision of telling better, true and beautiful stories that bring faith and science together. He writes:

“I do know, however, that these true, better stories are also beautiful. They will bring together the goodness and truth of the good news with the beauty of God. There truth becomes beautiful. And it should not be overlooked that rhetoric–as an engagement with beauty–should be used in concert with philosophy–as the pursuit of truth. Truth is only worth engaging if it’s beautiful, and beauty is that which allures us.” (p. 162)

This is a short, pithy book that is written conversationally rather than didactically. Quotes from emerging adults illustrative of chapter themes are sprinkled throughout the text. Pithy however does not mean light weight. Current scientists like Katherine Hayhoe and Elaine Ecklund are cited, writers on the philosophy of science like Ian Barbour, and theologians like Arthur Peacocke. Both text and footnotes point readers to further resources in both print and online form. This is an ideal introduction for those working with emerging adults as well as for emerging adults themselves who are wondering if it is possible for there to be a better conversation between science and faith. If Greg Cootsona is right, there are indeed many better conversations we might have.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Galileo Connection

The Galileo Connection

The Galileo ConnectionCharles E. Hummel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986.

Summary: A study of past and present “conflicts” between science and the Bible, that proposes that the reality of these conflicts were actually more complex, that Galileo and others were sincere Christians, and that it is possible both to pursue rigorous science and believe the Bible.

The confrontation between Galileo Galilei and the church, in which Galileo was forced to abjure his views regarding a heliocentric model of the orbits of the planets, is often cited as the classic case of the warfare between science and Christianity. This work, something of a classic, proposes that the actual history isn’t quite that simple, and that science and the Bible needn’t be at war with each other.

The author, a former chemical engineer and national leader of a collegiate ministry responsible for launching its ministry with faculty, first studies the history of the conflict and the emergence of the scientific enterprise, then turns to the matter of the Bible and science, and concludes with some cases of possible conflict and possible resolutions concluding with a chapter that is worth the price of admission that outlines connections between theology and science.

Hummel begins by tracing the rise of science from Aristotle and Archimedes, including the Aristotelian geocentric model of the universe. This was systematized in Ptolemy’s Almagest and became enshrined in the church. Copernicus was the first to hypothesize a heliocentric view, and at the advice of Osiander, proposed this as a hypothesis or model for computations rather than a description of the way things were, keeping the Aristotelians at bay. Johannes Kepler saw the beauty in Copernicus’ proposal and, combining mathematical and observational data, proposed orbits that were ellipses rather than circular, and recorded his work in the Rudolphine Tables, The Epitome, and other works. He believed his ideas were not just models, but the way things were. At the same time, none of this shook his faith or seemed contrary to it and as he was dying declared where his salvation lay: “Only and alone on the services of Jesus Christ.”

Galileo had the misfortune to come along at the time of the Renaissance and Reformation. Galileo’s rising career and defense of the ideas of Copernicus at received a favorable reception from the Pope. Unfortunately, he ran afoul of the Aristotelian professors at Pisa who joined with church leaders to repudiate the work of Copernicus. Galileo went to ground for a time, but produced his Dialogue on the Two Principle World Systems, couched as conversations between an Aristotelian and a Copernican. The outcry resulted in his trial, where the Aristotelians prevailed. What is significant is that in the end, Galileo never thought his science in conflict with scripture, and the outcome was as much a result of political maneuvering by the Aristotelian academics, aided by clergy, as anything. The church still doesn’t look good, but what is evident was that Galileo was attacked as much for challenging a prevailing scientific paradigm, that had been conflated with church teaching, rather than teaching what was contrary to Christian doctrine.

Hummel completes his survey of science with chapters on Isaac Newton and modern science. Newton not only elucidated foundational theories of physics and mathematics, but also wrote extensively on the Bible. He advocated for observational science while affirming that the cosmos reflects the work of “an intelligent and power Being.” The concluding chapter in the first part explores modern science, arguing that its methods and basic premises are both consistent, and may actually have been facilitated by a Christian worldview (e.g. the regularity, contingency, and intelligibility of the universe).

Part Two focuses on biblical interpretation. Hummel explores the importance of the historical and literary context of scripture as well as the biblical language of nature which is the language of appearance (e.g. the sun rises), and nontheoretical. In discussing miracles and scientific law, he notes that science is descriptive and not prescriptive, and that miracles, as non-repeating events are beyond the purview of science, and are matters for philosophy and history. Finally, he turns to the early chapters of Genesis showing the highly structured character of chapter one in which God forms during the first three days what he fills during the second three, he discusses the difficulties concordist approaches have of conforming scientific discoveries to a literal six day, young earth interpretation, and observes how, when we move beyond preoccupations with “how long,” we find much of import for Israel among the nations, for biblical theology, for the scientific enterprise in de-divinizing nature, and for our care for the creation.

Part Three centers around two areas the conflicts in geology and biology, including tracing the history of evolution controversies in the United States, including the creation science controversies of the 1980’s, up to the time of the book’s publication. In each, he shows the nature of the conflict as well as approaches that resolve and move beyond those conflicts. The final chapter demonstrates the connections between science and faith, reflecting the idea of the two media of God’s revelation, that are mutually informing. Science answers “how” and theology answers “who and why.” Science explains what “is” and theology explores what “ought” to be. Science helps us understand mechanism while theology reveals goals and values. He lays a basis for conversations where theologians and scientists might learn from, rather than fight with each other. He concludes the work with an epilogue on the life of Pascal, scientist, mathematician, and apologist and theologian, whose Pensees profoundly influenced French literary work. Hummel writes of Pascal:

“If a passage of Scripture seems to contradict the senses or reason (scientific explanation), ‘we must interpret the Scripture, and seek therein another meaning which will be in agreement with the testimony of the senses.’ Since the Word of God is infallible, and our observations provide reliable information, the two must be in agreement when properly understood. To confirm that principle Pascal quoted both Augustine and Aquinas.” (p. 272)

Written over thirty years ago, Hummel does not address more recent conflicts around Intelligent Design Theory or climate science (a political as much as theological conflict). Nor does he deal with newer developments around sociobiology, neuroscience, and genomics, nor the explosion of technology and the lures of trans-humanism. The work also does not incorporate the biblical insights of John Walton on the early chapters of Genesis, though his comments on Genesis are consistent with Walton’s treatment.

What Hummel does is give us a good account of the rise of science, particularly the tension between Aristotelian and observational science. He explores well the questions both science and scripture can and cannot answer, and how, rather than being in conflict, may together give us a fuller understanding of reality than either can alone.

I first read this book shortly after publication. Coming back to it thirty years, and many discussions later, I found much that is still relevant, and a large measure of good sense. The author died in 2004 and the work is now “print on demand” or available in the second hand market. Other books have come on the scene since but I still appreciate the breadth and careful thought that combines history, biography, interpretive principles in scripture, an exploration of the nature and philosophy of science, and models of reconciling conflicts in one volume. For both the apologist and Christian who is in science or works with those who are, this book ought to be on your reading list.

Review: Forbearance

Forbearance

Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable ChurchJames Calvin Davis. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: Commends the practice of and virtues related to forbearance, as encouraged by Paul in Ephesians and Colossians as an ethic for dealing with theological differences within the church.

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13, NIV)

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2, NIV).

The political landscape of the U.S. and other countries is not the only place where one might find division and rancor. Sometimes this arises within church denominations and even individual congregations. At times, this can be over something no more significant that the color of the new sanctuary carpet. At other times, these differences may be over matters of theological conviction, often ones carrying personal consequences. It is deeply troubling to see fractures and fragmentation in the one body of Christ. Currently, we are witnessing such occurrences around the Church’s understanding of human sexuality, and particularly its beliefs about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and other expressions of sexual orientation and identity, and the kinds of practices that will be affirmed (or not) and how the church will welcome and embrace persons who identify in these ways.

James Calvin Davis writes to churches facing these disagreements as a pastor of a mainline Protestant church and commends the biblical practice of forbearance, commended by the apostle Paul in the passages quoted above. It is clear from references to LGBT persons, and theological differences concerning LGBT sexuality, that this is the particular concern out of which this work arises, although the principles Davis enunciates, and the importance of cultivating the virtues related to forbearance have far wider implications, not only for church but for society.

He begins with a brief exegesis of the passages I have cited and discusses how important the practice of forbearance is as an alternative to destructive forms of theological conflict in the church. He then, in chapters 2 through 6, explores five important virtues implicit in the practice of forbearance: humility, patience, wisdom, faithfulness, and friendship grounded in love.

Perhaps two of the most important chapters are 7 and 8, which address concerns of truth and justice. Concerning truth, he discusses the importance of taking truth and conviction seriously, but also being open to study, to learning from others, and to changing one’s convictions. Likewise, his chapter on justice addresses what may be the most significant critique of forbearance, that it is commending a form of gradualism or “waiting” against which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Forbearance is not the same as waiting but rather a posture of how one deals with those with whom they differ even as they press for justice.

Davis concludes this work with arguing that for Christians to learn the practice of forbearance in disagreements within the church may be crucial to contribute to recovering civility in our public squares and political discourse. Clearly it stands to reason that if the church that confesses “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” cannot do this, how may we expect it of a broader society. It has been argued that the forms of congregational and representative government developed in the churches of the Reformation served as a training ground for a democratic republic. Might something like this pertain in our own day as well?

There is much with which I resonated in this argument about forbearance. I’ve long been troubled by how easily churches have divided from each other, and how such divisions undermine the church’s witness. That said, I found a subtle subtext in this work that concerned me that Davis’s formulation of “forbearance” will neither accomplish what is hoped for and may leave the church more vulnerable to apostasy.

First of all, there is a subtle implication in Davis’s writing that should churches practice forbearance, this will not only engender greater respect between differing parties, but that eventually they will embrace more progressive perspectives, rather than those historically embraced by the church. Davis does not seem to envision a process where progressives come to re-affirm a historic position, or a new synthesis that embraces both historical understandings of theological conviction coupled with a compassionate and consistent ethic that affirms the dignity of all.  For those on the historic side of some of the conflicts Davis discusses, his proposal could feel like a slightly more genteel form of a war of attrition.

It is also troubling to me this doesn’t adequately (at least for me) speak to how the Church responds to issues from racism to nationalism to the resurgence of gnostic versions of Christianity that the church rejected early on as inconsistent with the Incarnation. Are we to forbear those who commend these beliefs in the church? Scripture uses different language, that of refutation for such beliefs, and those who hold them.

I found myself deeply torn reading this work. I am in great sympathy with the virtues the author commends and think that there are many disputes that might be resolved, or where we could “agree to disagree” while focusing on central truths where we share common ground. Yet I’m troubled both by the bias in Davis’s argument, and what I think is an insufficient recognition that forbearance and vigilance must walk hand in hand. The same apostle Davis commends also writes, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1Timothy 4:16, NIV). Forbearance is one part of a “both-and” that includes vigilance. This is what it means to be a community shaped by both grace and truth.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: I Beg To Differ

I Beg to DifferI Beg to Differ, Tim Muehlhoff. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Building on an understanding of the dynamics of communication, this book develops a strategy for navigating difficult conversations through asking four key questions of those with whom we differ.

Difference is a given of life. Difference can make life delightful…or disturbing. What can be tough is when two people in some form of significant relationship differ and have to figure out how to make life with each other work. It happens between spouses, parents and children, business partners, and political leaders.

Tim Muehlhoff, a professor of communications, knows all about this. He begins his book with a married couple who come to him with manila folders stuffed full of documentation of the grievances they had with each other. In various settings, he has worked on communication issues with families, men and women, college students, faculty and others in the public and private sectors.

He begins the book laying out some basic truths about communication. He explores how powerful words actually are. He outlines the various causes of conflict including poor communication climate, differing views of reality, lack of credibility, relational transgressions, lack of small talk, and latent conflict. He discusses the necessity of managing and expressing emotions in conflict. And he considers the role and importance of our spiritual disciplines in helping us with our self-control and self-talk.

All this lays the groundwork for four basic questions to ask in difficult conversations:

  1. What does this person believe?
  2. Why does this person hold this belief?
  3. Where do we agree?
  4. Based on all I’ve learned, how should I proceed.

He argues that these questions work to promote understanding in difficult situations because of the rule of reciprocity. When I make a sincere effort to understand another person on their own terms and look for the things we hold in common, it often creates a climate where the other sees themselves as obliged to do the same.

The final question is important. He elaborates it in the chapter as follows: “With this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is the next thing I should say?” It takes all we’ve learned about the person through the first three questions under consideration. It considers timing–is this a good time to have this conversation? It considers circumstances–are they conducive to a good conversation? And it focuses on a very specific goal, a manageable agenda–not everything I would ever want to discuss with this person.

The book concludes with three “case studies” of applying this strategy: a disagreement between spouses about finances, a disagreement between work colleagues about religion, and a difference between parent and teen about video games and grades. The dialogues are believable and illustrate a deliberate effort to walk through the four questions.

I found this one of the most helpful books on communication I’ve read because, while rooted in theory, it didn’t become lost in it, but provided very practical steps and illustrations that helped this reader think about how I could actually practice this in the next difficult conversation I face.

He concludes the book with a quote from The Miracle of Dialogue by Reuel Howe:

Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body dies. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born. But dialogue can restore a dead relationship. Indeed this is the miracle of dialogue: it can bring relationship into being, and it can bring into being once again a relationship that had died.

Powerful words that seem so crucial for our time. What Muehlhoff does is point us away from the death-dealing discord of our culture to this life-giving dialogue.

Review: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers by Dale Hanson Bourke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza has dominated the news in recent weeks. So I decided to pick up this book, which I had received a while back to explore more of the context for this conflict.

Warning: if you have taken a particular “side” in this conflict, this book, and maybe this review, is not for you. If there is any side the author would take, it is with those who seek a peace that is just and lasting for all parties. Rather, the book is designed as a fact book, organized in a question and answer format to help us understand the history of the region, the peoples, life among Israelis and Palestinians, and the nature of the conflict.

The book begins with a chapter titled “Who, What, Where?” answering questions about the geography, territories, and people. It is followed by a chapter titled, “In the Beginning” which traces the history of the land and its peoples back to their common Abrahamic roots. We learn for example that it is only in the last century that Jews and Arabs have been at war. We learn the meaning of terms like shoah, the Nakba, and intifada. The third chapter explores government and politics within Israel including both Israeli and Palestinian governance and how these interact.

Chapters 4 and 5 explore Israeli and Palestinian life respectively including the religious tensions among Jews and the dominance of Orthodox Judaism, minority groups like the Bedouin and the Druze, and the relationships of PLO, Palestinian Authority and Hamas in the West Bank, and Gaza. Chapter 6 discusses other players including other nations surrounding Israel such as Jordan, which has its own ambivalent relationship with the Palestinians. Chapter 7 summarizes the central issues of the conflict which come down to borders and security, Israeli settlements (in the West Bank), Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem.

I found the book quite helpful in explaining the context of things we hear on our nightly news. It is also richly illustrated with color photographs, timelines, and charts. It also helped me understand why it is so difficult to reach a lasting peace accord, and why it is so vital to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for Jews, for Christians (many of whom are Palestinian), and Muslims who share this land, and for the U.S., and other parties who provide both aid and peacemaking assistance. This book is part of a series of Skeptics Guides by the same author. The other two volumes in print are Responding to HIV/AIDS and Immigration.

View all my reviews

The Question of Identity in Academic Life

Identity can be a challenging and confusing thing for anyone to sort out, and certainly this is the case in the academic setting. And part of the challenge is that we may be identified and self-identify in various ways. There is our race or ethnicity, our socio-economic class, our country and even city of origin, our gender and sexual orientation, our political persuasion, our academic status in terms of both appointments and achievements. And for the follower of Christ, there is one’s identification with Christ.

Yesterday was the last day of our Midwest Faculty Conference (I had many wrap up duties yesterday and travel today and so am just getting around to posting). As on other days, it seemed that our morning Bible studies captured an important thread of the day’s discussion. We looked at Genesis 50:15-26. Jacob, the father of the patriarchs have died and the brothers wonder if the reconciliation between them and Joseph will survive their father’s death. Will Joseph use his power as an Egyptian leader to retaliate for the fact that they sold him into slavery? So they concoct a message from Jacob on his deathbed pleading for understanding and they offer themselves as slaves.

Joseph weeps and says he would never do such a thing as they fear and that he will use his power to look out for them. But why does he weep? I think it is because the brothers act seems to reflect that they see Joseph as an Egyptian first, rather than as their brother and a fellow son of Jacob — an Israelite. Subsequently Joseph makes the matter clear. While he lives out his life in Egypt in service to Pharoah, his burial instructions specify that his body be returned to the land promised to Abraham when his people returned to that land. For Joseph, his Israelite identity was paramount and it defined his loyalty to his family and even his burial place. Yet he negotiated another identity, as an Egyptian leader, married by Pharoah to the daughter of a priest of an Egyptian god.

And this is the challenge of the multiple ways in which we identify ourselves, or others identify us. All of them are important. All of them have shaped who we are, how we see the world and relate to it, what we value. We can no more shed these things than our own skin. And sometimes, these multiple identities clash, and what do we do then? We heard of instances during the conference of conflicts where a university leader might need to implement decisions contrary to their faith commitments. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate and find a better way. And sometimes not, and what does one do then?

At least part of the answer comes from clarity about which identity is paramount and “arbitrates” among the others. Perhaps it is not always obvious, but it seems that for Christians, there can be no other “paramount” identity than one’s allegiance to Christ, and secondarily to his global people who are constituted of the whole mosaic of identities existing in human society.  Yet this does not mean our responses to conflicting identity commitments are simple and clearcut, or will be the same. How our commitment to Christ arbitrates with our other identity commitments might look different for different ones of us. The nuances of how a Christian faculty member might deal with academic dishonesty might differ depending on whether s/he (and the student for that matter) comes from a shame or a guilt oriented culture, for example. Yet the exercise of justice, truth, and grace in the context of university policy will be a common thread in each of these situations, one would hope.

What do you think of this idea of paramount identity as key to negotiating our multiple identities and the conflicts these sometimes place us in? How have you experienced these challenges and how have you responded?

 

Baggage

This is from my post on Going Deeper, a blog dedicated to reflections on our church’s weekly messages.

In Rudy’s message on Sunday on The Christian at Home, he spoke about the baggage we bring into our family life. If you will pardon the pun, I think this is a mixed bag! Baggage is what we carry with us when we go someplace, in this case on our life’s journey.

Often we think of baggage in negative terms, the dysfunctions and unhealthy tendencies we bring with us into any situation. You might think of it as that shirt that isn’t really your color, or those jeans that really are ready to be converted into rags or those smelly shoes. But I would hope that most of us also pack some decent looking stuff in our bags when we travel, kind of like the qualities of temperament, the talents, and gifts, and perspectives that make us attractive and interesting to others. As I said, for most of us, our baggage is a mix of good and not so good stuff. And that’s what can make marriage and family life hard–or good!

What makes it hard is when we resent others for a good quality that they have that we feel we lack, or when we criticize the faults of another that we don’t struggle with. I suspect there was some of this kind of history between Cain and Abel that we read about in 1 John 3:11-12. Both our good and our bad baggage can be a source of conflict with others in our family in these kinds of situations. And sometimes it really can get bad! If you are in what seems like an unsolvable conflict, don’t keep fighting. Call “time out” and get some help–a talk with a pastor, or counselor. It is a sign of strength and not weakness when you can admit you need help.

The baggage we bring can be good as well. If you are a husband or wife, there had to be some pretty good things in the baggage of the other–or else you are a lousy chooser!  In some coaching training I had, we learned to make five good comments for every critical comment. It is funny how we tend to get it the other way around. I wonder if in marriage and family life it would make sense to try to affirm five things we appreciate about the other person each day, and apologize for one shortcoming of our own and, on most days, skip the critique all together!

At the same time, we are not always aware of our negative baggage. It is God’s mercy that we have families! Seriously! You remember the first time you tried to go to school with mismatched clothes and mom told you to go back and change? Sometimes, we can really get in trouble when we take our dysfunctions into public. Usually, there is some member in our family, often our spouse if we are married, who is trying to help us see our negative baggage. I don’t always like it, but often times my wife will save me major grief by pointing out something I’m not seeing in a social situation, or warn me against my tendency to “sermonize” when it would be better to keep my mouth shut and listen!

What I think is going on is that God has given us all good baggage that can both complement (and compliment!) the good things of others in our family. Also, if we are willing to face that we have some stuff in our bags that really doesn’t look (or smell) good on us and let others help us see that, we can save ourselves from grief  and make life more pleasant for others. That’s the kind of home I want to live in.