Guest Review: Enriching our Vision of Reality

Enriching Our Vision

Enriching our Vision of RealityAlister McGrath. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2017

Summary: The natural sciences and Christian theology can enrich each other’s understanding of reality and help us better understand this strange world in which we find ourselves.

The fundamental theme of Alister McGrath’s book is that “the natural sciences and Christian theology can enrich each other’s understanding of reality and help us better understand this strange world in which we find ourselves.” (p. 77)

His intended audience is “scientists with an interest in theology and theologians aware of the importance of the natural sciences” (p. viii), of which I happen to be neither.

McGrath suggests that “insisting that we use only scientific methods, forms and categories confines us to a narrow world that excludes meaning and value, not because these are absent but because this research method prevents them being seen.” (p. 16)

McGrath discusses the shortcomings of Ian Barbour’s four general approaches (conflict, independence, dialogue and integration) to the relation of science and religion, then goes on to favorably describe John Polkinghorne’s four approaches (deistic, theistic, revisionary, and developmental). The developmental approach is described as a continuously unfolding exploration wherein Christian doctrine is revised in the light of new insights.

He points out the numerous ways in which scientific and theological thinking are similar, particularly regarding Darwin’s theory and Christian theology, in that “both scientific and religious theories find themselves confronted with mysteries, puzzles and anomalies that may give rise to intellectual or existential tensions but do not require their abandonment. . . . In each case, there is a common structure of an explanation with anomalies, which are not regarded as endangering the theory by its proponents but are seen as puzzles that will be resolved at a later stage.” (pp. 147-8)

And it wouldn’t be an Alister McGrath book without a discussion of natural theology, which he describes as “an attempt to demonstrate the existence or character of God by an appeal to the order or beauty of the natural world, without presupposing or relying on any religious assumptions or beliefs.” (p. 165) McGrath suggests that “Christianity offers a framework that makes sense of what is otherwise a happy cosmic coincidence.” (p. 11)

In summary, McGrath provides an exploration of the relation of the natural sciences and theology and how they can complement each other. Along the way, McGrath responds to the views of some of the New Atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

The book includes a two-page “For Further Reading” but no Index. The only fault I can find with this book is that the publisher chose to go with end notes (28 pages of them) instead of footnotes, thus requiring constant page-flipping.

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This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

 

Guest Review: Evolving Certainties: Resolving Conflict at the Intersection of Faith and Science

Evolving Certainties

Evolving Certainties: Resolving Conflict at the Intersection of Faith and ScienceTerry Defoe. Self-published, 2018.

Summary: A well-written, comprehensive survey of virtually all of the current popular literature on the creation-evolution dialogue.

Pastor Terry Defoe’s goal for this book is to inform, not to persuade, and inform he does. In his introduction he points out that scientific discoveries have resulted in significant challenges for the Christian church, specifically, (1) How old is the cosmos and the earth? (2) Do species evolve? and (3) How was creation accomplished?

The author focuses his attention on the dialogue between science and Christianity, both historically and currently. He begins by discussing the scientific revolution, the cosmological revolution, the geological revolution, and the biological revolution.

He then devotes a chapter each to possible belief systems in response to the scientific advances: [1] Atheistic evolution, [2] Old Earth Creationism (including the gap theory, the day-age theory, and progressive creationism), [3] Evolutionary Creationism (aka theistic evolution), [4] Young Earth Creationism, and [5] Intelligent Design Creationism. Evolutionary creationism is clearly the author’s preference.

For him, it comes down to “the critical importance of hermeneutics – an accurate interpretation of the Holy Scriptures” (p. xviii). He includes very brief discussions of the theological issues impacted by adoption of an evolutionary perspective, including original sin, death before the fall, theodicy, the image of God, and the historicity of Adam and Eve. Pastor Defoe refreshingly admits several times that these issues have not yet been settled.

In his concluding chapter, Terry Defoe suggests that “The truth of evolution cannot and should not be decided by those who are not scientifically literate. It is important that Christian leaders possess a basic scientific literacy if they are to evaluate science and scientists. We have seen that it is not helpful to the church or to its integrity when church leaders make statements about science that are clearly ill-informed.” (p. 195) He is not advocating a scientific takeover of theology but is asking that science be given a fair hearing. He further suggests that “Scientific discoveries remind Christians that the science in the scriptures is simply the common-sense understanding of an ancient people living in a prescientific world. Rather than inappropriately reading modern notions back into the scriptures, evangelical Christians are learning to let the scriptures speak for themselves, uncovering the message intended by the original authors.” (p. 147)

His conclusion is followed by a 23-page Appendix in which he presents and discusses the results of a number of polls on the topic of evolution, including Gallup, Religion Among Academic Scientists, the Pew Research Center, the National Study of Religion and Human Origins, and a Barna pastors’ survey.

The book is written for the popular audience and in a somewhat unusual style. It reads very smoothly, but almost every other sentence is footnoted, resulting in 1,704 endnotes, most of which are from the popular literature and many are references to readily accessible websites.

Except for numerous typos (a hazard of self-publishing), this book is a well-written, comprehensive survey of virtually all of the current popular literature on the creation-evolution dialogue.

This would be an excellent book to recommend or give to a young earth creationist who is amenable to examining the compatibility of the Bible and modern science since the author shows “why it is possible to leave young earth creationism for biblical reasons.” (p. 11)

[This guest review was submitted by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.]

Review: Faith Across the Multiverse

faith across the multiverse

Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science, Andy Walsh. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: Explores how science, particularly math, physics, biology, and computer science, might illuminate one’s understanding of the Bible and the God of the Bible.

In his parables, Jesus spoke of various natural phenomenon to help us understand the kingdom of God–seeds, birds of the air, lilies of the fields, yeast, sheep, and more. God invites Abraham to count the stars and questions Job about the creation. In Faith Across the Multiverse, Andy Walsh asks the question of how various observable phenomenon and theories in science might illuminate our understanding of God, the Bible and spiritual realities. He focuses his inquiry in the fields of math, physics, biology, and computer science, reflecting his background in several of these fields. His day job is Chief Science Officer at Health Monitoring Systems where he develops statistical methods for public health surveillance. His doctoral and post-doctoral work was in fields of molecular biology and immunology and computational biology. He writes a weekly science column for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network blog.  It is also important to know that Andy is a fan of super-hero comics, particularly X-Men and he mixes these characters and stories, along with popular science fiction into his discussion of science and faith.

In the realm of mathematics, he explores faith as a choice of axioms, sin in terms of mathematical optimization and choosing an objective function to maximize. Most fascinating for me was his use of chaos dynamics as a possible way to understand sovereign grace in which various paths might lead to the same outcome, as is the case with “strange attractors.”

In the realm of physics, he follows John Polkinghorne in discussions of how the dual wave/particle character of light might give us insight into the incarnation of Jesus. He also explores how entropy might help us understand sin and death, and the transformative work of dying to oneself in Christ.

The biology of the genome, our immune systems, and even the constitution of ant colonies may shed light on the relational dynamics and nature of the church. The world of computer science, in which simple rules, procedures, and inputs may result in complex outcomes suggest how a single book, the Bible might be able to address the complexities of human existence throughout our history.

The book has the feel of being written for “science nerds,” kind of like the characters one encounters on The Big Bang Theory, who geek out on in-depth discussions of scientific theory, punctuated by excursions to the comic book store and debates over Star Trek versus Star Wars. Walsh writes, “One feature of the world that pains me and I believe pains God is the fact that so many feel they need to choose between science and belief in the God of the Bible.” I’ve worked with “science nerds” in graduate student ministry, and I can vouch that there many who think science and faith are mutually exclusive. Walsh’s careful explanation of scientific theories and phenomenon, which may be off-putting for some, establishes for the scientifically literate grounds for drawing the connections or “parables” of science and Christian belief. The effect of his discussion is both to suggest a consonance between science and Christian beliefs for the skeptic, and to shed fresh light from science on Christian belief for those who do believe. The frequent references to comic superheroes makes this all the more fun.

I suspect this book was not written for a social science-liberal arts-theology nerd like me. I’ll confess that I haven’t solved a math equation since college, and while I enjoy general science writing, the depth of explanations was a stretch for me, that made me flex some under-used mental muscles. I suspect my math geek, computer scientist son would love this book, particularly the portions on fractals and chaos mathematics. There are significant numbers like him out there, and many question whether there is even room for Christian belief in a world shaped by science and technology. Andy Walsh writes as one of them who hopes to remove the barriers between science and belief by sharing the ways his own research and other science reading has enriched his understanding of and love for God.

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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: 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.

Let’s End This War!

Andrew_Dickson_White_1885

Andrew Dickson White, President of Cornell, who contended there was a war between science and Christianity, Photo Public Domain via Wikimedia

This week on the blog I will be reviewing several books on science and Christianity. A theme that runs through all of these books is that science and Christian faith needn’t be in conflict. That is my own conviction as well. John Calvin, and others, have spoken about God revealing God’s self through two books, the Bible and the Creation. God has authored both, and they do not conflict with each other, properly understood.

The language of “warfare” came from two critics of Christianity, John William Draper, who wrote History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, who wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Sadly, many Christians, rather than recognizing that many of the “conflicts” were simply ones of interpretation, were only too happy to join the battle, either arguing how science had gotten it wrong or offering forced explanations that shoehorned science into scripture, often resulting in both bad science and bad biblical interpretation.

Sadly, there are a number of people on both sides who have continued the conflict down to the present day. The cynic in me wonders how much money has to do with it, as key figures have built empires around fighting for creation or science. There is money to be made in perpetuating this war, as in many others. What troubles me is to see the casualties of this war. There are some who have turned their backs on a science that sometimes offers seemingly total explanations but cannot offer meaning and purpose. There are others, often who began as enthusiastic believers, were presented with the false dichotomy of choosing either faith or science, and seeing the beauty of science, turned away from their faith. Finally, I have friends, Christians in science, who often get shot at from both sides. Scientists question how they can be serious about their science if they believe, and believers question how they can be authentic in their faith if they do science.

Here are some suggestions I would make for those interested in a “cease fire” proposal:

For Christians:

  • I would start by reading your Bible more carefully. A good friend who is an evangelical and was an English major in college said, “I don’t read the Bible literally, but rather literarily.” Many of our conflicts have to do with trying to answer questions the biblical writers had no interest in answering. We don’t do our homework to understand what scripture might have meant to a people 2000 to 3000 years ago in very different cultural settings.
  • Resist the effort to try to “prove” Christian faith by science, when theories change and evolve. Also, if Christianity has to be proved by science, we end up suggesting that science is actually prior to and more important than our revealed faith. Far more constructive is to observe where Christian belief and scientific finds are consistent with each other.
  • It helps to understand that most actual science is very evidence driven, and not driven by some “godless agenda.” I have friends (a number are believers) who have literally gone to the ends of the world collecting data about changes in the earth’s climate, and documented effects of warmer climates on glaciers and the water they provide to communities, and are mystified when fellow believers accuse them of liberal political agendas. They are just doing research and reporting their findings, which are very concerning to them.
  • Instead of fearing conflict or getting uneasy when something doesn’t jibe with our beliefs, why not view this as a doorway to a greater understanding? The Reformation began when Martin Luther struggled to interpret Romans. Anomalies lead to breakthroughs. Instead of defending one’s current understanding against something in science that seems to challenge that understanding, why not ask of science, “tell me more” and really listen. And then keep studying and digging in the scriptures as well. The truth is we often are woefully illiterate in our knowledge of our faith.

And a few words on the science side:

  • The big one is to honestly acknowledge when you are making statements that arise not from your science but from beliefs or even axiomatic statements that cannot be scientifically demonstrated. Take off your lab jacket when you make these statements. It’s not wrong to make such statements. Even statements that disagree with Christian belief. Just don’t use the aura of science to add weight to them. It gives science a bad name.
  • Avoid reductionistic or totalizing statements that convey that your little slice of the scientific pie explains all reality. Truth is that this makes other scientists in other disciplines angry as well as those who believe in other, including religious, ways of knowing.

Perhaps for all of us some humility would help, and truthfully we don’t have to go far to find it. Our own disciplines should be enough. As a student of scripture, I have walls of books, many of which I’ve read, and have read and re-read the Bible cover to cover, and I’m constantly surprised both with new insights and new questions. Any honest scientist will say the same.

What I love, and I think all too rare, are the conversations where scientists and believers come together, not to fight, but to learn from each other. I know of conversations where environmental scientists and Christians who believe they have been entrusted by God to care for his good world learn from and teach each other. I can envision conversations where neuroscientists and Christian philosophers and theologians talk about the science of the brain, the nature of consciousness, and the soul. I’ve watched the collaboration of linguistic researchers and Bible translators in preserving languages that could be assimilated and lost. I’ve delighted to listen to astrophysicists describe the wonders of the cosmos as well as the things, like dark matter, that perplex them, and I share their perplexity as I meditate on Psalm 8:3-4:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them? (NIV)

In all this incredible vastness where we are mere specks, how can it be that we are known by God–and yet we are!

I will not be enlisted for this war. Scientists are flesh and blood people and not the enemies we are to fight (Ephesians 6:12). Through history many great scientists have in fact been great believers. For example, it was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian Catholic priest, known as the father of the “Big Bang,” who used Einstein’s theory of relativity to show that the universe was not static but expanding, contrary to Einstein who argued for the static model. Later Einstein said Lemaitre’s theory was “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Why fight wars when you can have a conversation like that, one that at times was an argument, but eventuated in a larger understanding of our world? Let’s end this war!

Review: Evolution and Holiness

Evolution and Holiness

Evolution and HolinessMatthew Nelson Hill (Foreword by Darrel R. Falk). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Evolutionary sociobiology proposes a genetic basis both for selfishness and altruism yet does not provide a sufficient warrant for altruism. The author proposes ways that Wesleyan theology and practice of holiness both intersects with scientific theory and offers a capacity for human goodness that goes beyond genetic dispositions.

Recent research on genetics and sociobiology proposes that at a genetic level we have evolved with “selfish” or perhaps “altruistic” genes that play a role in our behavior. Some would go so far as to say that these genetic traits determine behavior. Most would propose that environmental, along with genetic factors contribute to our behavior, indeed explain our behavior. Often these explanations are made in ways that preclude theological explanations of altruistic behavior.

Matthew Nelson Hill makes the contention in this monograph that Christian, and particularly Wesleyan, understandings of human nature, and growth in holiness is neither unrelated or antithetical to sociobiology, but there are profitable points of intersection between science and theology. Theologians may profit from this work. At the same time, theology offers helpful correctives.

After an introductory chapter that outlines the aim and contours of his argument, in chapter two, he surveys sociobiological theories of altruism, and the mix of genetic propensities to preserving and passing along our own genes, and the inborn tendencies to altruistic behavior toward kin and social group. Then in chapter three, he explores the limitations of these theories to fully explain altruism. He explores the influence of culture, the problematic uses of language, and the reductionistic character of some sociobiologists (particularly E. O. Wilson) who make assertions beyond the scope of their discipline.

He then moves in chapter four to dealing with a fundamental issue in this discussion: is human behavior fully determined or do we have the capacity to overcome our inclinations or even move beyond the best of these? He argues for a compatibilist understanding of free will that recognizes an evolved capacity to consciously act in ways that contradict or transcend genetic or environmental influences. This sets up his exploration of Wesleyan holiness teaching that reckons with human nature and enables the embrace of Wesleyan “perfection.” Chapter five explores the sanctifying grace that is God’s initiative, with which we may cooperate, drawing ever closer to God in affection and life, with the aim of being perfected in love. Then chapter six explores how Wesleyan societies and “bands” provide an environment that supports this growth in holy affection and life. The concluding chapter recapitulates this study and makes brief observations of how other traditions might engage this discussion.

This work is valuable in several ways. Hill gives us a concise overview of sociobiological theories, a helpful assessment and critique of reductionist and totalizing assertions, and a compatibilist discussion of genetics, environment and free will that suggests ways theology and science may intersect. Finally, the discussion of a Wesleyan theology of sanctification, often an object of argument, in the framework of a discussion of altruism was a breath of fresh air. The appendices that introduce us to Wesley’s ideas of Christian perfection, and the ordering of his societies may be a first introduction for some to Wesley in his own words.

I did find myself wrestling with some questions concerning how I think some of this was framed. The language of “selfish” and “altruistic,” which is a vivid way to describe a genetic tendency to preserve and perpetuate either one’s own genotype (selfish) or that of related or unrelated others (altruistic) seems to slide easily from the behavior of our genes to human behavior. It also seemed to me that the writer tended to equate fallen human nature with genetic influences that undermine altruism. At the same time he argues for a free will that may be empowered by grace to overcome and go beyond natural tendencies. I wonder if it is right to suggest that our fallenness is written into our genes? I wonder if the defect is not in our genes but our will? Both preservation of our selves and our kin or wider social group seem inherently good. If we indeed have a will, is it not this that turns these instincts to selfish ends or ends of holy love under grace?

That said, and I hope I have accurately understood and represented the writer, I greatly appreciated this work as a model of the kinds of fruitful dialogue that I believe can occur between science and theology. I appreciate that he neither impugns the motives of scientists, nor denies scientific findings but rather brings them into a theological conversation. It is a frank conversation that challenges imprecise language and instances of overreach while listening to and representing the science fairly. This is the work Christians who do not believe science and faith are at war must do to make good that claim. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if in the process, more friendships between scientists and theologians were formed?

Review: Jesus, Beginnings, and Science

Jesus, Science and Beginnings

Jesus, Beginnings, and Science, David A. Vosburg and Kate Vosburg. Farmville, VA: Pier Press, 2017.

Summary: A guide for group discussions on the Bible and beginnings, human origins, and science co-written by a scientist and a campus minister.

Many people think there is a war between Christian faith and science, and one must “choose up sides.” Sadly, many committed to science have thus rejected faith, and many committed Christians either distrust science or distort it to conform to their faith. The husband and wife team of David and Kate Vosburg, a chemistry professor and campus minister, respectively, represent a marriage of science and faith. Investigation of the physical world deepens their appreciation for the work of God, and embrace of a biblical world and life view enhances their love of the scientific enterprise.

In this group discussion guide, they provide a series of twelve discussions around three main areas where tension may arise: the Bible and creation, the Bible and human origins, and the Bible and science more broadly. Part One looks at the Bible and creation and in four studies looks at Jesus’ role in creating and sustaining the world, praise to God for the majesty of creation, the creation account of Genesis 1 as a liturgy of creation, and the new creation of Revelation 21-22.

Part Two turns to what is often more controversial, the origins of human beings. This portion begins with considering the authority of the Bible and how we read the Bible, then turns to the Genesis 2 narrative of the creation of the first couple. The third study in this section considers this disagreements among Christians on origins, how we talk about these with each other and provides a very helpful table outlining the major positions. The fourth study focuses on Psalm 139, and how the wonder of God’s involvement with us from conception ought temper our disagreements.

Part Three is more broadly concerned with Christians and the scientific enterprise. The first study looks at some of the descriptions of the physical world in scripture and how these might not be so much about the science of creation but the Creator of science. The second study explores the limits of human knowledge and how this ought temper our statements about what we learn from science and conclusions about what role God does or does not have in the world. The third study was particularly helpful in showing the compatibility of foundational beliefs of science and Christianity. The last discussion concerns how pondering God’s deeds in the world is a way of loving God and opens the doors for Christian involvement in science.

Each study begins with review of the previous session or an activity between sessions, then offers an opening question followed by biblical texts with time for personal study and questions for group discussion. The discussion closes with a Share. Pray. and Reflect question. This is followed by a “Scientist’s Reflection” written by David, song suggestions if groups incorporate music, and further readings. Each of the three parts ends with a summary of that part. The book also includes an extensive bibliography at the end.

At the end of the guide, David and Kate reflect on their journeys. I appreciated what Kate has written here, which parallels my own journey in exploring these questions:

“In studying Scripture and combatting my biases against science based on fear, I’ve realized how much more Scripture tells me about God and the world and how much less it tells me about science. I’ve come to trust scripture much more deeply and become less defensive and nervous when people raise questions or issues. For example, I used to read Genesis 1 and be disturbed by conflicting scientific creation accounts. Now when I read Genesis 1, I see a beautiful poetic description of God’s creating. I see how the Lord is shown to be good, powerful, and creative. I see the incredible relationship God established with humanity. And it leads me to worship” (p.85).

The studies encourage respectful dialogue, and the Vosburgs don’t expect everyone to agree with them or each other. Rather, what they have come up with is a great set of discussions meant to facilitate thoughtful conversation around the Bible and what it does and doesn’t say, and how it bears on scientific findings and work. I think this could be used equally well by a group of Christians, or Christians and seriously seeking friends wondering about Christianity and science (I might skip the songs in that context). There is a great need for a better conversation about Christianity and science than what we often see in our media and in some of our churches. This is a great resource toward such conversations.

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

Review: How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

How I Changed My Mind About EvolutionKathryn Applegate and J. B. Stump, eds. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Twenty-five narratives of Christians who accept evolutionary creation and how, in most cases, they changed their minds in reaching this conclusion.

There is a widespread impression in American universities and among many young people that Christianity and science are at war with each other. No where is this more the case than over the issue of evolution. And sadly, many young people walk away from their faith, seeing the explanatory power of evolutionary theory and the failure of “evidences” for some creationist positions to hold up under scientific scrutiny. In many cases their teachers in the church have presented a choice between believing Christianity and believing science and that both are not possible and they believed them.

The twenty-five contributors to this book share two things in common–they deny that science and faith need be at war, and they embrace a position which they describe throughout the book as evolutionary creation (others would describe this as theistic evolution). They are scientists like Wisconsin embryologist Jeff Hardin, pastors like John Ortberg, biblical scholars like Scot McKnight and N. T. Wright, and theologians like James K. A. Smith. Most came to this position after much careful thought and study of both the scriptures and the science, often from young earth views, hence the title. N.T. Wright stands apart in observing that the American and British landscapes around these issues are very different, with most British Christians not seeing the conflict. He explores the elements in the American worldview that he thinks contribute to our scientifically and politically polarized climate.

The journey was sometimes costly. Tremper Longman III describes being terminated from a seminary position for coming to a position that did not see Genesis in conflict with evolution. For others, this was a journey of joyful discovery. Deborah Haarsma, a physicist and president of BioLogos (publishing partner for this book) describes how her understanding of evolutionary creation fosters worship as she praises God for his work over the long term, the glory of the system by which life came forth, his upholding of the natural world, all that is glorious in creation, and how aspects of creation illuminate scripture.

Pastor John Ortberg speaks of a phenomenon I’ve observed in work with Christians in graduate school and on faculty. They struggle with a kind of spiritual loneliness. He writes, after attending a BioLogos conference with many Christians in science:

“I can’t tell you how often I’d sit down with somebody at that conference and hear them say, ‘You know, when I’m at work and I’m with a bunch of scientists, they’re really skeptical about my faith. They’re suspicious about me.’ Then they’d say, ‘When I go to my church, they’re really skeptical about me because of my science. I feel like I don’t have a place where I really belong.’ The church ought to be a place where scientists can feel at home” (p. 94).

Several themes running through many of the contributions are a love of both scripture and science, a passion to think about the relationship between the two without forced solutions, which often means living with questions, and the importance within the Christian community for places where these questions may be explored in safety. Jeff Hardin discusses how he makes sense of evolutionary biology in light of his faith:

“One important ingredient in any answer is a commitment to apply the right interpretive approaches to the book of God’s Word and the ‘book’ of his world. Evangelical scholars have been crucial here in helping the church read ancient documents as they were originally intended to be read. Second, I believe that while the church should passionately affirm each of these two ‘books.’ we must resist the temptation to insist on an excessively tight articulation between each, given our limited human understanding. Third, we need to provide a space where godly people can engage in edifying dialogue about difficult subjects” (p. 60).

Not coincidentally, the collection is concluded by Richard Mouw discussing the creating of these safe spaces where hard questions can be discussed and different points of view explored respectfully. He recounts a conversation with a Catholic couple wondering about the thinking about creation they had encountered among many evangelicals about, and musing, “Don’t you evangelicals realize that God is slow?” Mouw raises the question of whether, indeed, our quest for quick solutions to hard questions is part of our problem–we have a hard time when God moves slowly.

This book is probably most helpful for those who, like the authors, are not satisfied with how they read the two “books” of science and scripture together, how they understand evolution in light of their faith. It will be helpful to any Christian in the biological sciences who must face these questions. And it will help pastors as they work with scientists and youth as they engage with science.

Lastly, I hope this book contributes to a different kind of conversation between Christians and those in science, whether they believe or not. Both of us, when we study the world, marvel at what we see and wonder at its intricacy and beauty. Might we have conversations celebrating together the capacities that enable us to explore and the wonderful things we find? Might we model a hunger for truth that never fears that a new discovery will diminish God, or us? And might we collaborate together in exploring ways to use what we find for the good of our fellow creatures? It just might lead a group of scientists to someday write a companion to this book titled How I Changed My Mind About Christianity.

 

Toward a Better Science and Faith Conversation

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A great setting in which to talk about a better conversation between science and faith! Photo by Robert C. Trube. All rights reserved.

I had the privilege last week of participating in a retreat of ministry leaders and scientists whose vision is to promote a better conversation between science and faith. The retreat was part of a grant through the John Templeton Foundation administered through Fuller Theological Seminary. The program is called STEAM, which stands for Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries. The name identifies one of the concerns motivating the project: many emerging adults are walking away from the church because of the perception that science and faith are at war and that the church is anti-science.

This is sad because it was not always so. Many early and present day scientists from Copernicus to Francis Collins combine deep faith and scientific rigor in their lives with no sense of conflict.

I could go into the history of why there has even been a conflict, but others have done this better, and often this degenerates to a “he said/she said” conflict dialogue.

What I’d suggest are a few ground rules for a better conversation, not unlike those often used to facilitate other conversations.

1. Perhaps above all, good conversations arise when we listen in order to learn and understand rather than mentally composing arguments and rebuttals while another speaks.

2. For Christians, I think we need to read our Bibles well, gleaning what the writers meant to say under divine inspiration for their first audience, in their own cultural context. This is often regrettably neglected, which reflects a low rather than high view of the Bible. Too often, we impose our own questions and the concerns of our own context on the Bible and try to make it answer questions its writers never intended to answer.

3. We should set aside all attempts to force a reconciliation of science and the Bible that result in either the rejection of scientific findings or concluding that certain portions of scripture in error. This may lead to unanswered questions, but I would prefer that to forced answers.

4. Efforts to prove or disprove God by science should be set aside. This is not a question science can decide one way or the other. I have believing friends who consider the order and beauty of the universe and believe in a God. I have atheist friends who see other aspects of the world like suffering and do not believe in a God. The best I’ve been able to figure in all this is what Pascal wrote: “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.” This is also problematic because science continues to advance and what may be a “proof” today is disproven or capable of an alternative explanation tomorrow. The most I will ever say as a believer is that I have not found what I’ve learned in science inconsistent with the idea of a God (and hence why I believe faith and science need not to be at war!).

5. We should recognize that potential participants on both sides of the discussions may come with certain fears. Fear aroused often leads to defensiveness and may be at the root of much of the “warfare.” A better conversation doesn’t attack people at the place of their fear. It creates a space where fear can be acknowledged without ridicule or attack and seeks to allay fear through building trust and mutual vulnerability.

6. We likewise should not foreclose the search for understanding of others. Scientists should not ridicule the search for knowledge in religious texts. Nor should Christians foreclose any line of research, other than the sinister experiments that passed for “research” against Jews in prison camps, which would violate the research protocols of any research university. It may be warranted at times to talk about how we apply the findings of research, because this may be done with great good or great harm.

7. We should be skeptical of all of those, believers and skeptics alike, who have made a career, and in some cases a pile of money, promoting the warfare between faith and science. They may be utterly sincere, but I wonder, when either theologians or scientists make this warfare a major preoccupation. At very least, it may not be healthy. Might it be better for them to return to their parish or lab bench?

8. Might we instead devote ourselves to the important questions that people of faith and people working in the sciences care about deeply? For example, might Christians who care deeply about the majority world lobby for funding of research on diseases that impact majority world peoples, or livestock, disproportionately, rather than  adding more funds to fight diseases in Western contexts that already enjoy significant support?  Might Christians committed to peacemaking press that a greater portion of research funding go toward projects that enable people to flourish rather than devising ever more efficient means of killing? Or what does love of neighbor have to do with our response to those displaced from livelihoods by technological advances? This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it seems that there are a myriad of conversations where practicing Christians and practicing scientists have converging interests, whether they share the same faith or not.

If we pursue the kinds of conversations I’ve talked about in the last point, it seems that we might move toward better conversations. We still might not always agree. But might we begin to learn from and collaborate where possible on this amazing and challenging project of seeking the flourishing of the world and people we love? Is that not perhaps in the spirit of what Jeremiah said to the exiles in Babylon when he encouraged them to seek the peace and prosperity of the city where they lived (Jeremiah 29:7)? And we just might see the return to the church of some emerging adults who have longed for a better conversation around science and faith.