Review: The Truth About Science and Religion

the-truth-about-science-and-religion

The Truth About Science and Religion, Fraser Fleming, foreword by Gary B. Ferngren. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Summary: A historical, scientific, and theological survey of the interaction of science and religion around the big questions of purpose, beginnings, the rise of life, the rise of human beings, the nature of mind and consciousness.

“Science and religion are intertwined like DNA. Science and religion provide two perspectives on reality that speak to life’s most fundamental issues: purpose, meaning, and morality.”

With this statement Fraser Fleming, head of the Chemistry Department at Drexel University, introduces this book which explores the intersection and interaction between science and religious faith, often thought to be a highly contended space. The author, however, explores the possibility that these two perspectives may be mutually enriching and together may give us a larger grasp on reality, though not without posing to us challenging questions that go to the core of what it means to be human and to exist in this world.

The first four chapters of the book survey what we know about the cosmology and biology of how we got here and the questions this poses and how science and faith have interacted around these. Chapter one considers the beginnings of the cosmos, the fine-tuning of the universe that has made the rise of biological life possible and the questions of whether this demonstrates a certain design and purpose inherent in the universe and how this is to be understood. Chapter two turns to the very beginnings of biological life on the planet, the emergence of cellular life from some form of pre-biotic soup, how the information code for all of life, DNA, arose, and eventuated in living cells. And how does all this relate to religious accounts including the early chapters of Genesis. Chapter three explores what is known of evolution from single-celled organism up to higher primates and explores the questions of whether randomness and natural selective forces are sufficient to account for the emergence of increasingly complex forms of life. The question is posed of how we are to understand pain and suffering, even before humans came on the scene. This, then leads to chapter four and the rise of human beings including homo sapiens, how we think about the development of religion, the existence of Adam and Eve. In each of the chapters of this section Fleming considers different explanations that have been advanced and ways religion and science have sought to address the fundamental issues of existence without arguing for or directing the reader to a particular conclusion.

Chapter five then takes a more theological turn, and particularly a Christian one, give the author’s own faith perspective. He considers the supernatural in the person of Jesus Christ, where he believes God and human experience intersect in the historical person of Christ. Under this heading he explores prayer, miracles, what he calls “the causal joint” (the intersection of the supernatural with physical processes in the world), and the resurrection.

Fleming then returns to science in chapter six, one of the longest chapters, in which he surveys science from its Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek roots, and up through the contribution of Islam. He then chronicles the rise of modern science, which he considers significantly aided by Christian premises. He profiles key figures of the modern period from Copernicus to Kepler to Galileo (whose ego leading him to go afoul of certain religious figures may have been much of his problem), up through the differing beliefs of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. He shows how each engaged religious concerns, and in various ways approached religious faith or skepticism.

Chapter seven then explores the presently emerging field of neuroscience which raises all kinds of questions of what makes us “us.” To what extent is our consciousness, our mental processes connected to the neural networks of our brains? How are we to understand free will? What do we make of mystical and near death experiences, and what of us survives our deaths? From here, we move in chapter eight to a kind of summing up of the different models of how science and religion have engaged, from warfare (actually less common than thought), through separate spheres of inquiry to some form of integration of science and religion. The question is whether religion makes any difference. And this leads to the concluding epilogue where the author relates his own journey to Christian faith, and while admitting that other may see things differently, invites people to explore and seek for themselves.

What I appreciated about this work by a committed Christian was the even-handedness with which he dealt with science, religion, and their interaction. It is clear that as a scientist, he takes scientific inquiry seriously, is willing to look honestly at different explanations, consider hard questions, and leave room for differing conclusions. While it is clearly evident that the author would hope others follow him in embracing Christian faith, one never feels a pressure to do so or that one is being proselytized. I was struck with his honesty posing hard questions, for example why God’s revelation of himself comes so late in human history, and why there is so much pain and suffering before “the fall.”

This spirit of honest exploration of these important questions continues in the discussion questions at the conclusion of each chapter and the diverse recommendations for further readings reflecting a spectrum of views. His discussion presses skeptics, explorers, and people of faith to go deeper and wrestle with tough and important questions. I would highly commend this to groups of faculty, or others who are scientifically literate who are concerned about how science and faith address the most important questions of existence.

What I’m Reading — June 2015

I’m in kind of a crunch right now between back to back trips to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. So this post will be briefer, and perhaps not so carefully crafted as some. Just thought I’d catch you up on what i’m reading right now and my reactions as I’m in the midst of several books.

Private Doubt, Public DilemmaJust started Keith Thomson’s Private Doubt, Public Dilemma, which I downloaded from Netgalley. Looks like an interesting exploration on the religion and science front, exploring cutting edge issues in the biosciences. This is taken from a Yale lecture series. A bit curious why his primary inspirations are Jefferson and Darwin and where that will go. I actually think one of the more interesting American figures to deal with religion-science issues was B.B. Warfield.

GrassrootsGrassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up by Simon Chan is trying to do just what the title suggests. He wants to explore Asian contributions to Christian theology, not by listening to academics, Asian or otherwise, but rather the people who make up Asian churches, Christians on the ground in these cultures. What a novel idea. Just getting into it. Chan is a bit of a dense read, but I’m intrigued!

The Wright BrothersI’ve loved everything David McCullough has written and am finding The Wright Brothers no exception. Interesting fact that I discovered was that the Wright’s spent less than $1000, and all of that their own money, to get the point of putting a plane in the sky at Kitty Hawk. A government project costing $70,000 ended up a terrible failure in the Potomac! I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but McCullough tells a riveting tale!

Words of LifeTimothy Ward’s Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God gives a contemporary, yet reformed perspective on the doctrine of the scripture. The novel thing is that he doesn’t start from systematics but from the Bible itself. He also draws on “speech-act” theory, which understands scripture as a type of divine speech act. I’ve seen caricatures of reformed thinking about scripture set up as straw men and destroyed. It would be better for critics to take on thoughtful writers like Ward.

An All Around MinistryFinally, our Dead Theologians reading group is discussing a collection of Charles Spurgeon sermons under the title An All-Around Ministry. These were given at a series of pastors conferences Spurgeon helped host. They sparkle with wit and contain much wise counsel for any in ministry.

That’s what’s on my book stand at present. Stay tuned for reviews at a blog near you!

The Month in Reviews: April 2015

April’s book reviews covered both a significant span of time and geography as well as genre. I reviewed an academic debate on free will from the sixteenth century and a conversation about Christology published last year. There was a decided international flavor to these books, whether it concerned a historical novel of the British campaign in Flanders during World War II, a discussion of immigration, narratives of nonviolent action around the world in the last fifty years, or the last fifty years of African history. I reviewed genres as diverse as Walter Wangerin’s fantasy taking place in a barnyard of animals to Max Planck’s scientific autobiography and essays. I explored both the formation of the inner virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the interesting idea that the complexity and beauty of the world is a profound apologetic for the Christian faith.

As always, the links on this page are to my full reviews. Many of the reviews have links to the book publisher. So, without further ado, here’s the list:

True Paradox8th Champion1. True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of our Complex World by David Skeel. David Skeel argues that far from being a problem for Christians, the complexity of the world is in fact something best explained by the Christian faith.

2. The Eighth Champion of Christendom by Edith Pargeter. A historical novel set at the beginning of World War Two exploring the growing realization of the horror of war that “heroic warriors” face. The plot centers around Jim Bennison, an English soldier and Miriam Lozelle, a Jewish refuge farm holder in Boissy whose husband is away at war.

Jesus without BordersEducating for Shalom3. Educating for Shalom by Nicholas Wolterstorff. This collection of essays and talks written or given over a 30 year period traces Nicholas Wolterstorff’s journey of thinking about Christian higher education, the integration of faith and learning, and his growing concern that education result in the pursuit of justice and shalom.

4. Jesus without Borders ed. by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, K.K. Yeo. Eight theologians from different parts of the world came together for a theological dialogue on Christology, engaging the Chalcedonian definition of Christology and reflecting on the unique perspective they bring on Christology from their part of the world.

ImmigrationPlanck5. Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers by Dale Hanson Bourke. Third in “The Skeptics Guide Series” and like others in the series it provides a concise overview of basic facts about immigration and discusses the challenges of immigration policy in the United States.

6. Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers by Max Planck. This is a re-issue in e-book form of Planck’s Scientific Autobiography and other papers on some of the “big” issues of science including causality, the limits of science and the relationship of science and religion.

Luther Erasmusnonviolent action7. Nonviolent Action by Ron Sider. Ron Sider argues from a number of instances over the past seventy-five years that nonviolent action can work and bring about political change.

8. Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

Christ Shaped CharacterDun Cow9. Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero. Cepero, through personal narrative and formational teaching and practices, traces a path of growing to be more who we truly are as reflections of Christ through the embrace of love, faith and hope.

10. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. This modern animal fable portrays a conflict between the beasts of the Earth and Wyrm of the underworld and his evil surrogates, and the heroism of a rooster, a dog, and the other beasts.

Fate of Africa11. The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith. Meredith, a foreign correspondent who has made a lifelong study of Africa, chronicles the last 50 years of African history from the hopes of independence from colonial rule and promising beginnings through the heartbreaking instances of corruption, economic pillaging, and various slaughters and genocides including that of AIDS.

Best of the Month: This is a tough pick this month, but on the basis of the “I will read it again” test, I have to go with The Book of the Dun Cow. This apparently simple fable has layers of meaning and depths of insight into the struggle of good and evil, and the qualities of character and grace needed to meet that struggle.

Best quote of the Month: I would choose this quote from Max Planck’s essay on science and religion. While I did not agree with all he wrote, I think he gets the balance right here:

“Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!’ “

I so appreciate all of you who read and comment on my reviews! I appreciated the comment I received today on Facebook from one reader: “I like your habit of reading books with view of reviewing for the benefit of community @large (I am a beneficiary of it).. I am trying to make it a discipline .. Thanx 4 da work.. Keep doing Bob…”

One of the delights of blogging and the internet is to find oneself part of a global community. I really do hope these reviews are a benefit, whether in finding your next “good read” or in becoming familiar with writers and writing of whose work it is helpful to know more.

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

Review: Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers

PlanckScientific Autobiography and Other Papers, by Max Planck, Philosophical Library/Open Road Media, 2014 (originally published in 1949).

Summary: This is a re-issue in e-book form of Planck’s Scientific Autobiography and other papers on some of the “big” issues of science including causality, the limits of science and the relationship of science and religion.

Max Planck is one of the giants of physics. His early work included research on entropy and thermodynamics and it was he who did the pioneering work on quantum theory, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1918. He also was one of the first to recognize the significance of Einstein’s work on the special theory of relativity and later extended this work.

His Scientific Autobiography is just that, tracing his life in science from his early studies with mathematician Hermann Müller, initial studies in physics at the University of Munich, his later studies in Berlin under the contrasting characters of Helmholtz and Kirchoff and his interest in thermodynamics from reading Clausius resulting in his 1879 dissertation on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. After another paper of the nature of energy, he was appointed associate professor of physics at the University of Kiel. Within four years, he succeeds to Kirchoff’s chair at the University of Berlin. He chronicles the various research projects on which he worked, interacting with Ludwig Boltzmann’s work which led to a derivation eventually know as the Planck Postulate and Planck’s Constant, work that laid the groundwork for quantum theory. His narrative describes the back and forth between scientists, the competition and disagreement between theorists and through all this the emergence of theory that illustrates both the collective enterprise and individual genius behind so many scientific breakthroughs.

The remaining essays discuss various questions of his time in science. Phantom Problems in Science is his attempt to argue that some of the “problems” people argue about in science actually do not exist–they are phantoms–because they are a created problem that does not actually exist in the real world–he includes as examples perpetual motion, the assumption that some mechanism must re-invert the inverted images on our retinas, the question, is an electron a particle or a wave, and the mind-body distinction (although recent neuroscience might suggest there is more to this than Planck believed).

He explores the Meaning and Limits of Exact Science or the idea of “science without presuppositions” that is based on exact observation alone. He argues that the closest we can get to this is what we experience through the senses of our own body and even here we may always draw wrong inferences. What science can do is bring successive degrees of order to these observations, and successive approximations of the “real”. Dealing with causality, he argues that to posit causality involves an act of faith because it is often not possible to verify actual causation of one event by another in specificity, only in general terms.of statistical probability.

His final essay turns to the controversial subject of science and religion. While he dismisses miracles, he does not dismiss religion seeing it as a parallel quest to understand one’s relation to the supernatural to science’s question to understand the natural. He concludes:

Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: “On to God!”

These papers require close attention and one is aided if one has a working knowledge of physics. But Planck offers an important contribution to the philosophy of science, articulating both its power and its limits. Perhaps the re-issuance of these works in new media (this particular version is only available as an e-book, although other versions are in print and on the web) will be a helpful corrective to both the knee jerk reactions against science and the pretensions of scientism in our own age.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America

God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America
God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America by Walter H. Conser Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems that there are two errors you can make in discussing the relationship of Christianity and science. One is that they have always been at war. The second is that only recently have there been enlightened folk who saw the two in harmonious relationship.

This book is a valuable study of a number of nineteenth century American “mediation theologians” who believed it possible to construct a harmonious understanding of the relationship of Christianity and science. The “antebellum” focus of this work points up that with the advent of Darwin’s work, a new situation arose, one which, at least in this country we are still attempting to come to terms with.

Charles Hodge

Charles Hodge

Many of the names might be unfamiliar to us: Henry Boynton Smith, Union Seminary theology professor, Philip Schaff, the church historian, Charles Hodge, the Princeton theologian, James Henley Thornwell, a southern Presbyterian preacher, Edward Robinson, biblical scholar at Andover Seminary, W.G.T Shedd, a Calvinist theologian influenced by Romantic ideas, James Marsh, U of Vermont college president, and Horace Bushnell, pastor.

These figures engaged the challenges to religious authority arising from European biblical criticism, new philosophical approaches to historical study, discoveries in geology and other natural sciences, thinking about the nature of language and how this related to understanding scripture and how faith engaged social and political science, particularly with regard to America’s most pressing issue in this period, slavery.

Philip Schaff

Philip Schaff

There were several interesting threads I found in this work. One was the influence of European scholarship and Romantic ideas that opened the door to thinking about religion less in doctrinal terms and more in terms of lived experience. The second thread was the effort to find commonalities between theological and scientific methods, such as the focus in Hodges work on the common inductive character to both. A third interesting thread was romantic historical ideals and an optimism about the future, albeit generally a very Anglo-Saxon shaped future. This also is reflected in the very troubling engagement around the issue of slavery where theologians drawing on these sources reached very different conclusions (all of which had racist elements) that contributed to increasing the tension in the fault lines leading to the Civil War.

In Conser’s “Epilogue” he notes how the advent of Darwinism changed everything. It led to a different way of defining how science was done that was incompatible with the earlier understanding and to sharp distinctions between supernaturalist and positivist approaches. Even to this day, different models of origins in part reflect different philosophies of science that points up how important our definition of science is in these discussions. It was also striking to me that those more shaped by doctrinal considerations tended to be the forebears of the fundamentalists, whereas those more shaped by Coleridgean romanticism tended to be the progenitors of the modernists.

In summary, this was a valuable work for me in understanding “how we got here” in terms of some of the present challenges around science and faith and I find anticipated in these thinkers many of the formulations present day scholars are using, whether or not they are aware of their intellectual antecedents.

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