Monday, November 29, 2010

Robert Boyle FRS: distinguished scientist and Christian

Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was one of the founders of the Royal Society and of the field of chemistry. It is worth reading the Wikipedia entry about his theological interests. One of his last books was The Christian Virtuoso (above) which set forth arguments for a clockwork universe created by God. The first new biography of Boyle to appear in a generation is Robert Boyle: between God and science, by Michael Hunter (University of London) has just been published by Yale University Press. An essay review of the book by Colin Gauld is available here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Can you see the wood for the trees?

I have finished my first draft of the resource article on emergence for Test of Faith.
I welcome feedback.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Finding similarities and differences in interfaith dialogue

This week I encountered a new term, "Judeo-Islamic tradition." It occurs in an interview with Mark Cohen in the latest issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. He states:
The term “Judeo-Christian tradition” only became popular after World War I and especially after the rise of Nazism in Europe. In fact, Judaism is much closer to Islam in its belief system and practice than it is to Christianity. My emeritus colleague Bernard Lewis coined the term “Judeo-Islamic tradition” to describe it.

I think this illustrates a profoundly important difference. Islam and Judaism are based on law. Christianity is based on grace.



Friday, November 26, 2010

When swearing is no private matter

I was part of an interesting discussion this morning about the etymology of the word testify and whether it is connected to testicles! The best discussion I could find online is at the Random House Word of the Day.
There it is suggested that there is no connection in Latin or Greek but there may be in Hebrew, going back ot Genesis 24:
2And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, "Put your hand under my thigh, 3that I may make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and God of the earth.
Any Old Testament experts want to weigh in?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

There are no self-made men

When we are successful most of would like to think [even if only on the sub-conscious level] that it is because of our own initiative, efforts, abilities, cleverness, .... But how much is any success I experience just a gift a God, which should lead to thankfulness, humility, and generosity. I always find the following passage from Deuteronomy 8 rather challenging. It is Moses sermon warning the Israelites before they enter the promised land.
11"Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17Beware lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' 18You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
The passage challenges me a personal level. But to me, it also raises some political questions, particularly to conservatives who strongly advocate everyone "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps" and the wealthy keeping all their money because they "deserve it" and "have earned it." What do others think?


 The painting is The grapes of the Promised Land by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fallen scholars

What should be our attitude towards the work of German scholars who were members of the Nazi party? Two cases have bought this to mind in the past week. In the previous post, I gave a quote from Karl Barth who favourably mentioned the work of the theologian Emmanuel Hirsch, who I discovered was a member of the Nazi party. Karl Barth was the principal author of the Barmen Declaration and was forced to resign from his position at Bonn University because he refused to swear an oath to Hitler. Hence, he was hardly sympathetic to National Socialism!
The second example of a fallen scholar from the Nasi era iis the philosopher Martin Heidigger. The Wikipedia page concerning him makes fascinating reading. He was author of one of the most influential books in philosophy in the twentieth century. When Rector [i.e. President or Vice-chancellor] of Freiburg University he made speeches in support of Hitler. Those significantly influenced by Heidigger include Rudolf Bultmann, Gadamer, and Derrrida.

I can think of three several possible attitudes towards the scholarly work of such people:
* Outright dismissal fueled by moral indignation
* Turning a blind eye and hoping that their philosophy and theology was completely unrelated to their political involvement.
* Cautious critique which acknowledges that one can never completely separate philosophy, theology, political views, and personal choices. But justice, punishment, compassion, and humility should not be separated either.

I am eager to hear other perspectives.

The beginning of pluralism

Stimulated by a discussion about doubt with a friend I have been re-reading the chapter Doubt in Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: an introduction. It is really stimulating and helpful. But this post is just to note how I was intrigued with the following claim:
doubt can also have its cause in the community that encircles the theologian, in the feebleness, disunity, and perhaps even the perverseness of the form and proclamation of his own familiar Church. The great crisis of Christian faith, as well as of Christian theology, that arose in the seventeenth century did not have its primary basis in the rise of modern science, for instance, or of the absolute state which later also became religiously indifferent. According to the illuminating hypothesis of Emmanuel Hirsch, this crisis arose prior to all such shocks, simply in the painfully confusing fact of the stable juxtaposition and opposition of three different churches. Sealed officially and demonstratively in the Peace of Westphalia, these three different confessions each represented exclusive claims to revelation which relativized the claims of each. Subsequent acquaintance with the great non-Christian religions of the Near and Far East underlined this relativity still more painfully. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The reality of mental health

There is a good column about not taking mental health for granted by Kathleen Noonan, a columnist in our local tabloid.

Article on emergence for Test of Faith

Test of Faith is a major initiative of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge. It consists of an excellent film, book, and course material which discuss the issue of the relationship between science and Christianity. It is particularly oriented for use in small groups in churches. Check it out!

There are additional resources. One of the Short articles is Darwin's Test of Faith: Lessons from a Victorian agnostic by Nick Spencer. It gives a really nice discussion of how the faith that Charles Darwin "lost" with the death of his daughter was a faith based on the rationalistic ordered natural theology of perfection of William Paley which could not entertain suffering in perfection. This is in contrast to a cross-centred faith that involves the suffering of Christ on the cross and is beyond completely rational explanation and understanding.

They have asked me to write a Short article on the issue of emergence. It is meant to be at a basic level, accessible to high school graduates. I worked on it today. Hopefully I will post a draft for comment this week.

Update: the final version is here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Inter-disciplinary studies require great discipline

"The problem with a lot of multi-disciplinary studies is that they do not show a lot of discipline."
I am told this was said by Michael Fisher, a famous theoretical physicist, who at one time was a Professor of Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics at Cornell University.

As someone who works at the interface of chemistry and physics, and has an interest in the dialogue between science and theology I see this problem of lack of discipline more often than I would like.

It is fascinating to find connections and parallels between concepts, phenomena, and ideas which at first may appear different and unconnected. But when are these good and helpful? When are they just silly and misleading?

It should always be born in mind that correlation does not equal causality. Rich people eat more fresh tomatoes than poor people but this is not what makes them rich!

Here are a few examples of attempted connections that I find weak:

In the classic art history textbook Gardner's Art through the Ages it is argued that it is no accident that early in the twentieth century two revolutionary new ways of looking at the world developed: the cubism of Picasso and the relativity of Einstein.

Chaos theory and postmodern literary criticism are both concerned with instability and "nonlinearity". Much of this "connection" was made by Katherine Hayles in her book, Chaos Bound. It was widely acclaimed in literary circles but panned in Higher Superstition by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt.

The attempt of Sir Roger Penrose in The Emperor's New Mind to make connections between consciousness, intractable computations, the quantum measurement problem, and quantum gravity.

So caution is in order. What criteria should we use for judging success?
I am not sure, but one is that at least one of the two disciplines should be enriched by interaction with the other.

Teaching our children about wisdom or modelling greed?

Probably like you I sometimes end up at strange but interesting places on the internet. I will spare you the story. But here are couple of things I found fascinating:

I found interesting the Wikipedia entry about the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Kiyosaki and Lechter [I first heard about it a sermon at church as an example of the distorted values of our society]. The last two sentences are amusing/sad:

In the February 2003 issue of Smart Money magazine, Kiyosaki backed off his claim that his "rich dad" was a real person, instead saying, "Is Harry Potter real? Why don’t you let Rich Dad be a myth, like Harry Potter?"
In 2007, Lechter sued Kiyosaki, alleging numerous instances of financial misconduct. The suit was settled for an undisclosed sum over a year later.
This links to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald Spare us the finance evangelists and their false profits. As an aside, this might be cautionary reading for sincere American Christian leaders who make visits to Australia promoting their latest methods ....

Friday, November 19, 2010

A word on universities

I was going to write a post on the etymology of the word University, but it turned out not to be what I thought!. Somehow I thought that the word was related to the unity of knowledge, and I could rant about that should be the true focus and purpose of a university. However, Word of the day says it really had more to do with a legal and administrative unity:
both studium and universitas were Latin and so Oxford’s transition to university status, which happened in 1231 didn’t show up as an English word right away. Even when it gained the Latin label universitas the word didn’t mean specifically that Oxford was a place of higher learning, instead universitas meant that it was incorporated.
Literally it meant “turned into one.” 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Great entertainment for kids

I previously posted about the fascinating story behind the classic hymn It is well with my soul. I should have mentioned where I first heard this story. Adventures in Odyssey is a great radio program for kids, maybe aged 5 to 12. Each show is a story, which vary greatly in content, humour, intensity, and relevance to Christianity. You can also listen to it online and buy CDs. We used to listen to tapes of it in the car, when my kids were younger. They loved it. The particular episode about the hymn is here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

There is knowledge and there is knowledge

I really like the book, Five minds for the future, by Howard Gardner.  I find the emphasis on scholarship, teaching, and learning quite inspiring, refreshing and challenging.
However, I do have  a minor bone to pick with something I just read.
Chapter 3, "The Synthesizing mind" begins
In the Western sacred tradition, the story of human beings begins in the Garden of Eden, when Adam was enticed to take a first bite of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. For the generations that immediately followed the biblical Adam, knowledge accumulated at a sufficiently slow rate that it could be passed on orally....
I think this represents a significant misunderstanding and  misapplication of the Genesis narrative. I do not think it is not about academic knowledge but something very different, a loss of moral purity and innocence. The text of Genesis 2 and 3 actually says:

16And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."....

1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" 2And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'" 4But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. 5For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. 


The image is Temptation and Fall by William Blake (1808)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Living with adversity

This morning at church we sang the classic hymn, It is well with my soul. There is a fascinating and gut-wrenching story that goes behind the circumstances that led to Horatio Stafford to pen it. The original manuscript is now in the US Library of Congress and is shown above.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Worship the Creator of the creation

What are the main points of Genesis 1-2? I previously posted about the fact God resting on the seventh day of creation sets the stage for the significance of the Sabbath and the Rest that God offers his people.
I think Genesis 1-2 also sets the stage for the commandments to the Israelites (and us) to turn away from idolatry and the worship of created things such as the sun and moon, animals, people, and carved images. Instead they should worship the Creator of these things, a God whose form they have not seen. This morning I read in Deuteronomy 4,
 15 "Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven..... 23 Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you
So the text makes clear a profound and practical point: worship the Creator not the creation. This point is independent of any perspectives (and arguments) about science, time scales, historicity, ....
Aside: wikipedia gives a good historical overview of sun worship.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Layers of listening

You never listen!
I did not feel heard.

Why do we say things like this? What do we really mean?

I have been reading through the book of Deuteronomy and noticing how the Israelites were rebuked by the LORD because they did not listen.


It is interesting how there are layers of listening
-hearing the sounds
-hearing the words
-understanding what information the words carry
-understanding the feeling behind them
-taking to heart the message and acting on it

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Others: a hot new magazine

I would not want to be one to start rumours... but I think I heard that the publishers of the women's magazine Self are going to break into new markets with a men's magazine entitled Others. I anticipate articles about:

Careers and work: how to make sure your colleagues get the credit they deserve
Marriage: how to manipulate your heart so your spouse gets what they want
Money:  ten new ways to give away more money
Sex: how to exercise greater self-control and live with less
Movies: the five best agape thrillers
Self image: more contentment, patience, joy, ...
Public transport: faster than ever before ...

I did a web search but could not find any details. Let me know if you find them or hear more. But, maybe I was dreaming last night ... or I am struggling with my mental health and distinguishing reality from fantasy...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Football is art

We are big football fans in our house. Last night we were ecstatic that Brisbane Roar played some beautiful football and outclassed their nearest competitors Adelaide to cement their place at the top of the A-League. But enough ....

This post is actually about recommending a fantastic video The Art of Football from A to Z featuring John Cleese. He goes through the alphabet (A is for attack, B is for ball, ... G is for Goal, ... M is for money, ... Q is for Quantum Physics!!) and interviews various famous soccer players (Pele, Henry, Beckenbauer, ...) and managers (Wenger) as well as artists, musicians, and politicians (Desmond Tutu, Henry Kissinger, Dennis Hopper, ...
 The  DVD has a brilliant interspersion of humour, brilliant football, philosophy, ...
It makes a convincing case that football is art.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A significant change of preference?

[Aside: I first posted this on my work research blog, condensed concepts, but thought I would put it here as well since it may be of interest to some readers here too].

I am puzzled by something. Suppose I ask five people if they prefer tea or coffee? Three say coffee, two say tea. Four years later I ask them again. One of the five people has changed their mind, now two prefer coffee and three tea. Suppose the sample size is much larger, but still only one in five people change their preference. I would not say there was a "massive swing" in preference or that drinks "preference did an almost complete turnabout".

Furthermore, suppose also that those five people had all previously said they did not wish to register as having a definite opinion on their preference. Then it should hardly be surprising if one in five changed their opinion.

Hence, I am puzzled by an article in the Wall Street Journal by Gerald F. Seib, Unaligned votes tilt rightward en masse. It states:
A massive swing by independent voters propelled the Republican Party to a series of key victories.... 
In House races nationally, Republicans won the votes of independents—voters who said they aren't affiliated with any party—by a 55% to 40% margin, a compilation of exit polls from across the country showed.
In other words, independents' preference did an almost complete turnabout over the last four years: They favored Democrats by 18 points then, Republicans by 15 points Tuesday.

Barth as a cultural intellectual

In the article I mentioned in my previous post Rudy Koshar states:
Barth’s cultural provenance also reflects his status as a European intellectual conversant with the important thinkers of the time. The luminaries of high bourgeois culture appear scattered across Barth’s writings, especially in the Church Dogmatics, where perhaps many readers expect not to find them because of this publication’s “churchly” character. Such eclecticism is fitting for one whose work “orders all the paths of human wisdom, philosophical and religious, around the central core of a purely theological point of view.” In the Church Dogmatics we find commentaries of varied length on Mozart (Barth’s favorite composer), Shakespeare, Spinoza, Rousseau, Goethe, Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer, Marx, Darwin, Richard Wagner, John Stuart Mill, Max Weber, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Jung, Jaspers, and many others interwoven with often labyrinthine theological and biblical references and historical analysis of Church doctrine. Barth’s stance of engagement within distance remains evident throughout this massive referential system, which (seeing that Barth often listened to Mozart as he worked) had the character of a symphonic score rather than a theological treatise.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The towering intellect of Barth

Last night I read a fascinating paper, Where is Karl Barth in Modern European History?, by Rudy Koshar [a Professor of History at the University of Wsconsin-Madison], and published in the journal Modern Intellectual History. There is no doubt Barth is the towering figure of 20th century theology. Indeed, Koshar notes the secondary literature about Barth amounts to around fourteen thousand titles [I presume this is books, journal articles, and book chapters] in twenty-five different languages!
Koshar makes a compelling case that although Barth's influence in European history, beyond the confines of theology, and into history, politics, and culture has been mistakenly overlooked.
Kosher suggests that in academic history this oversight results from a "secular confessionalism" which refuses to acknowledge its own basis in faith but dismisses all religious claims as irrational.

Kosher sings the praises of the Church Dogmatics for Barth's intellectual engagement with history, philosophy, music, and literature. This is driven by theology, but even secularists must respond to this analysis. It is noted that scholars have "celebrated Walter Benjamin's characterisation of civilization as "a document of barbarism"" but are unaware that Barth propounded such a view much earlier.

The German Academy for Language and Literature awards it annual Sigmund Freud prize for academic prose. Barth received the prize in 1968. [Werner Heisenberg received it two years later!].


To me, Barth represents a great model of real scholarship. The Church Dogmatics display a scope, balance, creativity, depth, originality, and thoroughness that is enviable and challenging.

I think Barth also has much to offer the philosophy of science, issues of which are touched on in my paper on emergence in science and theology.

But why was Barth so profound and influential? There is no doubt that he was a unique and very gifted individual. But, is it not more that he was obsessed with such a great subject: The Creator of the Universe who revealed himself through Jesus Christ. Indeed, I give Barth the last word:
"The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, `Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!' And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh."

Monday, November 1, 2010

The alpha and the omega of confusion in the face of certainty

This sundays sermon at church was on Revelation 20, a passage which contains reference to the Millennium, a thousand year reign of Christ. Different interpretations of this passage has led to countless controversies, arguments, and church divisions. Variant intepretations and whole theologies are based on this passage: pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, amillennialism,...
I probably hold to a highly nuanced form of amillennialism known as pan-millennialism: "All I know is thait will all pan out in the end!".
Jokes aside, unfortnately, often what is clear in the passage gets overwhelmed by what is not clear.
It is interesting to me that peoples views the interpretation of passages about passages of time in Genesis and Revelation often correlate. They seem to be strongly influenced by hermeneutical approaches, assumptions, and pre-commitments [how people read and interpret texts].
I thought our minister, Roy Davidson, did a great job of giving an overview of different views but emphasizing what is really clear: judgement will come, evil will be punished, God's people will be delived from this suffering unjust world, to one where Christ will reign and be worshiped as the Lamb of God. This message and the associated imagery used to reinforce it must have been incredible comfort to the first readers of the Revelation of John as they faced persecutin and death at the hands of a brutal Roman empire.