Monday, May 12, 2014

C. S. Lewis on Science and the Birth of the Machine

Why care what C. S. Lewis had to say about science, a topic that his filled the past few posts? In one sense, this theme could seem to border of the trivial. Lewis—though a renowned scholar in his field of Medieval and Renaissance literature—had no particular insight into scientific discoveries. His inability to grasp mathematics, which almost caused him not to be accepted at Oxford—is well-known. We might decide the subject has little to offer and move on.
But I demur. Why? Lewis, as an intellectual historian, engaged science because he knew its effect on, and contributions to, Western European culture. When Cambridge University asked him to deliver the inaugural address in 1954 for the newly-formed chair he was to occupy there, he spoke on the historical epochs in western thought. He noted that the greatest change occurred as Europe became “post-Christian” and particularly, not when science arose in the age of Copernicus and Galileo, but when western culture took on the metaphor of the birth of the machine. “Between Jane Austen [1775-1817] and us [1954],” Lewis comments, “but not between her and Shakespeare [d. 1616] … comes the birth of the machine.” The west had displaced a more organic or sacramental view of the world with that of clock, or more generally, a machine. And Lewis notes that with this concept emerging from scientific thought arose the notion that old is inferior to the new.

For today, I have only two notes: This demonstrates that it isn’t often science qua science that determines its effects on culture. It’s more often the worldview that emerges. It also tells us something about 2014. Does this “birth of the machine” lead us to Ray Kurzweil and transhumanism, particularly the idea that we will achieve a technological singularity in which artificial intelligence can upload an entire human brain/mind into an immensely powerful computer? I suppose I wouldn’t be the first to note that once we make human beings a machine, it’s not a far leap that they become infinitely improvable and therefore upload-able.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Notes on C. S. Lewis and Science

As I read him, Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), probably the most famous Christian apologist of the 20th century, presented a four-step apologetic. I want to note in what ways this apologetic engages science with Christian faith. Though the final step argues that Jesus is God—which is not strictly speaking a scientific concern—the first three steps confronted the scientifically based philosophy of his early 20th century Oxford. I could also argue that they resonate into 21st century American culture as well. 

But I’ll restrain myself on that last point. Instead, let me outline those first three steps:
  1. First of all, there is more to the world than just material stuff. Materialism (that there is just brute matter) is in fact self-defeating because, if we are pure materialists, rational thinking is impossible. Lewis’s book Miracles principally presents this apologetic, but it is scattered throughout his writings, especially in the ‘40s.
  2. Human beings seek something that this world cannot satisfy, which points to a God beyond this world. “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  This argument appears in The Problem of Pain and in “The Weight of Glory.”
  3. There is a Law or Rule about Right and Wrong (or the Law of Nature, or even natural law) that exists in all human beings and points to the God created that law within us. Lewis developed this apologetic in his opening Broadcast Talks for BBC, which became the first section or “book” of Mere Christianity, as well as his 1943 Riddell lectures later published as The Abolition of Man.

Let’s look at #2 for a moment: Lewis’s argument from Joy or desire. The argument brings to mind the question of whether Albert Einstein’s words about “God” were really about, well, God, such as “everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a Spirit vastly superior to that of man.” Richard Dawkins argues (not surprisingly as the arch-atheist) that this stuff in Einstien isn’t really about God, it’s about transcendence. In his recent book, scientist Amir D. Aczel, contends (as I understand him) that, no, this is really about the Deity, and in fact, believing in God is profoundly compatible with science.
So I'm going to set Lewis in this fray. What is he saying? Is he arguing that this sense of transcendence—or better, this desire for it, which Lewis calls “Joy”—proves God? No, at least not as a deductive proof. Instead Lewis is making a suppositional argument here: We do not fully understand the desire for something beyond (or Joy) itself, but it opens to a wider metaphysical conclusion, one that points to God who created us. Or more systematically, the form of this suppositional argument from desire proceeds as follows: Suppose God created this world, we can imagine that God would leave a desire for more than this world offers. We experience a longing for more than this world offers. It is reasonable to see this as pointer to God.
In a certain sense then, the argument cannot be decided on the basis of science or not. Science seeks to understand the interactions of the material world. And yet, many scientists, because they focus their lives on the interactions of the material world, believe that this world is all there is.
Like my title says, these are notes. Nothing fully conclusive yet. But I’m interested to know what you think…

Monday, March 24, 2014

Discussing Taboo Topics in Church (Guest Post)

It is terribly important for congregations to cultivate a substantive engagement with religion and science.  Throughout history and for various reasons, a line has been drawn between the disciplines of science and faith keeping them from engaging constructively.  This has barred these two disciplines from mutually shaping and encouraging each other.  Because of this academic fissure, both disciplines seemingly threaten each other giving the false impression that these areas of study are incompatible.  Faith and science need not be engaged polemically, but rather can, and should, be engaged charitably as they learn from each other in a mutually beneficial manner.  This destructive faith-versus-science worldview gives evidence of a deeper, more ubiquitous problem: the proclivity of western minds to compartmentalize various aspects of life resulting in the lack of integration of deeper human existence.  By unmasking the faith-science dichotomy, individuals, academic communities, and faith communities will step into a more expansive understanding of God, the world, and their place in it.  In turn, individuals and communities will become further characterized by integrity and autonomy as their worldviews are enriched, enhanced, and deepened.

My work with the Scientists in Congregations grant produced a series of adult education classes addressing the faith-science conversation as well as a large conference.  The “Faithful Science” weekly class included scientists of faith from the church and surrounding community.  Our conference, Faithful Science: Science and Theology in Conversation, was a capstone event from the weekly classes.  This symposium was open to the Spokane community consisting of two well-known thinkers engaged in the faith-science conversation.  Our first speaker was Dr. Darrel Falk, president of the BioLogos Forum.  Our second speaker was Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and who works with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program. 

Because of these efforts, Whitworth Church has been energized by the number of people flooding through the doors for the classes and conference.  Our congregation has moved into a place where these types of so-called “sensitive” and taboo topics can be discussed with reduced anxiety.  There are still some in our midst who believe one can only be either a faithful Christian or an atheistic scientist.  However, this is a smaller group in the midst of our large congregation which has a fairly broad theological spectrum.  Generally, however, this work has ignited the congregation to engage in the conversation and has largely discarded the fear and discomfort of asking potentially difficult worldview questions.  By exposing the false faith-science dichotomy, individuals within Whitworth Church are equipped to embrace a more expansive understanding of God, the world, and their place in it.

As a pastor, this work has given me a stronger credibility in the eyes of my congregation for the academic work I am currently engaged in.  It has also allowed me to be more involved in the faith-science conversation with individuals in our congregation who share this interest of mine and now are aware of it.  In this way, science professionals have become more open in our midst about their experiences of science and faith.  I have heard anecdotal comments from participants in our midst who metaphorically came out of the “science closet” essentially saying, “I am a scientists, but I didn’t know I could talk about this stuff here!”  Our church has become more of a place where serious academic engagement can be undertaken by truly thinking, intelligent Christians.

In addition, because of the highly publicized nature of the Faithful Science conference, our church has become somewhat higher profile in the community.  Whitworth Church is already associated with Whitworth University by name and location, but now the community recognizes the serious engagement people of faith can have with academia.  This work has broken down the secular assumptions regarding Christens as simplistic non-thinkers allowing those dubious of spirituality and faith to be more willing to engage in this conversation.

(Guest Post by Rev. Mark McIlraith, Ph.D.) 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Letter to My Pastor on Faith and Science (Guest Blog)

[From one of the Scientists in Congregations churches...]

Dear Pastor Mark, 

I would like to let you know how the weekend on Faithful Science has impacted my life.  First, however, I need to give you a brief background.

I was raised in a Presbyterian church with “feel good” sermons which had little emphasis on the Bible.  As a young adult, I began seeking for denominations that focused more on scripture and found myself for years in more fundamental Christian denominations which elevated the scripture as absolute truth.  Two events happened in my life that forced me to deal with some of the inconsistencies that I chose to ignore.  One was while my husband was completing his PhD, he decided he could not deal with the inconsistencies in scripture and chose to become agnostic.  This resulted in many angry and frustrating conversations as I tried to defend the Bible but did not have the tools to refute his belief that there was no absolute truth.   For the sake of family peace, we chose to agree to disagree, and we basically dropped conversations about faith.   And then, many years later as our sons became adults, I again found myself trying to defend my faith and some religious habits that did not make sense to them.  Out of frustration of not being able to give a reason for my faith, I began a quiet search to discover if this God I loved was who I had believed all these years and was the Bible true.  My academic background is in health sciences and I began to question what would this mean to my faith if the scripture could not withstand some of the conclusions of evolutionary sciences.   I realize now, I was afraid and many of the heated discussion that I had with my loved ones originated from that fear. 

Space does not allow me the opportunity to detail out this journey but I would like to highlight that my attendance at the Faithful Science Conference placed my feet on stable ground as I listened to the two scientists who presented that weekend.  They confirmed what I had just begun to come to terms with; I did not need to be afraid that my appreciation of science and faith were incompatible.  I began to listen with an open mind and heart to how these well-respected scientists worked out what had been previously noted as inconsistencies in Genesis.  Whether we were talking about astronomy or geology, these faithful scientists came back to scripture and tied in the importance, the relevance of faith today in light of the new “revelations” of science.  Since that time, I have read several books from other Christians who are scientists and I am a frequent reader/listener to various websites. 
But the most important piece is that I have apologized to my husband and my son who both have chosen to be agnostic.  Because I no longer fear that I will lose the faith that has been so vital to me all my life, I can freely share my love of God and science.  At this point in my journey, I may not know how to intelligently carry on a discussion like well-known apologists, but I can share from my personal experience about the journey I am on, not only with non-believers but believers.  And the robin’s song this spring morning was all the more sweet because of this journey.

With sincere appreciation,


(The name has been changed for anonymity) 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

From Shadows to Spot Light

BEFORE SinC, the small group of scientists that met for monthly book discussion group was little-known both among the church staff as well as among other scientists within the Grace Chapel congregation.

Now, after completing our SinC programming, GC Science's logo & brochure, and the enlarged & connected group of scientists within the congregation that it represents, is recognizable as a valued and significant resource for staff, fellow scientists, and the general 4,000-strong congregation.  Several of our Science & Faith courses are available online for the congregation & wider audience.  We have many new books that show compatibility between God's creation and modern Evolutionary science.

GC Science's Facebook page now has 440,000 LIKEs globally and total weekly reach of up to 1 million people globally.  GC Science is a cyberplace where  cutting-edge science and vital Christian Faith can coexist and complement each other.

Guest Post: GC Science Team 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Final Thoughts on the Natural Knowledge of God in Theology and Science

(This is the final post of three on science and theology on the natural knowledge of God.)
What is an appropriate theological appraise of John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis? How does he see this sense of the divine? What critique does he offer? And what is the proper place of the sensus divinitatis for a scientifically informed ecclesial theology?
John Calvin
Calvin continued his reflections on the sensus divinitatis by offering some caveats:
Though the conviction may occasionally seem to vanish for a moment, it immediately returns, and rushes in with a new impetuosity, so that any interval of relief from the gnawings of conscience is not unlike the slumber of the intoxicated or the insane, who have no quiet rest in sleep, but are continually haunted with dire horrific dreams. Even the godless themselves, therefore, are an example of the fact that some idea of God always exists in every human mind. Institutes 1.3.2
The phrase “some idea of God” is instructive—Calvin emphasizes that the sense of the divine is ephemeral and elusive; he also writes that this sensus divinitatis is “fleeting and vain” (Institute 1.3.3). This is not a sturdy foundation for faith. It is the general awareness of a Supreme Being, God’s “eternal power and deity” which Paul describes in Romans 1. Though universal and powerful, this general sense of God has a remarkable malleability.
Along with Michael Welker in Creation and Reality, I argue that this sense of the divine, however, remains powerful but problematic. Welker cites Job 19:6, 8, God “closed his net around me…. He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths.” This vague sense of deity can even terrify. As Calvin writes,
The most audacious despiser of God is most easily disturbed, trembling at the sound of a falling leaf. How so, unless in vindication of the divine majesty, which smites their consciences the more strongly the more they endeavor to flee from it. They all, indeed, look out for hiding-places where they may conceal themselves from the presence of the Lord, and again efface it from their mind; but after all their efforts they remain caught within the net. Though the conviction may occasionally seem to vanish for a moment, it immediately returns, and rushes in with new impetuosity, so that any interval of relief from the gnawing of conscience is not unlike the slumber of the intoxicated or the insane, who have no quiet rest in sleep, but are continually haunted with dire horrific dreams. Even the wicked themselves, therefore, are an example of the fact that some idea of God always exists in every human mind. Institutes 1.3.3  
From this vague concept (“some idea of God”) human beings can never distinguish between fears and fantasies and true knowledge. They may continue to develop a neurotic piety: “Those therefore, who set up a fictitious worship, merely worship and adore their own delirious fancies”—a piety that leads into idolatry—“indeed, they would never dare so to trifle with God, had they not previously fashioned him after their own childish conceits.” And later, “Even idolatry is ample evidence of this conception.”
Calvin’s language is characteristically strong and largely negative. (Calvin could never be accused of an inflated view of human nature.) Nevertheless, building a religious, or more contemporarily, “spiritual” practice from the sensus divinitatis has many of the elements of idolatry in that it often leaves human beings exactly where they started. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in an address to the Oxford Socratic Society, this vague sense of the divine can be highly manipulated and is even dangerous, pliable to all sorts of distortions. It cannot ultimately convert us to the good. Lewis responding to another paper, “The Grounds of Modern Agnosticism,” calls this a “minimal religion.” It leaves Nazis Nazis and altruists altruists, now with a veneer of belief and an assurance that what they already did is given divine endorsement. “The minimal religion will, in my opinion, leave us all doing what we were doing before. We therefore need more clarity for informed, and ultimately beneficial belief. It can be the basis of nature-worship, built on a sense of numinous natural world. It can be a brash, hedonistic worship of self, embodied in the basest forms of New Age spirituality. Even the Nazi’s propagated an appreciation for what “God is doing through the German Volk” and supported it with the powerful, but vague feeling of the Numinous working to renew the German civilization. It can also be named “transcendence” or channeled in a variety of ways.
Here I need to summarize: This sensus divinitatis opens us to belief in God. Nonetheless, it is a vague awareness that can neither prove God, nor can it give us fully developed attributes of God. And the specific problems of the sensus divinitatis reveal the more general weakness of natural theology. Nature gives us both stunning sunsets and devastating hurricanes, fertile farmlands and wind-swept dustbowls, impressive mountain peaks and deadly volcanoes. Nature’s supporting data present evidence of two incompatible visions: the gracious, loving God and an angry, evil deity. Pascal, who plumbed the depths of such natural proofs for God, grasped the essential weakness of this approach.
I wonder at the hardihood with which such persons undertake to talk about God. In a treatise addressed to infidels they begin with a chapter proving the existence of God from the works of Nature… this only gives their readers grounds for thinking that the proofs of religion are very weak… It is a remarkable fact that no canonical writer has ever used Nature to prove God.
This sensus divinitatis, though part of our creation, leaves us open for God. It also, however, leaves human beings with a desire for clarity.
What then are the purpose of nature and this natural awareness of divinity in leading us to God? It is not a proof, but a witness, a support for the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We need to fill in our natural awareness of God with specificity. Only after we have heard God’s voice to us in Jesus Christ, then we are able to proclaim with the psalmist “the heavens are proclaiming the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). This is ultimately what Ian Barbour has termed, not a “natural theology,” but a “theology of nature.” “Instead of a natural theology, I advocate a theology of nature, which is based primarily on religious experience and the life of the religious community but which includes some reformulation of traditional doctrines in the light of science. Theological doctrines start as human interpretations of individual and communal experience and are therefore subject to revision. Our understanding of God’s relation to nature always reflects our view of nature” (Religion and Science). We see the world through our belief in a good Creator. Scripture, as Calvin concluded, becomes the “spectacles” by which we view the world.
Science acts in some ways, in describing this sensus divinitatis, to offer general revelation. Through general revelation, we can certainly find out truths about God, but those truths receive clarity through God’s special revelation in history, especially depicted in the pages of the Bible. For example, we can find the beauty of God’s design of the human body through scientific work—and thus be led to conclude that God is an incomparable Designer. We can, however, only know that God’s creation is Trinitarian through special revelation.
Jesus (Just wanted to be sure that was clear)
Returning to my basic guideline: theology can and must journey beyond the strict domains of science, but that it must not contradict those findings, I conclude that we need Jesus to save the sensus divinitatis, because, as the church confesses, Jesus definitively reveals God. In this sense, Jesus Christ saves natural knowledge of God from its vagueness. Christ displays that there is no hidden God, as he is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). This, in some sense, fulfills “Rahner’s rule” in The Trinity that “the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity.” And so, with Barth (from CD IV/1), I conclude, “The meaning of deity “cannot be gathered from any notion of supreme, absolute non-worldly being. It can be learned only from what took place in Christ.” Our natural knowledge of God needs to be clarified by Christ. 

Ultimately then Christ saves natural knowledge of God from vagueness and potentially pernicious misuse. In fact, Christian believers are urged to take on that form of that christomorphic (by which I mean literally “formed around Christ) moment-by-moment. After developing his most elaborated christocentric theology in the book of Romans, Paul moves to the hortatory section. We can sure that when he calls the Roman churches to be transformed or meta-morphicized (to transliterate the Greek), he is urging them to take the form of Christ, who is also the goal of human yearning: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2, italics mine). Consequently, the Church can be formed, as a community in worship and discipleship, from a vague, amorphous sensus divinitatis, into bearing the image of God to the world.