Articles

Even Galaxies Grow Old…

I’m feeling pretty small right now. Insignificant, in fact, and wonderfully so.

I just spent twenty minutes reading about the new image just released by NASA from the Hubble Space Telescope, dubbed the XDF or eXtra Deep Field. Hubble spent around 500 hours staring at this tiny sliver of the sky in order to produce this image.  In it there are something like 5,500 galaxies. GALAXIES–not stars. The oldest of which is about 13.2 billion years old, just 500 million years younger than the Universe itself.

Think for a moment about the sheer scale we’re talking about here.  These 5,500 galaxies are all visible within a tiny sliver of sky, thinner than the thickness of a dime held at arms length.  How many dimes would it take to stretch from East to West?  How many more to fill the space between North and South? Even that is only half the sky.

Psalm 8:4 came to mind as I stared–mouth gaping:  ”What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Psalm 8:4, NLT).  If the author of this Psalm could pen this question from looking up at the night sky’s mere thousands of stars three millennia years ago, how much more urgent is the question on days like today when Hubble reminds us anew of how small we really are.

One sentence in particular in NASA’s description of this image caught my attention: “[the] red galaxies are the remnants of dramatic collisions between galaxies and are in their declining years.”

Even galaxies grow old and die. For all the limitless enormity of the Universe itself, death comes to even the most grandiose of things.

Yet again the psalmist’s words are wonderfully fitting: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

Fitting, yes, but I can’t help but wonder if silence wouldn’t be a better response to such mystery.

 

(This blog was originally posted on MikeYankoski’s website.  You can find it at www.MikeYankoski.com)

John Van Sloten’s Sermon: The Hydrology of the Bow River; Finding God in the flow

Pastor John Van Sloten of New Hope Calgary preaches on the Hydrology of the Bow River.

The Hydrology of the Bow River; Finding God in the flow from New Hope Church Calgary on Vimeo.

Paul, Epigenetics, and the Body of Christ

These are thoughts and reflections from a recent sermon by Pastor Kerry Bender on 1Corinthians 12:12-31a, preached at Faith Baptist Church, 4350 Russell Ave N, Minneapolis, MN.  To listen to the sermon please visit www.faithmpls.org.  This post originally appeared on Pastor Bendor’s blog here.

Paul’s imagery of the Church being the body of Christ is beautiful.  To an individual from the first century, the body must have been a mysterious collaboration of different parts all working in unison.  Even today with our understanding of science and medicine, the body remains a beautiful mystery; we may have words to describe the process by which our bodies decide which cells will become feet and which will become hands, but that does not make the “miracle” of the body any less mysterious or beautiful.

In 1Corinthians 12:12-31a, Paul is pleading with the church in Corinth to maintain a healthy “body.”  The health of the Body of Christ, according to Paul is maintained by recognizing the necessary balance between unity and diversity.  Like in the human body, there are many parts; each part has a unique and necessary role to play.  So to in the Church, each person has been given gifts to be used to carry out the work of the Church — glorifying God and spreading the Good News.  If all of us were one part, it would be grotesque like a giant eye.  While we are all diverse with unique roles, we are still part of a single body.  If one is dissatisfied or if there is dissension in the Church and one decides to leave the Body of Christ, it is grotesque like a severed limb lying on the street, separated from its body, separated from the mysterious unity, separated from the beauty of the body.  For Paul, therefore, the health and beauty of the church resides in the balance between unity and diversity.  An important lesson for the church.

As I prepared for this sermon, and as I thought about the mystery and the beauty of the body and Paul’s use of it to describe the Church, a message that a colleague and friend, John Van Sloten in Calgary, gave kept coming to mind.  John’s main text for his message was the science of epigenetics, and while I disagree with John concerning the use of any other “text” than scripture as the main text for a Christian sermon, his insights concerning epigenetics are invaluable.  (To read my post explaining my concerns about using other “texts” — like epigenetics or creation — as a primary text for a sermon you can click here).

So what is epigenetics?  Briefly, my understanding is that portions of our DNA code are bundled together and remain unread until such a time as they are needed (In his sermon, John has a researcher from the University of Calgary, Dr. Carlo, explain this in much more detail and this alone makes it well worth listening to the message).  Not only does some of our DNA code lay dormant (the underlying code does not change but simply sits there until needed), this bundling of certain portions of our DNA is passed on to our children.  Dr. Carlo states, “It’s as if our parents gave us the book of life (our genes), but also highlighted the important passages and put a shade over the chapters that they didn’t need (assuming we won’t need them either).”  In other words, our environment and the choices we make in engaging that environment can have an affect on how our DNA is read and even how it is passed on to our children.  Scary, beautiful, and mysterious all at the same time!

Often one hears experts talking about the DNA of organizations — even churches.  This is the reason I kept thinking about John’s message as I prepared for mine.  The choices that we make as the Body of Christ can and will have lasting affects on the progeny of our church.  Our bickering, our dissension, our grand-standing will effect the DNA of our church for years to come.  The health or the unhealth that we live and promote will be highlighted in the DNA that we pass on to the Church we give to our children and our children’s children.  This truth seen in scripture (Exodus 20:4-6) is echoed and illustrated in the science of epigenetics.  It is a word of warning to each of us in the Church.  What kind of encoding are we highlighting and shadowing in the DNA of our church by the choices we make?

As we seek to build the Body of Christ, as we seek church health through recognizing the necessity of diversity with unity, it is not only for our benefit but for the benefit of generations to come.  The reality of this should change how we live, how we interact with our environment and those around us, and in so doing pass on a healthier and stronger Body for generations to come.

Pastor John Van Sloten’s Dream for the CRC

Pastor John Van Sloten, a past Cosmos cohort member and pastor of New Hope Calgary, wrote a profound proposal “for renewal in the Christian Reformed Church of North America” for the CRCNA.  Check it out here.

Two Books Redux: A Response by David Opderbeck

In a recent post on the Cosmos website, Pastor Kerry Bender expressed his misgivings about the “two books” metaphor often used in faith and science discussions.  I appreciate Pastor Bender’s comments because I, too, think the limits of this metaphor should be explored.  I think some of Pastor Bender’s  concerns, however, are somewhat misplaced.

For Pastor Bender, the primary issues are “authority … unity … and equality.”  He argues that “[s]cripture and creation do not always speak with a unified voice, and when necessary, the Church needs to choose the authoritative voice of Scripture over the voice of creation.”  Further, citing Karl Barth, he notes that the Church’s primary task is to proclaim the revelation it has received of Jesus Christ in scripture, and argues that the Church goes astray if it instead proclaims a revelation supposedly derived from creation.

There is much to unpack and untangle in the midst of Pastor Bender’s helpful observations.

It seems to me a serious mistake to pit the authority of scripture against the authority of creation.  Both the integrity of scripture and the integrity of creation derive from the integrity of God Himself.  Neither scripture nor creation possesses inherent authority in themselves; they both possess authority derived from God, the only and final source of all true authority – of all Truth.

If “creation” is the gift of the Triune God, and if “scripture” testifies to the same God, then it is impossible for creation and scripture to speak against each other.  Can the Son speak against the Father, or the Spirit against the Son?  Christian theology has traditionally spoken of God as “simple” – not meaning “simplistic,” but meaning undivided in being and will, without parts and without contradictions.  Both creation and scripture are gifts that flow from the loving, gracious life of God.  If God always acts as He is, then His acts both in creating the universe and in providing the scriptures are each parts of one seamless and beautiful gift.  “All Truth is God’s Truth,” to quote a clichéd but true phrase.

Indeed, it is problematic even to speak of “authority” without linking authority to “Truth.”  There is a kind of “authority” that is grounded only in will and power.  Chairman Mao once said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”  He meant that the Communist Party possessed authority simply because it had the power to exert its will.  This sort of “authority” is the way of nihilism.  For Christian theology, authentic “authority” derives from the being of God.  For proper Christian theology, the being of God precedes the will of God.  God does not impose authority arbitrarily.  God proposes, discloses, and disposes always as He is.  For this reason, we can speak of “Truth” that is transcendent, of love and justice and wisdom and mercy that are real.  To suggest that creation and the scriptures could both have been given as gifts from God and yet could somehow exist over against one another is ultimately to deny that God is the Truth.

It is nevertheless true, of course, that creation and scripture do not speak in the same way.  Pastor Bender rightly notes that “[i]t is a mistake to read Scripture like a science text book.”  Scripture speaks to us in narratives, prophetic oracles, proverbs, parables, and various other ancient near eastern genres of human speech-acts; creation “speaks” primarily through physical phenomena that can be observed through human senses and modeled through empirical-mathematical tools, most of which have been developed only in the past centuries or decades.  Scripture witnesses directly to the crucified and risen Christ, and this is its primary message; creation witnesses obliquely to the majesty and power of God.  Creation and scripture each require different hermeneutical skills and toolkits in order to be “read” well.

Because creation and scripture do not speak in the same way, Pastor Bender is right to express concerns about blithely equating their theological content.  Creation witnesses to the power of some sort of creative intelligence, but we cannot learn from creation alone that this intelligence is the Triune God who called all things into being from nothing through the power of His Word.  Reading creation alone, we are likely to end up with,  say, the static Platonic “Ideal” or the emergent world-consciousness of the process theologians.  Likewise, creation witnesses to the Logos, but we cannot learn from creation alone about the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Without the incarnation of Christ and the scriptures that witness to Christ, the Logos remains hidden and “unknown” (cf. Acts 17:16-34).  Indeed, in our sin we “naturally” suppress the truth of Christ (see Romans 1).

This is why it is only when we encounter the risen Christ to whom scripture bears witness that we really can begin to “read” creation well.  The scriptures testify that Christ is the central principle of creation:  everything was made by him, is held together in him, and finds its true ends in him (cf. Col. 1:17).  Christ is the hermeneutical principle both of creation and of scripture because Christ is the Truth (cf. John 14:6).  Scientific materialism offers an impoverished epistemology because it cannot comment on “why” the universe exists.  Religions and philosophies that attempt to read creation apart from Christ will always go astray.  In this sense, I agree with Pastor Bender’s discomfort with the “two books” metaphor.  Creation and scripture are not so much “two” free-standing “books” as complementary redactional lines in one grand story.

Here I would circle back to Pastor Bender’s reference to Karl Barth’s theology of revelation.  Barth correctly observed that “revelation” is not a static concept.  This is in contrast to some of the scholastic Reformed theologies of revelation that have so influenced American Evangelicalism, particularly over the past century in the wake of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.   “Revelation,” for Barth, was not just words on a page.  Barth insisted that the event of revelation is the personal self-disclosure of Christ in and through the texts of scripture as they are read and received in the Church.  His Christo-centric theology of revelation surely is much closer to the Church Fathers than the 20th Century Reformed and Evangelical theologies of scripture that led to the Scopes trial and that underwrite the so-called “Creation Museum.”  We do well to take many of Barth’s observations about revelation to heart.

Nevertheless, we should ask whether Barth’s famous “nein” to “natural theology” really reflects the great Christian tradition of faith seeking understanding.  Is there a point at which Barth’s existentialism verges on a sort of entirely immanent fideism that is foreign both to the Church Fathers and to scripture?  Many interpreters of Barth’s legacy who have written about the natural sciences, such as Thomas Torrance and Alister McGrath, have said so, and I tend to agree.

To be fair, Barth’s nein to natural theology was not designed to oppose theological truth to the empirical truths of the natural sciences.  It was, rather, an effort to steer around the rationalistic scholastic Reformed thought of the periods following Luther and Calvin, the rationalistic Thomism of much of 19th and 20th Century Catholicism, and the equally rationalistic anti-supernaturalism of 19th and 20th Century Protestant Liberal theology.  Perhaps it is unfortunate that Barth didn’t learn more about nature and grace from his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Catholic theologian, and from others involved in the Catholic nouvelle théologie.  One can hardly do better on the relation between faith and reason – which after all is the root of this conversation – than Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Fides et Ratio, a document underwritten by Vatican II’s nouvelle théologie-informed sensibilities.  As John Paul II notes, just as “faith” and “reason” are not properly opposed, neither are “nature” and “grace.”  “Creation” is already given as a gift – “nature” is already “grace.”  The corruption of authentic created human nature resulting from sin is not really “natural” at all.  If we misunderstand creation, or scripture, or any other truth, that is a kind of anti-creation, a false “nature.”

So perhaps Pastor Bender is right that we should speak less of “two books.”  Let’s speak instead of one story.  It’s the True Story of all stories:  the story of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons in one essence, who out of sheer love called the fecund and beautiful world forth from nothing; who out of the gift of grace entered into the world in the person of the Son and who in the humanity of the Son offered his own life and suffered along with the human creatures who had scorned creation and separated themselves from His life; and who in the power of his resurrection is uniting and will unite all creation to Himself until God in the fellowship of His person is all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12-34).  There are no divisions here, no need to impose one “book” over against another.  There is only Truth, only Love, hazily understood in Faith, pursued in Hope, received as Gift.

A Tale of Two Books: Choosing the Right Text by Kerry Bender

Over the course of the last year, I have struggled with the metaphor of the “Two Books.” It is a metaphor that has become quite popular in certain Christian circles to describe the relationship between Scripture and creation — a way of recognizing that we hear the voice of God speaking not only through Scripture but also through His creation. There is much in this metaphor that commends itself to the Church. It opens up desperately needed avenues of conversation between theology and the other sciences; as well as, reflecting the theology present in the Psalms, and elsewhere in scripture, that creation itself sings the praises of God. I am concerned, however, that the image conjured by the name of the metaphor is problematic – an image of authority, of unity, and of equality, and it is particularly problematic when considering the commission of the Church.

Early in his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth gave this sage advice to the Church, “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does” (CD 1.1, p. 55). Barth goes onto to explain, however, that there is a big difference between what God may do and what God has chosen to do. God has chosen to speak directly through His revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture, and He has commissioned His Church to proclaim this Word. “…the question what God can do is a very different one from that of the commission laid on us by the promise given to the Church” (CD 1.1, p. 55). It is God’s promise and commission to the Church that allows it to speak authoritatively as it proclaims the Gospel witnessed in Scripture. God does not make this same promise concerning creation. The text of creation does not carry with it the authority of God’s promise or commission to the Church. This is important to recognize when the book of creation and the book of Scripture appear to contradict one another.

Scripture and creation do not always speak with a unified voice, and when necessary, the Church needs to choose the authoritative voice of Scripture over the voice of creation. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not arguing to ignore the physical sciences, or to deny evolutionary theory, or to hide under the hermeneutical rock of a previous decade, or century, or millennium. We need to recognize, however, that creation is fallen and groans as it waits for redemption. Because of this, the voice of creation will be muddled in a way that we do not believe Scripture is muddled. The voice of despair apparent within creation will at times contradict the voice of hope that permeates Scripture. Like John the Baptist in prison, there will be times that we look around at the falleness of creation – that we behold the irreconcilable differences between the way things ought to be and the way things are – and we will question is the Good News about Jesus true (Matthew 11:2-3). At these moments, we must choose the authoritative Word of hope found in scripture over the way things appear in the fallen book of creation around us.

The book of creation is invaluable. By studying it, humanity has discovered things that are on the very precipice of the miraculous. Its pages contain the healing powers of medicine, the beauty of galaxies, and the mysteries of things yet unseen. It is not, however, equal to Scripture when considering the promise and commission to the Church to proclaim Christ. God speaks with clarity in Scripture concerning who He is, who we are, and what He has planned for us in a way that outshines the brightest star, that is deeper than the deepest ocean, and that is more fragrant than most pungent rose. Can God speak through creation? Of course, He can, and when He does, we do well to listen to Him. It is not, however, an authoritative word on par with Scripture. In the same way, Scripture is not equal with the book of creation concerning how to stop the spread of mold or selectively breeding sheep for desired characteristics.

It is a mistake to read Scripture like a science text book. Many of us have been down that road, and it leads to frustration, confusion, and at times a conflict of faith so severe that it causes some to leave Christianity altogether. Why, then, do we want to make the same but inverse mistake with creation and try to read it like a theological text? This is the problem I believe with the name of the metaphor, “The Two Books.” Whether intentionally, or unintentionally, the name of this metaphor conjures up an image of two volumes in the same series, carrying the same authority, speaking in unity, and having equality concerning the same subjects. We have seen the damage that this has caused over the course of the last century and a half at the hands of fundamentalists who demanded that these two volumes be read as science, and I fear that in an attempt to correct this, we may inadvertently cause more damage by implying that they should be read as equal volumes in a series of theological texts.

Scripture does state that creation sings the praises of God. There is no doubt that the echoes of scripture are heard ringing off the mountains, whispering in the winds, and mirrored in the reflections of quiet waters. But they are echoes – powerful echoes, beautiful echoes, but echoes just the same. We must not mistake the beautiful echoes for the voice. They do not speak with the same clarity or authority, and when we find these echoes recorded in Scripture, they are primarily in the context of worship after the authoritative Word of God has already transformed the worshipper. The one possible exception to this is Romans 1:20 where creation seems to only stand in judgment against the unbeliever not to bring full knowledge of the Savior. Therefore, it is the Good News that allows the worshipper to hear the echoes of God through the voice of creation; as Paul states elsewhere in the same letter to the Romans, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15, NIV). This is the promise and the commission of the Church that God will go with us as we preach Christ crucified as revealed in the Scriptures.

The metaphor of a clear voice and an echo I believe is the metaphor that we find in Scripture – the metaphor of creation echoing the voice of God which is found in Scripture. Unfortunately, it is a metaphor that is difficult to capture in a three word name like “The Two Books.” So it is not as easy to remember, but I believe it is a more accurate metaphor, and one that would better serve honest dialogue between theology and the other sciences.

Read David Opderbeck’s Response: Two Books Redux

 

 

Space ~ by Keith Shields

I am continually amazed as I think about the nature of our world. We live in constant interaction with the molecules of the universe. We perceive things around us as solid objects: the keyboard on which I pound out these words, the desk on which my computer sits, and the dense mass of the mountains I can see out my window. We also perceive things in between the solid objects as empty space.

Yet, the space between the mountains and me, and my desk and me for that matter, is far from empty. That “space” is filled with molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon-dioxide. The “emptiness” also contains water vapour, trace amounts of household chemicals, vapours given off by plastics and electronics, particles of my own body as dead skin cells flake off and float on the air or bio-chemicals from my lungs are expelled into the atmosphere. (It is all of this stuff that our bodies are continually giving off that allows a good tracking dog to detect us and follow our trail through the woods.) The space between me and the mountains is also filled with dust and industrial particles from a major city, electrons sent out from the sun in a continuous solar wind, and photons of light. Physicists are still unclear on the best way to describe the elementary particle/wave that is a photon but we can see that they are there.

The things that seem solid are less solid than our perception would lead us to believe. The molecules which make up these solid items have a significant amount of space between them and the individual protons, in the nucleus of these atoms, associate with electrons that are far away from the proton itself. To get an idea of these subatomic distances, let us consider a thought experiment in which we scale up these protons and electrons to the size of things which we are used to handling.

Here, I must give a few disclaimers about how this thought experiment will work. It will not be strictly accurate. Whenever we try to describe such molecular and atomic interactions, words will fail us. Mathematics is a language better suited to describing such things and yet most of us do not have sufficient mathematical fluency to converse about these subjects. A mathematical physicist would look at my crude description of protons and electrons and find many flaws within it. So think of it as a metaphor that might poetically, not scientifically, explain some of the sizes and spaces between things.

Allow me to take your imagination on a journey down into atomic spaces. The size of a proton is approximately 0.8418 femtometres (fm)(1) or 0.8418 X 10-15 metres. A very simple atom is the hydrogen atom. It consists of one proton and one electron. The electron orbits around the proton and the average distance from proton to electron is called the Bohr Radius. This distance is approximately 5.29 X 10-11 metres.(2)

Thus, if we scale up the size of the proton to the size of a basketball, the electron would orbit around the proton at an average distance of 1.60 X 104 metres = 16000 metres = 16 km.3 If I held a basketball sized hydrogen proton in my living room, its associated electron would be somewhere around Richmond in the south, Burnaby to the east, the North Shore mountains to the north, or out over the Pacific Ocean to the west at any given moment.

This is the simplest of atomic models. The typical distance between two helium protons is 2.5 X 10-15 metres. In our scaled up model, this distance becomes about 0.755 metres. Thus our basketball model helium atom would have two basketballs separated by 75 cm in my living room in downtown Vancouver and two electrons whizzing around in an orbit which again would includ portions of Richmond and Burnaby.

The nuclear radius of Uranium is around 15 X 10-15 metres. This involves 92 protons interacting together in this nucleus. In the model we have been discussing, that is 92 basketballs in my living room taking up about 4.5 metres of space. The cloud of 92 electrons would be similarly scattered in orbits far beyond the protons themselves. By the way, electrons are small, but present science has not given us a very good idea of their actual diameter.

Even the massive granite of a mountain (like the Stawamus Chief monolith near Squamish BC) is a complex interaction of molecules in which individual atoms are linked together by molecular bonds and share electrons between atoms. There are spaces between the protons and electrons and the whole thing is a spinning, buzzing, hive of activity despite the fact that we see it as a lump of rock simply sitting there since the mountain range was formed.

What do we do with this sense of space and solid objects? It is beyond our comprehension. There is something beautiful, mystical, and spiritual about it. It fills me with awe. It causes me to praise a creator who could create all of this and understand all of its complexities.

He counts the stars
and calls them all by name.
How great is our Lord! His power is absolute!
His understanding is beyond comprehension!
Psalm 147:4, 5 New Living Translation

References
1. http://www.quantumdiaries.org/2010/07/12/the-size-of-the-proton/

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohr_radius or http://physics.nist.gov/cgi-bin/cuu/Value?bohrrada0|search_for=bohr+radius

3. Basketball model:
254 mm Basket ball = 2.54 X 10-1 metres
0.8418 X 10-15 metres proton
5.29 X 10-11 metres average proton/electron distance
(2.54 X 10-1 / 0.8418 X 10-15) X 5.29 X 10-11 metres
3.02 X 1014 X 5.29 X 10-11 metres
1.60 X 104 metres = 16000 metres = 16 km

CBC Radio Interview with Pastor John Van Sloten

Pastor John Van Sloten, a cohort member in 2010, is being featured on a five-part CBC radio interview about the intersection of Faith and Science in North American Culture.

Check it out here.

Epigenetics and the Love of God: A Sermon by John Van Sloten

2011 Pastoral Science member John Van Sloten of New Hope Church, Calgary, explores how Epigenetics, and what our gene’s expression reveals to us about the intimate love of God.

Epigenetics and the Love of God from New Hope Church Calgary on Vimeo.

Kerry Bender: Developing a Theology of Creation Care: It’s not just for fruits and nuts.

2011 Pastoral Science member Kerry Bender preaches a fantastic sermon about Creation Care from within a robustly Christian framework. You can download the audio here, or read this post on Kerry’s blog where he addresses quesitons received via text during the sermon from his congregation.

 

Plantinga on “Faith and Science.”

Cardus has posted a fascinating article by David Talcott regarding Alvin Plantinga’s thoughts on where the true “conflict” between Faith and Science really lies.

Check it out here.

Caring for Our Scientists: Some postures and practices of science-friendly churches by Phil Reinders

2011 Cohort Member Rev. Phil Reinders writes a headline article for The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church.

You can read it here.

Book Review of Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth by Ben Sonquist

To begin, I’ll note that my first “reading” of The Greatest Show on Earth was of the audio book version. I highly recommend experiencing the book in this way. The book is read by Dawkins himself, as well as his wife Lalla Ward. Throughout the audio book Dawkins and Ward read the book in a conversational and engaging tone that make the science accessible and the experience enjoyable. The audio book includes an enhanced CD with a PDF containing many of the images from the book. The images are excellent and referenced throughout the reading. When I got the paperback version of the book I noticed that there were a few more images that were not included in the PDF but they came as a nice surprise and didn’t degrade my view of the audio book in the least.

Inside of my first semester as a biology student (these were the early days of my Christian walk as well) I was confronted with the famous assertion from the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky that “Nothing in biology makes sense but in the light of evolution.” While not referencing Dobzhanky directly The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins demonstrates the evidence for the claim in the famous quote. Any budding biology student would be well served by reading The Greatest Show on Earth as a prerequisite to his or her coursework but the book is also instructive to Christians who are interested in exploring the continuity between their faith and the science of Evolution.

Dawkins begins by explaining how this book differs from his previous writings on evolution. Dawkins describes how earlier works explained natural selection and removed stumbling blocks to its acceptance but never explicitly laid out the evidence for evolution as a whole. The intention of this book is to present the positive evidence for evolution.
Dawkins’ described need for this book goes beyond filling a gap in his professional repertoire. Dawkins describes the increasing hostility toward evolution by influential church groups, namely those that hold to a young earth creation (YEC) perspective. In his strongest and potentially most offensive affront to YECs, he likens those who maintain a denial of evolution to holocaust deniers and their determined defiance of history in the face of overwhelming evidence. Dawkins asserts that the evidence for evolution is just as strong if not stronger than that of the holocaust and methodically lays out that evidence through 13 chapters and dozens of illustrations, photographs and figures.

While Dawkins is clearly writing in opposition to the YEC perspective his approach is far more educational than militant. Dawkins begins his crash course of evolution by addressing the term theory and its varied scientific and cultural meanings. Dawkins emphasizes that the term theory is challenging in itself because the word can have two very distinct, and even contradictory, meanings. In one sense (the scientific sense) a theory is a scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation of a group of facts or phenomenon. This explanation is confirmed by a wide range of experimental and observational data and is accepted as accounting for the known facts. In a second sense a theory is a proposed, speculative explanation that is not widely accepted.

Dawkins goes on to articulate why evolution is a theory in the first scientific sense. To do this he draws a comparison to the heliocentric theory that explains the size and position of the sun in the solar system. Dawkins asserts that when Creationists refer to the theory of evolution as “only a theory” they are either being mischievous or completely blind to the weight and significance the term theory carries in scientific terms.

The evidence for evolution begins in earnest in the second chapter and carries on through the 12th. Dawkins adopts a familiar and useful approach for initiating his explanations. Dawkins starts with artificial selection as an explanatory analogue to natural selection, then moves on to the subject of time and the various methods available for dating objects and the earth itself.
By introducing his readers to the successes and strategies used in artificial selection by breeders of dogs, roses and cabbage, Dawkins creates a bridge by which the reader can recognize the logic and efficacy of natural selection as the driving force of evolution. Dawkins describes how breeders mold their subjects (dogs, roses, cabbage) into the shapes, sizes, colors, etc. that they want by selecting for desired traits. This selection process is possible because of the inherent variation in all individuals. In any population of dogs there will be some individuals with big ears and some with small ears. If the breeder wants to make a long eared dog they simply select the long eared dogs for breeding. In this way the long ear trait survives in the next generation. Dawkins compares this process of artificially selecting for desirable traits by a breeder with the natural selection process that drives evolution.

Dawkins asserts that the process of natural selection is identical to artificial selection except that traits are “selected” by their ability to help an individual survive and reproduce offspring. In the case of natural selection, a breeder is not necessary because the advantageous traits are automatically selected when they help an individual survive and therefore pass on those traits to the next generation. Advantageous traits will continue to accumulate in the population over time and result in a gradual change of that population.

With a similar softening approach Dawkins starts with the science of dendrochronology to introduce the concept of time and the vast spans of it necessary for evolution by natural selection to take place. Dendrochronology is basically the science of tree ring counting. If you have ever counted the rings of a tree in order to estimate its age you have been an amateur dendrochronologist. What’s important about the tree ring method is that it has physical markers placed at regular intervals for counting. Dawkins goes on to show that methods such as radiometric dating are reliable because, like tree ring counting, they provide physical markers placed at regular intervals that are available for counting.

It is easy for young children to age a tree by counting the rings but it can be hard for even a well educated lay person to understand the isotopes and decay rates necessary for dating the oldest parts of the Earth. Dawkins allows his readers to understand more challenging scientific ideas that could be barriers to accepting the validity of evolution by first bridging them to more simple science concepts. This is where the brilliance of Dawkins as an educator shines and is a characteristic that is persistent throughout The Greatest Show on Earth.

Dawkins continues to bolster the case for evolution by addressing topics such as observing evolution in the lab, the fossil record and “the missing link”, developmental forces as a means for diversification, plate tectonics, phylogeny, and homologous structures and genetics. Throughout the text the case for evolution is strengthened by the science that is described.

While Dawkins stated in the preface that this book was not intended to draw people away from religion (he’d already written that book many times over) he’s not shy about pointing out the problems with a creationist perspective throughout the book and more specifically in the last two chapters. In the final two chapters Dawkins addresses the appearance of a designer and other issues such as pain, significance, and beginnings. To many Christian readers this could come off as an attack on faith and might even distract them from the science that is articulated throughout the book. I’m tempted to say that I wish the book would have been written just as it is but by a Christian author who could articulate the science while connecting with a Christian audience. (The Language of God by Francis Collins is a great book that is unapologetic about the science of evolution while intercalating a Christian worldview). However on further consideration I think facing Dawkins’ critical perspective of creationist dogma can be an opportunity for a mature Christian reader to understand and review his/her own beliefs.

Ben Sonquist is a teacher at STARBASE Minnesota, an educational non-profit in St. Paul Minnesota. Themmission of STARBASE is to inspire young people to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). He graduated from Augsburg College in Minneapolis with a BA in both Biology and Education. Ben serves at his church (Faith Baptist Church) as the co-chair of the Christian Education Board and teaches Sunday school classes for adults and youth on a regular basis. For two school years, from 2005-2006, he and his wife Amy led the youth group at Faith Baptist as the interim minister of youth. Ben is currently working with his pastor on a book project. The project is geared toward teens and seeks to communicate the cohesiveness of Biblical and scientific world views. Ben and his wife Amy live in Minneapolis with their three boys.  His blog is: http://resolution-kelvin2514.blogspot.com/

Brain fast-mapping and an innate way of seeing God by John Van Sloten

John Van Sloten is Pastor of New Hope Church in Calgary, AB, a Pastoral Science alum and a board member for the Center for Pastoral Science board member.  

In this article John explores the learning process known as fast-mapping and explores its implications from a spiritual perspective.

The Kidney, Homeostasis, and the Holy Spirit: A Sermon by John Van Sloten

In this fascinating and brilliant sermon, Pastoral Science alum John Van Sloten, pastor of New Hope Church in Calgary, AB, explores what the nature of the human kidney teaches us about the nature of God.

The Kidney, Homeostasis, and the Holy Spirit from New Hope Church Calgary on Vimeo.

Science and Faith: From Collision to Collaboration: Sermon by Richard Dahlstrom

2011 Pastoral Science Cohort Member Richard Dahlstrom preaches on the integration of Faith & Science.

Science & Faith: Collision to Collaboration from BethanyCommunityChurch on Vimeo.

Audio of the sermon is available here.

This sermon was also featured on BioLogos.

How the Large Hadron Collider reveals the mind of God by John Van Sloten

John Van Sloten is Pastor of New Hope Church in Calgary, AB, a Pastoral Science alum and a board member for the Center for Pastoral Science board member.  In this article John explores the ways the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) helps us better understand God. Available from ThinkChristian here.

This Common Commitment: What Science and Christian Theology Have in Common by Ross Hastings

My interest in the integration of science and theology comes out of having inhabited both vocations. Within each, disbelief that this is possible has often been expressed from professed Christians, and many who are not.

‘How do you put those two things together?’ is the skeptical question I am often asked when I say in the occasional golf game that I have worked in both chemistry and the Church.

My interest in both theology and science arises also out of a curiosity to know the truth that “takes care of itself,” as Roman Catholic author Thomas Merton has written, in every realm of reality, and that sets us free. I am motivated by two faith commitments: first, that all truth is God’s truth, and second that all truth concerning the creation of the universe and its reconciliation is centered in the God-Man Jesus who said, ‘I am the truth’ (John 14:6).

He is as the eternal Word, both the agent of creation and the revelation of God to us. In Him, God has both created and reconciled all things in heaven and on earth to Himself. In Him ‘are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col.2:3).

A Vigorous Integration
Therefore, fledgling Christian scientists may pursue truth fearlessly in careers in science, assured that no discovery will ever surprise or outsmart Christ.

In light of this, it is only appropriate for Christians to develop a curiosity for knowledge about creation and science that will evoke a sense of wonder and worship.

Any attempt to integrate science and theology must be vigorous, though always tentative and guided by the essentials of Christian faith, or historic Christian orthodoxy as this has been revealed in Scripture properly interpreted, and expressed in the Creeds. Christian theology and science in fact share a common commitment to the fearless pursuit of truth no matter its source, in a hands-on or empirical fashion. Both acknowledge that knowledge is gained by more than mere abstract reasoning.

This not only validates science, but also theology.

Theological discoveries are made in a fashion similar to how scientific discoveries are made. Scientists tend to privilege fact to what is scientifically verifiable, to the neglect of historical fact. In fact, both have merit. The development of the most important doctrine of the Christian faith, that is, the full deity and humanity of Christ and then, the Trinity, was in response to the historical and tangible experience of the apostles and the early church.
John’s particular description of this as sensual experience is intriguing: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life’ (1 John 1:1). Lesslie Newbigin writes in an essay entitled “The Trinity as Public Truth,” that the doctrine of the Trinity was the result of “a new fact .”

That new fact was the Resurrection.

Of course, science does require reproducibility of findings. However, given that historical facts do not allow such a possibility, forming theological knowledge on history is not absurd, but reasonable. We will have to wait to the end of the age to argue the reproducibility of the Christian experience of resurrection, but we can see some evidence of it in the regeneration of human believers and in the continuity of the church.

How Science has helped
Personally I have found that scientific training has served me well in exegesis — the critical explanation and interpretation of a Bible text — and theological thinking. Both entail forming hypotheses based on the available data, both are empirical in that sense, both share the rigorous application of intellect, and both ought also to appreciate the limits of intellect.

Science and Christianity are not as far apart as my golfing buddys’ incredulities suggest.

Science is also art
Michael Polanyi, a chemist and a philosopher, believed that “Science can’t be done without imagination and passion.” Another way to say this is that science is also an art.
Polanyi observed that creative acts (especially acts of discovery) are shot-through with strong personal feelings and commitments. His most famous work was titled Personal Knowledge. Arguing against the then dominant position that science was somehow value-free, Polanyi sought to bring reasoned and critical interrogation into creative tension with other more tacit forms of knowing.

Christians may engage boldly with science in light of the realization that science is in fact Christian in its historical origins, and that a specifically Trinitarian, incarnational worldview has been more compatible with the pursuit of science than other worldviews.
The reason that this sounds counter-intuitive has a lot to do with Enlightenment prejudices. Doing science within a Christian framework was in fact the way in which science prospered best in the history of human civilization, as Michael Foster, an Oxford philosopher of the 1930s has shown. Foster sought to overcome the warfare language with respect to science and faith propagated by others. He demonstrated that the medieval Christian view of matter as created, and thus important, but not divine, made the study of science even possible.

Many nations of a pantheistic bent were too fearful of nature to study it by means of sensuous experience. Other nations, like the Greeks, viewed matter as unimportant, and could never advance science beyond abstract reasoning. Empirical science through sensuous experience took root, as my fellow Regent College professor, Loren Wilkinson writes, “through the Christian experience of the Creator-God of love who invented physical reality, and who in Jesus, became a part of it, [and] changed forever how we value that knowledge.” (“The New Story of Creation: A Trinitarian Perspective ‘What God does,’ Crux XXX, 4 (December 1994): 26–36.) Wilkinson continues, ‘like who God is, is inexhaustible, surprising and gracious. Knowledge comes through engaged experience, not detached contemplation.”

What Post-modernity has done
Interestingly, in this, the post-modern era, the compatibility of science and Christian theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’ has edged closer together. Post- modernity has, by its honesty about the relative uncertainty of knowledge, done the Christian church a great favour, enabling us to engage in the public square with confidence that the assertions of everybody else in that square are also fiduciary — that is, based on faith in something (even atheism lives by an indemonstrable faith) – in nature. Post-modernity has exposed the gods of modernity as unreliable.

Christians should, of all people, engage in science fearlessly. It is a significant vocation in the fulfilling of the creation or cultural mandate given initially to the first Adam to steward creation. Scientists can, in Christ, recover the wonder of being priests of creation, humans who ‘give creation a voice’, and in so doing, play a crucial role in the caring of this amazing creation which God has entrusted to us.

If God has in Christ reconciled the creation to himself, it must have a future. We as the new humanity need to rise up, scientists included, to participate with God in that renewal. Christians need have no fear of engaging in the world of science, for we should have no fear of truth. We are simply worshippers of the Story-teller behind the cosmic story.

(This article also appeared in Faith Today)

A Midwife and Her Patient: Learning from Loss

A powerful radio program about life, loss and relationship. Available here from KUOW.

Science as Art

Fascinating article on NewScientist about the “Science as Art” contest @ Princeton. Read more here.

Additional Photos from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) available here.