Happy Internet Evangelism Day!

Today is Internet Evangelism Day, part of Digital Outreach Month. Digital mission is going to be the focus of a lot of my thinking in the coming years (more on that soon), so I’m especially gratified to hear that others are giving the issue considerable thought.

I’m excited to hear soon from my friend Andrew Terry about what he makes of Len Sweet’s Viral: How Social Networking Is Poised to Ignite Revival. It’s been spotlighted by the group.

Here’s a press release from the IEDay folks:

Internet Evangelism Day resources

The amazing growth of digital media is transforming the world and changing the way we communicate and even think. There are growing opportunities for digital evangelism.

Internet Evangelism Day is an annual focus day, scheduled for 29 April 2012. It creates a space for churches, ministries and individual Christians to investigate the many options for sharing the good news online.

The Internet Evangelism Day website is also a year-round online resource guide to help Christians understand these varied opportunities. Topics covered include: how to build a church website that is ‘outsider friendly’, using Facebook and Twitter in evangelism, and the growing options for using your mobile phone.

For many of these opportunities, you need no technical knowledge at all. And there are many opportunities to volunteer to be an email mentor to inquirers who have visited outreach sites operated by several online ministries.

Internet Evangelism Day is an initiative of the Internet Evangelism Coalition, based at the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton. It is supported by a wide range of Christian leaders and groups. “I am glad to commend Internet Evangelism Day,” said the late John Stott.

More information: www.IEDay.net

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Resources for Including People with Intellectual Disabilities

On March 26, Dr. Ralph Honderd gave a forum at VTS on ministry with people with intellectual disabilities. This is an area of our ministry of welcome in which so many churches have significant room for improvement. The good news Dr. Honderd shared is that there are people who can help.

Friendship Ministries is an inter-denominational organization whose mission is to “share God’s love with people who have intellectual disabilities and to enable them to become an active part of God’s family.” As a part of that mission, they offer materials for sale and also maintain a suggested reading list.

Similarly, CLC Network (Christian Learning Center) “promotes the development of people with a variety of abilities and disabilities to live as active, integrated members of their communities.” Their site also includes a reading list, as well as product offerings that range from books to “Inclusion Awareness Kits” and services like church consulting and drama/dance.

Both groups want to help your church take concrete steps to include people with cognitive impairments and to help support families’ lives of faith. Please consider reaching out to them.

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Preliminary Thoughts on “Fixing Adult Formation”

Derek Olsen, one of the more interesting Daily Episcopalian columnists at Episcopal Café, wrote an article a couple of days back about the power of the Internet to be part of the solution to the challenge of Fixing Adult Formation. I’ve had some similar thoughts myself and was struck in particular by the following:

In short, I want to suggest that instead of wringing our hands about the state of adult faith formation, we realize that, for those of us reading these words now, a significant effort is happening online and that both learning and formation are happening based on what people find here.

It ain’t your momma’s Sunday School.

What of the budget cuts? An electronic acquaintance has a quote from Margaret Mead in his email signature: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I’ve thought about this quote frequently as I’ve surveyed the Episcopal side of the internet. What has dawned on me is that every major online resource that I use has been created by an individual with a passion—not by a funded church committee. Take Chad Wohlers’s site on the Books of Common Prayer or the currently anonymous bcponline.org. Ditto for Project Canterbury or The Lectionary Page or MissionStClare or DailyOffice.org or my own office site. Even the Episcopal Café itself—as far as I know—comes out of Jim’s own passion (and that of his dedicated news team)—with only web space coming from the Diocese of Washington, D.C.

Obviously, I’m a bit biased–having started this site as a personal labor of love–but I’m inclined to agree. Where I disagree is the extent to which Olsen elsewhere makes it look like formation material created online (even on the blogs) needs to be distinct from “brick-and-mortar Adult Sunday School classes and forums.” I hope that our Courses page will continue to fill up with offerings that very explicitly challenge that distinction.

In his action items at the end of the post, Olsen writes “we need someone who’s willing to bring some organization to all of this.” I totally agree and have some thoughts on this issue as well. More soon!

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Lenten Meditations and Blogs

Many parishes help individuals deepen their faith by sponsoring a set of Lenten meditations written by and for members of the church. Some churches expand the reach of these meditations by publishing them on a blog, so they can be found by others on the Pilgrim way–both the way of Lent as the church understands it, and not so much.

Here are a couple of strong examples of the genre, by churches, organizations, and individuals:

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Upcoming Event: VTS Forum Hour

Last announcement of the afternoon, I promise: IntoAllTheWWWorld.org will be the subject of a presentation at the VTS Forum Hour on February 21. Here’s the blurb:

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2/21/12: Into All The WWWorld, and Other Science Experiments

Come learn about a new collaborative tool for Christian formation and online evangelism. Sponsored by the Evangelical Education Society and produced in partnership with the Center for the Ministry of TeachingIntoAllTheWWWorld.org is a place for Christian educators to share formation resources online. Kyle Oliver will present a vision for increasing the prominence of thoughtful online content by mainline Christians–and helping ministry professionals like you to download, share, produce, and reuse curricula, videos, links, and other tools of the Christian ed trade in the twenty-first century. Featured resources will include contributions by VTS students as well as the site’s flagship course on science and theology. Join us, and be a part of the experiment!

Date: Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Time: 1-1:50 p.m.
Location: Addison 101
Contact: Kyle Oliver, koliver@vts.edu

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Please consider and joining us!

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Bookmarks for NAECED

Our good friend Dorothy Linthicum recently suggested that we make up some promotional bookmarks for her to distribute at next week’s conference of the National Association for Episcopal Christian Education Directors. With some help from Susan Shillinglaw and Marshall Finch of the VTS staff, they’re currently in production. Feel free to have a look-see below, and contact us if you’d like some to distribute in your ministry context.

Download | Share | Teach | Learn | Grow

Into All The WWWorld Promotional Bookmark

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Course Preview, Part 5 — “‘Into a wider world’: Conversations between science and religion”

We wrapped up our pilot offering of the science and theology course on Tuesday, so once again we have some more slide and handout resources to share with you in addition to some content from the final core lesson of the three. Please enjoy this preview of the material on history, causation, and providence. This excerpt comes from the “We answer that …” section, which attempts to synthesize the scientific and theological perspectives. Remember, the course is free, and you can click here and “Log in as guest” to view the material without an account.

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“We answer that …”: Religious and scientific accounts in conversation

St. Thomas Aquinas. By Sandro Botticelli.Aquinat at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia CommonsWe answer that …” a proper updating of the scientific worldview, one that incorporates the findings of quantum mechanics and chaos/complexity theory, brings us “into a wider world” indeed. In this world, it is not so hard to conceive of God’s divine action having a place, and it is perhaps impossible to rule such action out. Once again, the scientific and religious accounts may not be as conflicting as we thought. Our first task, then, is to fast-forward in our account of the history of science and take note of two discoveries that changed, perhaps forever (though that remains to be seen) our understanding of causality and history from a scientific perspective.

Science update, part 1: Quantum mechanics

Those of you who have studied quantum mechanics in a course on, say, modern physics, physical chemistry, or molecular biology know that it is an exceedingly difficult subject, full of counter-intuitive behavior and challenging mathematics. Never fear: the understanding necessary for our purposes is minimal.

James Clerk Maxwell. By Luestling [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.One way of narrating the emergence of quantum mechanics in the history of twentieth-century physics is by considering a motivating question about the nature of light. Since the mid-nineteenth-century, physicists had been sure that light was a wave. Indeed, James Clerk Maxwelland others had developed a theory (based on four elegant equations that have come to be known as Maxwell’s Equations) that showed very convincingly that visible light was a special kind of electromagnetic radiation that, like all such radiation, travels through the universe in waves.

However, in the first few years of the twentieth century, mathematical physicists started treating light like a particle (a quanta) in an attempt to explain some strange experimental results. Their intuition that light might behave both as a wave and as a particle was later confirmed by subsequent experiment. A further strange finding followed: tiny particles behave the exact same way. At the subatomic level, the level of electrons and even smaller building blocks of the universe, particles can behave like waves. The universe appeared to be stranger than we’d thought.

Werner Heisenberg. By Quiris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.The strangest of all these phenomena, and the one that most interests philosophers and theologians, is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The easiest way to understand this idea is to think about how you would measure the position and velocity of, say, an electron. Stephen Hawking writes,

The obvious way to do this is to shine light on the particle. Some of the waves of light will be scattered by the particle and will indicate its position. However, one will not be able to determine the position of the particle more accurately than the distance between the wave crests of light, so one needs to use light of a short wavelength in order to measure the position of the particle precisely … [O]ne cannot use an arbitrarily small amount of light; one has to use at least one quantum. This quantum will disturb the particle and change its velocity in a way that cannot be predicted … Heisenberg showed that the uncertainty in the position of the particle times the uncertainty in its velocity times the mass of the particle can never be smaller than a certain quantity … Moreover, this limit does not depend on the way in which one tries to measure the position or velocity of the particle, or on the type of particle: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is a fundamental, inescapable property of the world. [1, 56-57]

Hawking also describes what he believes this picture meant for Laplace’s grand visions: “The uncertainty principle signaled an end to Laplace’s dream of a theory of science, a model of the universe that would be completely deterministic: one certainly cannot predict future events exactly if one cannot even measure the present state of the universe precisely” [1, 57]. All of a sudden, there was a chink in the armor of the purely mechanical universe. Through the lens of quantum mechanics, the world looked a little fuzzier than it did before.

Science update, part 2: Chaos and complexity theory

In our opinion, the strange world of chaos and complexity theory is even harder to understand. Unfortunately, as we will see, these newer disciplines are also important to modern discussions about the causal joint problem.

The Lorenz attractor, an important discovery in the founding of chaos theory. By Wikimol (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.Perhaps the easiest way in to chaos theory is through the eyes of one of the first researchers to stumble upon it and understand what it meant: Edward Lorenz. Imagine for a moment that Laplace was somehow transported to the early 1960s. He might have tried exactly the experiment Edward Lorenz was up to, which was an attempt to learn how to predict the weather by simulating it on a computer.

“Ah, but what about about the Uncertainty Principle?” you rightly ask. Well, our transformed Laplace might have been relatively undeterred, despite Hawking’s warnings above. “I don’t care about predicting the behavior of electrons,” he might have said. “I only want to study systems I can see, systems whose macroscopic behavior shouldn’t be affected by quantum-level fuzziness. Systems like the weather.” The mechanical worldview of Laplace was in many ways still operative for Lorenz.

Journalist and early popularizer of chaos theory James Gleick describes a subtle assumption in this thinking, the error of which Lorenz was about to discover:

There was always one small compromise, so small the working scientists usually forgot it was there, lurking in a corner of their philosophies like an unpaid bill. Measurements [even macroscopic measurements unaffected by the Uncertainty Principle] could never be perfect. Scientists marching under Newton’s [and Laplace's] banner actually waved another flag that said something like this: Given an approximate knowledge of a system’s initial conditions and an understanding of natural law, one can calculate the approximate behavior of the system. [2, 14-15]

This assumption turns out to be wrong. Lorentz discovered this fact one day when he got impatient with his computer and re-entered the simulation’s initial conditions by hand. In doing so, he slightly changed them, because he was entering them from an old printout that rounded the numbers off. So he ended up with two simulations, one where a starting variable had the value 0.506127 and one where that same variable was rounded to 0.506000. [2, 16]

If the above assumption is correct, it shouldn’t have mattered. Such a small change in the initial conditions should only have had a small effect on the weather simulation that followed. But it didn’t; it had a large effect (this introduction has a picture of the two weather patterns mapped over time). As it turns out, the weather can only be modelled using what mathematicians callnonlinear equations. And nonlinear equations like the ones Lorenz was using exhibit “sensitive dependence on initialconditions.” Lorenz went on to name this phenomenon using a helpful analogy. He called it the butterfly effect:

The flapping of a single butterfly’s wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a month’s time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn’t happen. Or maybe one that wasn’t going to happen, does. [3, 129]

The Mandelbrot Set, an important discovery in the history of chaos theory. By Geek3 (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.The science of chaos theory developed in fits and starts over the next twenty years. With its younger sibling complexity theory, it has discovered a strange and beautiful world (a Google Image Search for “chaos theory math” should give you some idea). We don’t have time for a more systematic treatment, but Gleick’s Chaos [2] is a fascinating and accessible introduction. (Math geeks will also almost certainly enjoy the video some Cornell students made of Jonathan Coulton’s song, “Mandelbrot Set.” Warning: there’s a small amount of profanity in the lyrics.)

We will let sharper thinkers than us make some careful points about the implications of chaos and complexity theory for the idea of divine action and the causal joint problem. For this introductory sketch, we’ll leave you with the following evocative summary:

There is order in chaos: randomness has an underlying geometric form. Chaos imposes fundamental limits on prediction, but it also suggests causal relationships were none were previously suspected. [4, 35]

Implications for divine action: Causal joints revisited

What have we learned from our updating of the scientific picture of the world? Robert John Russell, who edits the journalTheology and Science sees in this picture the possibility for “a new view of special providence which holds both that God acts in the world objectively, and yet that such action is not by intervening in or suspending the laws of nature” [5, 84]. On the theological side, Haught sees as the key to understanding this claim the idea of a personal God whose “mighty acts” are nonetheless gently performed:

[T]he universe of complexity and chaos suggests an understanding of God’s power as gentle and persuasive rather than coercive. A world which, as a whole, is so sensitive to the initial conditions from which it has evolved is one that seems to be guided more by tenderness than by brute force … God apparently does not force the world into some final shape in an instantaneous display of magic. Nor is God a linear mathematician, deterministically directing the world in the manner of a cosmic ruler. But still the universe does exhibit, from its very beginning, the character of being influenced by some gentle,noncoercive quality of self-ordering … The kind of creator we might associate with this spectacle is not the same as the narrowly conceived divine mechanic of classical natural theology. [6, 157]

On the more scientific side, Polkinghorne believes that the causal joint by which God can bring these gentle acts about may lie somewhere in the interaction between the material and the mental, an interaction that cannot be ruled out of our current physical picture of the universe:

Read from the bottom-upwards, physics provides us with no more than an envelope of possibility, within which future development is constrained to lie. Within that envelope, the path actually taken depends upon the realization of a specific set of options selected from among proliferating possibilities. These different possibilities are not discriminated from each other by energetic considerations … but by something much more like an information-input … One sees the opportunity for using this information-input, necessary to resolve what actually occurs, as the vehicle for a downward operating causality, a role for the “mental” (information) in the determination of the material. [7, 25-26; see also 8, 33]

That’s a mouthful. What he’s saying is that it doesn’t actually look like God would have to “inject” energy into the apparently closed system that is the universe in order to have a noticeable effect on it (because most real physical systems are so sensitive). Thus, God’s will (here Polkinghorne calls it the “mental”) doesn’t need to violate a physical law such as the conservation of energy in order to have an effect on the material world (such a violation would be what Russell calls “intervention” and Haughtcalls “coercion”). Just as our mental powers can bring about a change in the physical world (such as when we decide to move our own bodies in some way), so can God analogously participate in the physical world. In both cases (not just the latter), the causal joints are “hidden within the unpredictability of process” [8, 34]. Hidden, but not imaginary.

Of course, we need to be modest in our claims. The “contrast theologians” would be quick to remind us that our theological tasks are quite distinct from the scientists’ and that the two should not be conflated. Moreover, a careful examination of what has been put forth shows that we’re certainly not dealing with a recapitulation of those famous “proofs” for God’s existencewhich have fared so poorly on the philosophical scene.

No, at most we have what Markham and many others call “pointers” to God [9, 39]. But at the very least, we can say something like this: “Of course, we don’t know, and never will, how God interacts with the world. But the supple and open-ended picture of the universe that has arrived in science suggests that it is by no means unreasonable to suppose that God might do so.” For those wishing to state this conclusion a bit more strongly, you could do worse than a phrase Polkinghorne used in a recent personal conversation with us at a gathering of Christian scholars: “The defeatists have been defeated.”

Miracles: A case study

It’s interesting to apply what we’ve learned above to the mightiest of God’s acts, those occurrences we call miracles. Notice right away, though, that there is a continuity between miraculous acts of God and more mundane ones if we subscribe to the outdated model of the clockwork universe. If it’s supposedly impossible for God to interact with the physical world, then what does it matter if the supposed interaction is raising the dead or redistributing the rain in Spain? Conversely, if we take the findings of more current science seriously, and are open to the various proposals about possible causal joints, then a certain cautious openness to the reality of miracles doesn’t sound quite so absurd.

We can no more make a systematic study of miracles here than we could attempt to pin down an exact answer to the causal joint problem. However, we can once again share a few helpful comments from two important (and mutually appreciative) thinkers in this area of theology.

Both Polkinhorne and Ward are careful not to assent to a sloppy definition of miracle in light of our conversation above. Language of interference with or intervention in nature or its laws will not do within our picture of the surprising suppleness and flexibility in nature. Ward’s definition of “extraordinary events that show spiritual power” [9, 105] seems in this respect a helpful choice. A further advantage of this definition is that it reminds us of the religious purpose of miracles, which the Biblical witness insists is wrapped up in their ability to serve as a sign for us of the reality of God [8, 45].

This purpose also then points to limitations. Polkinghorne writes, “God is no celestial conjurer, doing an occasional turn, but his actions must always be characterized by the deepest possible consistency and rationality” [8, 45]. Thus, seemingly senseless “acts of God” in the sense that we often use that word are anything but. God does not go around capriciously spinning off hurricanes or other disasters.

“But why aren’t there more miracles of the opposite variety?” we might well ask. Why not more prevention of such disasters. Putting aside the difficulty of ruling them out (how would we know, if the disasters never went on to take place?), Polkinghornethinks the answer lies in God’s reliability:

People say that they cannot at all believe in a God who acts if he did not do so to stop the Holocaust. If God were a God who simply interferes at will with his creation, the charge against him would be unanswerable. But if his action is self-limited by a consistent respect for the freedom of his creation … and also by his own utter reliability (so that he excludes the shortcuts of magic) it is not clear that he is to be blamed for not overruling the wickedness of humankind. [8, 53-54]

You’re perhaps noticing that whenever we talk about how God interacts with the world, a visit from the theodicy question is seldom far behind.

Polkinghorne goes on to summarize his position on miracles with the following statement: “miracles are neither ruled out by scientific knowledge that the world is a relentlessly inflexible mechanism (it is not) nor by theological knowledge that God is just the deistic upholder of general process (he is more than that). That there may have been miracles is a coherent possibility” [8, 54]. However, neither he nor Ward would want to let that comment stand without a word of caution. Ward’s is appropriately sober: “Legends readily multiply, and human imagination is strong. It is, therefore, reasonable to be very cautious in affirming that a [particular] miracle has occurred” [9, 105-106]. Obviously, fidelity to the reality of certain miracles, such as the resurrection of Christ, is an important part of Christian faith.

Closing remarks

We hope the foregoing material has been sufficient to whet your appetite. There’s so much to learn about both the science we’ve discussed and its relevance to current theology. Perhaps for this topic in particular, about the best we can do is get you thinking and reading. Ward’s chapter on miracles in The Big Questions in Science and Religion [9, 83-106] is particularly accessible and treats miracles from a variety of religious perspectives. Haught’s chapter “Why Is There Complexity in Nature” inScience and Religion [6, 142-161] is a careful (and moving) exploration of some intriguing aspects of chaos/complexity theory that we’ve given short shrift here.

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To access the course, follow this link and then click the “Login as a guest” button.

PDF link: Lesson 4 Slides (PDF)

PDF link: Lesson 4 Handout (PDF)

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Course Preview, Part 4 — “‘Into a wider world’: Conversations between science and religion”

Last night our pilot group gathered for the second session of its romp through our course on science and religion. We worked through the material of Lesson 3: Evolution and creation theology | “I am marvelously made.” This material is more challenging (yes, biology is harder than physics) but very rich. I think we had another successful session.

Here again is a preview of this lesson, as well as sample links to our new presentation aids (editable slides and handouts are available on the course page). Remember, the course is free, and you can click here and “Log in as guest” to view the material without an account. Since we started last week’s lesson with a religious perspective (the “It would seem …” section in our mock-Thomistic-dialogue), this week’s preview will give the scientific perspective (the “On the contrary …” section that precedes the “We answer that …” synthesis, where we bring the perspectives together).

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“On the contrary …”: A scientific account of origin of living things

St. Thomas Aquinas. By Sandro Botticelli.Aquinat at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

“On the contrary …” the modern scientific perspective has discovered that the origins of life on Earth are described by a slow but powerful natural force known as evolution, first described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid-nineteenth century and overwhelmingly supported by the genomic revolution in late-twentieth-century biology. Like Stephen Hawking in physics, evolution proponent Richard Dawkins has claimed that the findings in his field offer a sufficient explanation for the way things are. What he calls “the God Hypothesis” is no longer necessary; in face, even its existence can be explained by evolutionary theory: “any creative intelligence, of sufficient compleixty to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution” [1, 52].

Evolution explained, briefly

Building personal understanding and intuition about any scientific theory is difficult. As National Institues of Health director Francis Collins points out, this is especially true of the “counterintuitive” theory of evolution [2, 147]. Why counterintuitive? Because a simple and compelling answer to the question of how life’s staggering complexity came to be had been proposed and accepted for centuries and is no less compelling today–save for the fact that it is “wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong” [3, 5].

Like most writers discussing the science and religion debates with respect to evolution (see also [4, 2] and [2, 86]), Dawkins begins his book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design with a discussion of Anglican priest and philosopher William Paley. Paley gave us an especially helpful way of thinking about that very old answer–known as the “Argument from Design”–in the form of an analogy:

IN crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose.

If we came across a watch in the middle of the forest, we wouldn’t suppose something so complex could have come together by natural causes; the watch, unlike a stone, is so obviously complex that it has to have a purpose. If we know anything about the complexity of human life, Paley wrote, we are forced to conclude the same about any humans we happen to encounter. This viewpoint cohered well with the religious account we just discussed; the purpose of these complex creations called human beings was to use God’s gifts of freedom and rationality to be lords of stewards over creation.

Dawkins (with an s, as opposed to the s-less Hawking–don’t get them mixed up) is insistent that Paley’s argument carried significant weight in its day. Before Darwin, you couldn’t be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist” [3, 6]. If we observe something that is “statistically-improbable-in-a-direction-specified-without-hindsight” [3, 15], we better try to find an explanation for it, a “mechanism” that can serve as an answer to the question “how does it work?” [3, 13]. Before Darwin, the best we could do was to say, “The existence of this thing we call humanity”–or elephants, or any biological life, but especially humanity–”can be explained by no plausible mechanism except for design and creation by a Being we call God.”

Part of Dawkins’ point in The Blind Watchmaker is that this is no longer the case: “our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but … it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it, though we shall continue to add footnoes to their solution for a while yet” [3, ix].

The most important part of their solution is the proposal of an alternative mechanism. Replacing the mechanism of special creation(i.e., that each species’ complexity was created by God in the exact form we currently observe it in) is the mechanism of natural selection. Natural selection is the process by which organisms accumulate increasing complexity over the course of countless generations:

[L]iving things … too improbable and too beautifully ‘designed’ to have come into existence by chance … c[a]me into existence … by gradual, step-by-step transformations from simple beginnings, from primordial entities sufficiently simple to have come into existence by chance. Each successive change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its predecessor, to have arisen by chance. But the whole sequence of cumulative steps consitutes anything but a chance process … The cumulative process is directed by nonrandom survival. [3, 43]

It is this nonrandom survival that Darwin called natural selection. We’ll refer you in a moment to a series of videos for more help understanding this process, but it’s critical at this point that we be clear about Dawkins’s central point in The Blind Watchmaker. It involves the interaction between randomness, nonrandomness, and blindess. Natural selection, as we saw above, is about nonrandom survival of organisms that have been subject to random mutations (see genetics video below). In a sense, this combination of random and nonrandom gives rise to the property Dawkins calls blindness. In our opinion, it is the paradoxical idea of blindness that makes evolution so difficult to understand:

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker … The purpose of this book is to resolve this paradox to the satisfaction of the reader. [3, 21]

A sampling of evidence

OK, with this idea in hand, it’s time for us to beef up on some of the details of evolutionary theory, if necessary (hopefully most of you had the opportunity to study it in school). Experts have presented these ideas in such a way that we need not reinvent the wheel here, so we will refer you to a series of brief videos. We highly recommend that everyone watch this first video, which gives a two-minute summary of evolution and introduces some vocabulary we’ve not discussed here. It is unfortunate, in our opinion, that the narrator at one point equates the terms “blind” and “random” (the very distinction Dawkins wants us to be clear about), but the video is otherwise helpful and reliable (again, in our opinion):

 

Next, we have a series of videos that discuss, in an unsystematic way, some of the various areas types of mutually confirming evidence the previous video mentioned. Feel free to skip them if you’re already convinced or just don’t have the time. The first discusses the evidence that led Darwin to his discovery of evolution: the presence, on the Galapagos Islands, of organisms that seemed similar to the organisms of mainland South America and yet also different from them. Their isolation on these islands caused, if you will, the evolutionary split.

 

The second video features Dawkins himself talking about the fossil record. This is a contentious point among opponents to evolution, who tend to erroneously interpret the incompleteness of the fossil record as proof that “intervening” species never existed. Indeed many, perhaps most, species to have gone extinct have left no fossils, so we do have “gaps” that prevent us from reconstructing the Earth’s entire evolutionary history. But these gaps do not disprove evolution, they are merely parts of the evolutionary tree that have yet to be filled in. Some of these gaps may be filled, and many others will not. But these gaps to not alter in the least the evidence comprised by the portions of that tree that are not uncertain.

[Video un-embedded because of annoying auto-play. Click here to view.]

Finally, a brief description of what has become the jewel in the theory of evolution’s crown, evidence from the relatively young but extremely precise field of genetics. The clip below is from a PBS Nova special called “Intelligent Design on Trial,” which tells the story of the famouse “Dover” trial at which our John Haught also testified. The part to focus on begins at time 2:33, where (reenacted) biologist Kenneth Miller explains some of the genetic evidence for evolution at that trial.

[Video not embedding properly in this preview. Click here and view Chapter 6.]

This selection of videos is not meant to be systematic, but hopefully it gives you a better understanding of the scientific theory of evolution and a sense of just how overwhelming is the evidence in favor of it. To summarize the scientific account, then, we would say that life on Earth can be accounted for not by special acts of spontaneous creation during a short period of time but gradual evolution from very simple forms by natural slection over roughly four billion years.

An additional challenge

We have seen already Dawkins represent evolution as hostile to the “God hypothesis” in two ways: (1) The idea of God was previously necessary in order to explain the complexity of life, but now a different mechanism has been proposed that explains that complexity in a more elegant way and in accordance with our scientific observations. (2) Theism supposes a purpose of design, but evolution is blind and therefore has no purpose.

A third objection to the religious account needs to be named, one that’s slightly more subtle but probably no less important. Dawkins recently portrayed “The God of the Old Testament” as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” [1, 51]. Many people of faith objected, arguing in part that his interpretation of scripture was both willfully one-sided and theologically naive.

To be fair, Dawkins himself admitted that “[i]t is unfair to attack such an easy target” [1, 51]. But, in a sense, the reality of evolution seems to beg a question about whether there’s something to his characterization: Evolution brings about complexity through a “struggle for survival” and depends for its effectiveness on the death of the weak [5, 48, emphasis original]. Isn’t that a pretty cruel mechanism? Would a benevolent God really work in such a way?

A version of this argument has been a difficult one for theists throughout the centuries. Philosophers and theologians call it thetheodicy problem, the apparent contradiction between the assertion of God’s goodness and love with the reality of great suffering and pain in the world. But evolution, to some, puts a particularly fine point on the problem. David Hull wrote

What kind of God can one infer from the sort of phenomena epitomized by the species on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands? The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waster, death, pain and horror … Whatever the God implied by evolutionary theory and the data of natural selection may be like, he is not the Protestant God of waste not, want not. He is also not the loving God who cares about his productions. [Quoted in 6, 138-139]

Even if the idea of God is not entirely explained away by evolution, some skeptics argue, would one even want to keep the idea around, given what evolution has taught us?

In the next lesson, we will once again look to theologians of the science and religion conversation and see if there’s a way to harmonize the two accounts, especially these three objections raised by Dawkins and others.

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To access the course, follow this link and then click the “Login as a guest” button.

PDF link: Lesson 3 Slides (PDF)

PDF link: Lesson 3 Handout (PDF)

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Miscellaneous Links

We’ve got a couple of interesting news items, and a couple of new resources, to tell you about:

“For God So Loved the 1 Percent …”: A New York Times opinion piece, obviously from a liberal perspective, that gives some of the history of the (relatively young) phrase “one nation under God.” An interesting reflection that brings together the issues of the 2012 election and the Occupy movement. We link to it here not to advocate the author’s position but because we have a commitment to the idea that religious engagement with civil society is complex and ambiguous. This article presents a compelling example of that phenomenon.

“Evolution advocate turns to climate”: A Nature News piece about how the National Center for Science Education is branching out from support for biology instructors teaching evolution to support for earth science teachers teaching anthropocentric climate change. When Roberta Johnson says this issue goes “way beyond science … into areas of political debate,” she’s talking in part about the influence of vocal Christians. Our site has worked to give voice to a large but seldom heard from group: Christians who are supportive of the consensus findings of climate scientists and believe it is our human duty as stewards of creation to help do something about the world’s ecological crises.

NET Bible Study Application: An online study app with some powerful features. Thanks to Dr. Stephen Cook for the link!

GodSnap.com: A site after our own heart: Christians sharing resources with Christians. Thanks again to Dr. Cook.

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Exciting Announcement + Course Preview, Part 3 — “‘Into a wider world’: Conversations between science and religion”

Tonight, our course on science and theology is going to be taught to an in-person audience for the first time! Because we need to teach the five-session course in just three evenings, we’ve assigned the course introduction as preparatory online homework. Thus, we will begin, after a very brief review, with Lesson 2: Cosmology and creation theology | “In the beginning …”

For your perusal, we’ve included a preview of this lesson below. Also, allow us to draw your attention to some newly attached downloadable resources. PDF and Microsoft Office versions of slides and handouts for this lesson are now available. So if you’re considering teaching this class in your own ministry context, feel free to download and, if you like, even edit these files for your in-class use. You can view the PDF versions using the links at the end of this post, or click over to the course itself to see everything we have available. (P.S., if you like the somewhat unusual layout of these slides, see this site for more information on the template from which they are loosely based.)

Thanks to everyone who has supported the development of this course and to the Religion and Science Book Study at St. Paul’s, K Street, which is helping me pilot it tonight. Please pray for us as we pass this important milestone!

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“It would seem …”: A religious account of the nature and origin of the universe

St. Thomas Aquinas. By Sandro Botticelli.Aquinat at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons“It would seem …” from the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective that the universe was created by God “[i]n the beginning” and consists, fundamentally, of “the heavens and the earth” (see Genesis 1:1). You may be surprised to learn how difficult it is to say much more than that without stepping into highly contested theological territory. Below we’ll let the Bible speak for itself about creation, but it’s important first to introduce just what kind of world the ancients looked to their religions for an explanation of.

A three-tiered cosmology

The biblical authors seem to have understood the world with respect to a three-tiered cosmology, “with the earth sandwiched between the firmament of God’s dwelling place above, and the underworld controlled by evil powers below” [1, 39]. New Testament scholar Gregory Riley elaborates:

The physical universe as the ancients perceived it was small, much like a sphere half filled with water, upon which floated the flat disk of the earth. There was water everywhere else–above the heavens, around the earth, and below, flowing around the underworld … The whole universe was immersed like a giant bubble in a boundless, uncreated, primeval ocean of saltwater. The earth itself consisted of nothing more than Egypt or Greece or Mesopotamia and its neighboring lands; in the center stood the city of Babylon for the Babylonians, Nippur for the Sumerians, Delphi for the Greeks, and and Jerusalem for Israel. [2, 27]

You can see a beautiful artist’s rendering of this cosmology here.

"A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet..." By Sparkit [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsOnce you have the ancient conception in view, you start to notice traces of it throughout the Old Testament. The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, pronounces the following fate for the doomed prince of Tyre:

They shall thrust you down to the Pit,
and you shall die a violent death
in the heart of the seas. (Ezekiel 28:8)

The writers of the psalms also espouse this worldview, envisioning God as a Cosmic Orderer who “rule[s] the raging of the sea” and “still[s]” its rising waves (Psalm 89:9). In the Book of Job, God is even said to “walk[] on the dome of heaven” (Job 22:14).

Whether or not this cosmology served for the ancient Hebrew people as “a prescientific attempt to understand the universe” or as something more purely poetic and evocative, the biblical writings bear its stamp. This is especially true of the creation narrative itself, to which we now turn our attention.

The days of creation

Take a moment to read Genesis 1:1-19, either in the New Revised Standard Version text below or in a translation of your choosing. This passage comprises the first four of the six days of creation–seven if you count the following day, on which God rested. We will examine the latter days, and the alternative creation account in Genesis 2, in the next lesson.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. (Genesis 1:1-19)

What do you notice about the passage? Well, hopefully the making of the “dome in the midst of the waters” on the second day jumped out at you for starters, not to mention the emergence of “dry land” on day three. There’s our ancient cosmology at work.

The six days of creation. By Tetraktys [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsMore importantly, note that the various aspects of that cosmos come into being at God’s command. “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” This is obviously a key aspect of the theistic account of the universe: it has a finite existence that depends on God’s providential will and sustenance. The Gospel According to John in the Christian New Testament makes this point rather more explicitly when it says “without him, not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). The “him” is Christ, “the Word” who “was with God” and who “was God” (John 1:2). (If you haven’t read the prologue to John’s gospel, 1:1-18, treat yourself and do so now. There’s probably no more concise or beautiful summary of Christian doctrine anywhere.) So our religious picture is one where God wills creation into being.

And then there are those momentous words that usher in both Genesis in John: bereishit in Hebrew, en arche in Greek, “in the beginning” in English. As we shall see, much hinges in our conversation between science and theology on what we make of these words. At face value, though, their implication is simple enough. The world, the universe, the cosmos–it had a beginning, a starting point.  The idea of a finite universe puts Judeo-Christian thinking in fairly marked contrast with the idea, long popular in philosophy, that matter is eternal. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas addresses Aristotle’s objections to that effect in his famous teaching on creation. It is to another point in that teaching that we go to finish our brief gloss on the religious understanding of the cosmos.

Creatio ex nihilo

Before considering whether the universe indeed had a beginning, Thomas asks a set of questions related to just what creation even means. His conclusion is one we might not expect based on what we read above in Genesis. Thomas says that the universe was created ex nihilo, “from nothing.” But recall what we read above, that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” What earth? What face? What deep? What waters? This description doesn’t sound very much like nothing.

What do we make of this? Well, the going is difficult, partly because that first phrase, “a formless void” is enigmatic in the original Hebrew: tohu wa bohuTohu is reasonably straightforward and has meanings associated with waste, desolation, and nothingness elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. Bohu, on the other hand, appears only three times, all of them in conjunction with tohu. Since the biblical text itself is our best piece of evidence about the meaning of words in biblical Hebrew, a purely lexical approach will only get us so far.

Thomas Aquinas’s answer is more philosophical than scriptural. Following Aristotle, he is concerned with being and with the causes of being. What he ends up saying, then, is that God “is the universal cause of all being.” The universe is contingent, that is, utterly dependent on God’s will for its very existence. That claim applies to everything that was and is, and that presumably includes even the tohu wa bohu. That God did not work with raw materials that had some independent existence from God is the key point in the Christian teaching of creatio ex nihilo [1, 111; 4, 74].

Summary

To tip our hand a little bit, we hope you’re getting the message that to put forward a religious position on cosmology and creation theology is actually no simple task–and is certainly not so easy as merely quoting the relevant portions of scripture. But we believe it’s reasonably accurate and faithful to summarize the traditional Christian account of the universe as follows:The universe has a three-tiered structure, which was created over a certain period of time, and at the beginning of time, by God. God willed it into being and continues to will its sustained existence.

We will next describe the scientific account. As we do so, be thinking about what we’ve discussed here, and try to anticipate for yourself some of the contested, or at least apparently contested, issues.

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To access the course, follow this link and then click the “Login as a guest” button.

PDF link: Lesson 2 Slides (PDF)

PDF link: Lesson 2 Handout (PDF)

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