Friday, October 28, 2011

Seasonal Rebirth

A favorite question often asked is, “What is your favorite…?” Many deflect such a query with, “I like them all,” perhaps using the qualifier “for different reasons.” As autumn progresses in northern latitudes there is often trepidation at the approach of winter, sometimes fueled, as in the Midwestern US, by the rumor that a “La Nina” weather pattern is still in effect. Conversely, when late winter moderation clearly signals a weakening of winter’s grip, spirits are lifted.

Cycles are common in our created world. Weather cycles related to temperature and precipitation fluctuations and the consequent sequences of seed time, harvest, and dormancy are topics addressed in scripture. For example, after the Genesis flood, the Lord said, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22 NASB). These contrasting conditions were related in Old Testament times to the annual revolution of the earth around the Sun as it rotates on its tilted axis. These relationships still exist after many thousands of years.

Our revolving earth produces seasonal cycles because of its obliquity: Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5˚ away from the perpendicular to its orbital plane. Without any axial tilt there would be no cyclical seasonal changes anywhere on earth--no annual anticipation of summer’s oncoming warmth or winter’s frigid cold. Seasonal changes result in a refreshing variety of weather in Earth's temperate, middle latitudes. But there is a more important reason to embrace the benefit of these seasonal variations. Grain crops thrive when where warm seed time and harvest contrast with a period of cold dormancy. Humans get about 48% of their calories from grain crops. The Northern hemisphere has 90% of the world’s people and produces most of the world’s grain crops in its temperate zones.

Northern hemisphere winter sun rays must spread over a larger area of land because they arrive at a smaller angle above the horizon. Since they are “shared” by more surface area, any one spot receives less heat. Summer reverses the conditions. The sun takes a shorter path across the heavens in winter. Days are short; heating time is less; cooling time is greater. Again, summer reverses these conditions.

Some people may long for a season-less weather pattern. Without disparaging anyone’s desire for pleasant weather, we must remind ourselves that seasonal changes provide far more interactions between air masses, resulting in distribution and movement of precipitation-producing systems superimposed on the seed-time, harvest, and cold. The Genesis 8 passage seems to affirm the benefits of contrasting conditions--the “ups and downs” of weather. Now and then these ups and downs result in too much or too little rain, or too much or too little wind and humidity for our personal preferences and comfort.

This meteorological variety enables the Earth to support nearly seven billion people. Famines and weather tragedies do occur. But such events are relatively rare and often result from poor human management or deficient stewardship. Heavy media coverage of these tragic events may cause us to see our earth’s weather cycles as cruel rather than as the benevolent gifts of a caring Father.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Attractive Belief Systems

Blaise Pascal wrote “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” William Dembski, intelligent design theorist, claims Pascal was “…not talking about people merely believing what they want to believe, as in wish fulfillment. Rather, he was talking about people being swept away by attractive ideas that capture their heart and imagination.”

Recently I concluded two lengthy written dialogues with friends who embrace theistic evolution. We all agreed in the end that “God is the Creator of all things.” That statement of agreement, however, belies fundamental disagreements between us involving the question “How did God create?” In particular, how did he create living things, including humans? Was modern man a unique and special creation appearing on earth at a specific point in time in the past few tens of thousands of years by a fiat miracle of God? Or did man slowly develop from LUCA (the last universal common ancestor) since plentiful bacterial life suddenly appeared on earth several billion years ago?

My friends both wound down the dialogue by asking questions such as “Does it make a difference?” and “We are not as far apart as you think we are.” Perhaps they thought the gulf between us would seem narrower. I have thought deeply about their statements and have concluded that it makes a significant and substantial difference. The differences should never diminish the quality of friendships or personal relationships. Nor should the differences affect the mutual respect we have for each other as individuals. But the issue is far from unimportant.

One friend wrote “I have tended to assume that if you take the scientific evidence from physics for an old universe, an old earth, etc. as valid evidence…you must already be on a road that leads to taking the same open mind toward the evidence for biological evolution as a scenario with some limited validity also.” This comment also goes to the heart of objections made to me by young earth creationist believers. Herein lies an ironic twist in discussions of this sort. Belief in an ancient cosmos does not presume belief in biological evolution. The eventual coalescence of matter into planetary systems such as our own unique Solar System resulted from physical laws based on physical constants established by the Creator from the moment of creation of the cosmos.

The world of living things poses an entirely different origins scenario. Physical systems operate according to the physical laws in effect from the beginning of time. We might say the “information” inherent in those physical constants was front-loaded into matter at the beginning. Living things, on the other hand, appear to have come into being with an exponentially vast, intelligent input of information long after the initial creation event. That information possessed directions for synthesizing thousands of different proteins and organizing them into complex, functional systems. Living systems are very different from non-living systems. An understanding of forces and motion, formation of storms in our atmosphere, or structure of complex mineral crystals, for example,--these are simple matters compared with an understanding of the origin of information needed to produce living systems. To use a sports analogy, the world of living things is in a different league.

Both friends stressed the dichotomy between theology and science. I had repeatedly made the proposal that science and theology comprises “a single, self-consistent whole,” and that we should be able to inspect the creation using the methods of science and identify the work of God, particularly with respect to the origin of information in the DNA/RNA of living systems, as well as in the exquisite design and function of living and non-living things alike. This argument does not resonate with theistic evolutionists because of their insistence on keeping the conclusions of science completely within a naturalistic box. One friend, a career professional scientist, claims “divine agency in creation is not subject to mundane scrutiny by the powers of human reason, but is hidden.”

Most theistic evolutionists prefer to accept the scenario of mutations, natural selection, and plenty of time to explain the process of change naturalistically. Nearly all would insist on knowing how a miraculous process such as creation of life or creation of a new species would work. To claim God acts to create or reorganize molecules in some unknown fashion does not satisfy the theistic evolutionist. They prefer to continue the search for a naturalistic process to account for origins of species, including man. We acknowledge that for some, this is an attractive idea which captures the heart and imagination. Their ability to explain events in natural, human terms provides a sense of empowerment. We also note that the science profession in the last 1½ centuries has constructed a wall of separation between itself and theology. As a result, science is not perceived favorably by many in the community of faith.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Bible Zodiac

The Signs of the Zodiac have been associated with horoscopes--ancient and modern systems promoting belief in the supposed connection between events visible in the sky and events on Planet Earth. The zodiac is a narrow band of constellations through which the sun apparently moves during Earth’s annual revolution around the sun. This apparent movement is caused by the real revolution of the earth around the sun. Day by day, we view the sun from a slightly different position in space. Therefore, the sun appears daily in a slightly different position with respect to background stars. Once each year the sun traces a giant circle through the constellations of the zodiac—Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, and nine more.

Teaching this concept is a tricky business. If you are a “Taurus” it merely means that on the day you were born, the sun was surrounded by the stars in the constellation of Taurus (the Bull). Of course, those stars would not be visible in a sun-brightened sky. But wait six months! Taurus would then be visible opposite the sun in the dark night sky. Your birthday is six months away. There is a mystic appeal associated with these celestial movements and the imaginary personal traits assigned to the “signs” of the zodiac. But there is NO truth to the belief that movements of celestial objects entail meaning for human events, or ever did.

The Book of Job may have been penned at around the time of Moses. Even if it was written later, its events likely took place around the time of Abraham. The Book of Genesis, probably written by Moses, references lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide day from night, and to signal signs, seasons, days, and years. The sun swings through the twelve constellations of the zodiac once each year. Another way to describe this phenomenon is to note that the twelve constellations slowly revolve across the night sky, making one cycle in twelve months. Springtime constellations appear, for example, in the evening dark sky, slowly slide around, then appear in the same place exactly one year later to mark the onset of spring again.

Genesis states the “lights in the expanse of the sky” act to “separate the day from the night” (the sun’s daily motion) and “to mark seasons…and years (the sun’s annual slide through the zodiac). Other functions of the sun and moon are more familiar. They “give light on the earth,” one governing the day; the other governing the night. This description of the luminaries’ function is absolutely accurate in terms of determining days, seasons, and years. The causes of the changes in terms of rotation and revolution of the earth and the structure of the universe were not understood by the ancients, but residents of that time were exceedingly skilled at making meaningful observations to help determine days, seasons, and years.

Several translations of Job 38:32 mention “Mazzaroth,” including the KJV, ESV, and RSV. This term is used in the context of astronomical constellations, and there is little doubt that the Hebrews were aware of the zodiac and its season-heralding features. Explicit scientific explanations would wait for Copernican and Galilean astronomy several millennia later.

Bible authors were aware of other celestial features such as the Pleiades, the Great Bear (Big Dipper), Orion, and several bright planets. This discussion is not meant to tout scripture as an astronomy textbook. It may help us respect the inspired thought processes of ancient Bible characters and writers and arouse admiration for their powers of observation. All such references show the ancients’ respect for the natural world and affirm their appreciation of God as Creator.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Celestial Wonders

One day last week I rose very early and journeyed up my driveway for the morning newspaper in early morning pitch darkness. My body was “suffering” from jet lag, seven hours ahead of the clocks in northern Illinois. When I saw the constellation Orion blinking brightly in the southwest, I was reminded of one of the astronomy labs I had offered my young astronomy scholars for many years.

Mid-October evenings were often cool and clear. Our outdoor astronomy session was preceded by an introductory talk and demonstration on the gym floor by my pastor. He was an astronomy enthusiast and owner of an excellent tracking telescope. The evening lab session provided an appropriate diversion from the regular classroom. It was necessary to schedule the gathering on a moonless October evening when the stars shone in a dark sky and the students were not distracted by excessively cold temperatures.

My students were well versed in the difference between real and apparent motion of the heavenly bodies. At some point in their lives they had learned that the sun’s motion in the heavens is only apparent. What really moves is the earth, rotating on its axis at almost 1000 mph at our latitude, even though we can’t “feel” it. We do not feel the motion, for we are carried along with the earth at the same speed. The sun and stars, as a result, seem to move across our sky, some of them rising above or setting below the horizon in the process.

If we understand the mechanics of earth’s rotation and revolution, we realize the axis of the earth, if extended into space, always points to a single spot in the sky. Conveniently located at that spot in the sky is a famous star called Polaris (the Pole Star). The revolution of the earth, extensive on a human size scale, becomes insignificant when considered within the vastness of space. If we were to visit Earth’s North Pole we would observe Polaris directly above our head 24/7/365. This also has the effect of everyone in the northern hemisphere being able to observe Polaris at the same spot in the sky: directly toward geographic north 24/7/365.

Earth’s daily 24 hours of rotation is real motion. It results in every star in the sky appearing to revolve around Polaris once each day. Close to Polaris they travel in small circles; farther from Polaris they travel in larger circles. During the hour my students were identifying constellations and viewing various “Wow!” sights such as Saturn’s rings and Jupiter with its moons through telescopes, the apparent movement of fifteen degrees did not seem very noticeable. But the most jaw-dropping sight was yet to come. Nine hours later they returned before the crack of dawn’s early light. The sky was then completely different. Earth had rotated out from under the evening stars, revealing a different and exciting celestial panorama. The famous constellation Orion now appeared in the southwest within a beautiful star-filled region of the sky called the Great Winter Hexagon--six bright stars which frame a rich field of interesting and beautiful stars. The startling effect of seeing an entirely different sky pattern taught my students the concept of earth’s rotation more effectively than any classroom activity.

In the public school setting where I offered this annual outdoor astronomy lab, it was not appropriate to express the explicitly religious devotional sentiments those celestial marvels inspired in me. My students, however, were able to share my enthusiasm for the wonders of the natural world while studying astronomy and many other topics within our science curriculum. There are many ways in which believers are able to express their Christian worldview in a secular setting.

The Old Testament book of Isaiah contains many magnificent creation passages. Isaiah 40:26 (NIV) exults: Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. This verse is contained in a virtually complete original manuscript of the Book of Isaiah. It was copied over a century before Christ and is now displayed in the Shrine of the Book Museum in Jerusalem. Its words were originally uttered by the prophet over seven hundred years before Christ. I was privileged to view the manuscript in person in 2009. This was an emotionally moving experience not to be forgotten.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Is It Science?

“Intelligent design is not science,” many people within the science community regularly repeat. This claim has acquired considerable traction in our culture. From the science classroom to the courtroom, the intelligent design concept has been consigned instead to the realms of religion and theology. William A. Dembski, prominent proponent of intelligent design, writes in The Design Revolution (2004) that ID critics, “Rather than help assess the merit of intelligent design as a scientific project…relegate it to the ‘safe’ realms of religion and theology, where it can’t cause any trouble (which in itself is an indictment of how far theology has been downgraded in Western culture).”

The scientific community, wholly committed to methodological naturalism as an operating principle, and largely committed to philosophical naturalism as a guiding principle, is not about to honestly assess and judge the scientific merits of the case for intelligent design. Such actions would amount to a paradigm shift for that community: Scientists do not pretend to speculate on the meaning of evidence which may signal supernatural cause and effect. They fear acknowledging intelligent design may be tantamount to acknowledging an intelligent deity. When the evidence uncovered indicates the intelligent cause may be a supernatural being, the scientists demur. However, intelligent causes are frequently the subject of scientific investigations.

Let us move this discussion to the realm of the practical and experiential. My wife and I just returned from a 21-day journey to Europe. We devoted several days to each of seven major countries, visiting primarily historical sites. Detailed records exist to account for the origins of many historic structures of recent centuries. Clearly, the structures were intelligently designed. But further back in time less recorded information is available. In some instances, such as the Roman city of Pompeii, all structures were completely buried under cinders and ash by a violent volcanic eruption in 79 AD, and the thriving city was basically forgotten until the 18th century. Archaeology uses systematic empirical, scientific methods of investigation and analysis to establish intelligent origin.

No one doubts that the methods of archaeologists are those of traditional science. The same may be said for methods of modern investigators such as forensic experts. Dembski and other intelligent design proponents such as Stephen C. Meyer make the case that the science community accepts many instances of intelligent causation in the systems they investigate. They consider their conclusions of intelligent causation to be supported by good science. In the case of natural systems displaying evidence of a supernatural intelligent designer, however, they claim the same rules do not apply.

Dembski states “The fundamental claim of intelligent design is straightforward and easily intelligible: namely, there exist natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural causes and that exhibit features that in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence.” It is unfortunate that the rules for determining a causally adequate explanation differ according to the subject under investigation.