Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Autumn and Early Rains

For many people, autumn is their favorite season. Autumn is defined as the intermediate season between summer and winter. Its more literal meaning is a “period of maturity verging on decline.” You might ask, “What is declining during autumn?” Well, quite a few things; mostly, though, the decline is merely a manifestation of normal, natural cycles.

Astronomically, the angle of the sun’s elevation above the horizon declines. Its noon angle is becoming lower and lower--only about 25 degrees above the horizon on December 21 in northern Illinois. With that declining angle, temperatures fall and day length diminishes. This change has already triggered cessation of leaf activity. The production of green chlorophyll, the food production catalyst, lessens, allowing the colors of other compounds to display themselves. Most deciduous plant leaves will drop before long. Fruit and grain are mature, but they will require a timely harvest. Lawn mowing is also on the wane, not at all a bad thing!

Many birds tend to flock now that spring and summer territorial jealousy associated with raising young is forgotten. In our neighborhood, for example, the cedar waxwings and robins seem actually to enjoy each others’ company, mutually feeding on cedar fruits and sharing branches. Blue jays, woodpeckers, and other birds sometimes join in the excitement, flying back and forth among our neighborhood trees in what seems like intentional, exuberant bedlam. This behavior must serve some beneficial purpose for these mixed flocks. For this observer, the benefit is measured in pure entertainment value. For the birds remaining over winter, even this “game” will diminish as the temperatures drop lower.

Let’s consider a very different, ancient historical look at autumn from ancient sacred writings. One of the Jewish feasts of Old Testament times was Sukkot, which, among other things, was an agricultural harvest celebration. Some have proposed that the New World Pilgrims may have looked back to a scriptural precedent for an autumn thanksgiving event celebrating harvest. Another feature of the Hebrew autumn was the arrival of the “early” rains in that area at about the time of harvest. It prepared the ground far in advance for another harvest in the spring when the “latter” rains arrived. Even in the decline of autumn, the Israelites anticipated renewal in the spring, continuing the ancient cycle.

There are scripture references to weather cycles connected with spiritual renewal, such as Deuteronomy 11:13-15 (NIV): “So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today – to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your soul – then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Moment of Worship

A recent internet home page feature article gave detailed instructions on seeing the tiny planet Mercury during the coming days. Mercury makes very few good appearances in our dark skies, and most people have never seen it. Included in the article were many little-known but fascinating tidbits about this tiny planet which is positioned only about one-third the distance from the sun as planet Earth. This appearance of Mercury is a particularly good one, but the viewer must rise well before dawn to savor it, owing to Mercury’s proximity to the sun. The article was a memory jogger for this former science teacher, reminding me of one of the most cherished memories I retain from my astronomy lessons.

Autumn was prime sky-watching time in northern New Jersey. For that reason, I offered the astronomy segment of my earth science course early in the school year. In September 1997, I encouraged my students to become “five-planet persons.” That meant they had made naked-eye sightings of the five inner-most, visible planets in our solar system, not counting Earth. Those planets are Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, and Venus. In a bulletin I sent to parents, I described the planet Mercury as “the last hurdle to ‘five-planet person’ status” and offered my help with an optional, live, early morning (5:45-6:00 AM) opportunity to see Mercury “and be sure you’re really seeing it!” from a high ground vantage point near our school.

About twenty brave early risers appeared at the school’s highest elevation in pitch darkness just after 5:30 AM. Bright Saturn was getting ready to set beneath the western horizon. The southeast sky was graced by the rich star field visible on autumn mornings, framed by what is known as “The Great Hexagon,” six bright stars in one of the most interesting regions of the sky. As if Saturn and the star field did not provide enough grandeur, we were about to witness two awesome events.

I had arrived armed with the exact clock times of the rising of both Mercury and Venus on that morning. Precisely on cue and according to schedule, we witnessed the slow ascent of the two planets above the horizon just minutes apart. I quote my brief log of the event: “We watched Mercury and Venus rise this morning 9/19/97. The hush and awe in the group of about twenty folks was palpable. Simple as the experience was, it turned out to be one of the best observations I ever offered.” For me and for the students and parents assembled, it was a very special moment of worship.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Can Science Prove God?

Atheists, agnostics, and perhaps even believers who are sometimes plagued with doubt about God’s existence desire evidence that He exists. More specifically, those who have serious doubts demand empirical evidence for God’s existence, rational handling of that evidence, and welcome healthy skepticism. This is the pattern for critical thinking. Some say this pattern is the essence of the scientific method. But people who doubt God’s existence often reject empirical evidence and rationality, and thereby continue in their state of doubt.

There is plentiful empirical evidence which points to a pre-existing Cause for the ordered, fine-tuned complexity of both physical constants and life forms in this universe. Such empirical evidence, such as the coding of information in the DNA molecule, is well-documented and amply reported in thousands of available sources. In the sphere of rationality there have been many ontological arguments for the existence of God proposed for hundreds of years. These arguments are essentially “thought experiments” which attempt to solve a problem using only the power of human reason and intuition. They do not rely on any empirical data (sense-based experiences).

Scientists who claim “Nature is all there is” commonly accept many unseen causes to explain observed effects, including, for example, many types of electromagnetic radiation which penetrate solid bodies, the universe’s dark matter which is inferred to be responsible for the missing mass of the universe, and even the yet undetected Higgs boson, thought to account for the mass of other particles. The Higgs boson is the missing puzzle piece of the “standard model” of matter. Scientists have searched vigorously, and still search, for the difficult answers concerning cause. But when incontrovertible evidence reveals exquisite design features of the universe and life forms, doubters take a pass on the possibility of a supernatural causative agent. This is not because plentiful and convincing evidence is missing. Perhaps it is because they prefer not to acknowledge an intelligent Creator.

Atheists, of course, do not believe Genesis 1:1, which says, “In the beginning, God…” They believe only matter and energy existed “in the beginning,” or perhaps that matter and energy always existed. Given this, they claim matter and mechanisms, not an intelligent agent, brought the universe and life’s complexity to reality. They claim theism is irrational, but how rational is it to embrace the idea that uncaused, random process brought this universe into existence? Doesn’t this belief involve irrational faith? John Lennox states, “The biblical view that the same rational Creator is responsible for both the universe and the human mind gives a coherent explanation of why we can, at least in part, understand the universe around us is such a way as to make science possible.”

John 1:1-2 (NIV) is a most succinct expression of creation theology. It describes Christ (in Greek logos means agent of reason): “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

Friday, October 17, 2008

Science vs. Theology

Generating enthusiasm for understanding the benefits of the intersection between science and faith is a difficult undertaking. The reasons for this are complex, but worth our effort to understand. Acquiring knowledge of scientific principles and scientific discoveries often has a low priority in the pulpit and educational curriculum of our churches. Pastors and teachers feel, rightfully so, that the message of salvation and our daily relationship with God is paramount. Pastors feel more comfortable with these aspects of their instructional responsibility, perhaps because they are more familiar with these topics. But they neglect an existing pillar of faith which could serve to strengthen support for actual belief and faith in God. That pillar is the knowledge of how God designed the cosmos with consistent, discoverable laws and principles as the operational plan for humanity’s home. We discover these laws through our rational mind. To discover, rationally and scientifically, how nature operates is to discover how God operates.

Theology was once known as “The Queen of the Sciences.” John Lennox (October 10 post) has told us, “The biblical world-view played a key role in the meteoric rise of science in 16th and 17th century Europe. The pioneers of modern science, far from regarding their faith in God as a hindrance to their research, found that it was a positive stimulus.” Lennox continues, “The more they discovered of the law-governed universe, the more they worshipped its law-giving creator.” But science and theology have lost this mutually supportive relationship in the last 150 years. This is because science, generally, has taken a significant turn toward naturalism during that time. I quote from paleontologist Niles Eldredge: “If there is one rule, one criterion that makes an idea scientific, it is that it must invoke naturalistic explanations for phenomena…it’s simply a matter of definition--of what is science, and what is not.”

The opposing views of these two famous people remind us of the world-view battle we confront. On one side: naturalistic scientists who deny that the rationality of science principles and truths reflects the character of a creator. On the other side: Christian practitioners of science and Christian science teachers who see that the discoveries of science point to the Creator and are helpful in identifying His divine nature. And finally, caught in the middle: pastors, church school teachers, and youth leaders who are fearful of the world-view-filtered conclusions of some scientists, and whose expertise prevents what could be a powerful apologetic for the existence of the author of creation. The commonality among these groups lies in in their respective searches for truth.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Science vs. Faith

Let’s explore why so many people of faith view the role of science somewhat suspiciously while building their apologetic system for scriptural Christianity. Perhaps it is because many in the science field have convinced the public that the conclusions of science are “rational” while faith is blind and “irrational.” The very term scientific has acquired an aura of respectability. Therefore, to proclaim a belief unscientific casts that belief in an unfavorable light. The choice of words and their use according to a dominant, perceived meaning becomes a powerful tool of persuasion.

Another example is the role of faith. Many articles are written about the conflict between science and religion, or between science and faith. In the minds of many people, the two terms are not complementary, but mutually exclusive. This idea has been relentlessly promoted in our society as the NOMA principle (non-overlapping magisteria). Part of the confusion rests with the tendency to define faith too narrowly. The term is used by some as if its only meaning involves the embrace of beliefs without either evidence or logical thought. But there is an additional, preferable meaning that is more appropriate: faith must be thought of as an evidence-based belief system.
On October 4, 2007 this blog reported on a debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox, Christian apologist and scientist. To Dawkins, who claimed that faith is blind and science is evidence-based, Lennox countered that faith is clearly evidence-based and stated, “It is the very nature of science that leads me to belief in God.” This statement has enormous power. It should be the framework of every Christian’s belief system. Moreover, we should strive to search for and report on the abundant evidence for the existence of a Creator. As a career science educator, I was in the advantaged position of seeing and understanding, close-up, mountains of evidence for abundant design and fine-tuning characteristics in the world of nature, from the micro-cosmos to the macro-cosmos. I will confess that this extensive knowledge of design and fine-tuning, while not rising to the level of explicit evidence demanded by pure naturalists, has had an impact on this science educator. My faith in the Creator is evidence-based.

Hebrews 11:1-3 (NIV) expresses, more perfectly, my faith: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”

Monday, October 6, 2008

Diverse Origins Views

There is spirited disagreement among proponents of ID (intelligent design), theistic creationism, and naturalistic evolution. Discovery Institute is a well-known think tank perhaps best known for advocacy of ID, but without identifying the designer. There are many theistic creationist organizations that support varied proposals of direct, theistic intervention to account for the existence and characteristics of earth and its life forms. Reasons to Believe (RTB), for example, is a day-age creationist organization. They identify the God of Judeo-Christian scripture as the designer and Creator. Evolutionists generally state that earth and its life developed without direct intervention from any theistic agent. ID and creationist advocates have similar, but not identical positions in their interactions with evolutionists, who claim neither ID nor creationism is science because they propose the agency of a scientifically non-testable entity and fail to present a coherent scientific model.

All three viewpoints mainly agree that science uses the methodology of observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion in evaluating theories and models. Disagreement among the camps centers on recognition of an agent or cause which brought everything into existence. The battle cry of evolutionists is that since both ID and creationism are religion, not science, neither has a place in venues where the history of the universe, its life, and its processes are taught, such as school science classes. Many emotionally-charged court cases in the past few decades have involved attempts to have ID or creationism included for discussion in the science classroom.

Readers may be surprised to discover that some creationist organizations, such as RTB, join with evolutionists in claiming that ID is not science. They say the concept of ID is merely a set of tools which can be used to support an alternative to the paradigm of evolution, much the way a microscope is a tool to help us form our theories about cell biology. Dr. Fazale Rana, who outlined these ideas in a recent RTB publication, hopes that ID can become science by developing an explanatory model of life’s origin, history, and diversity. Discovery Institute would disagree, claiming ID uses the scientific method to make its claims. Evolutionists use their non-science argument effectively to generate unwarranted disrespect for including and integrating ID and creationism within our view of what is true and real.

The Reasons to Believe organization has been in the forefront of efforts to develop a creation model. RTB has long promoted developing a creation model rather than merely pointing out weaknesses in evolutionary theory. Their model includes testability and making predictions to validate the hypothesis, theory, or model, and to provide a framework for organizing and making sense of observations. Unsuccessful predictions would necessitate model revision and even possible rejection of the model. Their proposals are hallmarks of good science. RTB president Dr. Hugh Ross develops a welcome, coherent scientific model of creation in his recently published book Creation as Science. The science community would do well to give the RTB model careful attention.