Friday, January 30, 2009

What Hath God Wrought!

Samuel F. B. Morse’s first telegraph message on May 24, 1844 used a phrase from Numbers 23:23 (KJV): “What Hath God Wrought?” The electronic transmission from Washington, D. C. to Baltimore, MD was the world’s baptism into instantaneous long-range communication. However, breakthroughs such as the 19th century telegraph, while remarkable at the time, have proven to be mightily overshadowed by discoveries and inventions of the past half-century. Since I entered high school in the 1950s, there have been startling advances in scientific knowledge on a great number of fronts. If we were to graphically illustrate these advances, the line may resemble the human population growth curve: slow growth followed by an explosive rise. We live in an unparalleled era of proliferating knowledge. The fallout has produced some strange ironies. Let’s mention two major areas and enlarge on a point we made in the post on 1/17/09.

Unlocking the genetic code: The following events rank as noteworthy in human discovery: the 1952 confirmation of DNA as the fundamental genetic material, the 1953 discovery of its double helix molecular structure, and the resulting unlocking of the genetic code in the 1960s. DNA is a molecule containing a code of startling informational power. Coded information from the DNA of one human body cell would fill 900 books the size of an encyclopedia. DNA synthesizes RNA, which in turn directs the construction of proteins. The human body contains millions of different proteins, which are organic compounds of folded amino acids. There is an astonishing irony about the unlocking of these secrets of genetic information: instead of pointing scientists toward the recognition that living things are intelligently and purposefully designed, many scientists have concluded that all living things have common ancestry resulting from mutation and natural selection, a proposal called the “strong” evolutionary hypothesis. A more valid conclusion based on evidence alone, instead of naturalistic presuppositions of common ancestry, would state that all types of life on earth exist and operate with a remarkable template allowing for a vast degree of varied and unique genetic expression.

Earth Sciences: Revolutionary gains in knowledge have occurred in the earth sciences in the last century. For example, the theory of plate tectonics is now a proven concept not even fifty years old. Plate tectonics is the slow movement of continents with respect to one another, resulting in earthquakes and volcanoes; it also is a beneficial large-scale, long-term mechanism for recycling minerals and biomass. Furthermore, most of our knowledge of oceanography, including the analysis of ocean sediments, which gives us information about ancient earth events and climates, has also been acquired since 1960. Moreover, accurate geologic timescales were deduced from forty independent radiometric dating methods perfected only since the mid-20th century. Additionally, Big Bang cosmology was affirmed in 1964 when leftover universal background radiation permeating the entire universe (previously theorized to exist if a cosmic Big Bang creation event really happened), was discovered at Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ. Far more detail about that hot Big Bang creation event was revealed by the 1992 COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) and the more recent WMAP (Microwave Anistropy Probe) satellites. The latter has expanded the evidence many-fold. It has made possible determination of the most accurate age of the universe yet determined (13.73 billion years with an error bar of less than 1%) and revealed accurate proportions of the universe’s ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy. Finally, in the last three decades we have discovered hundreds of previously unknown fine-tuning characteristics of our universe. Each and every one of these characteristics must exist with great precision for life to exist anywhere in the universe.

What is our response to this recent burgeoning knowledge? Has there been an increase in recognition of a loving God who designed this universe and its characteristics with us in mind? Many spokespersons in the field of science, education, and our culture generally have become more naturalistic and secular, even antagonistic, as if our society’s freedoms of investigation and expression are threatened. Christian creationist views in particular have received scorn and ridicule from prominent scientists. Incredibly, on the other side of the picture, a large number of Christian evangelicals since 1960 have been hardened into an even stronger view that our earth and the universe are only six to ten thousand years old. They reject all evidence of an ancient, finely-tuned cosmos and Planet Earth. They prefer to believe God did all His work on a time scale of several thousand years. They mock the idea that the Big Bang was an event of incredible creative precision, not destructive at all. They reject the idea that God’s sudden and transcendent creative acts could be widely spaced on the time scale of historical geology, evidence for which is abundant.

What Hath God Wrought? In our day, God has enabled mankind, as in no other previous age, to unlock knowledge hitherto inaccessible. Scripture encourages believers to study, to evaluate, to reason. The creation time scale is not a matter of doctrine. It is, however, a matter of rational, accessible truth.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Presidential Science

In President Obama’s inaugural speech, one catch-phrase caught my attention like no other. “Restoring science to its rightful place” conjured up a plethora of thoughts and emotions, some positive, some less positive. In the light of my many previous posts encouraging pastors and other church leaders to use science as an apologetic tool in ministry, we must make it clear that our president was not talking about the same thing I have advocated. Let’s discuss a little used term: scientism. Some have used the term in a pejorative sense to ridicule the overuse or misuse of science. The meaning of the term suggests that all knowledge is based on material reality only and that pursuit of that knowledge by the methods of science is exalted above other modes of inquiry and should, therefore, be the exclusive approach to gaining knowledge.

Most analysts believe President Obama’s statement was a reference to global warming. Many people on the political spectrum say science has conclusively shown that man’s fossil fuel emissions are responsible for an increased greenhouse effect. The result is global warming. Therefore, “Restoring science to its rightful place” would mandate belief that carbon emissions, resulting from society’s burning of fossil fuels, are the unquestioned cause of global warming. And once we accept this premise, the plan of action should then be crystal clear.

A chorus of science philosophers in the past half-century has pointed out that the use of any single, clearly defined scientific method may not really be the way to achieve scientific knowledge. They say, with some measure of truth, that there is no simple, or single, method of scientific inquiry. Famous science philosophers such as Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn state that such factors as subjective personal inspiration and scientific consensus (sometimes driven by the worldview of the science community), are even more important than any particular scientific method.

So what is a Christian to believe with respect to the environment, the issue of global warming, and the remedy for global warming? In Genesis 1:28, scripture commands us to care for our environment and its creatures. The inspirational chapters in Job 38 and 39 describe the magnificence and beauty of our creation: the cosmos, weather events, water cycle, earth’s living creatures, and their unique programmed behaviors. The mandate is clearly for environmental awareness, concern, and tender care.

Reasons To Believe scholars Dr. Hugh Ross and Dr. Jeff Zweerink, in a 2006 news release, clarified the issues related to human impact on environment: “Contrary to the claims of a few high profile politicians, celebrities, and environmentalists, some of our human activities in fact create a cooling effect. This delicate balancing act of multiple and diverse natural processes and human activities gives us reason to be cautious.” Alteration of rainfall patterns may be of greater concern than warming. For example, Ross claims that “During Roman times, what is now the Sahara Desert was the breadbasket of the empire.” Trees and shrubs were cut for building materials and fuel, resulting in greatly reduced rainfall levels and hastening the advance of the desert. In the last century, that process has accelerated.

“Over the past four million years, the global climate has oscillated many times,” Ross continues. In my own personal library I have old books which describe variations in earth’s orbit on a 100,000 year cycle. For 10,000 of those years, the earth is in a “global warming” event. These books were published long before the current global warming political hype. Now global warming has become a cause celebre, a belief du jour. There are many other complex factors, including tectonic activity, erosion, and changes in the earth’s biomass which are far more important in causing climate change than the burning of fossil fuels.

Science is no more immune to methodological manias than any other human behaviors such as fads in education or even church worship styles. This is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s experience with the Athenians in Acts 17:21 (NIV): “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” We should remind ourselves that the latest ideas, the beliefs du jour, may not always be the best ideas or beliefs to embrace. In fact, the beliefs may not even be true. Generally however, science, as an enterprise of advancement of knowledge and the human condition, is still worthy of being held in high esteem.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sermons from Science

“God of the Atom” was one of my many experiences with Moody Science Films beginning in the 1940s. The films were an outgrowth of the ministry of the visionary Dr. Irwin A. Moon, a California pastor who had used effective object lessons from science back in the 1930s. He began an evangelistic outreach with Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in 1938 called “Sermons from Science.” The Moody Institute of Science was founded in 1945 with live demonstrations and film productions. Many skillfully crafted science films were produced over the next decade or two, such as Red River of Life, City of the Bees, God of Creation, and Time and Eternity. Their popularity is legendary.

In the 1950s and 1960s the films were marketed not only to churches, but also to public schools, industry, and the military, where in our day, the mention of religious themes may generate a storm of protest. In 1948, President Truman appointed the “President’s Commission on Religion and Welfare in the Armed Forces.” An agreement was made with Moody to use the films in military character guidance programs. At the time, the Secretary of the Army cited their obligation “to the parents of the youthful soldier to continue insofar as possible under the conditions of military service, the wholesome influences of the home, the family, and the community.” By 1951, 200,000 military personnel were watching Moody science films each year. A Supreme Court Decision in 1962 ended the practice.

According to reviewers of modern Moody science film DVD reproductions I consulted, Irwin Moon “believed that the marvels of science provided visible evidence of a divine plan of creation…a glimpse of the natural world so complex that it could only be explained, according to the films’ narrators, through the existence of a higher power or intelligent designer.” Another reviewer, after showing the DVD remakes to his children “knew that the films would cultivate a taste for beauty, a love of science, and a sound theological perspective on the Creator.” Still another writer decries the fact that modern educational programs tend to bombard children with a visual assault of flashy scenes, distracting sound effects, and obnoxious or irreverent dialogue.” Having experienced these Moody Science classics six decades ago, and having used them in church and once or twice in my public school science classes, I attest to their high quality and faith-strengthening, spiritual value.

There is a sad irony to my conclusion. Beginning roughly fifty years ago, after the Moody science films had been produced, our knowledge in the fields of genetics, cosmology, medicine, oceanography, and technology, to mention a few, have all undergone startling changes. New discoveries in these fields have proliferated exponentially. One would think, therefore, that public confidence in the reality of the Creator who fashioned it all, would also have grown exponentially. Alas! Not so. Many have become jaded to scientific discoveries. Our culture is more secular than ever. Materialism deflects us from the simple joys of God-awareness. We battle boredom, frustration, and time constraints in a society with more material goods at our disposal than ever before. Books on atheism achieve more popularity than warranted.

Psalm 29:2 (NIV) affirms the message of the Moody Institute of Science film classics. “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name…” A reading of the next eight verses in Psalm 29 reads like a catalog of natural wonders Dr. Moon presented in the films. Today's scientific discoveries reveal more and more about multiple natural wonders, flashing through our senses like a vastly enhanced Moody science film.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Debates with Atheists

Have you ever debated an atheist? Formal exchanges between theists and atheists are popular and instructive, even entertaining. Many such encounters have been published or recorded in recent years. When an audience is present, they sometimes behave like partisans at an athletic contest. One such debate occurred between philosopher/theologian William Lane Craig and atheist professor of philosophy Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. In the first chapter of God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, Craig laid out five major reasons for his theistic belief. This chapter was essentially a development of his opening remarks in a debate at Dartmouth College in 1999.

A brief overview of Craig’s five major points follows: (1) a discussion of ontological arguments: beginnings, causes, infinity; (2) the existence of moral values as an indicator of God’s existence; and (3) an inner certainty that God exists and can be immediately experienced and known directly. Philosophers call such beliefs “properly basic beliefs,” according to Craig. They do not need to be justified by other beliefs. The other two major points appeal more strongly to the science-minded person. Let’s call them evidential support pillars for God’s existence: (4) the features of the universe, describing hundreds of characteristics which must be “just right”—tuned to an unimaginable degree of precision in order for life to exist anywhere; (5) plentiful physical and documentary evidence related to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

Evidential apologetics, particularly with respect to science, have become a more vital channel for affirmation of the theistic Christian belief system. Atheists such as Sinnott-Armstrong complain that the evidence to justify belief in God is weak or non-existent. Many atheists are materialists, believing that there is no reality that does not have a physical manifestation. They claim science supports materialism. Physical evidence such as apparent design, coupled with the complex function of apparently designed living systems, does not serve to convince atheists either. Well-reasoned theistic arguments become buried under an avalanche of refutation. For the atheist, the process of searching for the truth of God’s existence is secondary to the defense of their worldview, perhaps even secondary to the process of developing their argument. For many science philosophers, describing or defining the science process is not the same as discovering truth. Objective truth about what is “really real,” however, does exist. Truth in today’s culture is becoming increasingly subjective and relative, but Holy Scripture proposes that truth is accessible.

The created order is generously salted with evidence of the existence of God. It is perfectly rational to infer His creative acts through the traditional methods of science. Psalm 19:4 says the heavens “speak” as if with a voice and with words. Doubters reject such evidence and systematically rationalize it away. Believers, however, examine the evidence and rationalize a Cause.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Evidential Apologetics

“What Scientific Evidence Proves that God Created and Designed the Universe?” is the title of The John Ankerberg special series to be aired later this month. One of the principal goals of our blog is to encourage respect for science as an apologetic tool. Several diverse groups will benefit from the program content. One group is the community of faith. Others include secularists whose belief in God may range from weak to non-existent.

Let’s consider Christian believers first. We might ask if such “scientific evidence” is necessary for Christians, since we may assume they have already been convinced of God’s existence and His creative acts. We must enlarge on this assumption and make a strong case that even the mature and confident Christian needs regular affirmation and support for belief in the reality of God. In our experience, consider how satisfying it is to receive additional evidence supporting and reaffirming the beliefs and activities we have embraced. Speaking on a personal level, since my retirement, the opportunity to use additional quality time to research new scientific discoveries has reinforced and enriched my enjoyment of the divinely created world and my confidence in the reality of God. This spills over into greater awareness of meaning and purpose in areas other than science. Scientific evidence pointing to the existence of God has multiplied many-fold during the lifetimes of the people able to read this post or listen to a television series.

Scientific support for design, order, and coherency in our physical world is related to evidential apologetics. There are two other major types of apologetics which also substantiate belief in God, namely, classical (philosophical) and pre-suppositional apologetics. There is an important role for each type of apologetics in support of our faith. I encourage each reader to affirm and strengthen his faith by making a study of each and every apologetic approach. This is established by a verse from the New Testament, Jude 3, which, in many translations, speaks of contending for the faith (belief system). In every translation I checked, urgency was the defining emotion. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation says: “Dear friends, I’ve dropped everything to write you about this life of salvation that we have in common. I have to write insisting—begging!—that you fight with everything you have in you for this faith entrusted to us as a gift to guard and cherish.”

Friday, January 2, 2009

Opportunity Knocks

During January and February, the John Ankerberg Show will begin two science series that will help fill a vital instructional niche on the topics of creation and origins. Virtually everyone on the faith/worldview spectrum should take note. This includes believers and non-believers, theists and non-theists, churched and non-churched. The programs will appeal to a range of people, from those certain of their belief system, to skeptics, agnostics, and atheists. The two series deal with fundamental questions concerning our belief in God’s existence as a loving, caring Designer, as well as how and when He acted to produce our cosmos and the living things which inhabit it. As with all past John Ankerberg Show discussions on science, the presentations are supported by the very latest and best evidence available, analyzed by outstanding scholars.

It has been my personal campaign to encourage church leaders to include the exciting discoveries of science in their lineup of educational offerings as an apologetic instrument for strengthening faith in God as the Creator. Science-linked instruction in our churches is not able to offer proof for the existence of God, as proof is most commonly understood. No such proof exists. Even professionals in science would not characterize their findings in this manner. Scientist Owen Gingrich makes the point that Isaac Newton had no proof that the earth moved, or that the sun was the center of the planetary system. Such assumptions, however, provided explanation and enabled the process of prediction. People believed the proposal because of its coherency, not because of the proof it provided. Demonstration of stellar parallax (indicating the earth was revolving around the sun) and Foucault’s pendulum experiment (showing that the earth was rotating) provided coherency to the proposals, but not actual proof. Those discoveries, surprisingly, did not produce sudden acceptance of heliocentric (sun-centered) cosmology, according to Gingrich.

In a church setting where science topics are discussed, there are multiple opportunities to acquire a coherent view of the world which could bolster belief in God. Essentially, such offerings would be studies in “natural theology,” incorporating knowledge in many different fields in order to make sense of a world authored by God. Many church leaders experience discomfort with the topic of science; their sense of security and confidence is stronger in areas of Christian doctrine. This is the best reason not to miss the upcoming John Ankerberg Show presentations by outstanding Christian science professionals. Our parishioners, particularly our young people, have a profound need for apologetic instruction based on quality, scholarly science.

The Ankerberg website lists outlets where the program is broadcast.