Monday, November 29, 2010

Science in Our Churches

Most pastors have a clear goal for topical and stylistic emphasis in their preaching and the direction their educational programs should travel. For that clarity of vision, they should be affirmed and commended. Willingness to expand outreach and improve ministry effectiveness is also a characteristic of effective church leadership.

At the recent Vibrant Dance of Faith and Science Symposium, Deborah Haarsma, Calvin College Chair of Physics and Astronomy, offered many useful suggestions for strengthening faith by using science in various ways within our church congregations. Her encouragement transcended the spectrum of differing views expressed at the symposium on the interpretation of various science data and centered instead on the usefulness of employing science-related topics in ministry.

Could using science in our local churches possibly overwhelm some of our members? Applying science within our assemblies would demand a “mature unity.” There are prudent ways to avoid being overbearing in our use of science within the church program, according to Haarsma. The pulpit should not be the forum for a science lesson. But occasional science-related references could be included in pulpit expositions as meaningful illustrations. Some church officials may resist making use of science in ministry because they believe the church must deal with other missions and has little time for topics not deemed to be relevant.

With respect to the important question of origins, we should offer age-appropriate instruction at all levels in our church education ministries. In preschool and the earliest elementary grades, we focus on the highlights of the Genesis 1-3 narrative. Older elementary children should learn that the pagan cosmology of the cultures surrounding the Hebrews (earth and sky “gods”) is untrue. Genesis declares the pre-eminent truth that the one true God of the Bible created all things in the beginning. Middle School students will begin to distinguish between who/why and how/when questions and should receive instruction concerning the primary purpose of the creation account and the authority of scripture. High School young people could discuss different Christian points of view on origins, learning the pros and cons of each and establishing which issues are essential to the Christian faith and which issues are not.

Haarsma stressed the dangers of saying nothing concerning science within our churches. The natural world is God’s revelation of Himself as is inspired scripture. All age groups should experience the joy of discovery as a gift of God. To neglect or ignore science in our church programs, therefore, is to make our church young people ill-equipped or even misinformed. If they later discover the church is silent or in error in the realm of science, they may wonder if the error extends to matters of personal faith.

The faith/science interface is not only about origins. Many other science-related topics inhabit the boundary between faith and science. Ten different scientists at Calvin were asked to list “What I Wish My Pastor Knew About.” The list included rocks and fossils, ecology, sustainability (energy use), medical ethics, biological development and stem cells, responsible use of technology, psychology/brain chemistry and the soul, mathematics and beauty, and multiverse and string theory. Many other topics are matters of concern, such as species extinctions, pollution, natural evil (earthquakes), bioengineering, and food supply. The Creation Care mandate originates in the first chapters of Genesis, but we must avoid becoming political about these issues.

Worship is enhanced by our awareness and understanding of events in the natural world. For example, it is easy to acquire a sense of the divine by observing the dark night sky. Creative illustrations, applications, and imagination-stretching challenges could amplify a sermon’s effectiveness. Science should not be used in such a way to suggest it could replace God. Rather, it draws us closer to the Creator by helping us focus on His many wonderful works. Our model comes from the counsel Elihu offered Job: “Stop and consider God’s wonders” (Job 37:14).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Origin of Information

Charles Darwin’s legacy, according to Stephen Meyer, Discovery Institute’s director of the Center for Science and Culture, is that the appearance of design features in living things is a gradual process and a mere accident of natural selection and random mutation. Selective breeding, deliberately accomplished by man to produce woollier sheep or special breeds of dogs over many generations, can just as well be accomplished by nature alone--no intelligence required.

Meyer’s October 26, 2010 address to the Vibrant Dance of Science and Faith Symposium in Austin, TX, posited that the mechanisms of the neo-Darwinian synthesis (support for evolution based upon genetic information in addition to observational evidence) are not sufficient to explain the overwhelming design features apparent in living things. Darwin did not refute every manifestation of intelligent design. For example, the origin of design features necessary to jump-start life itself was not explained. If Darwin did not refute every appearance of design, asks Meyer, why do people think he has refuted the design hypothesis?

In little more than fifty years the incredible functions of the cell have been laid bare for all to see. In 1958 Francis Crick proposed the “sequence hypothesis.” A four character digital code, amounting to a specific, sequential arrangement of chemical bases (shorthand A, C, G, and U) forms a code for organizing twenty amino acids into specific structures to produce tens of thousands of different proteins and folding them into three-dimensional building blocks of living tissue. Proteins are the cell’s “tool box,” performing functions such as structural support, movement, germ defense, catalyzing chemical reactions, storage, transport, and energy production.

This suite of functions owes its existence to the DNA molecule. Meyer referred to the “DNA enigma.” We may be amazed by the molecule’s design structure, or by what it does. More important is the question, “Where did the information come from?” Information in the DNA molecule conveys meaning. In turn, meaning produces functionality. Does any chemical evolutionary theory explain it? Meyer thinks not.

Blind chance to account for the production of even one functional protein would demand a computer search of such vast scope that if every event since the Big Bang until now were devoted to the search, there is still no possibility it would be found. Secular scientists now recognize the hopelessness of the “chance” scenario. In desperation, evolutionists consider bumping the selection process and the origin of information back to the pre-biological level. Matter’s hypothesized self-organizational properties also prove fascinating to the naturalists.

None of these hypotheses successfully deals with the insurmountable problem of the origin of information. Where does the complex information come from? Renowned physicist Paul Davies describes the living cell as “an information processing and replicating system of astonishing complexity.” Few evolutionists speculate openly on the abductive reasoning principle of “inference to the best explanation” while attempting to answer the question, “Where does the information come from?” Answering this question may force the admission that coded information is always associated with conscious, intelligent activity. The position of our blog is that the intelligent activity originates with the God of the Bible.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Creation Markers

Reasons to Believe scholar Fazale Rana, a biochemist, addressed evidence for design in the biosphere at his October 26, 2010 plenary address at the Hill Country Institute for Contemporary Christianity’s “Vibrant Dance of Faith and Science” symposium. God is not only the Creator, but also the Redeemer. Therefore, we could expect to identify evidence for God’s character in the record of nature just as we identify his attributes in the interventional redemptive work of Jesus Christ described in the Word of God. Rana highlighted a number of divine interventions apparent today in the fossil record of life on earth.

The origin of life is clearly a marker for a sudden act of creation. The record shows life emerging suddenly with a well-developed genetic code for protein synthesis apparently intact from the start. There is no evidence for a primordial soup which might have slowly birthed the process of molecular organization, the production of RNA and DNA, and life’s origin.

Secular scientists recognize many suddenly appearing markers in earth’s history of life. Of course, they are not described as “creation” markers. Evolutionist Eugene V. Koonin, proposes six “BBBs” (biology’s big bangs), sudden events for which there is no detectable preparation: Origins of (1) protein folding, (2) viruses, (3) cells, (4) bacteria/archaea, (5) eukaryotic organisms, and (6) animal phyla. My own research into Koonin’s BBB proposals uncovered a number of creative explanations, some of which drew analogies to theorized events during the Big Bang. Koonan describes the rapid changes as, “a switch between two phases of evolution, a phase of rapid evolution (inflation) by rampant exchange and recombination of genetic material, followed by congealing into a relatively slow phase governed by the tree pattern.” Anyone already firmly committed to evolution would no doubt feel a sense of affirmation when reading such a flowery theoretical account from a well-known evolutionary biologist of Koonan's reputation.

Many other sudden changes of various types have occurred. Vertebrate radiation events (sudden appearances) have occurred which might also be termed “big bangs of biology.” Since the extremely rapid proliferation of marine life in the Cambrian Explosion, other events have raised questions--the appearance of fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals have all occurred relatively suddenly after extinction events. Even Charles Darwin thought such phenomena weakened his theory. The secular literature is replete with descriptions of many abrupt appearances of novel forms of life in the fossil record. Niles Eldredge and the late Stephen Jay Gould have called this phenomenon “punctuated equilibrium.” Evolutionary biologists offer many imaginative theories to explain it, but their descriptions of the phenomena substitute for convincing explanations.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Rana’s address was the origin of humanity, a topic of sometimes intense disagreement in our culture and in our churches. Modern humans appeared very recently on the world stage. Genetic markers point to man’s origin in a single location in the Near East or Africa from a small population, perhaps a single man and a single woman. These are discoveries of secular scientists, but descriptive biblical imagery is being used by researchers. The harmony between the biblical account and findings of science has become more apparent. Rana described this phenomenon as a “resonance between scripture and science.”

Research does not show that early hominids which roamed the earth for several million years are ancestral. Numerous early hominid discoveries do not provide any clear relationships to modern man. Complete fossilized remains are non-existent. Often only cranial-dental remains are found--parts of a skull, a jawbone, or a few teeth. It now appears these creatures were created beings with some modest achievements such as fashioning simple tools. All went extinct without leaving clear evolutionary relationships, either among themselves or with modern man. Phylogenies cannot be constructed with any confidence. There was no evidence of “God’s image,” a complex set of characteristics clearly manifest in modern man beginning several tens of thousands of years ago. The capacity for producing sculpture, jewelry, painting, and music comes from “virtually nowhere.” This appearance of unique manifestations of “God’s image,” is sometimes called the “Socio-cultural Big Bang.”

There are two views of origins. One is suffused with a tendency to interpret the evidence from an evolutionary perspective. The other sees the divine intervention of the God of the Bible as a valid inference from the identical evidence. This view sees clear markers of scripturally referenced creation acts as well as the character of the Creator in the record of the rocks.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Supernatural Universe Design

A humorous irony concerning physics and astronomy is revealed by the different terms sometimes used to describe these branches of science. Physics, with its applications related to such fields as cosmology and space science, is known as “hard science”--perceived as more rigorous and quantitatively precise than “soft science” disciplines such as psychology or sociology. At the same time, physics is sometimes called a “simple science,” while behavior sciences are dubbed “complex sciences.”

When astrophysicist Hugh Ross addressed a Vibrant Dance Symposium plenary session in Austin, TX on October 26, 2010, someone joked that he had the advantage of speaking on “simple science.” Of course, most people would not consider astrophysics simple. Nevertheless, Ross helped his audience focus on the simplicity of the general concept that the universe manifests plentiful instances of design. He claimed evidence for design and fine tuning in our universe is growing as our knowledge base expands.

Ross declared the universe manifests unmistakable evidence of a transcendent beginning. This implies the existence of a transcendent Beginner--the God of Judeo-Christian scripture. The creation event language described in Genesis 1:1 uses Hebrew bara to denote the production of something “brand new,” preceded by nothing. Secular scientists grudgingly acknowledge a singularity beginning and a universe where multiple instances of design are ubiquitous. The debate does not concern the indisputable presence of design, but rather, “Where did the design come from?”

In acknowledging a detectable origin event which is not naturalistic, the door is open for other non-natural interventions such as the enigmatic, sudden appearance of life with its fully developed protein coding DNA molecule some ten billion years after the creation event. Fazale Rana and Stephen Meyer addressed these issues in detail later in their own sessions.

More than a dozen scriptures explicitly address the observed “stretching out” of the universe. This expansion is referenced far more frequently than the creation event of Genesis 1:1. The book of Genesis is silent on this topic, but many references in Job, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and other books speak of ongoing, continual expansion.

Gravity is not the dominant force impacting the current expansion according to Ross. Rather, it is the recently discovered dark energy, an anti-gravity force which acts to increase the rate of expansion. The discovery of this acceleration disturbs some secular scientists because its precision points to an agent controlling the rate. Carbon-based life is made possible by this precise degree of expansion, enabling complex, stable organic molecules to exist. These factors are only several of the hundreds of exquisitely fine-tuned design features of our universe.

Supernatural design occurs at all size scales, from our Milky Way Galaxy, to the Sun, Jupiter, Earth, and our moon. With respect to how many of the Universe’s billions of planets possess all of the requirements for supporting life, Ross gave statistics supporting the vanishingly small likelihood that even one other satellite in the entire universe could support life. Our earth is unique beyond imagination. The cheerful optimism in some quarters that another Earth-like planet exists is unwarranted.

As knowledge of our home in this universe increases, the uniqueness of Earth and its life is revealed more stunningly. Hugh Ross effectively linked God’s infinite love for humanity with the seemingly limitless degree of fine-tuning and careful preparation of our created cosmos and Planet Earth.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Theistic Evolution and Modern Science

The recent Vibrant Dance Symposium and its avowed purpose “to understand the landscape of faith/science interaction” brought together a blend of viewpoints from “expert witnesses.” Theistic evolution (TE) was prominently represented. This position is frowned upon by many Christians but readily embraced by others who feel, as described by C. John Collins in Science and Faith – Friends or Foes? "…that natural events are God’s action by ‘ordinary providence’ –- that is, that God designed a universe so well that he could simply keep it in being and it would go on to generate life, and eventually us.”

Theistic evolution is the position of the BioLogos Foundation, established by prominent geneticist Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project. The current president of BioLogos is Darrel Falk, who served for many years as biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He was a Vibrant Dance Symposium plenary speaker and panelist. BioLogos literature states “The leaders of BioLogos believe that the findings of modern science are compatible with Christian faith.” They also say they “are committed to promoting a perspective on the origin of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound.”

Theistic evolutionists would concur that belief in molecules to man evolution relies on “the findings of modern science.” My previous blog posts have referenced the existence of errors in both theological and scientific interpretations of reality. When disagreements occur between them, there is obviously an error in one or the other, or perhaps both. When theistic evolutionists use the phrase “findings of modern science,” they really mean modern evolutionary science, complete with the paradigm of “molecules to man” evolution. Theistic evolutionists do not believe intelligent design within earth’s life forms is scientifically detectable as do most old earth and young earth creationists and everyone in the intelligent design movement.

Darrel Falk’s plenary address relied on genetic evidence from DNA sequences, particularly the similarity between primates such as chimpanzees and humans in those sequences. To the theistic evolutionist, such similarities point to common ancestry. Falk spoke in some detail about three such lines of evidence: (1) repeated DNA sequences called ALu, (2) apparent fusion of two separate chromosomes in chimps into a single chromosome in humans, and (3) similarities in DNA coding patterns for protein synthesis. Such a brief review does not begin to do justice to Falk’s proposals. What is clear, however, from his proposals is that evolutionist arguments use a filter which allows them to interpret genetic information in terms of common ancestry. Creationists and intelligent design advocates, by contrast, infer the operation of common design strategies of an intelligent designer as an equally valid explanation for genomic similarities. Researchers regularly uncover stronger evidence to support such an interpretation. As additional evidence accumulates that “quirks” in the genome such as common ALu elements or so-called “junk” DNA found plentifully in all primates have a previously unrecognized purpose rather than being meaningless artifacts left over from our ancestors, the molecules to man paradigm appears to be weakening.

It is certainly true that God could have originated a “fully gifted” creation (a term suggested by Howard Van Till) which possessed the ability for life forms to acquire their present complexity without any additional theistic interventions in the time frame between the Big Bang singularity and the present. Accumulating evidence seems to tilt us away from this belief. Ultimately, each person needs to examine the plentiful evidence manifest in our cosmos and its life forms and decide for himself. It is not, however, simply a “pick and choose” matter of what best suits the way we choose to think. Such issues have great significance as we refine our personal worldviews.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Boundary Pioneers

How should Christian faith and science knowledge “interdigitate?” This imagery was used by Andy Crouch in his kickoff address at the recent Vibrant Dance Symposium in Austin, TX. Literally, interdigitation is an interlocking of the fingers of clasped hands. It suggests a figurative image of one entity overlapping and becoming an integral part of another. With respect to the interaction of faith and science, this imagery describes a desirable model proposed by conference speakers: a complementary relationship between the domains of faith and science.

Crouch, a journalist and senior editor at Christianity Today magazine, effectively presented several imageries to describe the impact of existing rigid boundaries between the magesteria (schools of knowledge and authority) of the faith and science communities.

Before the rise of the scientific revolution and, in particular, the geological discoveries of the early 19th century which clearly signaled a cosmos and earth of great age, no rigid boundary existed. Science as a body of knowledge was not well developed. The beliefs of Christians were not seriously challenged by science because so few discoveries were capable of presenting a serious challenge to long held beliefs concerning creation events, geologic time scales, and development of life on earth, for example.

Discoveries in geology, physics, and cosmology after 1800 began to produce a better developed boundary between faith and science. For some Christians, their travel across the boundary was (and is) relatively stress free. Their comfort level is related to their confident acceptance of the mainstream discoveries of science. For others, boundary crossings are painful because some of their long-standing, cherished beliefs need modification.

Ideally, the domains of faith and science should not conflict if both theology and science are without error. The Creator is the author of both realms. Sadly, scientists began to send bulldozers across the boundary, beginning especially in the 19th century. Even yet we hear the roar of the heavy equipment, and some religious leaders bear the wounds. Religious faith, according to Crouch, remained static, its adherents unwilling to launch a response based on an intelligent grasp of the world of science located across the boundary. Secular science, therefore, fortified its defenses and strengthened its modes of attack. Both religion and science see themselves as “victimized minorities.”

Crouch suggested the feelings of intimidation felt by scientists could be remedied if Christians became “boundary pioneers.” This includes a number of strategies, including learning the language of science and listening carefully. Above all, the discussion should be characterized by “graceful discourse,” an “intentional conversation” which assumes that our neighbor on the other side of the boundary is able to “teach us something.” Our conversations would be “integrative, not disjunctive.” Christians should expect to discover truth from the dialogue with our neighbors across the boundary. The implication follows that scientists, regularly humbled by their own work, may also learn from us, perceiving the humility of Christians who approach them in this manner.