Thursday, December 30, 2010

Helicopter Therapy

The packing box proclaims 14+ the appropriate age for ownership and operation of this toy. Perhaps this is the age at which the principles of physics governing the Syma S-107 helicopter’s operation are first introduced to middle school or high school students. More likely, the manufacturer wants to avoid excessive crash damage from underage operators. Even seasoned citizens, I’ve discovered, must be diligent following the operating rules precisely.

Could a toy helicopter contribute in any way to our understanding of spiritual principles for operating our lives? The answer depends on how deeply we wish to think about its function. When we manipulate the two control sticks on the remote control box, we may move the helicopter up or down, point it right or left, and direct it forward or backward. Successfully directing the two-ounce, eight-inch long toy around the air space in the room gives us a powerful feeling of being in control. Obeying the invisible digital infrared signals from the hand-held remote unit, the helicopter submits to the will of the operator. And therein lies the potential for satisfying success or tragic disaster.

At the risk of becoming too pedantic, I’ll mention a few science principles inherent in the toy’s operation. Of course, these are the same principles governing every physical activity of our lives. Understanding them may or may not enable us to direct the tiny flying machine perfectly, but practice and experience certainly help. Rules of energy transformations and laws of motion--how acceleration relates to force and mass, how laws of inertia apply to matter’s behavior, how reaction is equal and opposite to action--these are just a few of the topics we may discuss in the science classroom, if not in our family play room.

Our physical universe is governed by dozens of God-ordained “universal constants,” mathematical quantities which are the foundation of the equations of physics governing the behavior of all physical systems such as our toy helicopter. These constants and the proven equations derived from them are not subject to change. Our personal physical activities are successful to the degree that we adhere to these “rules of the game.” Our activities fail when we do not adhere. Lack of adherence occurs through willful “disobedience,” careless adherence, or ignorance.

Doing what I want to do apart from the “rules of the game” for helicopter operation results in failure and frustration. My “helicopter therapy” sessions have taught me that when I follow the physical rules for its operation I am happily entertained, affirmed and satisfied. Behavioral rules and spiritual truth have also been ordained and revealed by God. Once again, man exercises his free will in obeying or not obeying them. The consequences of each alternative are described in Scripture as well as from our personal experience.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Geostationary Orbits

Man’s ability to place objects in orbit provides us with spiritual object lessons. Our musings about radio and television satellites beaming their digital messages to our receivers at the speed of light raise some questions. We may observe our rooftop satellite dish and wonder why the installation technician pointed it in a precise direction. Early earth satellites circled the earth in low orbit in a little more than an hour. So what accounts for our rooftop dish always pointing in only one direction? The answer triggers a need to review the basics of what keeps satellites in orbit.

Earth satellites are launched into earth orbit at almost 18,000 mph. They must achieve an altitude high enough so the drag of the atmosphere will not slow the satellite sufficiently to cause it to fall back to earth. Once a satellite’s rocket reaches orbital speed, the rocket’s engine is no longer needed. The satellite continues to fly on its own. Inertia, the tendency of a moving object to continue moving at its current speed and direction, allows the satellite to continue moving forward on its own.

If inertia were the only factor, the satellite would continue straight into outer space. Earth’s gravity always tugs on the satellite, causing it to travel in a curved path. The satellite, therefore, is always falling toward the earth, but always missing, because the earth’s surface curves away precisely the right amount. In theory, the satellite could remain in orbit forever. Near earth satellites whiz overhead, out of range in only a few minutes. Low orbit satellites would not be useful for transmission of continuous radio and television broadcasts.

Scientists are able to boost satellites into higher orbits. These orbits do not require such high speeds. Because the gravity diminishes the farther we go away from earth, lower speed is required to maintain the desired orbital path. For example, a satellite 22,223 miles above the earth needs a speed of only about 7,000 mph to continue in orbit. Under these conditions the satellite revolves once around the earth in the exact time earth rotates once. As a result, the satellite remains in a fixed position with respect to one location on the earth’s surface. Your DirecTV dish antenna is fixed toward only one position in the sky to receive its continuous stream of audio or television signals. We receive our Christmas music, our religious broadcasts, or our favorite baseball team’s play-by-play almost instantly, relayed from earth to outer space and back to us.

The satellites described are termed “geostationary.” They must orbit directly over the equator in the same direction earth rotates--west to east. Other types of satellite orbits serve other purposes. A successful satellite is one which meets multiple criteria precisely in order to fulfill its mission. Some satellites have failed because of errant human planning or execution. They travel too fast or too slow, they orbit too high or too low, or their power is lost. Praise belongs to our teams of scientists who implement precision processes to keep our satellites operating at peak performance levels.

Man’s technological achievements have outpaced his achievements in the spiritual realm. As progress in science and application of technology has expanded, we do not see a corresponding improvement in man’s spiritual achievement. Perhaps this is a function of living in the “perilous” or “difficult” times described in various translations of II Timothy 3:1-5. Man’s mastery of technology has increased his sense of self-empowerment, but not his devotion to God. Man’s spiritual dish antenna is not fixed upon God. Adherence to God-ordained physical laws of the universe is necessary for successful outcomes in thousands of scientific applications. In a different realm of human experience, obedience to God’s standards for our behavior is no less crucial.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Blue Marble

“Awesome” has become an overworked word in our culture, especially among young people. “Awesome” is slang for “enthusiastic approval.” Its root word, “awe,” is less used and underappreciated, but its meaning is far more powerful: deep wonder, respect, reverence, perhaps even coupled with holy fear.

Eclipses inspire awe as few other natural phenomena. Total lunar eclipses are easily visible events, occurring several times each decade. In such an event, the Moon, always at its “full” phase, enters the “umbra,” the dark shadow cast by the Earth. Over several hours we observe Earth’s shadow slowly pass across the bright surface of the moon. Finally, the entire Moon is engulfed in nearly total darkness, faintly glowing from a small amount of light bending around the Earth’s atmosphere. After being eclipsed for up to an hour, the Moon slowly emerges from Earth’s dark shadow back into bright sunlight.

On December 21, 2010, a total lunar eclipse was visible over North America. Because of cloud cover over the mid west, my personal experience was limited to observing that the usual moonlight-drenched countryside became eerily dark, even with snow cover to help reflect light. Other total lunar eclipses I have observed were truly awe-inspiring. As Earth’s shadow passes across the moon’s surface, one experiences a unique sense of our location in the Solar System and the cosmos. The object we stand upon, nicknamed The Blue Marble, casts a shadow on a distant body. A palpable feeling of reverence and humility grips the thoughtful, contemplative observer.

Where did The Blue Marble nickname originate? On December 7, 1972, the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft photographed Earth from 28,000 miles in space. The astronauts were on their way to a Moon landing. Apollo 17 was the last manned flight to Earth’s companion satellite. Since that flight, no humans have been at such a distance from Earth where taking such a photograph would be possible. This famous full-sphere photograph of Earth is called The Blue Marble.

Four years earlier, on Christmas Eve, 1968, three famous astronauts, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders, had become the first humans to orbit the Moon. A few hours earlier they were also the first humans to escape Earth’s gravitational grip far enough to enter the gravitational field of another Solar System body. After orbiting the Moon several times, they began to beam back to Earth one of the most famous direct television transmissions of all time. With a gibbous Blue Marble Earth shining over the horizon of the Moon, the astronauts took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis. Then Commander Borman said, “We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” I was riveted to the television set, watching that broadcast direct from the Moon.

If you have never observed a total lunar eclipse over several nighttime hours, you may plan ahead with the knowledge that a cluster of four total lunar eclipses will be visible over North America in 2014 and 2015. A total of eighty-five total lunar eclipses occur during this century. For readers who have already watched the shadow of The Blue Marble slowly creep across the Moon’s surface during a total lunar eclipse, perhaps these accounts will rekindle your sense of awe and reverence toward the Creator.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Celestial Celebration

On the evening of March 12, 2009, my wife and two dozen other Holy Land tourists arrived in Jerusalem by bus from Ben Gurion Airport. Before arriving at our hotel, tour host Jimmy DeYoung instructed our driver to pull in to an elevated parking area. Most of our group members carefully descended a gravel path to a vantage point where we could overlook the distant lights of Bethlehem. We were told a nearby hillside may have been the home of “shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8 NIV). We sang “Joy to the World” under sparkling starlight.

Scripture does not tell us if the praise offered by the “great company of the heavenly host” was heard only by the shepherds or by all the residents of the surrounding countryside. Perhaps the arrival of God incarnate was witnessed only by the humble shepherds. In retrospect, our tour group, had we been present on that miraculous night long ago, could have heard the celestial praise celebration of Christ’s first advent from that Jerusalem hillside venue. Short of a miracle multiplying the range of sights and sounds and extending them to the entire civilized world of that era, Jesus’ angelic birth celebration was a local event.

Revelation 1:7 speaks of Christ’s Second Advent: “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…” This second appearance contrasts sharply with the first. Will the miracle “every eye will see him” be divinely transcendent? Or will God the Father use the remarkable technology He has enabled man to develop the past two centuries--especially in the last few decades? The answer is known only to God. But our sense of wonder at the marvels of scientific discovery sparks our imagination.

Digital electromagnetic signals from satellites orbiting far outside our atmosphere can now be harnessed to provide virtually instant pictures and sounds from any event any place in the world. We could be forgiven if we loosely use the term “miracle” to describe technological achievements not even imagined by our grandparents.

There is an evident irony as we consider the First Advent of Jesus in Bethlehem so long ago. The heavenly host heralded Jesus’ arrival from “outer space”--heaven’s glory. Orbiting satellite signals which deliver joyous Christmas programming also arrive from “space,” beaming their message of worship and honor to the Son of God. Of course, the reality of the Incarnation is, by far, the greater miracle.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas Programming

At Christmastime, some radio stations modify their musical programming to conform to the season. Most stations assume a secular stance, only occasionally offering a carol with an explicitly Christian message. I confess my preference for “real” Christmas music. At times I’ve contacted station management about their Christmas “lite” offerings, hoping at least for more balance, trying not to sound like Scrooge. Songs about bells, chestnuts, and snow at Christmas may arouse my sense of melody, harmony, and rhythm, but they do not grip my soul very deeply.

The day after Thanksgiving I tuned to one of the Sirius XM classical radio stations. They had just converted their programming to Christmas music--real Christmas music. On that station, “Joy to the World” was elevated above “Happy Holidays.” The soul-stirring message of the Incarnation was arriving from space via satellite technology.

The Incarnation is a cornerstone of Christian theology. It originated in the heart of God and was intended to grip our spirit, soul, and body, our minds and our hearts. The paradox of Divine Being intersecting with humanity is a truth we do not easily grasp. But God’s gift of artistic expression--music set to lyrics--is profoundly effective in bridging the communication gap between the divine and the human.

Christmas music set to text may grip our souls, but there are other truths to contemplate. These include the artistic genius possessed by the most creative and skilled composers and lyricists. Historically, enduring music has been produced by only a small fraction of the human population. But their achievements are now available for all to enjoy. Gifted composers have found ways to share their unique creative skills and spiritual insights with humanity at large. A substantial portion of the population feels ownership of the music. In our day, billions of people are able to access the finest Christmas music through the medium of satellite radio, to name only one. The DuPont Corporation’s trademark slogan “The Miracles of Science” was never more applicable.

As I listen to the highest quality Christmas music performed by skilled musicians, sometimes I am overswept by a sense of worship as I contemplate the Incarnation. The message of the music is inspired by the message of Holy Land events two millennia in the past.

Sirius XM radio is beamed from satellites far out in space, hovering above the earth in a geostationary orbit. Their signals are sent at the speed of light, taking only 0.25 sec to arrive at our receivers on earth. While not technically a “miracle,” this process inspires awe. The real miracle is the reality of the supernatural arrival of Jesus these music channels celebrate this time of year.

One of the greatest Christmas anthems ever written declares, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity.” Gal. 4:4 (NASB) echoes, “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Science Wars

The term war conjures up powerful emotions. In most cases a war is a battle between those holding differing ideologies. Most often people associate war with armed conflict. Other disputes could result only in verbal exchanges or other hostile actions short of armed conflict. Many would be surprised to learn that groups of scientists sometimes strive with one another about their practices, conclusions, and the philosophy guiding their work. Sometimes science as a general discipline could be perceived to be at war with a completely different discipline or school of knowledge. One of the best-known examples is the alleged war between science and religion--Christianity in particular.

On October 27, 2010, Walter Bradley addressed participants at the Vibrant Dance of Science and Faith Symposium in Austin, TX. His topic was the alleged war between science and Christian faith. Bradley co-authored The Mystery of Life’s Origin in 1984. The book was one of the first to tackle the origin of life issue from a creationist and intelligent design perspective. Contrary to the popular claims of well-known atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Bradley stated that claims of a running conflict between science and faith have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, the relationship between the domains of science and faith has been complex and interesting.

Andrew Dixon White, Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) co-founder and first president, wrote a provocative two volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in 1896. He claimed religious leaders had long attempted to interfere with science progress. White’s thesis became influential in molding public attitudes. It has been largely discredited, but its effects linger today in the public consciousness. Instead of the “interdigitation” of science and faith optimistically addressed earlier in the Vibrant Dance conference by Andy Crouch, many people within and outside the church still do not perceive faith and science as “vibrant dance partners.”

Bradley discussed four models of the science/religion relationship. More time was devoted to the “conflict” model than the other models, because the perception of conflict may still be more prevalent in our culture. Enlightenment figures from the 17th/18th centuries have been wrongly reported as promoting the idea that religious figures suppressed scientific investigation and knowledge. That model has little basis in fact. Many early scientists of that era were Christians, including Pascal, Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. As centuries passed, other scientists of faith appeared, such as Maxwell, Kelvin, and Faraday.

With the secularization of higher education around the time of Darwin, Christian creationist views came under attack. Later, from 1910-1990, the “warfare” was actually fomented by Christians whose hermeneutical frameworks did not permit them to accept scientific discoveries on the age of the earth and the beginning of the universe in a “Big Bang” creation event.

Materialistic worldviews conflicted with the Christian worldview. Naturalism (“Nature is all there is”) and scientism (appealing solely to the authority of science) began to achieve status as popular worldviews. More recently, from about 1990 to the present, a shift occurred. Intelligent Design proposals posited that evidence in the natural world supports the inference of an Intelligent Designer. Meanwhile, creationists of all stripes, both old and young earth, have attempted to reconcile the words of the Bible with correct interpretations of modern science.

Aggressive, militant atheist scientists are the most high-profile proponents of a science/religion disconnect. They have attracted a lot of attention and have gained prominence, helping to keep ideas of “science/faith wars” active. Other models of the science/faith relationship are less confrontational, even describing mutual support for each other. The “independence” model is exemplified by Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA (separate realms) principle: The two realms are not adversarial, but they do not impinge on one another. Other models are termed “constructive integration” and “complementarity.” Many writers have described these models. Generally, they provide visions of accommodation between scientific and religious thought.

It is important to understand the relationship of science and faith. We err in thinking that the many God-given dimensions of our lives are separated into compartments. Science and faith may both grow more effective as our Christian worldview is strengthened.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Purpose of Scriptural Language

The type of language used in scripture helps reveal the author’s purpose for writing. C. John (Jack) Collins recently addressed the Vibrant Dance of Faith and Science Symposium from that standpoint with respect to the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Collins is professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary. One of his areas of interest and expertise is the text-linguistic approach to Hebrew grammar and lexicography.

Genesis 1-11 is described as the “front end” of the story of Abraham, the patriarch of the Israelites, God’s chosen people. These chapters include vast time frames, in contrast to the following chapters of Genesis which relate detailed accounts of events within a much shorter time period. The author of the first eleven chapters sought to correct the views handed down in the literature of surrounding cultures which conveyed their beliefs of reality and events long past. Those examples of literature are known as myths, but the writers thought their accounts described real events. Moses’ writings were based on his experience with the one true God and present a proper monotheistic worldview.

The Old Testament expresses a coherent view of one true God who originated all things and created man to rule his creation in a wise and benevolent way. Sadly, man’s disobedience put an end to their enjoyment of caring for Eden. But Genesis 12-50 describes Abraham and his descendants as recipients of God’s purposeful blessing: hope for common human dignity, a just human society, and righteousness resulting from obedience to God’s commands.

Moses wrote Genesis, therefore, with a purpose in mind. That purpose was best expressed using a combination of “ordinary” and “poetic” language which could be understood by the Hebrew people. Collins described “ordinary” language as descriptive or phenomenological. For instance, a day may be described as “very cold” or the sun may be described as “rising.” The writer may also use familiar “poetic” imagery such as “pillars of the earth” or “the windows of heaven.”

A third type of language may be termed “scientific.” It aims for a high level of precision and detail with minimum ambiguity. Modern scientific language may describe temperature or speed with a great degree of exactitude. Examples of modern scientific language are, “The temperature is -13.7 degrees Celsius,” or “Our speed is 52 km/hr.” Such scientific language is not found in Genesis. Science as a systematic discipline would not develop until several thousand years later. The purpose of Genesis 1-11 is not to render a scientific account. The purpose, rather, is to unfold a worldview in preparation for later detailed accounts of God’s work through Abraham and His chosen people.

Hyper-literal interpretations of lengths of Genesis days (yom) do not use the Bible properly, according to Collins. I reaffirm my previous claims that the Bible is not a textbook enabling us to answer specific scientific questions. To make a scientific claim that each Genesis creation day is equivalent to our 24-hour day betrays the purpose of the Genesis account. That purpose is not to answer scientific questions such as precisely how or when events occurred, or precisely how long they took. Rather, the purpose of Genesis is to communicate a theistic worldview. Scripture reveals one true God who is the Creator of all things.

Events described in Genesis are historical. They are true. In Moses’ time the written account helped the people develop a proper view of God and His acts of creation and redemption. God’s word does the same for us in our day.