Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Getting Our Attention

Politicians and preachers alike have again been reminding us about the possibility of God’s direct and deliberate intervention manifest in the world’s recent weather events and disasters. Do the east coast earthquake and Hurricane Irene signal the action of God to “get the attention of politicians,” as one politician exclaimed? In personal conversations my friends have wondered if these events signal the close approach of Christ’s end times return. We must read Christ’s very own words in Matthew 24:4-14 for enlightenment.

Natural and man-caused disasters will be common during the approach of the end of the age, the Matthew 24 passage tells us. This includes wars and rumors of wars, famines, pestilence (disease), and earthquakes. Consider, however, that the approach of the “end” has been ongoing for at least 2000 years. Our Lord described events which could only be described as a general chronicle of human and natural history.

In our own neighborhood, 14 inches of rain pelted two or three counties in just eight hours one evening in late July, causing horrific damage and claiming the lives of two acquaintances in separate flash flooding incidents. A few weeks later the east coast experienced a rare earthquake and a major hurricane in little more than a week. During the past spring, terrible tornado outbreaks occurred in widely separated areas. Texas still suffers from extreme drought. Do such events signal the approach of the end more than the many tragic events on Planet Earth throughout its history?

The 2007 National Geographic Society publication Raging Forces…Life on a Violent Planet, puts the issues in perspective. Author George W. Stone begins his first chapter this way: “Our planet is a perpetually evolving, chronically violent, flame-singed, water-soaked, windswept, habitually inhospitable cosmic compound, wrapped around a molten iron heart, orbiting an atomic fireball. Our Earth home is by turns a life-sustaining sphere and a crucible of cataclysm, calamity, paroxysm, disease, disaster, and death. It always has been and always will be.” But our earth’s climate has provided superbly for human, animal, and plant life on this planet for thousands of years. It sustains nearly seven billion people, supplying them with food, mineral, and energy resources. It is a life-friendly planet, described in multiple verses in Genesis 1 as “good” or “very good.”

Individual geologic or weather events, nevertheless, can generate consternation and suffering even within the context of earth’s generally nurturing climate. Violent storms, droughts, and earthquakes have been a feature of our planet throughout its history. China experienced history’s most severe flood in 1931--up to three million dead. In 1815 Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora killed 92,000 in the planet’s largest volcanic eruption. The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1780 killed 22,000 in the Caribbean. China’s 1976 earthquake may have killed as many as 500,000. The 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquake was the most powerful ever to hit the United States. It would cause inconceivable destruction and death if it struck a populated area in our day. The 1972 Feb. 3-9 blizzard in Iran buried at least 4000 villagers in up to ten feet of snow and remains the deadliest blizzard in earth’s history. In the United States, the heat and drought of 8½ years during the 1930s caused the Dust Bowl and affected three-fourths of our country. Famine and pestilence have claimed uncounted millions throughout earth history.

The tale of thousands of other disasters, lesser than the ones described above, is one of heartbreak. But failure to focus our awareness on earth’s life-sustaining features is to commit a serious error. We must not fail to distinguish between “…the weather—a chaotic and dynamic system with immediate impact—and climate, which is the more stable and predictable average of weather when measured over time.” We must realize the benefits of looking at “the big picture.” God looked at the big picture, the completed earth, and pronounced it “very good.”

Matthew 24:15-51 continues describing the worldwide events ushered in at the time of the Great Tribulation. The verses from Matthew 24:4-14 describe conditions as they have existed from the time of Christ on up to and including our present day. Do unusual and seemingly frequent weather, geological events, famines, and pestilence signal a message from God that Christ’s return is close, or that He is “telling us something?” Perhaps that is true; perhaps it is not. We should not pretend to know the time line for His return. History shows such events have been occurring for thousands of years. At the very least the events instruct us in the operation of our physical world.

The words of Christ in Matthew 24 are true and reliable. History and statistics chronicle war threats, famines, earthquakes, persecution, executions, hate, falling away, lawlessness, betrayal, and the rise of false prophets--these have been occurring for millennia. The Great Tribulation events of an unknown future time described after Matthew 24:14 and in the Book of Revelation appear to make the events of our day seem gentle by comparison. We have general revelation--a reliable indicator of the reality of God in the beauty of the very good, functioning, fine tuned cosmos of which Planet Earth is a part. In addition we have the special revelation of God’s inspired word in scripture. We must not add or take away from either revelation.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Secularization of Science

Those who forget history are destined to repeat its mistakes. In one form or another, authorship of this statement is claimed by many. In the current lively area of science/faith issues, we would do well to remember the history of how science became completely secularized well over a century ago. Knowledge of the root of modern scientists’ antagonism toward intelligent design and creationism may not make their opposition any easier to accept. That knowledge may, however, help us develop a more meaningful and appropriate response to the ubiquitous design, creation, and theistic evolution squabbles rampant today in personal and media discussions.

From 1870 to 1930 a militant struggle, encompassing every facet of public life, occurred in the United States. Had this struggle been characterized by armed conflict as had been the tragic American Civil War, our children’s history textbooks might contain lengthy accounts. Rather, the struggle was a conflict of religious and secular activists for institutional control and authority: Who would be most influential interpreting the discoveries of science? Would a view of theistic reality help inform us, such as belief in the existence of God and His actions as Creator of the cosmos? Or would rigid secularism prevail? Secularism is the loss of religious authority in all aspects of life. This includes social life, education, and governance, and yes, science.

Sociologist Christian Smith in The Secular Revolution details the historical battle for secularization of our society. He describes the battle as “a profound cultural revolution which transformed cultural codes and structures of thought, expectation, and practice.” Smith often uses “revolutionary” to describe the struggle.

One chapter in Smith’s volume details the capture of science by the secularizers. Contributor Eva Marie Garoutte reminds us that for more than half of the 19th century, inductive Baconian science undergirded scientific inquiry. Baconianism was the accumulation of knowledge through refined observation. Early scientific methodologist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) had stated, “Knowledge is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” The practice of science through this Christian worldview lens was straightforward. The scientific laws discovered through Baconian induction “were understood teleologically as descriptions of the mediate intervention of the divine in the world,” Garoutte states. But dramatic post-Civil War changes were in store.

Over several decades the gospel of naturalism was spread publicly and militantly. As science became more popular, ambitious secularist scientists claimed the authority formerly accorded to theistic scientists. The secularization of higher education and the secularization of science went hand in hand. The positivists, who had stated that sense experience was the only path to authentic knowledge, won the day. Science, they said, could not inform us about God or any of God’s creative interventions in the cosmos. The domains of religion and science must be kept separate, they contended. The secularists insisted that science and religion did not constitute “a single, self-consistent whole,” Garoutte continues. “They were completely disjunct; they simply had nothing to say to each other."

How does this historical knowledge inform us today? Did the secular scientists make mistakes as they captured science for the “religion” of secularism? May we avoid repeating those mistakes of history? “What mistakes were made?” we may ask. For starters, consider the lack of scientific knowledge of the immediate post-Civil War decades. Gregor Mendel’s pea plant experiments were merely the start gate on man’s ever-widening journey of discovery in genetics. Scientists knew virtually nothing of the structural complexity and function of cells. Cosmology was in its infancy. Evidence for the origin of the universe did not exist. The exquisite precision of physical constants, the fine-tuning of hundreds of cosmic and terrestrial parameters, the mind-bending information contained in DNA, the protein building capability of the cell based on the DNA code…these are but a few of our discoveries.

The 21st century mistake, more serious than the mistake made by the secularizers of science in the late 19th century, is to disconnect science and faith after the example of Stephen J. Gould, who advocated the NOMA principle in 1997. Gould and many other science commentators have repeated the errors of the 19th century secularizers. This is even more astonishing in light of our exponential increase in knowledge of our incredibly ordered cosmos.

My prayer is that Christians would not submit to the bondage of secularization with respect to the science/faith connection. Instead, they should prayerfully consider the most effective means to stage a counter-revolution. Eva Marie Garoutte suggests that to submit to the secularist science mentality is to submit to a “progressive” religion that makes peace with science by completely subordinating ourselves to it. Wise application of science provides countless God-gifted benefits. Early scientific thinkers saw that science and religion formed “a single, self-consistent whole.” Let us strive to recapture that vision.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Circular Science Reasoning

A strong antipathy exists between those who believe in creationism or intelligent design and those who promote naturalistic evolution. Creationism and intelligent design are often regarded as anti-science positions. Science deals only with the natural; no one is permitted to infer supernatural interventions along the timeline of earth history even if the evidence points that way. Expressed belief in creationism or design amounts to religion, as opposed to science, we are reminded. Science has become secularized, as has virtually every segment of our society.

Frequent media invocation of the vaunted term science often carries with it a heavily loaded meaning. We are not told the science may be the consensus science of those who support specific agenda. Science is an umbrella term. Multiple methodologies and various schools of thought exist throughout the science profession. As valuable as the human endeavor of science is, interpretation of data and application of its conclusions are frequently subjective and agenda driven. Biased media commentators attack entire groups such as religious denominations or political parties by questioning or criticizing their attitudes toward science.

Two examples illustrate the point. Supporters of global warming theory ask why certain religious groups or political parties do not support science. Their question implies that if they did support science, they would uphold the idea of anthropogenic global warming. Further, they would also implement heroic remedies such as cap-and-trade emissions rules. Vigorous supporters of theistic evolution provide another example. They speculate that skepticism concerning evolution would vanish if doubters would just “get on board with science.

Logical fallacies abound as arguments are made for one viewpoint or another. Reverently invoking science in discussion of issues could be an example of begging the question or circular reasoning. Whenever one of the first premises in discussion of an important issue runs along the lines of “Science tells us this,” or “No one who believes in science would think that…,” we should raise a flag of caution. The statement “Science tells us evolution is true,” begs the question. It says evolution is true because invocation of the term “science” is meant to force the listener toward a certain conclusion. Such arguments lack logical justification.

One might highlight the fallacy of this argument on other grounds, including “appeal to authority.” My theistic evolutionist friends correctly make the point that virtually the entire science profession has concluded evolution is true. Therefore, so should we, their argument goes. The scientific authority they cite, however, is questionable because their strong naturalistic bias permits no other interpretation. They would interpret all data according to their naturalistic preconceptions.

One of the most fruitful investigations Christian laymen could make involves understanding sound and cogent arguments and logical fallacies in argumentation. We are called upon both to receive and to defend belief positions. Scripture encourages believers to use their minds effectively. Among the many passages related to the principle of sound use of the gift of mind is II Tim. 1:7 (NKJV): “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind.” Many other translations of this verse indicate the need to exercise sound judgment and discipline when receiving or presenting arguments.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Science/Faith Disconnect

The title of one of our first blog posts in 2007 was “The Science/Faith Connection.” Our modern secular culture does not take kindly to the concept of a connection between science and faith. The formerly strong association between science and theology began to break down after the American Civil War.

Prior to the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, most science was still influenced by Aristotelian thinking. Science was then known as “natural philosophy.” Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher whose teachings about the natural world relied primarily on reason and argument. He theorized about “purpose” (telos) and derived universal rules from particular examples. Although Aristotle introduced a few ideas which may be considered scientific in a modern sense, he would have been uncomfortable with modern scientific methods.

The Scientific Revolution relied on mathematics more extensively. New scientific methods used controlled experiments to simulate events in the real world. It also initiated methods of discovery which could be duplicated by other researchers. These science experiments confirmed the operation of our world according to predictable, natural laws. Metaphysical speculation, typical of Aristotelian thinking, yielded to concrete understanding, providing scientists with solid knowledge and a sense of empowerment.

Early pioneers of the scientific method were, for the most part, theologically Christian in their worldview. They understood nature’s orderly laws as a manifestation of the authorship of God. Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Boyle and many others openly acknowledged God’s authorship of the creation and its operation. The sense of empowerment resulting from their knowledge did not deter them from connecting the creation with the Creator. They described the precision of nature’s laws and the apparent design manifest in both living and non-living things as God-affirming. They did not hesitate to publicly acknowledge the connection between the physical universe and its Creator. Theology was often described as the “Queen of the Sciences.”

The situation changed dramatically just after the Civil War. In the early days of Darwin’s milestone publication of Origin of Species, American universities were quickly becoming secular institutions. In 1861, in school sample, 59% of American college presidents were clergy. That number fell to 15% by 1890 and to 0% by 1915. Theology, formerly in a complementary relationship with science, was summarily booted out of this exalted relationship. One example of the abrupt, deliberate certainty of this takeover is illustrated by an 1872 article in Scientific American: “Science, by experience made conscious of her own superiority, has lifted up her head, and in place of being the handmaid of theology, and being judged by theologians, has placed herself in position to judge the teachings of theology, and to decide which are true and which are erroneous.” It was not only education becoming secular; science was dragged along in the flow. The victory of secularism was sudden and unequivocal in the last decades of the 19th century.

In modern times many would say the secularization of science is a recent phenomenon. In reality it has been ongoing for 150 years. In political imagery one might term it a coup. Science has been declared the domain of naturalism by the secularists who have captured it. Most current philosophers of science view the scientific enterprise in this light, as do the scientists themselves. These facts account for the fact that science as a profession has great appeal for those who already possess a naturalistic worldview. Their worldview is affirmed by those who have formed the “rules of the game” of science in the last 150 years.

Christians who choose to work in science professions must operate under the banner of methodological naturalism. Even when scientific methodology signals intelligent design as an explanatory option, the science community stridently denies that possibility as a subject for serious investigation. One of the best examples is the coded information in the DNA of living cells. The origin of such information has no credible naturalistic explanation because codes are always the product of a mind.

Science is skillfully insulated against any theistic intrusion. We are counseled that science is science; religion is religion. The two domains shall not meet, the edict states. The science profession in the 150 years has been remarkably successful preserving the purity of science as a totally naturalistic enterprise. Curiously, some scientists are beginning to realize that their “game rules” may rule out any possibility of truth discovery. Although the primary function of science is not instruction in theology, the pivot toward secularization, in retrospect, has been enforced with deliberate, purposeful zeal. The natural science/faith connection has been portrayed as unnatural. Many early pioneers of the Scientific Revolution viewed science and religion as a single, self-consistent whole. To them the relationship of the domains was completely natural.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Marvels of the Monarch

Before putting the monarch butterfly discussion to rest for the summer, consider how we may communicate the marvels of the monarch to a young person in a gripping way. We may observe the tiny egg hatch into a tiny caterpillar, grow into a large caterpillar, morph into a gold be-jeweled chrysalis, and finally hatch into the adult end product--the magnificent orange and black aeronaut with its mysterious navigational capability. Young people may say, “That’s awesome!” A few may wonder, “How does that happen?” In the world of living things around us, there are thousands of events capable of triggering that question: How does it happen?

The monarch, with its four-stage metamorphosis, is high on the list of fascinating, wonder-provoking creatures. Its life cycle and migratory capability place in it a league by itself. But we must keep in mind that the progression of events in its body building process occurs in all living creatures, to one degree or another.

When the adult monarch places its tiny egg beneath a milkweed leaf, it deposits a complete program of instructions for fabricating a complex, functioning organism. The phrase complex, functioning organism does not even begin to reveal its physical beauty and capability. The monarch’s DNA contains a multi-million digit genetic code which directs the building of thousands of proteins, strings of amino acids which fold into specific shapes. These shapes are critical in governing the animal’s appearance and function.

An object lesson may help us understand. Resting in our family game closet is a 1500-piece jigsaw puzzle picturing a Bavarian castle. Each puzzle piece is uniquely shaped, fitting in only one specific position with respect to other puzzle pieces. Only one arrangement of pieces successfully completes the puzzle. If any pieces are misplaced or missing, puzzle enthusiasts judge the project to be a failure. But when all 1500 pieces are correctly assembled, the complete Bavarian castle comes into view.

Who designed the Bavarian castle puzzle? The image was clearly selected for its aesthetic beauty. The cut of the puzzle pieces resulted from the deliberate, intellectual process of the designer and manufacturing technologists. The pieces were precisely shaped to fit with each other perfectly and they must all be sequenced properly to result in a successful image.

In biology, this necessary, precise order of any organism’s thousands of different proteins forming functional structures is termed specificity of sequence. The adult monarch, not to mention the chrysalis, caterpillar, and egg stage, is composed of many thousands of different successfully assembled proteins--strips of amino acids strung together and folded into precise three-dimensional shapes. They match up with other specially shaped proteins to produce functional structures. Both shape and sequence of proteins, therefore, must be exactly correct in order to successfully produce an adult monarch butterfly. Success manifests itself in correct color, pattern, structure, and function of its wing, length and thickness of its antennae, anatomical features of its digestive system, and its intrinsic capability to sense environmental factors guiding the insect to a special Mexican forest, to list only a few examples.

At what age could a child begin to understand? Depending on the child’s age, the parent or teacher could use a 30-piece jigsaw puzzle to illustrate. Perhaps the child could understand that paintings of Bavarian castles do not assemble themselves. Children’s usually futile efforts to capture butterflies may help them contemplate their visual ability and knack for avoiding danger. Some children may be able to infer the absurdity of all these features and events “just happening by accident.” Jesus Christ, who healed sick folks and rose from the dead, is able to create a monarch butterfly and the multiple other wonders surrounding us. This is one of the most important lessons our children could ever learn.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Train Up a Child

Forty-two second graders sat attentively for almost an hour last spring listening to my PowerPoint presentation on four stage metamorphosis and migration. To illustrate, I used my personal photo images and recounted my experiences with one of the most remarkable animals on the planet--the monarch butterfly. During the question and answer session, the seven-year-olds demonstrated repeatedly that curiosity and wonder for the natural world is innate and intense at an early age. Their questions were surprisingly insightful. It was a privilege to nourish their excitement over one of nature’s great wonders.

One of the last slides pictured two tiny monarch eggs I had found beneath a single milkweed leaf. With tender care, last summer these eggs hatched to become caterpillars, formed chrysalises, and became adult monarchs in the course of only one month. Several weeks ago a special guest, our seven-year-old granddaughter, demonstrated her skills locating these barely visible monarch eggs. After a roadside foray to a nearby milkweed patch, she presented me with several minute monarch eggs. After more than a thousand-fold weight gain, they have now progressed to the beautiful chrysalis stage. Upon hatching into adults, this generation will soon depart for a solitary Mexico forest site.

As the school visit drew to a close last spring, I tried to help the second graders stretch their imagination. Inside each tiny, smaller-than-a-pinhead egg is stored all the information necessary for building, step by step, a caterpillar, a chrysalis, and finally an adult butterfly. Each stage is a magnificent display of beauty and function. If the students could imagine a tiny envelope containing all the instructions necessary for building a city skyscraper, they might be able to understand in a small way how the egg contains detailed microscopic information enabling the monarch to build many thousands of proteins into very special structures and designs: the caterpillar’s organs of digestion, the shape of the chrysalis, and the beauty of the adult, not to mention how it is capable of finding its way to Mexico.

The opportunities for teaching children the works of the Creator in a home, school, or church setting by observing natural phenomena are limitless. Both living and non-living things supply such opportunities. The exultations of biblical authors with respect to living things (Job 39 and Psalm 139) and the expressions of worship and devotion for the maker and sustainer of the cosmos (Job 38 and Psalm 19) were penned long before modern scientific discoveries in the world of living things or the workings of the cosmos. In our day there are far greater opportunities to observe the micro- and macro-cosmos and to tap into the scientific knowledge gain than ever before in the history of man.

Our children are both beneficiaries and victims of these modern gains in scientific knowledge. In terms of improvements in medicine, diet, and ease of communication, to list only a few, they are beneficiaries. However, they are victims of technological overkill, their discovery process connected to point and click phenomena. Their sense of wonder and discovery may emanate from the virtual world instead of the natural world. In our increasingly secular society the connection between the natural and the supernatural, and between created things and the Creator is becoming weaker.

With respect to fostering understanding and appreciation of the natural world and how the supernatural and natural realms are not closed off to each other, consider the well known passage in Proverbs 22:6 (NAS): “Train up a child in the way he should go. Even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This verse surely relates to fostering proper patterns of thought in our children as well as the more familiar interpretations. Those thought patterns lead us to recognize the Creator in the works of His Creation.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Jesus Is the Creator

The monthly email invitation to attend the science/faith organization chapter meetings always closed with the exultation “Jesus is the Creator.” As we contemplate the intersection of science and faith in this blog, we recognize that as we discover the wonders of design, whether in the fine tuning of the cosmos or in the magnificent, intricate design and functionality of living things, we are looking at the work of Jesus, the Creator.

Historian Mark A. Noll, in a Christianity Today interview entitled “The Foundation of the Evangelical Mind,” states those who rely on Christ for their personal salvation should also rely on Christ “to provide the basic standpoint from which to look at intellectual problems.” This means recognizing, Noll continues, “that everything exists because it was created by Jesus. John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1 all make the same statement: It’s not just that the Lord God in some general sense created everything. We also have the amazing statement in Colossians 1 that all things hold together in Jesus.”

When we study the natural world with this in mind we strengthen our Christian faith, according to Noll. “When responsible examination of nature takes place, the examiner discovers not just nature, but nature as created by the Son of God and sustained by Providence…The relevance of Christ for science is to realize that everything that exists in nature comes from Christ, but also that the life of Christ gives us a way of exploring nature that involves openness to what we experience. So, ‘Come and see’”.

Another Christian historian, George Marsden, wrote in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997), that the centrality of our Christian faith--that Jesus Christ is God incarnate--has an implication: “…that the supernatural and the natural realms are not closed off to each other.” Our secular society makes every effort to disconnect the supernatural and natural realms. Alas, in effect, we are counseled that the natural realm does not inform us about God.

The concept of Jesus as the Creator becomes more vital as we study the world of nature. Let us offer a word of caution. Noll and Marsden do not espouse pantheism which posits the equivalence of Deity and nature. We must guard against such errant thinking. But failing to see Jesus as the Creator of our fine tuned cosmos and our marvelously designed living things may be an error of equal magnitude. The multidimensional essence of Christ is revealed in the natural world by His agency as the Creator.