Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Roll Call

Many people who lived five decades or more ago remember the popular hymn “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” This title was requested more frequently than most during the “favorites” portion of hymn time. The verse 1 lyrics begin, “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more…” For those unfamiliar with biblical eschatology, this refers to the return of Christ at the end of this present age. It precedes the onset of the New Creation described in Revelation 21. I sang these lyrics hundreds of times as a young person. The term “time shall be no more” was characteristic of many sentimental expressions sung from behind a hymnal in that era. We do not disparage the pietistic expressions of those musical offerings. Perhaps our increased understanding of cosmology and its theological implications in the past half century imparts new meaning to this old expression.

Revelation’s description of the New Creation suggests that the dimensions of space and time we experience at present will be replaced with entirely new dimensions. Space and time will not be reckoned as we reckon them today.

Scripture also refers to a past interval in history when the dimension of time as we know it today did not exist. Four New Testament verses explicitly state this concept: I Cor. 2:7, Eph. 1:4, II Tim. 1:9, and Tit. 1:3. Cosmologists agree that our single time and three space dimensions were “created” a split second after the Big Bang. They even speculate on the presence of a number of other dimensions existing at the first moment of the universe’s existence. Ironically, secular cosmologists and theologians both agree on the “creation” of time at that point in the past.

We see, therefore, that our present dimensions of time and space are emplaced between two intervals of timelessness--one interval prior to the beginning of time (John 1:1-2), and the New Creation described in Revelation 21 after the end of time. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary indicates the Genesis 1:1 In the beginning refers to the creation of the heavens and the earth, while the John 1:1 In the beginning “…does not refer to a particular moment of time but assumes a timeless eternity.”

The Bible speaks almost exclusively about events in our time frame of existence and instructions for our lives within our time frame. God is the creator of our existence and sustenance within this time frame and the author of guidelines for our successful and joyful living. He also provides the opportunity to achieve redemption in this life and in the life to come--the ultimate in successful and joyful existence. This comes through the gift of God’s Son.

God created the conditions of our present time frame to fulfill His divine purposes. He enjoyed creating the heavens and the earth and eventually earth’s millions of different creatures. In particular, God took pleasure in creating man in His own image. He enjoys fellowship with the pinnacle of His creative work--man. Science has discovered the laws of operation of this universe and by extension, Planet Earth. Thousands of volumes of scientific literature have described how these laws have produced the resources currently supporting the existence of seven billion human beings and uncounted trillions of other living things. The functioning of our earth may be described as a divine success story. Even better things, however, are in store for redeemed mankind.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Best of All Worlds

A popular current scientific buzz is an imaginative concept called the “multiverse” which posits that at the Big Bang multiple universes may have been generated. Perhaps, some scientists say, the number of universes is infinite. Some scientists hypothesize our own universe may possess all the “just right” requirements for life because if infinite universes exist, it is virtually certain that at least one of them would possess all the conditions and physical constants necessary for life as it exists on Planet Earth. Moreover, life could have evolved by chance, because with an infinite number of “trials” our particular set of earth conditions was bound to occur.

Physicist Paul Davies has declared that the multiverse hypothesis has no empirical testability. Therefore, it is not falsifiable and has no standing as a scientific proposal. Modern fascination with the multiverse idea reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s visit to ancient Greece. In the picture painted by Luke, writer of the Book of Acts, the intellectuals gathered frequently in downtown Athens to gossip. Eugene Peterson translates the scene this way: “There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything” (Acts 17:21 The Message). Paul Davies wrote “Taking Science on Faith,” an op-ed in The New York Times, Nov. 24, 2007, claiming “…Science has its own faith-based belief system…Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith—namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.” No doubt the Athenians would have been fascinated with the multiverse proposal.

Davies took a lot of heat from skeptical scientists for his proposal that science is akin to a faith system. A Wikipedia entry claims Davies’ piece “generated controversy over its exploration of the role of faith in scientific inquiry. Davies argued that the faith scientists have in the immutability of physical laws has origins in Christian theology, and that the claim that science is ‘free of faith’ is ‘manifestly bogus.’” We might ask, “What is the essential difference between religious faith and a scientific faith?” Our blog agrees that both science and religion are faith-based. The object of that faith highlights the difference.

Our Christian belief system casts strong doubt on the reality of the multiverse proposal. Genesis declares “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Science is based upon evidence gained from empirical evidence. We observe only our own universe. Paul Davies correctly states that the multiverse hypothesis has no empirical testability. Therefore, we do not assign credence to the imaginative and speculative hypothesis of the multiverse, however appealing that hypothesis may be.

The heavens and the earth referenced in Genesis 1:1 is the term for the entirety of the universe we now observe. It is the production of the God of Creation. He created Earth with the ultimate good of modern man in mind. Every process over the eons of time looked forward to modern man’s arrival. God has stockpiled the benefits from these processes, benefits which persist even in our day. We may confidently say, with the psalmist, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…” (Psalm 24:1 KJV).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Kind of World?

How does the physical operation of Planet Earth’s systems and our cosmos fulfill God’s higher purpose? Do Earth’s physical systems and Earth’s life forms operate according to the foreknowledge of an infinite, omniscient God? Since the Fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden, are we operating under God’s “Plan B?” That is to say, was God’s perfect creation sabotaged at the moment of Adam’s Fall? These are not only issues of deep theological significance, but profound scientific questions as well.

Many Christians see both the operation of Earth’s physical systems and the spiritually fallen condition of the human race as the outcome of the sin of our Garden of Eden parents. They believe Adam’s action was responsible for both physical and spiritual degradation. Man’s spiritual alienation from God is, indeed, inherited from Adam. Some broadly blame Satan for man’s spiritual downfall. In some sense this is true. Had free will not been gifted to humanity and had Satan not existed, the Fall would not have occurred. But this conclusion seriously overlooks a deeper theological reality.

Long before the creation of man “in the image of God,” long before life of any type existed on this earth, and long before the initial creation event described in the first verse of the Bible, God in three persons existed outside our current dimensions of space and time. Stated another way, God was transcendent. Three dimensions of space and one dimension of time were imposed upon this universe at the creation event. We tend to think only in terms of our current space/time dimensions. In some small measure, theologically and scientifically we are able to grasp the importance of this concept by studying scripture and by discovering the operations of our cosmos from a scientific perspective.

Some of Scripture’s most startling passages refer to the plan of redemption for man. The plan was present in the mind of God even before the creation of our dimensions of space and time. The Apostle Paul, recipient of many of God’s special revelations of truth, spoke at least five times in his epistles of pre-creation divine determination of future events involving man on earth. For example, the New International Version translates I Cor. 2:7 using the term before time began, Eph. 1:4 with before the creation of the world, and II Tim. 1:9 and Tit. 1:3 by the term before the beginning of time. Rom. uses the phrase “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…” In each of these cases it is clear these passages refer to man’s redemption from sin.

The term grace is used in scripture to indicate, among other things, the reception of something we do not deserve. Again, II Tim. 1:9 states, “Grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” We do not deserve grace because of our sinfulness. God knew man would rapidly fall into sin when left to his own free will choice. Another term, adoption, refers to the transfer of a person from one condition (family) to another. Clearly, redemption was in the heart of God long before the creation of the cosmos. We may ask, “Redemption from what?” We may answer, “Redemption from a sinful heart condition to a new condition of guiltlessness before God through the sacrifice of Christ.” Did God know beforehand that humanity would fall into sin by virtue of his free will choice? Yes, He did. God did not prevent Satan’s entry into the Garden of Eden, but He could have done so.

The physical characteristics of this world at times result in discomfort, distress, or even death. A broad scope analysis of conditions on our earth, however, reveals an earth with the optimal potential for nourishing and sustaining the lives of seven billion souls. God designed our earth system with our benefit in mind. He has given us the privilege of tenderly caring for it, working it, and reaping benefits from it. It is part of a cosmos gradually running down under the God-imposed “Law of Decay,” but it is a cosmos ideally suited to fulfillment of His plan for the redemption of reborn mankind into the future New Creation described in Revelation 21.

What kind of world do we live in? We may conclude this cosmos is ideally suited to fulfill God’s purpose: the redemption of mankind to a future state in the New Creation. This state is far more wonderful than merely restoring the brief “paradise” which purportedly existed in the Garden of Eden. Man was not intended to live forever in an unredeemed state in Eden. The Creator looked far beyond Eden to the state of redemption in this world and in the New Creation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

System Breakdown

“It’s a wonder more things don’t go wrong; It’s amazing anyone stays healthy five minutes!” This was the observation of my brother, my only sibling, who recently suffered a significant stroke. This profound insight does not diminish the lingering stroke symptoms, but it does help us put the wonder of our normally functioning bodily processes in perspective.

There are nearly a dozen major organ systems in the human body including circulatory, digestive, endocrine, excretory, immune, lymphatic, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, and skeletal systems. In a healthy person they work together to create a smoothly functioning bodily unit. Stated another way, ordinarily we would describe ourselves as “feeling well.”

The circulatory system is primarily a network for blood distribution. Life giving oxygen, nutrients, and hormones are carried by the blood through arteries to every body cell. In turn, veins carry away waste products to be removed from the body. There are 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the human body, mostly composed of microscopic capillaries which touch almost every body cell. If a blood clot or other debris reaches the brain through one of the arteries leading to it and lodges there, lack of oxygen rapidly causes brain damage resulting in a variety of temporary or permanent adverse effects. This is the situation when a person suffers a stroke.

In any system, a single problem may cause breakdown even if the problem may seem minor. Lawn or garden watering ceases when a clog, kink, or break develops at just one location in the supply hose. Until the problem is remedied the watering process ceases. A flat tire on our automobile suddenly derails completion of a journey. And in 1986 the Challenger shuttle exploded because of a defective “O” ring. That inexpensive component failed because its sealing effect was slightly diminished in the cold morning launch temperature. Never mind that over 99% of the systems maintained proper function in the above examples. James 3:5 applies: “A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire.”

With respect to the hundreds of properly functioning components of our bodies’ circulatory system, we are remiss in not reminding ourselves often that our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). The New Living Translation declares “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—and how well I know it.” Even as he still suffers from the residual effects of his stroke, my brother voices the sentiments of believers who, upon studying the dizzying intricacy and beauty of bodily processes for even one bodily organ system exclaim, “It is absurd and outrageous to suggest this is an (evolutionary) accident.”

We talk, read, and write far more about our personal body system failures than our body system successes. Even the person with science aversion experiences open-mouthed awe upon becoming even slightly aware of the multiple processes taking place in just one body organ system. The awe would multiply with an understanding of how the systems integrate. The sports-minded person may draw the analogy to an 11-man football team whose plays succeed only if every man performs his function correctly. The body, of course, is exponentially more complex.

The medical profession has produced hundreds of specialties focusing on diagnosis and treatment of these systems, or even subsets of one of these systems. Perusing a list of these medical specialties, one may think: “Look how many things can go wrong!” More realistically we should exclaim, “Look how many things are going right!” During his recovery process, my brother is able to voice this sentiment with even more conviction.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Contending for the Faith

The brother of Jesus Christ wrote a one-chapter epistle in which he urges believers to “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 1:3 NASB). My personal preference for the translation of this verse comes from Eugene Peterson’s The Message: “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.”

Many of our posts have stated the value of science as an apologetic tool to strengthen our faith. Apart from fundamental doctrinal pillars of the Christian faith such as the truth of Christ as God in the flesh and Christ as Redeemer of fallen man, science provides apologetic value at a different level. Science in general offers evidence of the supernatural creation event described in Genesis 1:1 as well as knowledge of a cosmos functioning in an incredibly orderly manner. The cosmos offers clear and ubiquitous evidence of intelligent design. By extension, the scientific knowledge gained over the past few centuries is a powerful apologetic for the very existence of God. Paradoxically, lurking in the consciousness (or subconscious) of many science professionals is the very question, “Does God exist?” This question has likely occurred to most people, science professionals or not.

Identification of intelligently designed features in our universe is not regarded as a scientific enterprise. Science, according to established modern standards, must investigate only natural events. The supernatural is ruled off-limits. There is an advantage to this ruling. It avoids assigning every unknown effect observed in nature to the direct, deliberate action of God. Naturalistic scientists are fond of proposing the “God-of-the-gaps” accusation against creationists and believers in intelligent design. In reality, most skilled theistic scientists reserve design explanations only for unique features of our physical cosmos such as the DNA code in living things.

The disadvantage of the paradigm that science must investigate only natural cause and effect is that events of probable supernatural origin are excluded from the discussion of what really may have happened. Scientific naturalism has been established as a rock solid, indestructible “rule of the game.” Theistic explanations are ascribed to a separate realm of reality. Many of my theistic evolutionary friends have subscribed to the doctrine of separation of the realms as an unalterable principle. One theistic evolutionist friend wrote, “They (science and theology) are not a single, self consistent whole but rather two very different ways of viewing reality.” Rigid adherence to this principle is a discussion stopper. The science establishment’s adherence to this paramount “rule of the game” is a brilliant accomplishment. It is also an unfortunate fact.

How does this discussion relate to the biblical exhortation to contend or fight for the faith? The oft-repeated exhortation to “get on board with science” in the matter of origins deflects seekers from a frank acknowledgement that God has ever acted interventionally along the timeline of life’s history on Planet Earth. Marriage to a “naturalism only” paradigm may preclude our embrace of a thoroughly Christian worldview. My TE friend, at the conclusion of lengthy discussions, stated, “Both of us believe that God is the Creator of all things, including humans.” But the unsolved question of how God created remains a troubling impasse.

Recognition of the evidence for sudden rather than gradual biological creation events on earth is established by careful analysis of great amounts of evidence and carefully reasoned interpretation of the evidence. The historical record of life on earth and the entire physical cosmos comprises the general revelation provided by God. We have the capability of inspecting and interpreting the evidence of general revelation. This capability is provided by the gift of reason. Revelation and reason, therefore, provide mankind with a double-edged tool for contending for the faith. In this context, our faith affirms the facts that God exists and that God acts in this cosmos.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Revelation vs. Reason

Hymn time during a recent Sunday morning worship service featured “By Faith,” a popular new song by Keith and Kristin Getty. Verse 1 begins “By faith we see the hand of God in the light of creation’s grand design.” The subject of faith juxtaposed with creation’s grand design in only one line of the hymn is fascinating.

In the context of the hymn’s text, faith may be defined as an inner assurance that our course of belief or action is correct and supported by the will of God. Tangible proof may not exist to support our belief or course of action, but we are confident we are on the right highway. Over the centuries, theologians have sometimes referred to the embrace of revelation or revealed truth as faith.

Recognition of “creation’s grand design,” in contrast, is an embrace of reason. We recognize by our logical, rational thought process how unlikely or even how impossible it would be for the created order to have assembled itself to function with such apparent efficiency and purpose. Beyond that we acknowledge God as the agent responsible for creation and the apparent design features of the cosmos.

Historically, either reason or revelation was held in favor by theologians. Sometimes they stressed both reason and revelation. Early theologians Tertullian (160-220 AD) and Augustine (354-430 AD) and later figures such as Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) stressed the revelation of theological truths over reason. Pascal, a brilliant scientist and mathematician, was noted for his Christian conversion experience. His focus turned to theology after his conversion. Thereafter he de-emphasized finding God through evidence from the natural world.

Other theological notables stressed the importance of reason in acquiring knowledge of God. Justin Martyr (103-165 AD) promoted an early reason-based Christian apologetic as did Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in the Middle Ages. Aquinas also blended revelation with reason in forming his theological belief system.

Is acquisition of our belief in God a matter of either revelation or reason? At times my personal enthusiasm for science may slant my thinking in favor of reason; the wonder of the design and function of the natural world is powerful affirmation of the reality of God. But for others their theological belief system is supported by their embrace of the revealed truth of scripture or other forms of personal enlightenment.

Scripture affirms the value of both revelation and reason. Our embrace of Christ as the Son of God, a truth brought forward to us in our day by the witness of scripture, may be regarded as revealed truth. Scripture also points to the design and beauty of the cosmos, the behavior of living creatures, existence of the whole personhood of the pre-born, and many other deep truths to support our ability to reason concerning the deeper significance of our existence and origin.

Congregational hymn singing satisfies our desire to offer worship to God as well as to express theological truths gained by revelation and reason. We would do well to study the lyrics sung by church musicians and thoughtfully contemplate the hymn texts used each Sunday. The gift of music allows us to express our heartfelt worship of the Creator who makes Himself known through the gifts of revelation and reason.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ask The Birds

“But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you; and the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.” (Job 12:7 NASB) This unusual concept was a reply given by Job to his accuser, Zophar, who had proposed confidently that Job’s trials were punishment for his sins. Zophar and Job’s other “friends” had piously cited object lessons from the natural world to strengthen their case for condemning Job. Now Job is turning some of the same wisdom back on his accusers.

We may wonder what birds may teach us about the truths of life. He also cites the earth itself and fish of the sea. Job does not elaborate extensively. “Who among these does not know,” Job inquires, “that the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?” Are these verses and the remaining verses of chapter 12 merely poetic imagery? Or could humans learn lessons from the birds of the heavens? And what would those lessons be?

Outside my office we have installed an ornamental water fountain which doubles as an avian bird bath and drinking station during the summer. Currently our various neighborhood birds have completed their parenting duties for the year and the permanent winter residents now seem to have banded together for some high sprited fun in addition to satisfying their need for food and water. Groups of mixed bird species sometimes excitedly fly from tree to tree or branch to branch in what seems to be a mysterious, exuberant celebration. The bedlam often ceases as suddenly as it began, only to resume another time.

One recent day our fountain was the locus of action. Within ten minutes seven different bird species visited the fountain. Many were robins, but they were joined by a blue jay, slate colored junco, cedar waxwings, starling, red bellied woodpecker, and several cardinals. In my human wisdom I would not have been bathing in the 36˚F temperature. But the cardinals seemed to enjoy splashing in the cold water with their feathered audience looking on. Most birds merely seemed intent on taking turns quenching their thirst. One exception was provided by two robins 90˚ apart on one level. In addition to drinking they periodically faced each other, opening and closing their bills in unison. Several other robins chased each other around the yard at intervals. What unknown purpose was served by these behaviors?

The blue jay garnered the most respect. He drank alone, having assertively dispersed the other birds for a few moments. Many birds seemed to politely defer to each other. Rarely did more than one or two drink at once. In ten minutes I observed behavioral interactions which could be variously described as joy, excitement, cooperation, submission, caution, assertiveness, aggression, dominance, boldness, and fear. My research provided information on the desirability of helping birds during winter by keeping a water fountain liquid all winter with a submersible heater. Most over-wintering birds seem to manage well without the human provision of feeders. Perhaps providing water is more important. Most important may be the lessons provided for us by the behavior of “birds of the heavens.” Their innate wisdom teaches humans some valuable lessons.

We learn from wild creatures by systematically observing their activities. The familiar verse in Matthew reminds us that wild animals’ innate wisdom is supplied by God Himself: “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” Evidence that our Father values us more highly is plentiful, including our intellectual capacity to provide for our own needs in ways animals cannot. The inherent wisdom of animals, however, provides humans with much food for thought. The exuberant autumn antics of our neighborhood birds are a gift of the provident Creator, both to the birds and to us.

In a broad sense, we may say that the tutorial provided by our feathered neighbors is a lesson from natural theology--a human lesson drawn from our “reason and ordinary experience” which points to the existence and actions of a divine Being. Science and natural theology are different pathways to realities of how the natural world works, including the scientific question of causes. Most professional scientists are willing to stop off at a naturalistic explanation for fascinating everyday phenomena we observe, consigning any hint of a theological implication to religionists. The problem of separation constructed between science and religion is known as the demarcation problem. It is hotly debated by scientists who wish to preserve the naturalistic purity of science unencumbered by any theological implication.

Multiple passages in scripture tilt us toward contemplation of the deeper theological significance of things we observe in the natural world. As I watched seven distinctly different bird species cavorting around my water fountain, I admired the unique beauty of each one along with their distinctive mannerisms. For me, explaining their physical beauty and behavior entirely by naturalistic reductionism amounts to an absurdity. I highly respect the methods of science which aid me in understanding beauty and behavior. In most instances science provides an entirely adequate account. Contemplating deeper theological significance, however, enhances our understanding and enjoyment of the reality of the Creator and His relationship with the created order.