Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Psalm 65

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, our church congregation was treated to an inverted treatment of the text of Psalm 65. Verses 9-13 contain Thanksgiving imageries of rare beauty. After commenting on the Thanksgiving verses, the pastor worked backward through the Psalm, highlighting its exultation of the natural beauty of the waves of the ocean, the roaring of the sea, and the establishment of earth’s mountains. Eventually the focus returned to the God to whom we offer praise for the atonement of our transgressions, the goodness of God’s house, the holiness of God’s temple, and the righteousness of the God of our salvation.

We may only glimpse a portion of the glory of psalmist David’s worship vision as he penned this magnificent psalm. It is interesting that David’s worship sequence culminated in a touching passage of thanksgiving for God’s gifts of water, plant growth, abundant pastures, and meadows “clothed” with flocks feeding on plentiful grain.

Let’s quote Psalm 65:9-13 in its entirety from the ESV:

You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it.

You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.

You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.

The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy,

The meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.

C. H. Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David is a two-volume, four-inch thick set of commentaries on all 150 Psalms. It was written in Spurgeon’s lifetime (1834-1892). Spurgeon quotes many “pertinent extracts” from other authors, but most of the Treasury is his own. Following are three such commentaries, each one dealing with a past, present, or future outlook on some aspect of this psalm:

Hugh Macmillan recalls the historic utterance of Genesis 1, stating “I (God) have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth.” That is, all the cereal plants—such as corn, wheat, barley, rice, maize, etc., whose particular characteristic it is to produce seed…..

Barton Bouchier produced an eloquent contemporary account of the planting to harvest sequence: “In the brief compass of five verses we have the whole scene vividly sketched, from the first preparation of the earth or soil; the provision of the corn-seed for the sower; the rain in its season, the former and the latter rain, watering the ridges, settling the furrows, and causing the seed to swell and to spring forth, and bud and blossom; then the crowning of the whole year in the appointed weeks of harvest, and men’s hearts rejoicing before God according to the joy in harvest, the very foot-paths dropping with fatness, and the valleys shouting and singing for joy.”

John Calvin refers to the phrase “they sing” in verse 13. Calvin claims the verb sing “admits of being taken in the future tense, they shall sing; and this denotes a continuation of joy, that they would rejoice, not only one year, but through the endless succession of the seasons.” Calvin claims “that in Hebrew the order of expression is frequently inverted in this way.”

We are gifted with opportunities to discover the rich meaning of scripture. Thanksgiving, according to our pastor in his seasonal message, is not merely a personal feeling of being subjectively happy. This feeling is explained at the beginning of the chapter in verse 1: Praise is due to God. Our subjective experience needs an object of our thankfulness. Foremost in verses 1-8 is verse 5, which humbly praises the GOD OF OUR SALVATION.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Naturalism and Supernaturalism

The words nature, natural, naturalist, and naturalism are English terms sometimes surrounded by confusion. Nature refers to the physical world including plants, animals, landscape, and other features and products of the earth surrounding humankind. Natural denotes that which exists in or is caused by nature. A naturalist is a person versed in natural history, particularly zoology and botany.

If we replace the letter “t” in naturalist with the letter “m” in naturalism, confusion may enter the picture. Naturalism confers a substantially different meaning than may be conveyed in the terms nature, natural, and naturalist. The term naturalism connotes that nature is all there is; nothing exists beyond the natural world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims early proponents of naturalism such as John Dewey “urged that reality is exhausted by nature…” Other sources state that “instead of using supernatural or spiritual explanations, naturalism focuses on explanations that come from the laws of nature.” To those with a scriptural worldview, such a belief comes with lots of baggage.

What then, is the conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism, if any? Naturalism states “nature is all there is.” Supernaturalism, in contrast, posits that God, the supernatural agent, may enter the realm of the natural to impact that realm. Our previous blog post proposed miracles as effects which contravene natural causes. However, we proposed that God is the Author and Creator of wondrous events in both spheres.

God is the Creator of everything. In the beginning, God authored the universal physical laws. These laws are governed by dozens of physical constants. They have applied since the creation event up until the present moment. Scientists have established the factual truth of these laws by multiple scientific experiments and observations.

Lest our readers lose interest in this discussion, we assert that the interaction of naturalism (“nature is all there is”) and supernaturalism (the essence of God and his occasional entry into our human realm) is a source of lively conflict between scientists whose science is fundamentally naturalistic and theistic scientists and laypersons who are willing to allow a supernaturalistic foot in the door of the discussion room. We respect the wonderful methods and discoveries of science, but our concern persists that naturalists and theists have constructed a dichotomy: Science investigates only the natural realm, we are vociferously counseled. The counselors’ voices have become so loud that the entry of “a divine foot in the door,” a caution offered by evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, is unacceptable even if our investigations signal such possibilities may be profitably investigated.  

Many naturalistic scientists propose, as did paleontologist Stephen J. Gould (1941-2002), the idea of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria)--that the two spheres of reality, naturalism and supernaturalism, be kept separate. If people choose to believe in the supernatural and miracles, that is their private matter and their beliefs should be respected, according to Gould. The effort of naturalistic scientists to disconnect the realm of the supernatural from the natural may promote their belief that the supernatural does not possess the same degree of reality as the natural.

Genesis 1 proclaims “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” He authored the natural world and provided laws which have persisted from the beginning and continue to the present. God has also authored the supernatural world. He supernaturally acts within the natural world on occasion, intervening within persisting natural laws. Either way, it is imperative to recognize that God created both natural and supernatural spheres. We discover unmistakable evidence that the Creator occasionally “re-entered” the sphere of cosmic existence to initiate miracles. Examples include new life forms appearing at the Cambrian Explosion, periodic initiation of other novel forms of life, including modern man, and performance of mighty biblical miracles.

Our blog consistently proposes that naturalistic evolution is a deficient explanation for the array of life present today on earth. Instead, we propose that God has supernaturally and miraculously intervened from time to time in geologic history. On the other hand, natural processes sustained by God, even though not miraculous, are evident in our daily lives. These processes are a source of wonder to be acknowledged by mankind created in the image of God. Most important is recognition that natural and supernatural realms are both elements of God’s created universe.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Miraculous Effects

A miracle is an effect which is not reproducible by the operation of “natural” causes. Each day of our lives hundreds of effects result from causes we call “natural.” The Bible narrative records thousands of events we would categorize as “natural.” A vast majority of Bible events may be categorized as “natural.” Miracles, however, are in a different category. Miraculous events are generated by “supernatural” causes. They generate high interest for readers of the Bible. In these supernatural miracle events, many believe the reality of God’s existence is most manifest.

The postulate of “God’s existence is most manifest in supernatural miracle events” is open for debate. It has been the stand of our blog that the science/faith interface integrates both supernatural and natural. God is author and creator of both spheres. For purposes of our discussion, we define “natural” as “non-miraculous.”

Both old and new testaments record miraculous events for which there are no natural causes. Bible accounts, for example, chronicle very unusual environmental events, healing events involving reorganization of bodily molecular arrangements, and several resurrection events, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Miraculous events tend to cluster at great moments in salvation history such as the Exodus or Jesus’ ministry. With respect to Jesus Christ, his birth, life, death, and resurrection are some of the most well established historical events of all time, especially in view of the subsequent rapid spread of Christianity. If one believes God exists, he may more easily accept Jesus’ virgin birth, his miracles, and his resurrection from the dead. Miraculous works affirm God’s existence.

With respect to miracles, let us cite several times in human history when true miracles were common. We allude to God’s extraordinary “in-breaking” to human history in Old Testament times, and God’s extraordinary “in-breaking” to human history in New Testament times during the life of Christ. Miracles are not a common occurrence in our day even though miraculous events are not impossible.

In terms of cosmic history, we highlight several “in-breakings” of miraculous events: (1) the Big-Bang--the beginnings of the time, space, matter, and energy dimensions of our universe (2) the origin of life--the sudden onset of morphologically simple, but bio-chemically complex life (3) the Cambrian Explosion--the rapid appearance of complex life forms in a virtual moment of geologic time followed by the periodic, rather sudden appearance of new life forms in the eons to follow (4) the abrupt appearance of modern man, termed the “Cultural Explosion” and (5) the dozens of miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament scriptures.

We encourage study of miraculous events. Our Heavenly Father is a God of Miracles. He has “in-broken” into geologic and human history. We encourage a personal study of the “in-breaking.” Foremost is the understanding of Hebrews
1:2: “But in these last days he has spoken to us by his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” (NIV) Foremost on the miracle list is the action of Jesus Christ as Creator.

God’s astonishing creation act with respect to this universe is the ongoing working system of this cosmos. He has created dozens of incredibly fine-tuned physical constants by which the many laws of our everyday world operate. His creation of the universe was “miracle one” of Genesis 1:1 but the effect of “miracle one” has continued since. The everyday functioning of our world is a source of wonder, but not a miracle as commonly understood. To rank-order (1) the initial creation miracle and (2) the universe’s function since the creation event according to physical constants and laws, we may be unwise to prioritize one as more significant than the other. Both are sources of wonder.

We emphasize the more common natural events which occur from moment to moment as well as supernatural events. As we envision the wonder of God’s created universe--our temporal dwelling place--we realize God is the Creator of all things, the natural and the supernatural.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How Sharp the Razor?

The popular catch phrase of creationists the past few decades is “fine tuning.” Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents sometimes use the term to strengthen belief in the Creator/Designer’s ability to produce our fine-tuned universe. Unless the term is defined and clarified with examples, it is no more effective than evolutionists fortifying their paradigm merely by the frequent mention of “evolution” in their literature and textbooks.

In the category of examples, we resurrect a term from several decades ago which may focus our thought. Before the days of fuel injection, most automobiles needed frequent “tune-ups” in order to adjust the carburetor to produce the air/fuel vapor for optimum ignition and proper functioning of our vehicles. Automobile fine tuning is now handled mostly by automatic, computer-controlled processes, but our technicians still program the necessary “fine tuning.” Fine tuning is defined as making small changes in a system to make its functioning exactly right. While this object lesson from the world of automobiles helps our understanding, its lesson about the meaning of exactly right falls woefully short.

Athletes also strive for “finely tuned” performance levels. Even In championship athletics, fine-tuned sports performances fall woefully short of examples for the fine tuning of our universe. Do we think Peyton Manning’s many touchdown passes comes close to an exact precision performance? What about 2013 major league home run champion Chris Davis’s blasts off the bat or Michael Jordan’s ten NBA scoring titles? In each case, these finely tuned athletic performers are at the top of their game. For our home universe to function, however, we need a degree of fine tuned precision exponentially exceeding human performance levels.

Scientists have grasped the necessary degree of cosmic precision only in the last few decades. With respect to our human experience we cannot relate to such a degree of precision. For any sort of life to exist anywhere in our universe, such precision is necessary. The needed precision may be described as unimaginable. Even the numbers quantifying our national debt may be more understandable! Even though many scientists are not theists, they acknowledge that scientifically speaking, it’s far more probable for a life-prohibiting universe to exist than a life-sustaining one. “Life is balanced on a razor’s edge,” most scientists say.

Stephen Hawking has calculated that if the rate of the universe’s expansion in its earliest moments had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have collapsed into a fireball. Even now the balance between attraction and repulsion forces in our presently expanding universe must be tuned to a miniscule mass. Hugh Ross states if one were to remove or add a single dime’s worth of mass to this vast cosmos the balance of this observable universe would be thrown off and physical life would not be possible.

British physicist P. C. W. Davies has estimated that if the strength of gravity or of the weak force were changed by only one part in ten followed by a hundred zeroes, life could never have developed. Davies states there are at least fifty physical constants and quantities--for example, the amount of usable energy in the universe, the difference in mass between protons and neutrons, the ratios of the fundamental forces of nature, and the proportion of matter to antimatter--that must be balanced to an infinitesimal degree for any life to be possible.

For the people in the pews, these statistics may seem incomprehensible beyond imagination. Our prayer is that informed pastors could make a study of some of the more esoteric concepts and translate them to provoke wonder for their people in the pews. For example, the statistical wonders of athletics and the wonders of everyday existence are important, but the wonder of required precision necessary for the dozens of physical constants governing our universe (we have called them “rules of the game” in past posts) outdistances human athletic feats by multiples of powers of ten.

In particular, our athletically talented young people may be impacted by the sports imagery in this archived post:

Friday, November 8, 2013

Balanced on a Razor's Edge

Life, especially human life, is balanced “on a razor’s edge.” The characteristics enabling life to exist in our universe are numerous and incredibly complex. Imagine the existence of a lifeless universe. It would still demand conditions of exceptional “fine-tuning.” No sentient beings would be present to observe these fine-tuned conditions--a fascinating scenario for the contemplation of modern philosophers. Beyond this, the existence of life balanced as it is on a razor’s edge, is a marvelous reality in itself, made even more marvelous by its dependence on a considerable set of razor’s edge conditions.

The term fine tuning has been commonly used by scientists for only about fifty years. Fine-tuning relates to physical constants, fundamental characteristics of environmental reality, expressed as physical quantities which cannot deviate from an exact value. Examples are consistent masses of particles in the atom or the unchanging speed of light. Both are examples of physical constants. Often the fine tuning concept speaks to whether or not life in our universe is possible. If it were possible to alter the fine tuned characteristics of matter and forces around us, we are told, life on earth would be impossible.

An understanding of this issue is more difficult than we might imagine. Only fifty years ago laypersons were not thinking deeply about the fine tuning of our universe. Today there is more interest and understanding of these topics. Our population has developed more sophistication concerning fine-tuning. Ironically, many people have tilted away from appreciation of divine authorship of our enormously fine-tuned cosmos. Instead, in the face of proliferation of evidence for divine authorship of the grandeur and magnificence of our cosmos, the past twenty-five years have seen intense cultural resistance to the fine-tuning concept from many in the secular scientific community. Some members of the Christian community including evangelical colleges have even disparaged the concept of intelligent design, endorsing the idea that science proceeds to explanations without recourse to the supernatural.

During the mid-20th century Moody Science films became popular. Without naming the concept of “fine-tuning” as it has become known today, (the term was not in use then) these films were a precursor of today’s better-known fine-tuning concepts. Embedded in my memory are recollections of God of the Atom, Dust or Destiny, God of Creation, and Where the Waters Run at rallies in the late 1940s and 1950s. Modern DVD reproductions today yet proclaim “Moody Science Classics have unfolded the miracles of nature’s mysteries while showing how the wonders of creation reveal the majesty of God. School-aged children through teens as well as parents and teachers will gain a fresh appreciation for the Creator and the intricate details of His handiwork, as presented in these award-winning programs.”

Fast forward to the 1960s. In 1961 Robert Dicke proclaimed that our universe must be fine tuned for life to exist anywhere in the universe. Other famous secularists such as Fred Hoyle proclaimed similar ideas. These thinkers realized something additional needed to be invoked to explain other unknown mysteries. Stephen Hawking is another secular scientist often quoted and respected. Theistic scientists and philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig have weighed in with their contributions.

In 1973 Brandon Carter introduced the idea of the anthropic principle to the world. Two versions came into prominence—the strong anthropic principle (SAP) and the weak anthropic principle (WAP). The former bears more resemblance to Christian teleological concepts of a universe with divine purpose. The latter is more dependent on the contingency that life is dependent on the development of our universe as carbon-based.

In our day simple answers to God’s existence and authorship of this universe are not found in the evidence supplied by the genius of either secular or theistic thinkers. Strong evidence comes from our knowledge that life is balanced on a razor’s edge. Our lives and personal existence do not exist on either edge of a dull or defective razor. May we acknowledge that life’s existence is not random, unpredictable, or uncertain? Our existence is produced creatively by an omnipotent God. 


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Predictable Universe

Each day of our existence we trust the physical conditions of our environment to prove “predictable” and “as expected.” We do not propose that weather forecasters should never err or that our weather should always be to our personal liking. Nor do we expect that our daily selection of clothing should be cleaned, pressed, folded, and conditioned to perfection or that our food be prepared perfectly to our personal liking as if by magic. There is, however, a theoretically achievable ideal standard of perfection for each of these daily activities. Realistically, we are content with a high level of performance if not perfection.

Our hopes for the “predictable” and “as expected” extend to the operation of more serious physical laws--requirements of everyday reality. We function daily with the physical laws of energy flow, forces, and motion in continuous operation. In this sphere of existence we are constrained to rigidly obey all operative physical laws without question. The predictable physical laws governing energy, forces, and motion are divinely set in place for our physical welfare and comfort. We experience serious trouble or tragedy when we fail to conform.

What if the physical laws were not predictable? We ask readers to imagine the outcome of gravity randomly operating at half or double its usual force. What if the production and flow of heat from our home’s furnace, water heater, or cooking range should begin to function differently or unpredictably? Imagine that friction between our shoes and the ground or between our automobile tires and the highway would suddenly operate in a completely different manner or not at all? This would be tantamount to being immersed in a “twilight zone” of unreality. Predictability and expectance would cease to exist.

During my tenure as a classroom science teacher one of the most instructive albeit less than satisfying lessons occurred on occasions when the classroom demonstration or experiment did not “work.” Students were conditioned to having their experiments “work.” They were disappointed with their teacher’s explanation that the “non-working” experiment was actually working quite perfectly. Under the conditions operating at the lab table all physical laws were operating normally, we explained. But because our lab set-up did not possess necessary conditions due to unknown deficiencies in our procedure, the desired result was not achieved. The most serious science students were more challenged by such failures than those who viewed science as entertainment.

One entertaining but realistic statement we frequently make is, “In a perfect world…” In a perfect world no weather forecaster would ever err, no clothing would ever be mishandled, and no food would ever be prepared in any less than a perfect manner. Human free will, however, does not function within such a shield of perfection because humans were not created to operate within such a condition. Our free-will challenge of living and operating volitionally and creatively would vanish.

In our more serious responsibility to adhere to physical laws, defined and constrained by hundreds of physical constants, humans have less leeway for choice if we wish to ensure our physical safety. Physical laws such as the law of gravity must be obeyed to certain narrow tolerances. For example, stepping off a low stepstool may not result in a physical problem. Jumping down from a tall stepladder, however, could result in injury; falling from a ten story building would almost certainly result in death.

Our universe is founded upon constant and predictable physical laws and physical constants under which all physical phenomena must operate. In these terms, we live “in a perfect world.” Our sense of wonder at this universe should focus upon this perfection. Man makes poor choices related to personal preferences in weather gear, clothing, or food. He also makes poor choices with respect to water safety at the beach, avoiding gravity-related mountain climbing accidents, or sliding and falling on slippery surfaces. Harm or injury from the operation of majestic physical laws governing our daily lives should never be attributed to an imperfect or unpredictable set of universal laws.

A comprehensive study of the hundreds of physical laws and physical constants should focus on God as the author of those laws and constants. The physical laws are perfect as is the God who created them. Here is a link to my previous post on physical constants: