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Sunday, 27 April 2008

Ancient Jewish Politics, Modern Science, and the Kingdom of God

1st century Judaism was a cauldron of resentment and frustration. Although the Jews had returned to their homeland centuries earlier, at the dawn of Jesus’ ministry they were still in political exile chaffing under foreign rule. Their Creator God had promised to bring justice and peace to his world, but the fulfillment of that promise seemed far off. How long would it take for God’s kingdom to be restored? Why did God continue to delay his coming justice? More importantly, how should God’s people respond to their humiliating political situation?

Ancient Jewish Approaches to Political Problems

N.T. Wright, in his lecture Jesus and the Kingdom of God (HT: Stephen Ranney), describes three different approaches to the Jewish predicament. First, there was the withdrawal or separatist option. This was the approach chosen by the Essenes. They resolved to separate themselves from the wicked world and to wait for God to act for Israel. There was no point in resisting the political problem or trying to accelerate the coming of the Kingdom: God would do what God would do, and he would do it in his own time.

Second, there was the compromise approach. This was the option advocated by Herod and others among the Jewish elite. The strategy here was to get along with the Romans as best one could, and shape the world to suit the needs of oneself. Hopefully God would ultimately validate the approach.

Finally, there was the Zealot option. For the Zealots, armed struggle was answer. To help God usher in his Kingdom on earth, they would fight a holy war. The Kingdom would come to fruition by the spilling of Roman blood.

As Wright explains, Jesus rejected all of these approaches. Where the Essenes withdrew from the world, Jesus immersed himself in it. Where the compromisers ignored the faith of the past, Jesus insisted on recovering an authentic Jewish faith. Where the Zealots spoke and acted in violence (often resorting to mere banditry), Jesus preached love and compassion to all.

Modern Christian Approaches to Modern Scientific Problems

Sometimes Christian approaches to modern scientific problems mirror ancient Jewish approaches to political problems. Many Christians avoid the evidence of modern science and its implications. These Christians conclude that the evil they perceive in the modern scientific community cannot be redeemed and so must be ignored. Like the Essenes, these Christians ignore Jesus' call to be salt and light.

Others accept the “gospel” of modern science at the expense of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Central doctrines like the resurrection are disposed of since they do not jive with a modern view of reality. Like the Herodians, there is peace in the kingdom (at least for those who have bowed to Caesar), but it is not God’s kingdom.

Finally, like the Zealots in ancient Palestine, some modern Christians have sworn to fight “Big Science” which, they say, promotes a religion of materialism. If this fight gets nasty, so be it. The war must be won. Let’s not worry about collateral damage or the morality of our tactics.

A Better Approach to Modern Science

How should we approach modern science? It is of course far easier to identify bad approaches than good ones. For example, the early 20th century fundamentalist withdrawal from modern culture in general, and modern science in particular, was disastrous for Evangelicalism. Others have promoted solutions to the science-faith debate by removing all hints of Christian orthodoxy from the faith side of the equation. (Check out the resources on Thank God for Evolution, particularly the essay "Evolutionary Christianity", for an example of this). Finally, just like 1st century Zealotry was disastrous for Judaism, I believe that much of the ID movement’s aggressive fight against “Big Science” will prove to be bad for Christianity. This, and not so much the questionable science and theology of ID, is why I am appalled that Evangelicals continue to promote the movie Expelled and blogs like uncommondescent as helpful to our Christian witness.

I believe Jesus’ approach to 1st century politics may be instructive for modern Christians in the faith-science dialogue. We must immerse ourselves in the entire scientific enterprise, and not avoid scientific data that seems to challenge our assumptions. We must maintain an authentic Christianity, an orthodox Christianity, even while we grapple with the implications of modern scientific evidence. And we must resist the temptation to view our apologetics as an arms race.

Old assumptions and expectations of how God’s creation works are being challenged. But the result of these overturned expectations may be much better than we think. The Kingdom of God that Jesus preached, and ultimately ushered in through his death and resurrection, was not what 1st century Judaism expected either. But its character was so much better than anyone could have possibly imagined.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

To Mutate or not to Mutate: That is NOT the Question

Since my formal biology education consisted of a single high school course, my understanding of biology is somewhat sketchy. So, like most Christians examining evolution, understanding the evidence can sometimes be a difficult slog, particularly when the direction the evidence is pointing seems counter intuitive.

Take, for example, genetic mutations. Aren’t beneficial mutations too rare to account for the development of life through natural selection? Wouldn’t harmful mutations, at a minimum, counteract the good mutations? These are (the semi-rhetorical) questions that are asked frequently, particularly by those who wish to discredit the theory of evolution. And really, I don’t think I could have provided a succinct answer to these questions (or even pointed out that the questions themselves betray a misunderstanding of how natural selection and genetic mutations interact).

Maybe I can now. I recently encountered, almost simultaneously, 2 independent and simple explanations for the ability of helpful mutations to influence adaptation. For me, simple explanations are better. And since even simple doesn’t always seem to work, two simple explanations are twice as good.

The first explanation comes from Daryl Domning in his book Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution. In his section on “Objections to the Darwinian View of Nature”, Domning addresses the question of the rarity of “favorable” mutations.

When a mutation is first exposed to selection, it may be selectively neutral (hence not eliminated), and only become favorable when circumstances change. Therefore the “window” of time within which an ultimately favorable mutation has to occur before it is needed may actually be quite generous. (page 37)
In other words, these favorable mutations do not need to strike while the iron is hot. They can “wait” for a long, long time before affecting the course of evolution.

The second explanation comes from Stephen Matheson in his post Mutations, Selection, and Bacteria. Matheson first points out that the ratio of harmful to helpful mutations has been grossly overestimated. Secondly, although harmful mutations may be bad for an individual organism, they are not necessarily bad for a population. But the key point (for me anyways) was his comparison of two definitions for the process of adaptation. The first (inaccurate) definition is as follows:

Adaptive evolution occurs when natural selection favors certain mutations which are beneficial as opposed to harmful. When new challenges arise, new adaptations arise as new beneficial mutations are generated and selection favors these mutations.
The implication here is that new mutations occur “just in time” like parts in an efficient Japanese auto factory. But, as Domning points out above, that is just not necessary. (And anyways, whoever said evolution was efficient?). As Matheson states, referring to the recent book Edge of Evolution by ID proponent Michael Behe:

[The] whole silly book is based on calculations that assume that new mutations must be generated, simultaneously, after the introduction of the new challenge.
Mutating is not a strategy used by populations to address challenges. The occurrence of mutations is independent from a population’s environment. This is the random part of evolution. However, as the environment changes, so too the potential “usefulness” of the variation caused by a random mutation. Only then can one know whether a mutation was “useful” or not.

The second (much more accurate) definition for the process of adaptation is as follows:
Adaptive evolution occurs when natural selection favors previously-existing genetic combinations that are more fit than others. When new challenges arise, new adaptations arise as selection favors individuals whose genetic endowments are best suited to the new challenges.
Natural selection does not act on mutations themselves, but on the variation caused by mutations.

Ok. If I was on a stage debating hucksters like Hovind, Safarti, or Ham, I’d probably badly mangle the argument and lose the debate. (Um, could I have a 30-minute time-out while I research that question please?) But at least I feel like I understand how the process of adaptation works, and why the arguments of anti-evolutionists are so badly flawed.

Monday, 14 April 2008

When Views on Evolution Divide a Church Family: One Leader's Difficult Choice

Last month I asked “Would your church allow you to publically support evolution?” and many of you responded with some thought provoking and moving comments. Well this week Cliff Martin realized the question for him personally was “Can my church survive with my leadership given that I publicly support evolution?” And the answer for Cliff was: “Probably not”.

So yesterday, Cliff resigned as an elder of his church.

Last October when Cliff revealed that he was an Evolutionary Creationist he had hoped to initiate a dialogue on science and the Christian faith.

I had hoped that [my church] might be a place where various views could be openly discussed, where we could think suppositionally (asking the "what if" questions), and that we could serve as a model of how a church might deal with the difficult issues raised by science today, even if we did not all agree. Instead, I found that my revelations served mainly to inflict pain on my friends. Many, perhaps most of them, felt a sense of loss and betrayal, and a deep emotional wound which has still not healed.

Because of these feelings of pain and the sense of betrayal, Cliff realized that his leadership was hurting rather than helping his fellowship.

There is no question of my love for these friends, nor of their love for me. But when so many of my brothers and sisters believe that a YEC position is vital to Christian faith, it is too much to ask them to follow a leader who rejects YEC in favor of an Evolutionary Creationist model.

I think Cliff should be commended for his decision. Ultimately “being right” in something like this is less important than furthering the kingdom of God. Church history is littered with those that put their own good over that of the Church. That Cliff did not speaks volumes for his integrity.

In the comments of the post, Chris Tilling asks Cliff: “What advice would you offer those of us who may face similar circumstances?” . Cliff responds with: “Advice? I was hoping someone might have advice for me.”

I’m not sure I have any advice either, but maybe my readers do. Even if you don’t, I encourage you to read Cliff’s entire post. For myself, I don’t think I can offer anything but a prayer for Cliff and his church.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Miller, Polkinghorne, and Wright: The Evolution of the Long Commute

I often spend up to 2 hours of my workday commuting to and from my clients' offices, in a train where possible, but more often than not in my car. Needless to say I am not too happy about this wasted time.

John Stackhouse claims that this commuting problem also increases my risk of becoming dumber:

What are we doing during those hours upon hours in our cars, buses, trains, and the like? Some of us are getting dumber: listening to (bad, which is to say, typical) talk radio or pop music; fuming at other drivers while trying to shave a few minutes off the commute; or simply letting our minds idly flit from one vaguely anxious or annoying or trivial thought to another.

So a few months back, I bought a converter that allows me to play mp3s from my laptop to my car stereo. I’m glad I did. This has allowed me to listen to a wide variety of lectures and sermons during my long commute.

(Please note: I do set the whole thing up prior to backing out of my driveway. I do NOT endanger others or myself by attempting to drive & interact with my laptop simultaneously).

Many of my commuting lectures are downloaded from the “Faraday Institute of Science and Religion” multimedia page. Faraday has a wide range of resources on the religion / science interface, probably the best set of resources that reflect both a commitment to Christian orthodoxy and integrity in science. Categories include bioethics, biology, the environment, divine action, evolution, history of science and religion, philosophy of science, physics and cosmology, and science and the bible. I have just started working my way through the series but, from what I can tell, most lectures are exceptionally strong.

Some recent highlights:

1. Ken Miller: “Chance, Necessity, and Evolution”

The title of this lecture is probably a little misleading. Miller (author of Finding Darwin’s God) conducts a wide ranging discussion on his own experience in the Evolution vs. ID conflict, including his account of the Dover trial. Although not necessarily an in-depth discussion of randomness in evolution, Miller is at his engaging best in this lecture, and I definitely recommend it.

One particularly interesting item: When addressing the idea of “apparent age”, Miller refers to the “Steve Martin God” because the God postulated by the apparent age argument is “One Wild and Crazy Guy”. Just another reason for me to despise the Omphalos hypothesis.

2. John Polkinghorne: The Future of the Science-Religion Debate

This was a very interesting lecture on the direction Polkinghorne thinks the Science-Religion dialogue (why must we always call it a debate?) is heading. One topic he discusses is the coming shift in emphasis to the human sciences (eg. psychology & sociology). Fortunately the evolution-faith discussion may be ending; unfortunately the discussion re: mind-soul-faith could be just as nasty. Another growing area of interest is the place of information theory and pattern dynamics. Polkinghorne predicts that by end of the 21st century, “information will take its place beside energy & matter” in the physical sciences. Connecting the two topics above, Polkinghorne believes that the soul is not some detachable spiritual entity but is an “almost infinitely complex information bearing pattern”. Anyone want to start a blog called “An Evangelical Dialogue on Non-reductive Physicalism”?

3. N.T. Wright: Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection

I must confess that I have not read much N.T. Wright, but I plan to rectify that in the future (I am currently reading The New Testament and the People of God). This lecture is (I believe) a whirlwind summary of his very important The Resurrection of the Son of God. That is next on my list.

Wright had a memorable line in the Q&A following the lecture. When asked about Richard Dawkins' God Delusion he replied “I must confess I never finished it. It was one of those books that once I put it down I could not pick it up again”.

Short Conclusion
I’m not sure that a commuting lecture strategy will allow me to avoid becoming any dumber. But it certainly has made the commute much more enjoyable.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

The Suspension of Peter Enns: Historical Context and Recommended Reading

Three weeks ago when I posted my thoughts on Peter Enns’ incarnational analogy, I had no idea that serious trouble was brewing for Enns at Westminister Theological Seminary (WTS), the Presbyterian seminary at which he teaches. Well last week the WTS board voted to suspend Enns from his position at the seminary. It also indicated that the seminary personnel committee would provide a recommendation to the board in May as to whether Enns, author of the contentious book Inspiration and Incarnation (I&I), should be fired outright. As reported in Christianity Today, the suspension was the climax in a long running theological furor over I&I within the WTS community.

For those of us outside of the WTS community, it is tempting to pontificate on the situation. In fact, there appears to be quite a lot of pontification – on both sides – particularly from people neither familiar with WTS, Enns, or I&I. Hopefully my own remarks will not be similarly dogmatic and uninformed. What I would like to do is provide some brief thoughts on the historical context of this situation, some guidance to my readers who wish to understand the current conflict, and a few recommendations for further reading on the ideas in I&I.

Brief Thoughts on the Historical Context

If Enns' primary goal was to sell more I&I books, he could not have orchestrated a better marketing ploy. I suspect his suspension will be a boon for I&I sales for some time. More importantly, future historical analysis may look back on this event as somewhat of a watershed moment for Evangelicalism. Although WTS is a small reformed seminary, I&I has demonstrated a much broader appeal than in just the reformed wing of Evangelicalism. The reason for this is that the book directly addresses how Evangelicals think of scripture, THE most sensitive topic within our community (much more sensitive than evolution). The bible is the Word of God, but what exactly does that mean?

I believe I&I presents a fresh, positive approach to scripture that has connected with a wide variety of thinking Evangelicals who want to maintain an orthodox Christian faith. Although I think the book itself is very good, the credit for its success is also due to good timing. As Enns himself points out:

Diverse reactions to the book may tell us at least as much about the current state of evangelical thinking as it does about the book itself. (Response to Beale, page 10)
Unfortunately, we may be facing yet another war over what inerrancy means. Enns specifically calls for the prevention of this war:
Such polarization needs to be avoided. We must commit ourselves to finding other ways to address what is in fact of central importance for all sides.
I’m not all that confident that this polarization can be avoided.

My speculation is that Enns will begin to encounter opposition within the Evangelical Theological Society as well over his views. He is an executive member of this group whose statement of faith asserts that “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs”. Several years ago Clark Pinnock and John Sanders were accused of denying the spirit, if not the letter, of this statement with their support of Open Theology and were almost kicked out of the society; I wouldn’t be surprised to see Enns face the same grilling.

It is ironic that an event at WTS may become the flashpoint for a new Evangelical crisis. WTS was formed out of the ashes of the fundamentalist / modernist controversy in the early 20th century when John Gresham Machen took the conservative wing of Presbyterianism out of Princeton Seminary and the Northern Presbyterian Church, and started the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both sides in the current WTS debate believe they are following the road taken by Machen and the 19th century Old Princetonians (Hodge and Warfield) who articulated the modern doctrine of inerrancy. Both sides believe the future of WTS is at stake. Both believe their road is the one that leads to salvation.

For an excellent look at the competing visions for WTS, see “Can Westminster Seminary put the Genie back in the Bottle” by former WTS Dean of academic affairs and history professor Daryl Hart, and also “The Significance of Westminster Theological Seminary Today” by retired WTS history professor Clair Davies (This is a long article but definitely worth the read).

Information on the Current Crisis

It is sometimes tough to separate the wheat from the chaff with hot news stories like the suspension of Enns at WTS. If you are relatively new to the issue, here are my suggestions for familiarizing yourself with the crisis:

1. Read the Christianity Today article “Westminster Theological Suspension
2. Read the WTS release announcing the action against Enns
3. Listen to the 40 minute Q&A session WTS executives had with the students to discuss the Enns decision. This is highly recommended. In fact, if you are planning on sharing your opinion on the situation, don’t – at least not until you have listened to this audio.
4. Read the note from the dissenting board members who disagreed with the majority decision to suspend Enns.
5. Check out the “Save our Seminary” site started by various members of the WTS community. I ran into this the day after my original post (ie. prior to the confirmation of WTS actions against Enns). There are some very moving testimonies in support of Enns.
6. For the most comprehensive set of links on the story (and all things I&I), see: http://www.digitalbrandon.com/?p=194

Becoming Familiar with the ideas in I&I

I am constantly amazed at the number of people that are willing to trash I&I without ever having read the book. This may seem obvious, but please, read the book before you respond to its claims. It is not a difficult read, you do not need a background in ANE history, biblical Hebrew, or theology to understand what Enns is saying.

Next, I would review the exchanges between Enns and his critics. I already mentioned the Enns / Helms dialogue in my last post. Even better is the Beale / Enns dialogue: read Beale’s criticism first and then Enns response. Finally, note that I&I is only initiating the conversation. Enns admits that there are many aspects and implications with respect to the Incarnational Analogy that need to be worked out. Read his article “Preliminary Observations on an Incarnational Model of Scripture” for some further clarification and developments on his ideas.

Some Parting Thoughts

The WTS president has acknowledged that:
We have students who have read [I&I] and say it has liberated them. We have other students that say [I&I] is crushing their faith and removing them from their hope.
On the latter, I would like to ask “What faith is being crushed?” Is it a faith that cannot withstand the evidence of modern history, science, and biblical criticism? If this is the case, is not I&I doing these seminary students (and all of us!) a huge favour? Isn’t it better to have a crisis of faith in a seminary, a place where one assumes the student would receive excellent support? This certainly seems to be less damaging than a crisis of faith out in “the real world” of church leadership where support will be decidedly less. More importantly, don’t we want our pastors to have examined these issues prior to leading congregations? Would it not be nice if they had some experience with these issues and some theological resources to address the layity’s concerns in these areas?

Seminaries have responsibilities not only to the students they graduate, but also to the churches where these graduates ultimately serve. We need leaders whose faith has been tested and tried, not one’s who are at risk of joining groups like Debunking Christianity.