Archive for June, 2008

Dialogue Necessities

Posted in Faith and Science on June 22, 2008 by RWZero

The facts surrounding the interface between faith and science drive various people to widely varying conclusions. It should be obvious to any spectator—and it should not be underestimated—how closely the topic is bound up in our foundational assumptions, and that part of our perspective which we may find difficult to logically defend, as it seems so natural to us.

As to the compatibility between faith and science, there are four perspectives that I’ve noticed most often in this debate.

 

  1. There are those who simply don’t care.
  2. There is atheist materialism.
  3. There are proclamations of “of course!” accompanied by some hand-waving (These people come in flavours anywhere between “fundamentalist” the “theologically liberal,” hence this view is expressed quite differently at times).
  4. There are people who acknowledge the existence of the interface, and attempt to reconcile the issues involved.

 

I will make it no secret that I advocate the fourth option, and level criticism at the other three—though I believe the third is the most blind of them, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

I ran a search to see if there was a term for the fourth option (I was about to call it “compatibilism,” but this has a range of other meanings, not the least of which pertains to free will and determinism), when I ran across a blog in which someone had said almost everything I was going to write here. Nonetheless, I like to formulate things in my own words:

It has been famously said by Stephen Jay Gould that science and faith are “Nonoverlapping Magesteria,” (NOMA) occupying two distinct realms, and having little to say to each other when practiced properly. The impact of this statement has been sufficiently large that I’ve read it in numerous publications without ever having touched his book The Rock of Ages, in which he wrote it. According to Wikipedia, the National Academy of Sciences has adopted a stance resembling this principle.

I do not believe this is a complete perspective by any means. I also do not believe that Gould was making an oversight when he wrote this, but that he was writing only about the specific interactions that he perceived between the two “Magesteria” through his work in science. He was correct in his assessment of what lay before him, but I believe that—being agnostic—he simply did not perceive what a religious person does, and hence advocated a perspective that seems at times to tend towards option 3.

There is a political advantage to option 3, in that it avoids conflict. It relieves tension, and allows an environment of sterile tolerance that I find intolerable at times. I should hope it isn’t true, however, otherwise we’re wasting time on issues of no consequence.

Strictly scientific people are happy with option 3 so long as the religious views in question are not literal creationism, Intelligent Design, or other perspectives that challenge the work done by the scientific method. For the religious person, however, option four is necessary for complete understanding. The adage “Science tells you how the heavens go, the Bible tells you how to go to heaven” is not sufficient. If God truly made the heavens, we should expect that the “way the heavens go” will tell us something about the God who made them, for even the precise movement of the scribe’s writing utensil as he first recorded the passages of the Bible was governed by the natural laws inherent in their design.

It is impossible to discuss this properly without eliminating the semantic confusion that at times governs the entire discussion, but suffice to say, the word “science” has several definitions. One of these is “knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.” Our understanding of the Bible as a text in modern day—our ability to interpret it in context—is based on this definition of the word science. Countless aspects of our spiritual beliefs must be translated into the language of real life, if we are to apply it, and real life is lived out in the physical world that is studied by science.

Setting aside the fuming conflict over creationism, there are many questions of a purely religious nature that must be considered in light of science:

Do we have free will or are we determined? What do we even mean when we ask this?

Do we have religious convictions concerning things that the natural order of the universe has made necessary?

When we describe the “supernatural,” do we include things that may lie within the “natural” realm, but that we cannot verify by experiment? Is there a difference? Do we assume that a divine action precludes a natural explanation? Is there a difference?

 

I could continue with these, but I already intend to discuss these in more detail eventually.

Fortunately for the scientific community, I believe the true questions on the interface between faith and science are to be reconciled exclusively by those who are religious. We may come to different conclusions, but we should have a common understanding of the facts.

Finally, we must recognize that science does not “say” anything, even if it is currently dominated by a secular, materialist perspective in Western society. Science does not “say” that we “should” behave a certain way, or make philosophical interpretations of the facts. Scientists may, but science does not.

Why are you at the Computer?

Posted in Evangelism on June 14, 2008 by RWZero

Where do I even start?

It was Wednesday of this past week, just four days ago.

The engineering buildings are quiet in the summer. The library is largely empty. I sat down at one of the computers in the small block near the entrance and listlessly browsed through mail, messages, and some useless information. Sitting at a right angle to me was a black guy, and an older man with gray hair and glasses.

I had been there for a while when the man with the gray hair suddenly turned to the black guy, who was clearly a stranger.

“Why… are you at the computer?” he said. The black guy stared at him blankly.

“Why are not on the street, spreading the message?” he continued. The black guy turned back to his computer and zoned out.

“You’ve betrayed us. Why are you on the computer? Why are you not…”

I was thinking about this later as I walked down Spadina. No tomatoes at Burger King. I thought it was a joke, and I was going to be on some “We stopped selling the Whopper with tomatoes to see what would happen” commercial, but I opened up the Whopper and there really were no tomatoes. This saddened me.

People streamed by. South on Spadina, left on Queen, past Steve’s music store. I came to an intersection and about 6 young guys on bicycles made a gentle arc that intersected my path. I took a few extra steps to let them pass behind me. The first of them looked up as he went by, right into my eyes, and said:

“Faith”

———————

I don’t talk to strangers often, but perhaps still more than the average person in this city, and never due to insanity or as a psychological gag. An opportunity to speak to someone, to convey meaning, takes far more than time and space. You can touch on all four dimensions of the continuum with others, without a single word bridging the chasm.

I am a so-called Evangelical, and I will tell you about my faith, and not always because you asked me about it. But the most obvious way to do something is not always effective. Hence we sometimes bear an itch, and tell the others don’t scratch!

A person’s beliefs regarding spirituality, existence, meaning, and purpose are the most important opinions and beliefs that they have. They determine the direction of their whole life, barring those who have neglected these questions so completely that they stumble through life fulfilling base needs (and those of us who fancy ourselves “purpose-driven” are still prone to this!)

It seems incredible that it is so seldom discussed, such that people we know for years in various contexts will never have a conversation about it. It’s as if we cannot afford to spend a few hours thinking about which field of study to apply to for university (and why) though we will expend enormous quantities of time and energy getting through it. It’s as if we would rather live an perfect lie than an excellent truth.

I’ve mused that this may be one reason why “smart people” will never run the world, but rather, people with manipulative skills–most of us have a tendency to burrow down into a science, a skill, a body of knowledge, and become outstanding without knowing exactly why, only to have everything we are manipulated and directed by someone who has even the most base set of ideals. We simply want to be outstanding at something. In a scene in “Lord of War,” Nicholas Cage’s character explains his business selling weapons simply by saying “I’m good at it.” [Update–actually, this all doesn’t even belong in this post. I think I’ll write something separate about it]

And perhaps it’s all because the questions and the answers seem so immaterial.

Nonetheless, this makes it possible to talk to anyone about belief, or unbelief, in the divine. As for Christians: how, when, where, and why do we do this? And what do we say?

The answers are quite involved, but unlike the answers to some questions, I think these ones all exist.

A Wealth of Understanding

Posted in The Narrow Path on June 2, 2008 by RWZero

When it comes to religion, there’s certain rhetoric that dominates newspapers, public press, political statements, and the like. I don’t mean that of tolerance, which is universally applied (often in several coats) to all topics; I mean that of separation.

Religion is often referred to in a list of personal attributes, and I’ve seen it listed alongside qualities of race, or even physical disabilities. But we are not religious in the same way that we are “red and yellow, black and white,” and indeed, this mindset spills over into practice. For religion is not only described this way, but treated as such—an attribute that, while it may result in reactionary effects that acknowledge its presence, is not the source of anything in and of itself. People of similar skin colour may have their many preferences, but this is not because of their skin colour. It is merely facilitated by their skin colour.

The aforementioned rhetoric refers to religion as something we “do” in our private lives, as if it were a taste in fashion, flavours of yogurt, or genres of music. We may say that someone “has a fulfilled spiritual life,” but this means absolutely nothing. It relegates it to that category of practices, which ultimately gives us personal satisfaction, but in the realm of our daily lives and public existence, is entirely inconsequential.

The above isn’t that dangerous. We see it mostly used for politeness and political correctness. We cannot, however, ignore where this logically leads: the prevalent idea that religion can truly be separated from conclusions in philosophy, science, and all such fields that already contain a secular perspective.

This simply isn’t true.

People from all walks of life have bought into this idea to some extent, because it reduces conflict an absolute minimum. But it’s wrong to pretend that religion does not compete for some of the same ground staked out by, for instance, philosophy. Yet we will use the words separately so long as we’re able. So long as we aren’t a student of philosophy… and perhaps even then.

For many Christians, this separation can only last so long. At some point, it may become the end of their faith. For they believed all this time that they could sit in a church, forming conclusions about the world, never thinking that they may run up against the conclusions of others. Why would we assume that, being religious, we are fulfilling a need that does not exist—in any way, shape or form—in others? All people live and breathe. They want answers to the same questions that you do.

* * *

Now, you may say that religious people are already drawing quite enough connections—that they draw too many connections between, say, church and state.

This is not meant to advocate the American culture war. I didn’t mean to suggest a lack of connections between faith and practice, only a lack of connection between faith, and everything else that lives inside!

For just a moment, let’s call all that stuff the “Body of Knowledge.”


In Fig. 1, practice is being informed by two sets of completely disjoint, but very real, parts of the person. When they disagree, only one can take precedence. If faith wins out, the faith is blind. If not, the faith is impotent, for it has done nothing to inform practice that the secular world could not have done.

Christians living in Fig. 1 often fear the dichotomy, because the sources feeding the Body of Knowledge are well-researched, and have no equal in religious experience. They attempt to stay in Fig. 1 by increasing the strength of the Religious Faith bubble. They create Christian music, Christian Science, and as many things as you can put Christian in front of. But in many cases, it simply cannot outmatch the work poured into the seemingly evil secular perspective.

If, however, a Christian moves towards Fig. 2, something great happens. By creating a feedback loop between the Body of Knowledge and their Faith, where faith informs intellectual conclusions and external knowledge informs faith, there is a single paradigm affecting how real life is lived.

When it comes to church and state, we may find ways of agreeing on practice based on differing conclusions, but we should not agree on conclusions just to ensure common practice.

So we don’t have to throw away all the good work that’s been done in the soft and hard sciences, the arts, and so on. We just have to learn to read it for ourselves.

If you walk into a church on Sunday morning, the message you’ll hear will be unlike anything you hear during the rest of the week. It will be quite separate, and quite spiritual. When all that’s said and done, the congregation is responsible for integration. A religious person who waits for the moment where the conclusions of faith and their “normal” life clash in practice, they may discover that this religion has not been an integral part of who they are, but merely a hobby.