Blog Archives

20 Christian academics speak about God, faith, and science

Here’s an interesting video of 20 Christian academics answering questions related to science, reason, and faith. Along the way, they comment on miracles, free will, the problem of evil, foreknowledge, evolution, and son on. And, the academics run the gamut from evangelicals like J. P. Moreland and William Craig to thinkers who reject almost anything miraculous or supernatural in the world. So, it’s a good video for getting a feel for how a broad range of Christian intellectuals respond to these questions.

Jonathan Edwards on commonsense as a failure of the imagination

Americans have a long history of touting commonsense as providing a solid foundation for sure knowledge of the world. We’re often skeptical of those whose ideas sound too “theoretical” or “abstract,” and we scoff at people who posit ideas that seem radically contrary to the world as we experience it.

This attitude often displays itself most clearly in how people react to scientific theories. People laugh at the idea that the universe could be made of “strings,” because obviously we don’t experience reality that way. And, many mock the idea of global warming because it happened to be colder in their part of the world the last couple of years. Now, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether these theories, and others, are right. My only point is to comment on how many people use commonsense experience to reject or “refute” more abstract ideas.

For Edwards, this suggests a complete lack of imagination.

I’ve been re-reading Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and this section stood out to me the other day. The specific context has to do with Edward’s philosophical idealism and how contrary to commonsense it is to suggest that the “physical” is not what is ultimately real. But, Marsden goes on to point out that the same imaginative openness to new ideas also characterized Edwards’ approach to scientific developments.

The problem with thinking that commonsense experience was ultimate, he was convinced, was a failure of imagination….’Imagination’ at the time meant literally the faculty by which one forms images of things. The case of prejudices, said Edwards, was that people get so used to perceiving things in common ways that they ‘make what they can actually perceive by their senses, or by immediate and outside reflection into their own souls, the standard of possibility or impossibility; so that there must be no body, forsooth, bigger than they can conceive of, or less than they can see with their eyes; nor motion either much swifter or slower than they can imagine.” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 80)

This isn’t to say that Edwards rejected commonsense. In most situations, commonsense is a fine guide to understanding the world. But, Edwards point is that our perspective is inherently limited. So, if we insist on judging the world on the basis of our own limited experiences, we will necessarily be prejudiced against much larger truths. And, Christians in particular should be able to look beyond our limited horizons and imagine possibilities that border on the absurd.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/18)

David was a man after God’s own heart because he hated sin but loved to forgive it. What better example of God could there be?

  • A recent BBC article asks, Does more information mean we know less? Along the way, it presents an interesting comparison between our modern compulsion to stay “current” with the religious impulse to reflect deeply on the past. (HT)

We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than St Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.

One of the silly characteristics of our age is the credulous and naive veneration of science. It has led to the emergence of what we call scientism–faith in science as the ultimate source of truth and wisdom.

  • And, a in Orange County, a cat has been ordered to report for jury duty. Of course, this rather odd situation was partially caused by someone who saw the cat as such a part of the family that she listed it on the family’s census form. Why would you do that?

Flotsam and jetsam (11/5)

My own position is quite clear on this, that I have supported women Bishops in print and in person. I’ve spoken in Synod in favour of going that route, but I don’t think it’s something that ought to be done at the cost of a major division in the Church.

I propose in contrast that God is “kenotically” or self-sacrificially infused (not by divine loss or withdrawal, but by an over-generous pouring out) into every causal joint of the creative process, yet precisely without overt disruption of apparent “randomness.”

The title of “America’s Greatest Theologian” is pretty universally ceded to Jonathan Edwards, and after him there is a tight race for “Second Greatest.” In my opinion, Warfield is a contender for that second slot.

  • The Christian Humanist has an interesting discussion on heresy and the early creeds, specifically addressing with the early creeds alone are sufficient for defining what “heresy” really is. HT

Review: The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of Alister McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and Discipleship of the Mind (IVP, 2010).

★★★☆☆

Alister McGrath has written an interesting little book, arguing for the central place of theology in the Christian life and calling for a renewed appreciation for the “life of the mind” in churches today. The book comprises eleven chapters based on previously unpublished lectures presented in 2007-2009.

Summary

McGrath divides the book into two sections. In the first, he sets out to convince his readers that theology really is vital for a healthy Christian life and spirituality. And, this was by far my favorite of the two sections. As he says at the beginning of the book,

Christian theology is one of the most intellectually stimulating and exciting subjects it is possible to study, rich in resources for the life of faith and the ministry of the church. It has the capacity to excite, inspire and illuminate the human intellect, giving it a new passion and focus. (7)

And, he follows from there with six essays that together seek to lay out “the intellectual capaciousness of the Christian faith and its ability to bring about a new and deeply satisfying vision of reality” (12). Recognizing that theology has a bad reputation in large segments of the church, the first two essays provide a brief apologetic for the necessity of good theology. The third essay offers an autobiographical account of McGrath’s own conversion and the important role that theology played in helping him understand the vacuity of atheism and the power of the Christian vision of reality. The next essay offers an interesting reflection on George Herbert’s “Elixir” to present the transformative power of theology. McGrath then presents an essay on the explanatory power that theology has for understanding the world around us. And, following naturally from this, the final essay in this section addresses apologetics and the necessity for good theology for articulating the Christian vision to the world.

In the second half of the book, McGrath’s shifts his attention to exploring “how inhabiting the Christian ‘interpretive community’ provides a platform for cultural engagement” (13). McGrath has a long-standing in natural theology and apologetics, and that comes across very clearly in this section. He begins this section by arguing that Christianity and science are supplementary rather than contradictory. I thought the following essay, “Religious and Scientific Faith,” was the most interesting in this section. Using Darwin’s theory of evolution, McGrath argues that both theology and science make arguments based on “inference to the best explanation,” and that, consequently, both are rational and faith-based to some extent. The next essay offers a very brief discussion of Augustine’s view of creation, demonstrating that Christian theologians have long been aware of the need to understand and engage the best science of the day even as we seek to interpret the Bible faithfully. And, McGrath finishes the book with two essays on the New Atheists, arguing against the idea that religion necessarily poisons everything it touches and pointing out the intellectual weaknesses of the atheist argument.

Strengths

Probably the book’s greatest strength is its readability. McGrath writes with a clear, concise style that makes the book more accessible than many others. A few of the essays wander into territory that will be less familiar to the average churchgoer (in America at least), particularly the essay on Herbert’s “Elixir.” Overall, though, the book is very readable and engaging.

I thought the first half of this book was particularly interesting. McGrath did a very nice job laying out the importance of theology across a broad range of the Christian life: love of God, worship, apologetics, discipleship, mission, and so on. The two chapters on “Mere Theology” in particular could be used alone to give someone a brief look at what theology is and why it’s important. And McGrath’s personal testimony in the fourth essay is really a testimonial for the argument of the whole book – the Christian vision of reality has explanatory power that surpasses any other worldview and, when embraced, has transformative power to reshape everything about you.

The second half of the book was less compelling for me. However, if you’re looking for a few, brief essays on the apologetic issues he addresses (faith and science, evolution, and atheism), then you might find it more interesting.

Weaknesses

The most notable weakness was the essay format. Although McGrath has done a nice job organizing the essays around a common theme, the book still feels a bit disjointed and uneven in places. Certain essays are necessarily stronger than others, and the connections between them are occasionally somewhat weak.

As I mentioned above, I also found the second half of the book less compelling. I thought the book would have been strengthened immensely if McGrath had devoted the second half to fleshing out a range of areas in the Christian life that benefit from a deeper appreciation of theology. Rather than restricting himself to a largely intellectual task like apologetics, it would have been great to see whole essays on worship, fellowship, mission, work, and so on. These are the areas in which the average person really needs to see the value of theology.

So, finally, I think the greatest weakness is that I’m not sure that McGrath’s book is going to convince his target audience that theology is really all that important. It will probably serve best those who are already committed to a “life of the mind,” but need to be convinced of the importance of theology. That is really McGrath’s story (i.e. the intellectual who is surprised by theology). But, at least in America, that does not describe the majority of Christians. They need a much more compelling vision of how theology touches everyday life.

Conclusion

The Passionate Intellect is an interesting book that is worth a quick read. The earlier chapters in particular are worth using as short classroom readings or with interested lay persons. And, if you know someone who is fairly intellectual and needs to catch a vision for the power of theology, this would be a great book to suggest.

Morning links (9/16)

Despite the outpouring of support for the previous title “Flotsam and jetsam” (yes, in my world four comments qualifies as an “outpouring”), I’m going to stick with a simpler title for a while and see how it works.

Morning links (9/15)

Okay, I finally got one too many comments from people who either couldn’t figure out what “flotsam and jetsam” means (originally a nautically term referring to the debris left after a shipwreck, it’s also used to refer to “odds and ends” in general), or who wondered if I’m just a big Little Mermaid fan (which, by the way, says more about you than it does me). So, I’m going to drop that title for a while and go with something that will hopefully be a little clearer. But, just in case there’s still some uncertainty out there, let me explain:

  • “Morning” = that period of the day between when I wake up and when my coffee has finally kicked in.
  • “Links” = those underlined/colored/highlighted words on the screen that take you places when you click on them.

Now, that we’ve taken care of that business, here are some links for this morning.

Hawking (et al) on Larry King Live

Steven Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow, Deepak Chopra, and Robert Spitzer were recently interviewed by Larry King and shared their respective views on the relationship between science and religion. Just in case (like me) you missed this interview and (unlike me) you care, here you go. (By the way, how does Deepak Chopra keep getting invited to these things? The fact that your name rhymes with Oprah really shouldn’t qualify as a compelling reason.)

If you want a quick rundown on what they talked about, there’s a good summary here.

Flotsam and jetsam (9/3)

Flotsam and jetsam (7/16)