08/15/17

Erasing the Providence of God

© Wang Song | 123rf.com

“One cannot give thought to the Church’s confession of faith in Providence without very soon being impressed by the distance between this confession and modern thought.” With these words, the theologian G. C. Berkouwer opened his classic work, Studies in Dogmatics: The Providence of God. He went on to note how modern scientific and philosophical thought—as well as that of the ordinary person—is engrossed in the question of the meaning of the world and its history and the purpose of human life. A series of revolutionary, catastrophic events have led many moderns to ask: Can life still be said to make sense or be meaningful? “This is now a pre-eminently existential question whose persistence we cannot avoid.”

One of the most eloquent expressions of human insignificance was expressed by the astronomer Carl Sagan in his book, A Pale Blue Dot. At Sagan’s suggestion to NASA, Voyager 1— at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from earth—turned and took one last photographic look at earth before it continued on its journey out of the solar system. Reflecting on the resulting photo, he said:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

You can watch and listen to a YouTube video with a section from the audio book containing the quote above from A Pale Blue Dot here.

Berkouwer said that when God’s hand presses hard upon life, the question becomes: WHY? Where is God? That question underlies everything happening in our time. It reverberates through the estrangement of humanity from the rest of creation; through our secularization and alienation from God. “God is estranged from man; and man becomes a stranger in His world.” He said the following three motifs play an important role in modern secularization.

The first is the influence of modern science on faith in God. When nature is repeatedly explained through natural causes, the premise of God’s preservation and rule is set aside. For the scientifically-minded person, the doctrine of Providence was “convenient for pre-scientific naivete.” But it is rendered irrelevant by the insights of the scientific method. The reality of God is a relic of the pre-scientific age.

Though many are beginning to talk again about the limitations of the scientific method and though one hears occasional murmurs against its imperialism, the inevitable conclusion of modern science is that it has no room left for God.

The second motif is seeing religion as nothing more than a projection or reflection of human thought. It appears in the writings of several influential thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and others. Religion is an opiate of the people (Marx); man’s god is man (Feuerbach); religion as a “universal obsessional neurosis” (Freud); Christianity is “Platonism for the people” (Nietzsche). When religion is a projection or reflection of human thought, it becomes expendable. Here, belief in Providence is dangerous, as it is only “a lust for safety and protection against the threats to our existence.”

The third motif is refuting God’s Providence through catastrophe: “How could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow …” The meaninglessness of a crisis seems to cut off any perspective that reveals purpose. “The Providence doctrine fails to give an explanation of the gruesome reality that holds life in its grip.” Faith affirms meaning and purpose in life. “But where can one point to purpose or reality in the radically ungarnished life of our times?”

Does not honesty tell us to limit ourselves realistically to what lies before our eyes, and without illusions face the order of the day? How can we overcome the catastrophic by a return to a confidence in the meaning of life, when the possibility of meaning itself is in question? Realism and a facing of facts have come to fetter the human heart. The beautiful story of Providence and the Hand of God, it is said, is a religious fancy, and belief in it an illusionary escape from reality.

There is a fundamental flaw embedded in each of these motifs, namely that understanding the world around us—including the meaning of our lives within it—must have a human starting point. This seems to be what Berkouwer meant by secularization; what we see is what we get. Science explains, or will explain, what was previously unexplainable. As the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace said when Napoleon asked him where God fit into his mathematical work, “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.” Belief in God then becomes a projection of human thought. Christian faith is mistakenly interpreted as a Christian version of fate or determinism.

When this happens, it means that an abstract concept of sovereignty has replaced the God of revelation. God is construed as a “super power,” a potentia absoluta, which is another God than He of Scripture. Sovereignty “in itself” is a compassionateless concept quite as inspiring of dread as is blind fate. Biblical thinking is always directed to the sovereignty of God, that is, to the real, the true, and living God, the God of revelation.

Berkouwer encouraged his readers to turn to the Scriptures to overcome the modern crisis with the doctrine of Providence. He said as the Scriptures rule our thinking and speaking, as they fill the preaching of the Church, “so the Word of God will speak to the distressed and disordered life of our times.”

J. I. Packer said in the New Bible Dictionary that providence is normally seen in Christian theology as the unceasing activity of the Creator God. In Scripture, it is presented as a function of the sovereignty of God. “God is king over all, doing just what he wills (Psalms 103:19; 135:6; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11).” Packer said this conviction is throughout the Bible and must be distinguished from the following: pantheism, deism, dualism, indeterminism, determinism, chance, and fate.

Pantheism absorbs the world into God, while deism cuts creation off from him. Dualism divides control of creation between God and another power, where indeterminism denies there is any control at all. On the other hand, determinism imagines a control that obliterates human moral responsibility. Chance denies that the controlling power is rational, while fate denies that it is benevolent. Whenever these views creep into our understanding of God and his interaction with creation, they dilute a biblical sense of God’s providence. Packer said by God’s providence:

He upholds his creatures in ordered existence (Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3), guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of angels and men (cf. Psalm 107; Job 1:12; 2:6; Genesis 45:5–8), and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory (cf. Ephesians 1:9–12).

When humans deny the continued work of God in his creation through secular views of science and philosophy, they are trying to erase what God has written across creation with indelible ink. As the apostle Paul said in Acts 17: 28: “In him we live and move and haves our being.” What can be known about God is plainly revealed in the creation. Since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived in the things that were made. “So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:19-21).

08/4/17

Not a Ghost in the Machine

© Andrey Kiselev | 123rf.com

There is a story told about René Descartes, that he traveled with a life-sized mechanical doll he named Francine, after his illegitimate daughter. Francine died tragically when she was five. The doll was supposed to be so lifelike, that it was virtually indistinguishable from a real person. One source said he constructed it “to show that animals are only machines and have no souls.” His biographer, Stephen Gaukroger, said Descartes kept the doll in trunk beside him while he slept. Supposedly, on a voyage over the Holland Sea, the captain of the ship quietly stole into Descartes’ cabin one night and opened the trunk. Horrified to see the mechanical monstrosity, he dragged the doll from the trunk and threw her overboard.

In Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Gaukroger said there is no truth to the tale; that it was likely a piece of propaganda in the eighteenth-century struggle against the materialism that grew out of Descartes’ philosophy. In his essay on Descartes for Galileo Goes to Jail, Peter Harrison said Descartes could be the most maligned and misunderstood philosopher who ever lived. “Indeed, there seems to be something about Descartes’ person and his philosophy that invites slander and simplistic mischaracterization.” Both Gaukroger and Harrison pointed to another misconception, that Descartes initiated the radical separation of mind and body, which then had disastrous consequences on Western philosophy.

Descartes did make a mind-body distinction. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy said one of the most lasting legacies of his philosophy is what is now called mind-body dualism.  He argued that the nature or substance of the mind (a thinking non-extended thing) was completely different from that of the body (an extended, non-thinking thing). Harrison noted where the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle derisively referred to this Cartesian doctrine of mind and body as “the myth of the ghost in the machine.” Such dualism, according to Ryle, was “fundamentally antiscientific.”

But there is a technical point missing in this portrayal of Descartes’ thinking. He considered the body and mind to be distinct substances. “A substance is something that does not require any other creature to exist—it can exist with only the help of God’s concurrence.” As a consequence, each could exist without the other. “However, this does not mean that these substances do exist separately.” Harrison said Descartes carefully rejected the kind of separation implied by Ryle and others.

In fact, Descartes took pains to deny such a separation, asserting that mind and body are “intermingled” so as to form a “unitary whole.” Mind and body, he insists, form a “substantial union.” He also unambiguously states (pace Dennett) that the mind is not in the body “as a pilot in his ship.” . . . In fact, the doctrine of a radical separation of mind and body is one that should more properly be laid at the feet of Aristotle or Plotonius, rather than Descartes.

Some commentators have suggested the interaction of mind and body was so central a concern for Descartes that it is misleading, to a certain extent, to refer to him as a dualist. He sought to understand the world in terms of three basic kinds of entity—matter (extended material things), minds (thinking things) and persons (mind-body composites). Correlations between mental events and bodily movements are merely natural properties of this body-mind complex. “The relations of mind and body, on this account, are explained in terms of psychophysical laws that constitute our very nature as embodied beings.” Harrison then gave this summation.

In sum, Descartes’ views about mind, body, and their relation are subtle, sophisticated, and complex. They bear little resemblance to the simplistic caricatures that often pose as authoritative accounts of his work. Descartes gave a central place to the emotions in his psychology, and he took very seriously the embodied nature of human beings. Because of Descartes’ insistence that the mind-body amalgam was a real entity, some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that he no longer be numbered in the ranks of the dualists.

Writing for BioLogos, philosophy professor Edward Fesler said to the extent that this separation and conception is seen as “an abstraction from concrete material reality, and not the whole of material reality,” there is nothing wrong with it. However, there must be a clear acknowledgement of its limitations. “It captures only those aspects [of reality] that are susceptible both of mathematical modeling and of detection vie experimental techniques by which the models may be tested. But anything else falls short.” Unlike Harrison, Fesler does see Descartes as responsible for many of the philosophical problems that came after his conception of mind and matter.

This bizarre re-conception of human nature—man as a “ghost in a machine,” as Gilbert Ryle famously parodied it—opened up a host of philosophical problems which persist to this day. The materialist “solution” to the problems has been to reject one of Descartes’ reified abstractions (the res cogitans) while keeping the other, the material world conceived as if the equations of physics exhausted its nature. Unsurprisingly, this has led to theories of the relationship of mind to body which seem implicitly to deny, rather than to explain, the existence of mind, consciousness, meaning, and free choice.

The materialist resolution of the mind-body problem raised by Cartesian philosophy, subsuming the mind as an extension of bodily neurological functions, raises a problem for a biblical understanding of human nature. While there is a clear sense of a kind of dualism in Scripture, Christians cannot assume such a materialist position. Biblically speaking, humans are material and immaterial, body and soul. Fesler’s suggestion is to reject Descartes’s abstractions and rediscover the human being “as an irreducible psychophysical whole,” with our mental and physical as two aspects of one thing. There is both unity and distinction—what theologian Anthony Hoekema referred to as a psychosomatic unity of body (soma) and soul (psyche). See “We Are But Thinking Reeds” for a more in depth discussion of this idea.

But there is a third kind of Cartesian entity to consider—the mind-body composite of personhood. It is an essential aspect of human existence as it makes possible the relationship between individual humans, between embodied thinking things. An it makes possible a relationship with God. So it cannot be easily dismissed as merely a ghost in the machine.

Abeba Birhane offered a revision of Descartes for Aeon that adds a community aspect to Carteasian thought. Drawing upon Ubuntu philosophy, she said selfhood is acquired over time. She illustrated this concept by quoting the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” Note the rephrasing of Descartes’ famous quote: “I think, therefore I am.” Birhane said we know from everyday experience that personhood is partly formed in community. Who we are depends upon many others—family, friends, culture, etc. She quoted a Zulu phrase, saying it was a better and richer account of personhood than Descartes cogito argument: “A person is a person through other persons.”

Biblically speaking, human personhood is also the result of being created in the image of God. Humanity, “being made in the image of God, was made to have a personal relationship with him.” In Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer said that when speaking of God to modern humans, it is important to emphasize that the Bible speaks of God as both a personal God and an infinite God. This is the kind of God who is there; who actually exists. And He is no ghost in the machine.

07/25/17

Keep on Knocking

© Eugene Sergeev | 123rf.com

The first sentence for the Step Eleven essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions succinctly says: “Prayer and meditation are our principle means of conscious contact with God.” Bill W. went on to say there were some who recoiled from meditation and prayer “as obstinately as the scientist who refused to perform a certain experiment lest it prove his pet theory wrong.” Yet for those who made regular use of prayer come to see it as necessary for their survival as air, food or sunshine: “We all need the light of God’s reality, the nourishment of His strength, and the atmosphere of His grace.”

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

In verse 7, there are a series of commands: ask, seek and knock. All three are in the present tense, which suggests we are to persist when we come to God in prayer. We should petition God “with an expectant attitude,” according to Craig Blomberg. In verse eight, we have a repetition of what to expect when we pray: all who ask receive; everyone who seeks something will find it; when someone knocks on a closed door, it will be opened. But it would be a mistake to use this as a kind of incantation with which we can petition and receive from God whatever we desire.

Bill W. astutely noted that when we ask for specific solutions to specific problems, and for the ability to help other people as we think they need to be helped, “We are asking God to do it our way.” We should consider each request carefully to see its real merit. His advice when making specific requests was to add a qualification: “ . . . if it be Thy will.”

We discover that we do receive guidance for our lives to just about the extent that we stop making demands upon God to give it to us on order and on our terms.

Not too long before this passage in Matthew was Jesus’ counsel to not pray like the hypocrites or use empty phrases (Matthew 6:5-15). Instead, we should pray humbly to our Father in Heaven, asking for His will to be done; for our daily bread (needs); for our debts to be forgiven; and to keep us from temptation. This passage, of course, was on the Lord’s Prayer. So when we self consciously acknowledge God as our Father in heaven, and seek for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we can trust that He will provide for our needs. So we can confidently, ask, seek and knock. And when we ask according to His will we will receive; we will find what we seek; we will open what was closed to us when we knock.

The rhetorical questions in Matthew 6:9-10 imply a negative answer: of course a human father would not be so obtuse when responding to the requests of his son. He would not give a stone when asked for bread or a serpent when asked for a fish. Bread and fish would have been common foods for the people listening to Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount, again pointing back to relying upon God for our daily needs.

There is also a possible allusion to a sense of trickery—bread can be shaped to look like a stone; snakes can be mistaken for a certain eel-like fish catfish in the Sea of Galilee.  If a human father can be trusted to give good things to his son, can’t we place even greater trust in God the Father? Jesus is reasoning from the lesser to the greater here. If such trickery or obtuseness would be unthinkable in a human father, “how much more” can our heavenly Father be trusted?

So the lesson of the passage is that we can trust God to answer our prayers. When we ask according to His will, we will receive. When we seek our daily needs, we will find them. And when a door appears closed to what we ask or seek, if we knock it will be opened for us. Here the call is for hope and perseverance. We are to continue asking, seeking and knocking until the seemingly closed door to us is opened, because we can trust God to meet our needs.

This call for persistence in prayer also applies to those who have tried to give up drugs and alcohol but failed repeatedly. There is a sense of dread that overcomes the person who has made repeated attempts to stay abstinent and failed. They begin to think there is no hope for them; that they are “constitutionally incapable of recovery.” This is a mistaken belief about recovery and relapse. In his booklet Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Terence Gorski said: “A mistaken belief is something that you believe is true and act as if it were true when, in fact, it is false.”

Continue trying to establish and maintain abstinence. Ask for guidance; seek help; keep on knocking (persist in asking and seeking) until you obtain it.  Because you won’t be tricked or be given something that won’t meet you needs (a stone or snake).

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

07/14/17

Myth of Newton’s Clockwork Universe

photo from Wikipedia: “The Clockwork Universe” by Tim Wetherell

In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins turned the watchmaker analogy, used by William Paley to argue for the existence of God, on its head. Paley said if we were to find a watch in a field, even if we didn’t know how it came into existence, the “intricacy of design” in the watch would force us to conclude that it had a maker. Since the natural world shows even more evidence of design than a watch, its existence implies an even greater intelligent Designer or God. However, Dawkins asserted that we now know that natural selection, “the blind, unconscious, automatic process … is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life.” Since it has no mind, vision or foresight, “If it can be said to play the role of the watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

Dawkins placed his finger on the necessary assumption in Paley’s argument: there must be a cause for the observed order in nature. Deny this, as Norman Geisler pointed out in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, and the teleological argument failed, “for the alleged design (if uncaused) would be merely gratuitous.” Despite his affirmation of natural selection and rejection of a causal agent for the evidence of design in nature, Dawkins still recognized the persuasiveness of an argument from design.

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning.

Rather like the ball in a tennis match, the notion of a clockwork universe has been batted back-and-forth to both support and undermine the belief in a Creator and/or Sustainer of the universe. Outside of Christian apologetics circles, where Paley’s watchmaker is a favored form of the teleological argument for the existence of God, the clockwork universe analogy is used to deny the belief in a sustaining Creator God. It has even been woven into a myth referred to by Edward (Ted) Davis as the “Newtonian Worldview.” Examples of this Newtonian myth of a clockwork universe are plentiful.

In an article celebrating the 150-year anniversary of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Johnjoe MaFaddon said while Darwin had destroyed the strongest evidence for the existence of a deity, “Two centuries earlier, Newton had banished God from the clockwork heavens.” In his essay on the myth of Newton’s mechanistic cosmology for Galileo Goes to Jail, Davis quoted from Sylvan Schweber’s 1989 essay, “John Herschel and Charles Darwin.” “The metaphor of the mechanical clock in Newton’s construction of the heavens and its legacy illustrate the power of metaphors in the development of scientific thought.” In an earlier essay, Davis quoted the following from the fourth edition of Thomas Greer’s A Brief History of the Western World:

With Aristotle’s laws of motion overthrown, no role remained for a Prime mover, or for Moving Spirits. The hand of God, which once kept the heavenly bodies in their orbits, had been replaced by universal gravitation. Miracles had no place in a system whose workings were automatic and unvarying. Governed by precise mathematical and mechanical laws, Newton’s universe seemed capable of running itself.

But as Stephen Snobelen pointed out in “The Myth of the Clockwork Universe,” the metaphor of a mechanistic, clockwork universe originated with medieval monks. “The myth of Newton’s clockwork universe is one of the most persistent and pervasive myths in the history of science.”  The idea of a “world machine” can be found in the astronomical works of Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), Johannes de Sacrobosco (1230), and Nicolas of Cusa (1401-64). Copernicus used it in his seminal work, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres. But it was Nicole Oresema (1325-82) who compared the idea of a world machine to the clockwork universe.

In these early theological contexts, the clockwork analogy has two essential features: God as creator of the clockwork and God as sustainer of the clockwork. Thus it differs from eighteenth- century, nonprovidentialist deism that is committed only to the first element.

Both Davis and Snobelen convincingly demonstrated how Newton himself did not hold to what has been portrayed as a mechanistic, Newtonian worldview. The early advocates of the clockwork universe were “pious, believing Christians;” and if Newton had used the clockwork metaphor, he would have likely used it like the “Christian natural philosophers who went before him.” Snobelen said not a single unambiguous example of Newton referring to the universe as a clockwork system has been identified. Davis noted where Newton’s belief and understanding of God’s dominion “shaped the metaphysical perspective in which he placed his science.”

Deistic, “nonprovidentialist” thinkers like Gottfried Leibniz and Rene Descartes refused to allow God to exercise dominion over creation. According to Davis, Newton saw the Cartesian concept of matter as a path to atheism. Descartes believed matter and extension (space) were necessarily indistinguishable. He thought all motion took place in closed loops; all changes in motion were caused by direct contact, and not by forces acting at a distance (i.e., God’s sustained actions in nature). “Newton claimed that matter ‘does not exist necessarily, but by divine will.’” Snobelen quoted Leibniz, who like Dawkins, turned the clockwork analogy on its head to refute the sustaining acts of God:

Sir Isaac Newton, and his Followers, have also a very odd Opinion concerning the Work of God. According to their Doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his Watch from Time to Time: Otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient Foresight to make it a perpetual Motion. Nay, the Machine of God’s making, is so imperfect, according to these Gentlemen; that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary Concourse, and even to mend it, as a Clockmaker mends his Work; Who must consequently be so much the more unskilful a Workman, as he is oftner obliged to mend his Work and to set it right.

Snobelen said Leibinz’z idea of a perpetual motion machine implied an idealized Platonic clock, which he contrasted with an unreliable clock that needed frequent rewinding, “the kind of clock that would have been familiar to the original readers of this debate.” Because of the reliability of modern timepieces, we miss the slur Leibniz made here in his use of the clockwork analogy. Before the introduction of the balance spring or pendulum in the late 1600s, watches were very unreliable—sometimes losing minutes or hours of time in a day. It was only after the invention of the balance spring that minute and second hands became standard issue with all watches. So God’s sustaining work in creation was like a clockmaker winding, cleaning and mending his clock.

Newton has been co-opted by some as a “proto-deist” or the person who set the stage for a new rationalism that “set the stage for Enlightenment philosophies to remove God” from the ordering of things. But Snobelen said no deist would accept biblical prophecy as a revelation from God that has been and will be fulfilled in history. But Newton did. Davis said if we ignored the vast theological gulf between Newton and the philosophers who reinterpreted his physics, “we encourage the very opinion the Enlightenment deists wanted us to share: that theology and modern science are fundamentally at odds.”

A biographer of Newton said few things would have angered him more than the belief that “the Principia contained the framework of a universe in which God was no longer vital, or even necessary.” Correspondence between Leibniz and a friend and disciple of Newton’s named Samuel Clarke, which occurred during the last year of Leibniz’a life (1715-1716), explicitly rejected his caricature of God having to wind up His watch from time to time:

The notion of the world being a great Machine, going on without the Interposition of God, as a Clock continues to go without the Assistance of a Clockmaker; in the Notion of Materialism and Fate, and tends (under pretence of making God a Supra-mundane Intelligence) to exclude Providence and God’s government in reality out of the world.

Nevertheless, modern biblical Christians cannot follow Newton into all his theological beliefs. He rejected the doctrine of the Trinity; Davis thought he was an Arian. He also rejected the doctrine of the immortal soul, a personal devil and literal demons. But confusingly, when concluding his above linked essay, Snobelen said:

A careful reading of Newton’s massive corpus, both published and unpublished, reveals that he was, without question, committed to biblical Christianity—even if not always orthodox—and understood his own work, particularly his physics, in providentialist terms, reflective of his theistic and prophetic understanding of the cosmos.

Newton’s anti-trinitarianism is not disputed, and that alone would have him seen as heretical by most of Christianity. So it is unclear why Snobelen would say Newton was “committed to biblical Christianity.” In another essay, he clearly said: “Isaac Newton was a heretic.” He observed that Newton never made a public declaration of his beliefs, knowing that if he did, he had a lot to lose. Newton was aware he had enemies who would pounce upon any revelation of “doctrinal waywardness” to discredit him; he realized how the charge of heresy could damage his reformation of natural philosophy. “Fear of this sort of public relations disaster must have been one of Newton’s greatest deterrents to open preaching.”

07/4/17

Balancing Act with Human Origins

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A recent Gallup poll found the percentage of U.S. adults who believe God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, what Gallup called the strict creationist view, has reached a new low. They are now tied with those who believe God guided humans development over millions of years at 38%. “This is the first time since 1982 — when Gallup began asking this question using this wording — that belief in God’s direct creation of man has not been the outright most-common response.” The “secular” view—that humans evolved from lower life forms without any divine intervention—has doubled since 1982, from 9% to 19%.

Reflecting on the Gallup poll results, Deborah Haarsma said that while polls are not infallible, BioLogos was encouraged to see these trends took place during the years in which BioLogos has been at work. “Anecdotally, we are seeing more openness to discussing the scientific evidence for human origins in the context of biblical faith . . . While loud voices continue to push extreme positions on origins, either anti-science or anti-God, this study shows that many everyday Americans are open to a conversation that brings science and God together.” These results are illustrated in the following graph found in the Gallup poll, which was conducted at the beginning of May in 2017. The results suggested to her that those who changed their views from a strict creationist position adopted the “God guided” position on evolution.

Gallup concluded that higher education levels effected creation/evolution belief in a strict (young earth) creationist position. Among those with postgraduate education, 21% said they believed in a strict creationist view versus 48% among individuals with no more than a high school education. “Agreement with evolution without God’s involvement is 31% among postgrads versus 12% among Americans with a high school education or less.” See the Gallup poll link for a table containing these results.

Nevertheless, among individuals with a college degree or above, more believed God had a role in evolution than who said evolution occurred without God. Haarsma pointed out that sociologist Jonathan Hill concluded from his research (the National Study of Religion & Human Origins, NSRHO) that education level was not the primary influence on views of human origins. Rather than education, differences in positions on human origins are better attributed to the religious beliefs of groups the individual belongs to.

When we track the beliefs of close friends and family, creationists are substantially more likely to belong to networks who agree with them about human origins. They are also more likely to expect increased disagreements with family and friends if they were to change their beliefs. Likewise, creationists are more likely to belong to congregations who have settled positions that reject human evolution and to perceive disagreements with religious leaders and other congregants if they were to change their beliefs. Moreover, creationists are more likely to spend their schooling in science classrooms that did not endorse evolution. Even if this is restricted to public high schools and universities, their science classroom experience is different from others. Put simply, creationists are embedded in networks and institutions that are more effective than the other groups in reinforcing the content and importance of their beliefs.

The bottom line for the Gallup poll was that most Americans believe God had a role in creating human beings. “But fewer Americans today hold strict creationist views of the origins of humans than at any point in Gallup’s trend on the question, and it is no longer the single most popular of the three explanations.” However, strict (young earth) creationism is still tied for the leading view at 38% of the population.

But Jonathan Hill found when you tease out individual beliefs for strict creationists, only 8% affirm all six beliefs, namely: (a) humans did not evolve from other species, (b) that God was involved in the creation of humans, (c) that God created directly and miraculously, (d) that Adam and Eve were historical figures, (e) that the days of creation were literal twenty-four hour days, and (f) that humans came into existence within the last 10,000 years.

Additionally, when deconstructing respondents who hold to a theistic evolution perspective in the Gallup poll (38% said humans developed over millions of years with God guiding the process), Hill found that only 16% of respondents (a) believed in human evolution and (b) God or an intelligent force were somehow involved. Only half of this group was very or absolutely confident of both of these beliefs. When applying a stricter definition to this group, only 5% of the population (a) believed God was involved in human evolution, (b) the days of creation were not literal, and (c) humans emerged more than 10,000 years ago. Requiring certainty dropped the percentage to 2%. “It is clear that the theistic evolution position does not come with a high degree of confidence for much of the population.”

When asking how social factors influence beliefs in young earth or evolutionary creation beliefs, certain factors become important in predicting firm, certain belief. The factors having the largest influence on predicting who is a certain (young earth) creationist included: (a) belonging to an evangelical denomination, (b) reporting faith is important in day-to-day life, (c) frequent prayer, (d) believing the Bible is literal (with no symbolism) or the inspired Word of God (symbolism but no errors), (e) family members with the same belief about origins, (f) friends have the same beliefs about origins, (g) changing beliefs would cause disagreement with other congregants and religious leaders, (h) their congregation has a settled position that rejects evolution.

Important factors predicting confident, certain evolutionary creation beliefs included: (a) belonging to a mainline (versus an evangelical) Protestant church, (b) being Catholic versus evangelical Protestant), and (c) not believing the Bible is the literal or inspired Word of God without errors.

Hill concluded that the social context of these beliefs is just as important as individual factors such as religious identity, practice and belief. “Social networks of family and friends, congregations, and schools all play a role.” Most important for strict creationists is the combination of certain religious beliefs, particularly beliefs about the Bible, and social contexts such as those related to a religious congregation. For individuals who believe human evolution is compatible with orthodox Christian faith, persuasion has to move beyond a purely intellectual level. Ideas consistent with evolutionary creation are only persuasive “when individuals are in a social position that allows them to seriously consider what is before them.”

There has been a tendency in evangelical Christian circles to see only two views with regards to human origins—creation or evolution. Data from the latest Gallup poll and the earlier NSRHO survey by Jonathan Hill suggests this rigid, and false dichotomy of views is changing. Consistent with these views on origins has been a parallel conflict thesis between science and religion, which also seems to be weakening.

In another article on a Pew study into religion and science, Hill pointed out the difficulty of holding onto a belief in the ultimate compatibility between science and faith, when you are not exactly sure how that compatibility should be realized. For now, it’s like balancing on a tightrope. But the decline in evangelicals who see an inherent conflict between their faith and science is an encouraging trend. But there is still a ways to go. See the NSRHO or “Did God Make You?” for more information and discussion on this topic. Also see the links for “Genesis & Creation” and “Religion & Science” on this website.

06/23/17

Total War Against Sin

Christian fighting against Apollyon; Wiki image of stained glass in Robin Chapel

The sense of total war, and the carnage it generates, was graphically portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie Hacksaw Ridge. And yet the movie’s hero was a man who did not fire a shot against his enemy. He trusted in God to deliver him. Puritan writers regularly used the imagery of warfare to describe our battle against the indwelling sin of our flesh. But John Owen intensified that imagery in his work Indwelling Sin, when he clearly portrayed our fight against sin as total war against the indwelling sin of our flesh.

In chapter four of Indwelling Sin, Owen said he would limit his reflections on the nature of indwelling sin to what Paul said in Romans 8:7, namely that the carnal mind (or the mind that is set on the flesh, as in the ESV) is hostile to God. After quoting the Greek phrase for “carnal mind”, Owen said this fleshly wisdom was the same as “the law of sin.”  More than just an enemy of God, this mindset is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, because it cannot.  Owen said this enmity signifies there is no possibility for reconciliation.

There can be reconciliation with an enemy of God, as Paul wrote in Romans 5:10: “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” But where there is enmity, there can be no reconciliation. As Owen said: “There is no way to deal with any enmity whatever but by its abolition or destruction.” The only way to reconcile enemies is to first destroy the enmity that exists between them, which Christ did by his death (Ephesians 2:15).  And if even the smallest amount remains, it is still enmity; it is still poison.

Every spark of fire is still fire, and it will burn. The apostle Paul, who may have made as great a progress in subduing his flesh as any one on earth, still cried out for deliverance: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Mortification of the flesh will abate its force, but cannot change its nature. While grace changes the nature of a person, nothing can change the nature of sin. “Whatever effect be wrought upon it, there is no effect wrought in it, but that it is enmity still, sin still.”

God is love (1 John 4:8) and against this God we carry enmity all out days—an enmity that is incapable of cure or reconciliation. “Destroyed it may be, it shall be, but cured it cannot be.” When it is enmity against which a person struggles, nothing can be expected but continual fighting until one or the other is destroyed. “If it be not overcome and destroyed, it will overcome and destroy the soul.”

Here lies its power: there is never a truce or true peace. “It is never quiet, conquering nor conquered.” Some people try to quiet their corruptions by trying to satisfy them—to make provisions for their flesh by gratifying its desires (Romans 13:14). Yet this is but adding fuel to the fire. All the fuel in the world, everything that is combustible will not satisfy it, but will only increase it. So it is with trying to satisfy sin by sinning. You cannot bargain with a fire to only burn so much; you have to quench it.

It is so with this indwelling sin: whether it violently tumultuate [create great emotional or mental agitation], as it will do on provocations and temptations, it will be outrageous in the soul; or whether it seem to be pleased and contented, to be satisfied, all is one, there is no peace, no rest to be had with it or by it. Had it, then, been of any other nature, some other way might have been fixed on; but seeing it consists in enmity, all the relief the soul hath must lie in its ruin.

Although Scripture variously portrays this enmity as our enemy, it is ultimately “enmity against God.” Peter urged us to abstain from the passions of the flesh that war against our soul (1 Peter 2:11). Paul said the desires of the flesh and Spirit are opposed to one another to keep us from doing what we want to do in the flesh (Galatians 5:17). “It fights against the Spirit, or the spiritual principle that is in us, to conquer it; it fights against our souls, to destroy them.” Its nature and ultimate aim is to oppose God.

This is our state and condition: All the opposition that ariseth in us unto any thing that is spiritually good, whether it be from darkness in the mind, or aversation in the will, or sloth in the affections, all the secret arguings and reasonings that are in the soul in pursuit of them, the direct object of them is God himself. The enmity lies against him; which consideration surely should influence us to a perpetual, constant watchfulness over ourselves.

Every sin is opposition to God—an attempt to cast off His yoke. It is an attempt to break off the dependence the creature should have on the Creator. So here we may reflect back on the Genesis account of the Fall, where humankind sought to be like God, independently knowing what was good and what was evil (Genesis 3:5). The carnal mind is hostile to God because it will not subject itself to the will of God. “The soul wherein it is may be subject to the law of God; but this law of sin sets up in contrariety unto it, and will not be in subjection.” It is absolute and universal to all of God and all of the soul.

If there were anything of God that sin was not in enmity against, the soul could have a shelter and retreat there. But enmity lies against God himself. It is against everything that is of God—his nature, properties, mind or will, his law or gospel. The nearer anything is to God, the greater is enmity against it. “That which hath most of God hath most of its opposition.” The more spirituality and holiness is in a thing, the greater is the enmity against it.

Enmity is also universally against the soul. If this law of sin had been content to subdue one faculty of the soul, but leave another at liberty, “it might possibly have been with more ease opposed or subdued.” But when Christ comes with his spiritual power to the soul, he can find no quiet landing place. “He can set foot on no ground but what he must fight for and conquer.”

Everything is secured against him—the mind, the will and emotions. And when grace had made it’s landing, yet sin is entrenched from coast to coast. Had there been anything in the soul at perfect freedom and liberty, perhaps a stand to drive enmity out could be made. But it is universal and makes war throughout the soul.

The mind hath its own darkness and vanity to wrestle with,—the will its own stubbornness, obstinacy, and perverseness; every affection its own frowardness and aversation from God, and its sensuality, to deal withal: so that one cannot yield relief unto another as they ought; they have, as it were, their hands full at home. Hence it is that our knowledge is imperfect, our obedience weak, love not unmixed, fear not pure, delight not free and noble.

In Pilgrim’s Progress there is a battle between the pilgrim Christian and Apollyon that captured this sense of total war described by Owen. The narrator, who “dreamed the dream” of Christian’s journey had this to say:

In this combat no man can imagine, unless he had seen and heard as I did, what yelling and hideous roaring Apollyon made all the time of the fight—he spake life a dragon; and on the other side, what sighs and groans burst from Christian’s heart. I never saw him all the while give so much as one pleasant look, till he perceived he had wounded Apollyon with his two-edged sword; then, indeed, he did smile, and look upward; but it was the dreadfullest sight that ever I saw.

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.

06/13/17

What Does God Look Like?

© belchonock | 123rf.com

A neuroimaging study published in the journal Nature demonstrated that when a well-recognized face was shown to an individual, a single neuron in the person’s brain would fire. The researchers were able to show that a single unit in the left posterior hippocampus would fire “to all pictures of the actress Jennifer Aniston.” But the neuron did not respond to pictures of Jennifer Aniston together with Brad Pitt. In a previous study, the researchers found that individual neurons would fire selectively to various images—like animals or buildings. So it is possible that some people could have a single neuron that would fire when they see a familiar picture of Jesus—or Buddha. “That neuron could represent the cornerstone of their religious training and belief.” This adds a whole new way of looking at God as you understand Him.

The study mentioned above was “Invariant Visual Representation by Single Neurons in the Human Brain.” Here are links to the abstract and the full article. The above speculation of the possibility of a “God neuron” in your brain was by Andrew Newberg in his book, How God Changes Your Brain. Newberg wondered if it was possible that people could have a neuron or specific set of neurons that fired when they were asked to envision God. “As brain-scan technology becomes more refined, I suspect we will see that each human being has a unique neural fingerprint that represents his or her image of God.”

Newberg described how we are born with a neurological mechanism to identify objects. The first objects an infant learned to identify were family members and caretakers. We see this when a stranger looks at an infant and gets a frowned response. The child’s brain labels each new object it learns to recognize; the first of many steps that turn an image into a concept or a word. The simplest kind of word for a child to learn is a concrete noun, “because it refers to something the child can see, touch, or taste.” The neurological capacity of young children to comprehend abstract objects won’t fully develop until adolescence, so they can only readily understand the simplest concepts.

A young child’s brain has no choice but to visualize God as a face that is located somewhere in the seeable physical world, and that is what we find when we analyze the pictures drawn by children younger than ten.

Brain-scan studies show that nouns are linked to visual-object-processing regions of the brain. Each time a novel idea is introduced, there is increased activity in specific areas of the right hemisphere of the brain—“the same areas that construct our visual representations of reality.” So when a child is introduced to a spiritual concept, their brain will automatically give it a sense of realness and personal meaning. The brains of children who continue in religious education will modify their “spiritual map” as they are introduced to new ways of conceptualizing God. “So its not surprising to see children’s pictures becoming more complex as they mature.”

A German professor of religious education, Helmut Hanisch, did a study where he compared drawings of God from West German children, who attended Christian-oriented schools, to those of children who attended school in East Germany, where an official antireligious doctrine had been in place.

In the religious group, children between the ages of seven and nine represented God as a face or a person around 90% of the time. By the time they reached the age of sixteen, only 20% drew pictures of faces or people. Instead, they preferred symbolic representations of God. But this did not happen with the East German, nonreligious students. By sixteen, “80% of the nonreligious children still used people to symbolize God.” The following chart illustrates the findings of Hanisch, as they were shown in Greenberg’s book. The vertical axis reflects the percentage of images that were abstract. The horizontal axis reflects the age of the children.

There were also differences in their comments about God. The older religious children described a loving sense of God, while the nonreligious children saw God as powerless and weak. They often referred to war, misery, suffering and poverty. One 12-year old girl said: “I don’t understand why God is allowing all this. Therefore I don’t believe in God.”

Young people do not have the cognitive skills to articulate abstract concepts of God, but they can use their visual imagination to comprehend spiritual realms. Even in the adult brain, ideas appear to be associated with internal visual processes, and mathematicians often think in pictures when they describe the invisible forces of the universe. Even when we imagine the distant past or future events, we activate the visual-spatial circuits of the brain. In fact, if you cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something, the brain’s first impulse is to assume that it doesn’t exist. Thus, for anyone, the brain’s first response is to assign an image to the concept of God.

Newberg said without this capacity for visual imagination, we would be barely able to think. Even when we sleep and dream, this capacity for visual imagination remains active. But children do not have the neural capacity to easily separate fantasy from fact, so they form beliefs that blur the boundaries of reality. Think here of the child who insists there are monsters under their bed. Children readily believe their nightmares are real, “while adults have advanced neural processes to help them analyze perceptual discrepancies.”

© Bill Watterson

If you tell a child that God can see you, or listen to your prayers, then the child’s imagination will associate those qualities with the eyes and ears of a face. If you tell the same child that God gets angry, the brain will generate images of frowns, gritted teeth, or perhaps fists banging against a wall—visual constructions that represent how a child perceives anger in other human beings. If you tell your child that God performs miracles, then the internal imagery takes on superhuman traits. For example, one boy drew God with a cape and a large S on his chest.

Newberg said that based upon his research, he thought the more a person examined their spiritual beliefs, the more their experience of God would change. And if you could not or would not change your image of God, you might have problems tolerating people who held to different images of God. He said if you clung to your childhood image of God, you limited your perception of truth. He thought this was a drawback for any religion that insisted upon a literal, biblical image of God. “If you limit your vision, you might feel threatened by those who are driven to explore new [or different] spiritual values and truths.”

For both the secular individual and the biblical Christian, there is validity in what Newberg says. The reality of radical Islamists and Westerners who reflexively oppose all Islamists as a result, clearly illustrates Newberg’s observation. The growing criticism of conservative Christian beliefs with regard to changing social and political mores is another example. Even within Christianity we find infighting and disputes over how to interpret the first 11 chapters of Genesis, the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, the form of church government, what happens during the sacrament of communion, and so on.

However for the biblical Christian, there is a potential confusion, and perhaps a danger of slipping into postmodern or theological relativism, in what Newberg said as well. In order to avoid this, clearly make a distinction between God and how you image (view) God. What remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow is God, and not how you imagine Him to be. Greenberg used the sense of the “image of God” because he was describing how children and adults visualize complex abstractions like God.

But when applied theologically to human beings, the term “image of God” has the sense that they were created (not visualized) in the image of God. Here “image” is used metaphysically and not visually. All humans are images of God in a metaphysical sense. So regardless of the differences in how they understand or view God (how they imagine Him), all people should be given the same toleration and respect as human beings created in the image of God.

Secondly, be aware that as a Bible-believing Christian, authority and power lies with God and His revealed Word, not your understanding (your image) of Him. Regularly Christians impute onto their views (images) of God the authority and power properly owed only to Him and his Word. And if there is any questioning of that personal image, they react as if the person questioned God, and not just their understanding of Him. I’d suggest such a Christian has implicitly violated the second commandment (found in Exodus 20), which forbids making an image of God. We see this more explicitly stated in the Westminster Larger Catechism, where it says the second commandment forbids the making of any kind of image of God, “either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image of likeness.”

So what does God look like to you? If you want, you can replicate an experiment Newberg has done with different groups of religious and nonreligious people—get a pencil or pen and a piece of paper and draw a picture of God. He suggested that you be spontaneous and draw whatever comes to your mind. Don’t worry about the quality of your art, but complete the drawing in two minutes. When you finish, write a brief description of its meaning below the picture.

Nearly everyone pauses for a long time—even longer than when we asked, “What does God feel like?”—which tells us there is increased activity occurring in many parts of the brain, especially in the visual, motor, association, cognitive, and emotional centers. Indeed, the question appears to be so neurologically challenging and psychological provocative that some people simply refuse to draw anything. Children, however, have no difficulty with the request, and delight in drawing their impressions of God.

06/2/17

Myth of the Medieval Science Gap

© Sergey Ishkov | 123rf.com

Carl Sagan and others described the Middle Ages as a time when scientific progress was thwarted by religion, specifically Christianity.  In his book Cosmos, Sagan has a timeline of science and technology with a gap from around 500 AD to 1500 AD. At the bottom of the timeline he commented: “The millennium gap in the middle of the diagram represents a poignant lost opportunity for the human species.” But this portrayal of the Middle Ages is as false as saying Columbus discovered American and proved the earth wasn’t flat.

In a BioLogos article, “Carl Sagan and the Myth of the Medieval Gap,” Stephen Snobelen said it was axiomatic for those who perceive a conflict between religion and science to hold to this belief. Namely, that while “science” existed in ancient Greece, during medieval times it faded away until Christianity’s influence started to subside. Snobelen said only with some significant qualifications can we say: “science existed in Ancient Greece.” And this Greek period of “science” was already in decline before Christianity came to power.

“It is true that the first half of the Middle Ages did not enjoy the intellectual vibrancy of the second half.” But this can be explained by historical contingencies such as “the impact of Barbarian invasions and political dislocations.” By the end of the medieval period, “science and technology had reached a state of sophistication and refinement that far surpassed that of the Greeks.” And yet, the term “medieval” has become a sneering way of referring to something that someone thinks is backward.

Among the technological advances of the Middle Ages are the horse collar, the rudder, eye glasses, buttons, the fork, trousers, windmills, the mechanical escapement clock, and the printing press. The invention of the Cyrillic script, which is the basis of several alphabets, also occurred during the Middle Ages. The myth also ignores the innovations to the practice and theory of science that occurred during that time. Roger Bacon (1220-1292), a Franciscan, is known as the first modern scientist. William of Ockham (1285-1347) conceived of the parsimony principle—Ockham’s Razor.

But, if we play the correlation-equals-causation game (which is a fallacy to begin with), then this argument proves more than advocates of the Medieval Gap want. For instance, there is a common assumption that Europe in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period was a cultural monolith dominated by the Church. This can hardly be said of the first half of the Middle Ages. Yet, it was only when the Catholic Church had consolidated its power in the second half of the period that there was a relative flourishing of science and technology. More spectacularly, it was precisely the period when Europe was at its most Christian—the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—that science as we now know it emerged. (I am not saying that Christianity was in any simple way responsible for the emergence of modern science, only that the correlation argument can come back to bite its proponents)

In his essay on the myth “That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science,” in Galileo Goes to Jail, Michael Shank said the idea that the Middle Ages was a “millennium of stagnation” brought on by Christianity has largely disappeared among Medieval scholars. “But it remains vigorous among popularizers of the history of science” who uncritically repeat these false assertions made of those who went before them. For example, John William Draper, asserted in 1874 (History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science) that the Church of the Middle Ages “became a stumbling block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years.” Carl Sagan, in his 1980 book Cosmos said: “For a long time the human instinct to understand was thwarted by facile religious explanations.”

Another factor in the growth of science during the Middle Ages was the spontaneous development of universities around famous teachers in towns like Paris, Oxford, and Bologna. “By 1500, about sixty universities were scattered throughout Europe.” About 30 percent of their curriculum covered subjects and texts about the natural world. Hundreds of thousands of students were exposed to science “in the Greco-Arabic tradition.”

If the medieval church had intended to discourage or suppress science, it certainly made a colossal mistake in tolerating—to say nothing of supporting—the university. . . . Dozens of universities introduced large numbers of students to Euclidean geometry, optics, the problems of generation and reproduction, the rudiments of astronomy, and arguments for the sphericity of the earth. Even students who did not complete their degrees gained an elementary familiarity with natural philosophy and the mathematical sciences and imbibed the naturalism of these disciplines.

The majority of students at these universities did not study theology. Most were not priests or monks. “They remained in the faculties of arts, where they studied only nonreligious subjects, including logic, natural philosophy, and the mathematical sciences.” The most popular advanced study was law, which promised lucrative careers in the bureaucracies of both church and state.

In another BioLogos article, “The Medieval Gap and New Atheists Today,” Stephen Snoblen said Carl Sagan isn’t the only modern author perpetuating the Myth of the Medieval Gap. He quoted the biologist Jerry Coyne who said Christianity was around for about 1,000 years without much science being done. “I maintain, though I can’t prove this, that had there been no Christianity, if after the fall of Rome atheism had pervaded the Western world, science would have developed earlier and be far more advanced than it is now.”  In a debate, physicist and philosopher Victor Stenger asserted civilization went through a period of “Dark Ages” during which science was lost. Christianity was the alleged cause. “And when Christianity finally began to be chipped away … we got it back.”

David Mills, the author of Atheist Universe, thought that if it weren’t for the religious persecution and oppression of science, humankind could have landed on the moon by 650 AD. Cancer could have been eradicated by 800 AD, and heart disease might be unknown today. He claimed the Christian Church operated torture chambers throughout Europe for 1500 years and yearly tortured “tens of thousands of people. Including children as young as two years old” to death. Snoblen noted estimates for the number of witches put to death range from 7,000 to 100,000. If the rhetoric of Mills was accepted here, then 20,000 yearly deaths (tens of thousands) over 1500 years would add up to 30,000,000 killed by torture. Richard Dawkins referred to the Atheist Universe as “an admirable work” and Carl Sagan’s son wrote the foreword.

Snoblen said that as a historian of science, he despaired when reading such nonsense. It depressed him to see the promotion of such ignorance. But he frequently encountered it among some undergraduates. He worried about the effect such vitriol had on secular attitudes towards Christians and Christianity. “This sort of rhetoric and misuse of history promotes intolerance and is simply inexcusable. It is the duty of historians to expose this for the mythology it is.”

05/23/17

Medieval Myths of Religion & Science

image credit: theflatearthsociety.org

“When Columbus lived, people thought the earth was flat.” That was supposedly what everyone believed during the Middle Ages and what the brave Columbus disproved by sailing west from Spain to get to the East Indies. As the legend goes, Columbus was one of the few who believed the earth was round. The trailer for the 1992 Ridley Scott film, 1492: Conquest of Paradise,” illustrates the common belief that in a time of “rigid faith and restless doubt”, Columbus challenged the forces of fear and ignorance. Except it seems that saying the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat, is itself mythical.

Yet this myth has been a “truth” taught to American school children for over 100 years. Emma Miller Bolenius, who wrote several schoolbooks for American children, wrote the above quote in a 1919 text. She said people in Medieval times believed the Atlantic Ocean was full of monsters and fearful waterfalls that their ships would plunge over and be destroyed. “Columbus had to fight these foolish beliefs to get men to sail with him. He felt sure the earth was round.” In reality, it was a biography of Columbus by Washington Irving, the American author of the famous short stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” who first introduced this idea to the world.

The Middle Ages was supposed to have been a time of ignorance and backwardness. People in these so-called “Dark Ages” were thought to be so ignorant (or deceived by Catholic priests) that they believed the earth was flat. To say something today is “medieval,” is to slur it as backward or ignorant. Belief in a flat earth is equated with willful ignorance, while an understanding that the earth was spherical, as with Columbus, was a sign of the beginning of modernity. This is an almost an axiomatic view that many people today take for granted.

But in her essay on the belief “That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth Was Flat,” Lesley Cormack said that early church fathers such as Augustine (d. 420), Jerome (d. 420) and Ambrose (d. 420) all agreed that the earth was a sphere. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), Roger Bacon (d. 1294) and Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) also believed in a round, spherical earth. She said: “From the seventh century to the fourteenth, every important medieval thinker concerned about the natural world stated more or less explicitly that the world was a round globe.” Many of these even incorporated Ptolemy’s astronomy and Aristotle’s physics into their work.

Cormack said that in the nineteenth century, scholars who were interested in “promoting a new scientific and rational view of the world.” They claimed that medieval churchman suppressed the belief of the ancient Greeks and Romans that the world was round. One of these individuals was the American historian and scientist John William Draper, who believed that Columbus ushered in modernity by proving the earth was round.

Cormack began her essay with a quote from Draper’s 1874 book History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. In chapter six of his book, Draper said the traditions and policy of Roman Catholic Church “forbade it to admit any other than the flat figure of the earth.” The belief in a flat earth continued until “the question of the shape of the earth was finally settled by three sailors, Columbus, De Gama, and, above all, by Ferdinand Magellan.”

In the Introduction to Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, Ronald Numbers pointed out how Draper focused much of his condemnation upon the Roman Catholic Church partly because it then composed the majority of Christendom, partly because its demands were the most pompous, and partly because it sought to enforce those demands by civil power. But there was a more personal reason that seems to have influenced Draper in his prejudicial view of the history of the Roman Catholic Church and scientific progress. Draper never mentioned it publically, and it only came to light after his death.

Drawing from a biography of Draper by Donald Fleming, John William Draper and the Religion of Science, Numbers related a conflict that arose between Draper and his sister Elizabeth, who had converted to Catholicism. For a time, she lived with the Drapers. When her eight-year-old nephew William, one of the Draper’s children, was dying, she hid one of his favorite books, a Protestant devotional, “which he cried for.” After William’s death, she laid the devotional on Draper’s breakfast plate. “He met this cool challenge by ordering her out of the house.” He never forgave her. Numbers concluded Draper blamed the Vatican “for her unChristian and dogmatic behavior.”

Another often repeated medieval myth is that the church of the Middle Ages prohibited human dissection. As Katherine Park related, the myth “That the Medieval Church Prohibited Human Dissection” had its classic statement in another nineteenth century church and science polemic by Andrew Dickinson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White said a serious stumbling block to the beginnings of modern medicine and surgery was a belief in “the unlawfulness of meddling with the bodies of the dead.” He said Augustine held anatomy in abhorrence, while it seems Augustine actually had a more nuanced opinion.

In The City of God Augustine discussed “The Blessings with Which the Creator has filled this life.” After discussing the blessing of the mind, by which the human soul becomes capable of knowledge and receiving instruction, he turned to the gift of the body. Augustine said while every part of the body had been created for utility, they also contributed something to its beauty. Reflecting then current medical knowledge, he said this would be all the more apparent if we could see beyond the surface. No one, Augustine thought, could discover that beauty and utility. “For as to what is covered up and hidden from our view, the intricate web of veins and nerves, the vital parts of all that lies under the skin, no one can discover it.”

Anatomists, who dissect bodies of the dead, and sometimes sick persons who die under their knives (surgery?) have “inhumanly pried into the secrets of the human body.” It seems Augustine objected to those who disregarded that the human body was part of the image of God in their pursuit of knowledge, treating it like the body of a beast. He questioned the wisdom of seeking to discover the utility of parts of the body like the web of veins and nerves, which he thought could never be done. He abhorred dissection when it treated the human body like that of an animal, disregarding its intimate connection to the soul in the image of God. Katherine Park suggested another possibility here: Augustine saw the fascination with dismembering corpses as an unhealthy curiosity about matters irrelevant to salvation.

In chapter nine where White discussed “The Scientific Struggle for Anatomy,” he acknowledged that there were pockets of medical science where dissection was permitted, particularly at the greater universities “which had become somewhat emancipated from ecclesiastical control.” White singled out Andreas Vesalius, often referred to as the father of modern human anatomy, as a particular hero in this war between science and religion. White said Vesalius was charged with dissecting a living man and directed by the Inquisition to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, “as the great majority of authors assert,” to atone for his sin of doing such a dissection. He was shipwrecked and died on his return.

Modern biographers dismiss this as a myth; Vesalius was not on pilgrimage due to pressures of the Inquisition. The story originated with Hubert Lambert, a diplomat under Emperor Charles V and then under the Prince of Orange. Lambert claimed in 1565 that Vesalius had performed an autopsy on an aristocrat in Spain while the heart was still beating, which led to the Inquisition’s condemning him to death. Philip II had the sentence commuted to a pilgrimage. “The story re-surfaced several times over the next few years, living on until recent times.” See the Wikipedia entry on Andraes Vesalius for more information.

Park said human dissection was not practiced with any regularity before the end of the thirteenth century “in either pagan, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim cultures.” Greek and Roman avoidance of dissection seems to be due to the belief that corpses were ritually unclean. While early Christian culture rejected the idea of corpse pollution and did not prohibit its practice in the early Middle Ages, “there is no evidence for its practice.”  The above-discussed disapproval by Augustine may have played a role, but it was also influenced by the generally undeveloped state of medical learning “after the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century.”

The myth of the medieval church prohibiting human dissection is as strong now as when it was first invented by John Dickinson White. The late U.S. Senator, Arlen Spector, referred to it as he spoke in favor of S. 2754, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2006. He cited a 1299 papal bull by Pope Boniface VII, wrongly saying it had banned the practice of cadaver dissection. “This stopped the practice for over 300 years and greatly slowed the accumulation of education regarding human anatomy.”

It seems that Mondino de’ Liuzzi didn’t get the memo, because he produced the first known anatomy textbook based on human dissection in 1316. It remained “a staple of university medical instruction through the early sixteenth century.” Dissection was confined to Italian universities and colleges for a time. But by the late fifteenth century it had spread to northern Europe, “and by the sixteenth century it was widely performed in universities and medical colleges in both Catholic and Protestant areas.”

The essays by Leslie Cormack and Katharine Park can be found in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, edited by Ronald Numbers.

05/12/17

Einstein’s God

© Georgios Kollidas | 123rf.com

Albert Einstein had one of the most original scientific minds in human history.  Curiously, one his most famous quotes was, “God does not play dice.” This had led some to glibly assert: “He believed in God.” For example, in 2015 an auction-house in California put up 27 letters written by Einstein for auction claiming they revealed the personal side of his story—“how he advised his children, how he believed in God.” The founder of the auction house said the letters were on sale from $5,000 to $40,000 each. He thought the total take could be between $500,00 and $1 million. But exactly what did Einstein believe about God?

A brief article that appeared in The Washington Times, “Albert Einstein was no atheist, said the 27 letters up for auction showed ‘he believed in God.’” Hermant Mehta noted how this was a classic example of taking something out of context. In “Did Albert Einstein Believe in God or Not?” Mehta said that if Einstein had been alive today, he would likely seek to avoid religious labels. While he would reject being called a New Atheist, he wouldn’t spend time praying or thinking about God. Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God.

Einstein’s religion, if you have to put a label to it, is a sort of nebulous Deism: Maybe God played in role in creating the universe — because nature inspires such awe and the universe seems perfectly guided by mathematics — but that God has no direct affect on our lives today.

In The Ultimate Quotable Einstein by Alice Calaprice, Einstein said he could not conceive of a personal God “who would directly influence the actions of individuals.” Rather, he believed in Spinoza’s God, “Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”  His understanding of God came from “from the deeply felt conviction of a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the knowable world.”

He said he often read the Bible, but its original text was beyond his reach. He wanted to know how God created this world. His religiosity consisted in “a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveal itself in the little that we can comprehend of the knowable world.” The deeply emotional conviction of the “presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernable concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.

It was this sense of God and religion that Einstein brought to his understanding of the relationship between religion and science. And we get a clearer picture of that understanding in these three articles written by him: “Religion and Science,” “Science and Religion,” and “Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?” All three are available here. See the link for information on where they were originally given or published.

In “Religion and Science,” originally published in 1930, Einstein described three stages to religious thought and belief. The initial, almost animistic stage was a religion of fear. “At this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend.” Securing favor from these beings was by actions and sacrifices, which led to the emergence of a priestly caste as a mediator between the people “and the being they fear.”

The second stage was one of moral religion, where social impulses crystallized another type. This was “the God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards and punishes.” This god loved and cherished the life of the tribe or the human race; or even life itself. He comforted in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he preserved the souls of the dead. Einstein commented how the Jewish scriptures illustrated the development from the religion of fear to moral religion, which continued into the New Testament.

“The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples of the Orient, are primarily moral religions.” Although the development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step, Einstein urged caution. “The truth is that all religions are a varying blend of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of social life the religion of morality predominates.” A common factor in all these types is “the anthropomorphic character of god corresponding to it.”

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order, which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

Religious geniuses of all ages are known by this kind of religious feeling. It has no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image. “There can be no church whose central teachings are based on it.” Both heretics and saints of every age were “filled with this highest kind of religious feeling.” Without dogma or a church, this “cosmic religious feeling” is communicated from one person to another by art and science. “In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.”

Seeing science and religion as irreconcilable antagonists is thus easy to see with this sense of religion and science, according to Einstein. The individual who takes the hypothesis of causality seriously, who is convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation, cannot entertain “the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events.” There is no room “for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion.”

A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.

This mysterious “cosmic religious feeling” is completely separate from science, according to Einstein. And it is within this sense of religion and science that we can understand another quote of his found in Part II of his second article, “Science and Religion”:

For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts. According to this interpretation the well-known conflicts between religion and science in the past must all be ascribed to a misapprehension of the situation, which has been described.

The conflict between science and religion stems from the religious concept of a personal God. “The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God.”

The aim of science is “to establish general rules which determine the reciprocal connection of objects and events in time and space.” These rules or “laws of nature” require general validity; they are not proven to be so. The more a person is “imbued with the ordered regularity of all events,” the firmer becomes their conviction that there is no room left for causes other than this ordered regularity. Personal or divine will does not exist as an independent cause of natural events.

To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

The god of Einstein is not the God of Scripture. That God is clearly portrayed as a personal God, which Einstein consistently and repeatedly rejected. He did acknowledge the independence of science and religion, as well as the limits of what can be known through science. But his understanding of “God” fails to affirm the crucial Creator-creature distinction inherent in Christianity. His god is part of nature; it is more pantheistic than it is theistic. It has more in common with Ludwig Feuerbach, who believed that man’s God was man, “homo homini Deus est.”

Christian theology would see Einstein as deifying nature. Romans chapter one noted that the invisible attributes of the personal Creator God are clearly seen in the things that were made. Instead of knowing and honoring God, he affirmed the existence of a superior intelligence revealed in the knowable world. This “god” could be experienced through a mysterious “cosmic religious feeling.” There is no room for divine or personal will independent of the ordered regularity of natural events. Paul would say Einstein exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:18-23).

So what about Einstein’s quote about God not playing dice? Another famous physicist, Stephen Hawking (among others) observed in “Does God Play Dice?” that Einstein was unhappy about the apparent randomness in nature, which he succinctly stated in his famous phrase of God not playing dice. Einstein thought the uncertainty in nature was only provisional. There had to be an underlying reality, where particles had well defined positions and speeds, and would adhere to deterministic laws. “This reality might be known to God, but the quantum theory of light would prevent us from seeing it.”

Hawking then noted Einstein’s view would today be called a hidden variable theory. “But these hidden variable theories are wrong.” A British physicist named John Bell devised an experimental test that would distinguish hidden variable theories. But when it was carefully carried out, the results were inconsistent with hidden variables. Hawking remarked that it seems even God is bound by the Uncertainty Principle. “So God does play dice with the universe.”