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Study the History of Science with Oxford Professor Peter Harrison
December 5, 2011 | James K.A. Smith
Study the History of Science with Oxford Professor Peter Harrison
A common myth about modern science is what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls "a subtraction story."  According to this widespread myth, scientific enlightenment was a triumph over religious belief.  The relationship between the two is construed as dichotomous: either reason or faith; either science or theology.   In short: more science, less religion. This myth has been roundly criticized as a false dichotomy (consider, for example, Alvin Plantinga's most recent book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism).  More importantly, historians of science have pointed out that this false dichotomy is simply not true to how science emerged in the West.  Far from being a detriment to scientific exploration, a number of scholars have pointed out that it was precisely Christian theological concepts--and especially those that emerged during the Protestant Reformation--that propelled empirical investigation of nature.  So science wasn't a way to lose one's faith; it was Christian faith that compelled scientific exploration.  We shouldn't simply confuse the history of science with the rise of naturalism. However, the story is complicated and complex.  And no one helps us appreciate that more than Peter Harrison, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.  A historian of science with training in philosophy and theology, Harrison has an uncanny ability to appreciate the theological nuances at stake in emergence of science in the seventeenth century--and how this was informed by theological shifts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Harrison is not content to generically speak of "religion;" he zooms in to consider the specifics of different Christian theological traditions and their impact on the emergence of what we now call "science." For example, in his masterful book, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Harrison deftly shows how it was a shift in biblical hermeneutics that gave rise to a very different way of "reading" nature that we now associate with the scientific method.  In The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge University Press, 2007), drawing on careful analysis of theological and scientific texts, Harrison argues that what motivated close empirical investigation of nature was a deep sense of how much how knowledge had been corrupted by the Fall. In both of these studies, Harrison goes beyond simple notions of a Creator to explore the specific theological doctrines that impacted the emergence of science in the West.  Indeed, his work has influenced us here at The Colossian Forum and we encourage folks to acquaint themselves with Harrison's work.  And in some ways, we see our emphasis on the specific riches of the Christian theological tradition for engaging science as an extension of his work. Which is why we're excited to share news of a unique opportunity: Teachers and scholars from Christian colleges and universities (along with select seminar professors and pastors) have a chance to spend three weeks studying with Peter Harrison next summer.  Harrison will be directing a seminar July 8-21, 2012 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.  The seminar, entitled "Religion, Modernity, and the Hermeneutics of Science," is an opportunity for professors who teach at the intersection of science & religion to "get up to speed" on the history of the early modern period, gaining a special appreciation for the hermeneutical issues involved.  Admittance is competitive, but scholars from across the continent are welcome to apply. There is no cost; and accommodations are provided, including accommodations for family members to join  you.  Check out the information for applicants and consider spending a few weeks in West Michigan next summer.  It's a fantastic opportunity to learn alongside one of the most important scholars in the field.
Disturbing Data Creates Opportunity for Christian Colleges
November 29, 2011 | Andy Saur
Disturbing Data Creates Opportunity for Christian Colleges
Anthony Grafton has an excellent recent review of recent books on higher education in the United States.  Perhaps the most significant book reviewed is Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (University of Chicago Press, 2011).  Anyone interested in what the undergraduate intellectual life looks like in today’s universities finds disturbing data. Credentials for future employment, social interaction, and fun carry more weight for students than learning; faculty find themselves complicit with the students in order to reduce teaching time for individual professional prestige.  As long as student application and retention rates are high and faculty content, administration remains happy. Such a state of affairs provides an opening for Christian colleges and universities to help students see the world as the beautiful creation of the God who has redeemed all things in Jesus Christ – if they will work with sufficient self-confidence at their own task in the intellectual vitality of the Christian tradition, rather than take their cues from the more powerful institutions of higher education in the United States.
How (Not) to Have a Conversation about Adam and Eve
November 18, 2011 | James K.A. Smith
How (Not) to Have a Conversation about Adam and Eve
Pastor Mark Driscoll has recently weighed in on a growing conversation in the church: "The Biblical Necessity of Adam and Eve."  As he notes, this has become a pressing issue as Christians grapple with scientific evidences that seem to push back against traditional understandings of human origins. I'm deeply sympathetic to Driscoll's concern that the church navigate these waters guided by the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the Christian theological tradition.  And I share his concern that even some devout evangelicals seem a little too quick to defer to "what science says," unwittingly buying into problematic paradigms and failing to see the theological implications of such deference. However, I'm equally concerned that the church consider just how to work through our differences and disagreements on these matters.  In other words, even before we start debating the specifics of biblical hermeneutics, theological implications, and relevant scientific evidences, it is crucial that Christians first consider the "rules of engagement" for such contentious conversations.  Is it possible for us to conduct this debate in a way that doesn't compromise our common witness to Christ?  Is there a way to work through our disagreements and still exhibit the virtues of Christ--compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and above all, love (Col. 3:12-14)? Driscoll's argument is not that different from concerns raised by Pastor Tim Keller.  But I still find a significant difference in their tone, and would invite Driscoll to consider formulating his concerns in a way that reflects a stance of charity.  Charity, for example, will not begin by immediately impugning the motives of our brothers and sisters who disagree with us.  Instead, love requires that we take our common confession seriously and thus consider just what Gospel-impetus might be compelling them to arrive at a different conclusion. Very concretely, that also means that Christians need to resist our temptation to frame false dichotomies.  So, without commenting in any way on Driscoll's conclusions, let me just point out a concern with how he opens the debate--by mapping a complex issue in terms of a false dichotomy.  Early in his essay, noting that some Christians who accept the authority of Scripture also seem willing to reconsider the picture of one historical couple, Driscoll quickly concludes: One can conclude only one of two things: either they don’t fully understand what Scripture says about Adam and Eve, or they prefer to base their perceptions of history and reality on science rather than on Scripture. Well, not so fast.  I'm not sure that's the "only" thing one could conclude.  And I'm also not convinced that there are only "two" options on the table.  (Just a quick perusal of Christian theology over the centuries would show quite a few more options held by orthodox Christians.)  At the very least, loving my brother requires that I relinquish the too-easy penchant to frame issues in my terms.  In this respect, following Christ--and exhibiting his humility--might require letting go of my cherished dichotomies.  That might be a way to imitate Christ's kenosis (Phil. 2:5-11).  It is not only our conclusions that should be "captive" to Christ; how we debate such issues should also reflect the "mind of Christ" (Phil. 2:1-5).
"Big Think" Makes us Think: Neuroscience and the 3rd Person
November 15, 2011 | Andy Saur
"Big Think" Makes us Think: Neuroscience and the 3rd Person
New technology often allows for the construction of new scientific conclusions – just as new scientific findings can build new technology.  In recent years, advances in imaging technologies have begun to allow us to analyze the function of the human brain – not merely from first person self-reporting, but from a third-person description of what areas of the brain “fire” during various types of human perceptions, emotions, and activities.  The field of neuroscience is exploding at many different levels.  A series of articles are underway at the site “Big Think” on “The 21st Century Brain:  A New Series at Big Think."  The latest piece explores the perplexing irreducibility of human consciousness, how one simply cannot move from third-person descriptions to first-person descriptions of human thought.  Perhaps it will be a series to keep our brains on!
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