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Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity
January 11, 2012 | James K.A. Smith
Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity
When we speak about "faith and science," it is often too quickly assumed that we're only concerned about issues of "origins"--the knotty challenges at the intersection of the Christian doctrine of creation and the rise of evolutionary paradigms across the sciences. However, while those questions are important, they certainly don't represent the totality of issues and questions at the intersection of faith and science.  There are important conversations to be had about genetics, sustainability, the responsible use of technology, and much, much more. For an excellent taste of what that conversation might look like, I commend to you the thoughtful pieces that regularly appear in The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.  In particular, I would highlight an outstanding symposium they've just published on "Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity."  You'll find there respectful disagreements, and perhaps matters to disagree with.  But you'll also find a very helpful history of virtue and an introduction to the basic principles of virtue ethics as they might impact science and technology. I would especially commend to you two of the contributions to the symposium: Patrick Deneen, with his usual masterful analysis and irenic prose, critically considers the intertwining of liberalism and science as an explanation for the absence of virtue in contemporary discussions.  As they summarize: Patrick J. Deneen argues that the birth of liberalism was brought about by two transformations in our understanding of science: the move away from the contemplative study of nature to the project to harness and manipulate it for desired ends, and the new belief that human behavior is itself subject to predictable material laws. Liberalism thus arose as an effort to systematically and scientifically improve society. Along the way, modern society has replaced the virtue of Aristotle’s self-governing social animals with the new virtue of the unimpeded will to mastery. Such a world has little respect for what human beings have been given by nature. As Deneen presents it, the modern view is that we are not really stuck with virtue; actually, we are not stuck with much of anything. Rather, all limitations — including even tradition and culture — are recast as forms of repression that we can eventually overcome. Robert Kraynak then points out the borrowed capital that many atheists work with, pointing our their inconsistency. Robert P. Kraynak argues that modern philosophy and modern science cannot explain why appeals to equality and dignity ought to be taken seriously. Thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker deny that human dignity has any natural foundation while simultaneously affirming well-respected common liberal pieties about the moral demands of justice and autonomy. They are, in the words of the late philosopher Richard Rorty, “free-loading atheists”: they embrace Christianity’s view of virtue even as they vehemently reject its account of who we are as human beings. The Christian Kraynak agrees with the atheist Nietzsche that it is intellectually dishonest and even tyrannical to assert the teachings of Christian morality while dogmatically rejecting the creedal formulations on which those very teachings are based. Kraynak concludes by defending the need to take seriously the Bible’s theological claims if we are to begin to understand who we really are. The whole symposium is worth your time.  And you might want to add The New Atlantis to your reading habits.
Heaven on Earth? A Postcard from an Important Conference
January 6, 2012 | James K.A. Smith
Heaven on Earth? A Postcard from an Important Conference
[callout title=Callout Title]As Regent students have summarized it, they feel a tension between "History vs. Mystery."[/callout]My friend Hans Boersma, J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, was one of the organizers of an important recent conference there: "Heaven on Earth? The Future of Spiritual Interpretation."  Fortunately, for those of us who couldn't be there, Daniel Treier of Wheaton College has provided an excellent report from the conference for Books & Culture.   As Treier notes, the consistent theme and question of the conference was "how to navigate apparent conflict between modern biblical scholarship and classic spiritual exegesis."  How can we read with Augustine after Harnack?  Treier well summarizes the tensions felt by contemporary students of Scripture: Courses in biblical studies and (usually) hermeneutics teach how to exegete the Bible using modern tools of critical scholarship, perhaps with a measure of discernment about the presuppositions involved in the history of those tools. Meanwhile courses in theology and (perhaps) pastoral ministry or spiritual life teach what classic churchly interpreters did with the Bible and suggest (to varying degrees) that we should go and do likewise. The challenge of discernment becomes much more difficult as a result: can the students embrace a modern approach centered on historical reconstruction of the human author's intentions, simply making minor presuppositional adjustments that uphold the Bible's historical value and theological authority? Or must students fundamentally embrace a more classic understanding of spiritual exegesis centered on pursuit of the divine Author's intentions, simply making ad hoc use of modern historical tools when these seem helpful to churchly aims? Or as Regent students have summarized it, they feel a tension between "History vs. Mystery." One would hope this is a false dichotomy--since we worship the Lord of time and history who is at the center of a mysterious Gospel: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).  But we can't just assert that as a way to evade the tension.  We need to live into the tension in order to see a way through it. Treier's entire report--and the literature he points to--is worthy of close attention.  I highlight it because I think it is precisely this tension that needs to be felt and then addressed by those engaged in the theology/science conversation.  Indeed, I'm convinced that we will not make progress on questions of Adam & Eve, a historical fall, and original sin until we have worked through more fundamental issues of hermeneutics and the theological interpretation of Scripture.  To date, neither scientists nor theologians at the center of the faith/science discussions seem either interested in or concerned with this conversation.  For the sake of the church, I hope that will change.
"Society" Is Never One Thing
January 5, 2012 | Andy Saur
"Society" Is Never One Thing
Society is never one thing.  Humans are always disassembling and reassembling.  Often we sense the changes going on around us without recognizing their full implications.  A study released in August notes a disturbing trend for the church (see “No Money, No Honey, No Church:  The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class").  The study focuses on high school graduates of northern European descent who have never completed college degrees – “working class whites”—a group that makes up 60% of the population in the United States.  The study found this group’s increasing disengagement from the church – both in absolute numbers and, interestingly, relative to college-educated and wealthier populations.  The study hypothesized that “shifts in economic opportunities and in family formation over the last four decades have made many of the moral logics associated with American religious institutions both less realizable and less desirable among moderately educated whites” (p. 7).  Statistical surveys of specific data show that, unlike those of African-American and Hispanic origins, those in the United States who are least and moderately educated have fallen in church adherence from levels set in the 1970s. [callout title=Callout Title]Contrary to “secularization” theorists, the church has not lost its impact on the educated; it is those poorer and less educated, particularly whites, who have been absorbed back into the world.[/callout]The dissolution of family life and economic instability among the least and moderately educated whites have produced very negative effects on their involvement in the life of the church.  Contrary to “secularization” theorists, the church has not lost its impact on the educated; it is those poorer and less educated, particularly whites, who have been absorbed back into the world.  Without the skills of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American Christians who know that solidarity with the church can save you from the prejudices of society, less educated and marginally educated whites have proven particularly vulnerable to losing the formative impact of the church as the social center of one’s life.  A spiral ensues:  with the loss of the church comes the loss of the sexual and familial practices of the church; with the loss of sexual and familial practices of the church, those imperiled by deep economic shifts lose social contacts necessary for formations that help provide the necessary stability for human beings to prosper; with the loss of such social contacts and formation, persons become more deeply alienated from the church, which, to them, represents an ethic that inhibits the “freedom” of their sexual and familial practices. And so on. Here we find how the project of the Colossian Forum goes beyond “mere science.”  By placing the relationship between science and the church in the context of worship, the Christian virtues, and Christian practices such as hospitality, we find ourselves drawn beyond the scientific educated elite into the life of our sisters and brothers in the Church.  This will increasingly draw us into the lives of those that stand outside the life of the church, possibly even in rejection of the church due to unfair stereotypes.  In our efforts to reach the educated, we cannot forget that these persons do not represent the majority of persons even in the United States, let alone the world.  What do the practices of Christian hospitality look like within these broader networks?  How do we as the church allow ourselves to be formed in faith, hope, and love as we engage those who have rejected the formation of the church to complicate their own lives?  How do we open ourselves to allow the Holy Spirit to form us through the gift of these people?  How do such practices of formation empower good lives to be lived among those suffering increasing social and economic vulnerability? Most persons in the United States learn to live outside of control of their lives.  They work when opportunity affords itself at the wage that is set for them and deal with their bodily health as it comes.  They thus become a gift for the church which must develop the virtues necessary to live outside of control in order to live faithfully to Christ – virtues like patience, faith, hope, and love.  Only when our worship reflects the Lordship of Christ rather than the economic and ethnic stratification of the world can the visibility of the church reflect the reality of the kingdom of God into which the Father calls us through the Son by the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.   Rev. Dr. John Wright (PhD, University of Notre Dame, 1989) is Professor of Theology and Christian Scripture at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA and the senior pastor of the English-speaking congregation of the Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City, San Diego.  He is the author of Telling God’s Story:  Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation (IVP Academic, 2007) and the editor of the up-coming volume, Postliberal Theology and the Church Catholic: Conversations with George Lindbeck, David Burrell, and Stanley Hauerwas (Baker Academic), to be released on March 1, 2012.
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).