13 November 2011

Sermon on Waiting, Proper 28

Here's today's sermon in PDF form (inspired by my recently encounter with some old Hacker Within pals, I'm back to using LaTeX for sermons--Milad Fatenejad's "radhydro" package, no less), in audio form, and pasted below (via latex2rtf).


Waiting is a perilous business. Perhaps you don’t need to be convinced of this. Perhaps you can remember, or indeed are in the midst of, just such a time of waiting—for a new job, for the healing of a loved one, for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for the strength to forgive. And as you are no doubt aware, times of waiting are ripe for many of the most painful experiences we humans must endure, including anxiety, self-doubt, and even paranoia and despair. My own reflections on waiting have been shaped by meeting regularly with incarcerated men at the Alexandria City Jail. I remember one who spoke candidly about how the dread of waiting to be caught by the authorities was as difficult as waiting to be released by them. Another gentleman spoke about the strange interior world he entered during months of twenty-two-hour-per-day solitary confinement.

Waiting is a perilous business. If you still don’t believe me, just ask the least “talented” slave in today’s parable from the Gospel According to Matthew. “Afraid”1 of a master who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter seed,2 the slave buries the money he’s been “entrusted” with3 and waits out the “long time” it takes for his master to return to “settle accounts.”4 Imagine what it would be like for him, watching his colleagues go about their bold business maneuvers and wondering if his choice to play it safe would prove to be wisdom or folly. We can’t help but feel for the guy, especially when we learn that his one measly talent actually amounts to many years’ worth of wages for a day laborer.5 That’s some kind of pressure, and it’s this kind of high stakes that bring out the worst in so many of us waiting to see how things will turn out.

We realize the stakes are high indeed when we recognize the purpose to which Matthew puts this parable.6 It’s not hard to see if we look at where he places the story. Matthew 24 and 25 are an extended reflection on “The Coming Judgment,”7 which culminates, immediately after our parable, in the separation of the sheep from the goats, of those who cared for people in need from those who ignored them.8 And so Matthew uses this parable to comment on the nature of the Christian life: waiting9—waiting for the coming of Christ, waiting for the full realization of his kingdom, and waiting for the perfect justice that his kingdom will establish.

So what do today’s readings have to teach us about the nature of our Christian waiting? What lessons might we sit with as we pass the time before our final deliverance unto and into Christ or while we wait for relief from our own personal crises and unfulfilled longings?

The most obvious lesson, I think, is to cast off fear! The one-talent slave is quite self-aware that it was fear that stifled his creativity and stayed his hand. It paralyzed him, and it led him to misjudge his master’s wishes. It can do the same to us, if we let it. However natural and tempting it may be to act out of fear while we wait, we can hardly expect our best efforts to come from such a place of anxiety. And, on the contrary, when we learn to hold our fears in their proper perspective and ultimately give them up to God, remarkable things can happen.

Think about the demographic of middle-class, American young adults who are coming to be known as the “Boomerang Generation.” They’re so named because the challenges of a stagnant job market are forcing them to move back in to their childhood homes after college or unsuccessful employment. At first, the prospect of moving home seems the ultimate humiliation and defeat, and many would sooner suffer malnutrition or rack up debilitating credit card debt in an attempt to avoid it. The experience of fear in the midst of disappointing fortunes can be very strong, and anxious questions begin to set in: “Was all that studying even worth it? ” “Will I ever be able to support a family? ” and, maybe most importantly, “Will I be stuck in my parents’ basement for the rest of my life? ” But many who conquer their fears and make the move home discover something they didn’t expect. The momentary respite from endless worry about cover letters and grocery bills, and the chance to be re-immersed in unconditional love, creates a space for them to think creatively and optimistically for the first time in months or even years. They get back in touch with the hope that will motivate them to re-launch their journey and the personal strengths that will help bring those hopes to fruition. Waiting is a perilous business, but it’s harder than it needs to be when we face it from alone in the solitary confinement of our own anxious minds.

It’s better to become, as Paul says to us today, “children of light”10 and to remember that our Savior and our loved ones are our greatest weapons against the fear of waiting for whatever end. He writes, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ …Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”11 That’s good advice from an apostle who we sometimes forget was a spiritual master.

OK, so we need to cast off fear: easier said than done, but manageable with God’s help. Another way these passages might speak to our reflections can be summarized in three words. Those three words comprise instructions that I would probably need to hear from my own parents in the days following a boomerang journey home: “Kyle,” they’d say, “Do something useful.” This advice echoes the words of the master in the parable, who says, “You could have at least invested the money with the bankers! All you did was bury it and then twiddle your thumbs! ”12 However excruciating our times of waiting can seem, they are still limited, and this prods us on to action. So Christian waiting is about using the talents we’ve been given in the time we’ve been given. The inclusion of Psalm 90 in our service today is a reminder that that time is short. How can we afford to wait idly when we will soon return “back to the dust,”13 when we will “fade away suddenly like the grass” that withers,14 when God will “sweep us away like a dream”? Listen to that last one again: “You sweep us away like a dream.” What a lovely and terrifying expression. After hearing that, I think we’re quite right to pray with the psalmist that God might “teach us to number our days * that we may apply our hearts to wisdom”15—and indeed to other tasks as well.

Here, too, there are lessons from the Boomerang Generation and from many others suffering from joblessness. I’ve been humbled and inspired by many unemployed friends, both of my age and much older, who have combated the boredom and hopelessness of their waiting by staying active, especially by stepping up their charitable volunteer work. In this way, they witness to the fact that our part in God’s mission in the world is not just to put food on our own plates or even just our families’ but those of every man, woman, and child on God’s green Earth. So however we read today’s texts on waiting, we should remember that they are not just therapeutic but also missional. They offer us comfort and advice but also demand from us the response of action. Waiting is a perilous business, especially if we think that waiting is the only task put before us.

But even action is not the most important aspect of our waiting. No, our highest calling is to wait expectantly and open-endedly, two things that are sometimes hard to do at the same time. Here the lectionary does us a great disservice in omitting the final two verses of today’s psalm, which speak to this very point. The psalmist writes, “Show your servants your works * and your splendor to their children. / May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; * prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.”16 So first we recognize God’s works, and then the “work of our [own] hands” can be blessed. First we take account of the promises of God and the hope we have in Christ Jesus. Only then should we survey the landscape before us, because only then can we see it with the eyes we need.17

In other words, part of why waiting is so hard is that we get too rigid an idea of what we are waiting for. Our gazes are so fixed on a certain picture of how things should turn out that we miss the way unfolding before us if it doesn’t conform to our parameters. This is certainly true in our own personal circumstances. But I believe it is also true for groups of people who wait, like cultures waiting for boom times to return. It’s perhaps especially true for the Church’s collective waiting for the full fruition of God’s kingdom on Earth. God stubbornly refuses to give us what we expect. Stubbornly, and mercifully. Because I would guess that most of us can point to that time in our lives where things turned out better than we could have hoped precisely because they turned out differently from what we knew to expect. I know what that moment was for me, but no example I can give you will have the power of your own memory of God’s surprisingly generous and creative shaping of your life. I invite you this week to identify and reflect on such a memory and to hold it gently as an almost sacramental token of God’s faithfulness. You’ll need it the next time the waiting gets tough, as it surely will. Waiting is a perilous business, but it’s the business we’re in.


Keck, L. E. (Ed.) (1995, June). The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew - Mark. Abingdon Press.

Keck, L. E. (Ed.) (1996, January). The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke - John. Abingdon Press.

Moltmann, J. (2010, May). Theology of Hope. SCM Press.

1Matthew 25:25




5Keck (1995), 451

6Luke’s telling of this parable, which portrays the master in an even harsher light, makes our sympathy for the slave explicit; his version includes bystanders who shout “Sir, he already has ten! ” when the master gives away the fearful slave’s dutifully protected sum in Luke 19:25 (NIV). But Luke is using this parable to contrast the free and easy ways of a rich and unjust ruler with the constricting plight of the poor and needy. Keck (1996), 334-335

7Keck (1995), 438

8Matthew 25:40, 45

9Keck (1995), 453

101 Thessalonians 5:5

111 Thessalonians 5:1–11

12It might also remind us of the warning we heard from Zephaniah about the dangers of “rest[ing] complacently on [our] dregs” (Zephaniah 1:12).

13Psalm 90:3



16Psalm 90:16-17

17See also Juergen Moltmann’s opening meditation in Theology of Hope: Moltmann (2010).

09 November 2011

Presentation: “Faith Seeking Understanding”

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

An invitation to those in the Washington DC area: Kyle will be giving a short presentation on faith and reason at St. Mary's Court on 24th St. NW tomorrow (Thursday, Nov. 10) at 7 p.m. Please contact him if you are interested in attending. See below for more information!

Faith Seeking Understanding: Three Christian thinkers reconcile reason and religion

Much has been made in recent years about the so-called conflict between science and religion. But the issues involved in this conversation are neither new nor hopeless, and countless religious thinkers throughout the centuries have held a lively faith engaged with the best in contemporary knowledge and scholarship. Find out about three of them in this presentation with discussion.

Kyle Matthew Oliver is a senior at Virginia Theological Seminary and holds a B.S. and an M.S. from the department of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently writing on providence and science in thesis work with VTS's dean, the Very Rev. Ian Markham, and he is the creator of Into A Wider World, a free online course introducing the science-and-religion conversation.

06 October 2011

Motorz Skills

The line in my bio about doing some freelance writing and editing "when circumstances allow" is not completely outdated. I wrote, during some time off in August, this article about Chris Duke and his Motorz.TV operation, and it's in the print version of EventDV going out to subscribers now. I had a blast working on this story. Duke is a fascinating and really talented guy. I could generally care less about cars, but even I like his show.

02 October 2011

Last week's sermon

I keep forgetting to post last week's sermon. The main text is Ezekiel 18. All in all, the experience of preaching for the first time at St. Paul's, K Street, was a good one.

Like so many readings from scripture, our lesson from the Book of Ezekiel this morning can be summed up like this: the people are grumbling, and God has had just about enough of it. Now, to be fair, Ezekiel's contemporaries did have plenty to complain about. They lived in a time of “never-ending crisis,”1 resulting in year after year of “generalized anxiety”2 about the events taking place in the world around them and about what this news meant for their personal and national security. Perhaps this is a familiar feeling to us as we struggle to make sense of an increasingly volatile world. In any event, the people's exhausted complaint, as described by Ezekiel and also his fellow prophet Jeremiah (13:29), was that their ancestors had gotten them into this mess. “The parents have eaten sour grapes,” went the proverb, “and the children's teeth are set on edge” (2). “It's not fair that we've been taken into exile in Babylon,” they seem to say. “And it's unconscionable that God would abandon the temple city of Jerusalem. This can't be because of something we did. We must be getting stuck with someone else's punishment.”

And so the the word of the LORD that comes to Ezekiel contains a series of responses to the people's pessimism, responses that have some bearing, I think, on our own occasional feelings of self-righteous despair during trying times. What we first hear from Ezekiel is a reality check about the relationship between God's power and divine justice: “Know that all lives are mine,” says the LORD. “The life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die” (4). In other words, we hear God say through Ezekiel, “Let's be perfectly clear. I am Lord and Sovereign over all creation and each generation of my children. If my beef was only with your parents, or only with one particular person or group, then I'd have taken it up only with them. Don't be so quick to assume that you yourselves are without blemish.”3

But notice that, in this particular discourse, the prophet leaves aside the question of how exactly the people's current problems are a part of God's judgment. In the verses that the lectionary omits from this reading, Ezekiel speaks in only general terms about righteous living and personal responsibility. He says that a person who is “righteous and does what is lawful and right … shall surely live” (5, 9) and that an unrighteous person “shall not” (13). He gives some examples of righteous and unrighteous behavior, but he doesn't directly connect them here to what the people of Israel have done. For Ezekiel, all the people need to do going forward is take note of God's ways. The rest is fruitless speculation and fingerpointing. “Don't dwell on how we came to be in this situation,” he says. “Rather, turn from your ways in the present and live.” It's not the last time he will say it.

In the next part of this prophetic discourse, God makes a second point through Ezekiel. “[Y]ou say, 'The way of the Lord is unfair.' Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” In this second section, it's as if God is saying, “But as long as you brought up the subject of fairness and justice, let me say that you have fallen terribly short, O my people.”

As I said, Ezekiel does not get specific in this passage about how Israel has failed, though we can of course piece together the story based on his principles of justice and the transgressions he names in other chapters. But one of Ezekiel's general admonitions seems particularly poignant in our situation today. In verses 12 and 16, he recites that God's people are not to “oppress[] the poor and needy” but instead are to “give[] [their] food to the hungry and provide[] clothing for the naked” (12, 16 [NIV]). Over the past several months, we've watched with a sense of déjà vu the horrifying consequences of drought and famine in Somalia and throughout the Horn of Africa. On the ground in Somalia, unchallenged militants are engaged in just the kind of oppression Ezekiel names, blocking desperately needed aid from international agencies within the territory they control. Domestic medical officials say the lack of assistance has made things worse than in 1992, when 240,000 people died, with another 110,000 saved by the American-led intervention.4 Meanwhile, on the ground in America today, a weary and cash-strapped nation is reluctant to intervene again. After almost ten years of war, it's not hard to understand why. But this time the death toll could be even worse, the UN warns perhaps as many as 750,000 Somalis. “Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” How can the global community live into and up to the commandments Ezekiel confronts us with, not just the imperative to feed the hungry but all the demands of God justice? How can we face such immense problems? Such intractable problems. Such heartbreaking problems. God only knows.

Actually, I think “God only knows” is precisely the mantra we might take away from Ezekiel's advice for living a resurrection life. Let's review: Ezekiel first assured the people of God's sovereignty and justice. He then called them out on the basis of their own individual unrighteousness. Finally, in today's last verses, he extends to them God's word of hope: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live” (31-32). The hopelessness that set in for the Israelites in captivity in Babylon and that threatens each one of us in difficult times, this hopelessness ought to be a sign for us. Sometimes God's commandments are too difficult, and the world's problems so painful that we change the channel whenever they are talked about—if they are talked about at all. It is in those moments that we most need the word that Ezekiel uses 53 times in 48 chapters: (in Hebrew) שׁוּב, turn. From the depths of despair comes a voice that calls us to turn ourselves in the direction of God. To align our wills to the Lord's own. To wade deep in the waters of God's justice and get caught up in the current. To “look not to [our] own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).

Now, it has been widely observed throughout the course of Christian history that turning is no simple thing to do. Sometimes it seems impossible, this taking on of God's will and mission as our own, this getting ourselves “a new heart and a new spirit.” Yet I think if it's true what God says elsewhere, that this life is “not too hard for [us], nor is it too far away” (Deuteronomy 30:11), then it must be that this ability comes to us as St. Paul described in today's Epistle: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” he says. “[F]or it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13). I believe Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill summarized this idea more succinctly still in a line puzzlingly inserted into one of her journals. It's a line that carries with it the benefit of two thousand years of Christian argument over exactly what Paul meant, and it never ceases to help me when some ancient or modern-day prophet is calling me to something I feel powerless to undertake. Here's the expression: “Not grace alone, nor us alone, but [God's] grace in us.”

We encounter despair in this life when there seems to be no good options available to us, when we seem, like the exiles in Babylon, to have “nowhere to turn to.” But Ezekiel reminds us today that little if any good comes from desperate searches for how we got ourselves into a particular mess or especially how our ways can get us out of it. More importantly, he reminds us, as St. Paul does, that we always have someone to turn to, someone who is already mysteriously at work inside us and will lead us where we could never have imagined, someone whose ways are not our ways. Thanks be to God.

1Von Rad, Gerhard, The Message of the Prophets (San Francisco: Harper, 1968): 229.

2The Rev. Dr. Roger Ferlo used this term to describe our post-September 11 world in a sermon at Virginia Theological Seminary on Holy Cross Day, 2011 (Sept. 14).

3To be fair, Ezekiel's view here makes him a somewhat unusual biblical prophet, especially when compared with earlier prophets. See Von Rad, 229-232.

4See “Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape From Famine,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/world/africa/02somalia.html

30 August 2011

An "experiment on ourselves": The German energy picture

So Germany has decided to make permanent its decision, post-Fukushima, to shut down its eight oldest nuclear reactors. Today's New York Times has a story analyzing Germany's energy situation, and the sense one comes away with is partially captured by a quotation from Jürgen Grossmann, who runs the utility that owns two of the deactivated plants: "Germany, in a very rash decision, decided to experiment on ourselves,” he said. “The politics are overruling the technical arguments.”

Actually, I think that's a bit overstated, which is no surprise given the weight of the decision on Grossmann's company. Certainly, the decision seems to have something of an emotional ring to it. But I think it's tough to argue anything other than that the Fukushima accident merely accelerated (albeit for partly non-technical reasons) the timeline of a project Germany had already more-or-less decided to pursue. My guess is that this "experiment" was going to happen either way.

What is that experiment? In short, it's to set aside nuclear energy and continue aggressive expansion in renewables to make up most of the difference. (But do note that the energy gap they're creating is dynamic and requires diversified assets to fill it: "To be prudent, the plan calls for the creation of 23 gigawatts of gas- and coal-powered plants by 2020. Why? Because renewable plants don’t produce nearly to capacity if the air is calm or the sky is cloudy, and there is currently limited capacity to store or transport electricity, energy experts say.")

Now I'm obviously partisan about whether eliminating nuclear is a necessary or even advisable part of plans to make our energy use and production more environmentally responsible. I (still) happen to think that, by and large, we're going to need more nuclear plants, not fewer, if we're going to keep this planet habitable and continue to improve our ability to feed, clothe, and shelter a growing population. The trick, it seems to me, will be keeping affluent people content enough with their shrinking (but still ample) lot that they won't react by simply blocking efforts at reform. That tenuous situation is part of why I believe in nuclear power: it's cheap (like gas and especially coal), but it still allows us to actually deal with the waste stream rather than pumping it into the atmosphere (unlike with gas and coal). The cheapness keeps us energy-addicted types plugged in, while our secure possession of the waste prevents carbon emissions and gives the planet (and the people living in the most vulnerable places) a fighting chance in the globally warmed years to come.

So what caught my eye in this article is Germany's willingness to go "all in" on what is, by almost all accounts, a technically ambitious plan, in order to bring desired change about. It's a plan that is rife with uncertainty. There seems in Germany then a mandate for making a certain amount of sacrifice, or at least potentially doing so, in order to make ends meet while using (even) cleaner energy. I very much doubt there will be any tenable long-term solutions that don't require still more significant sacrifice (or what will at least feel like sacrifice for a while).

Thus, whatever I think of this plan as an erstwhile systems analyst and as a nuclear power proponent, I'm encouraged as a wannabe Christian ethicist by another super-rich country's willingness to take on a little collective uncertainty for the sake of bringing about a desired change. I think much of our fate as a planet will ride on the willingness of the first to be last (Matthew 20:16) in just this way. I hope my own country will find ways of taking analogous moral leadership in the face of the crisis ahead.

23 August 2011

Publication in The Living Church

I recently won second place in a student essay contest sponsored by The Living Church. I've heard from some friends who get the print mag that it is now available, so I feel comfortable posting the excerpt from the digital copy I got from the publisher. The essay is called "The Wisdom of (Small) Groups: OT Visions for Decentralized Life and Ministry," and I originally wrote it for Dick Busch's VTS course on small group ministry. Many thanks in particular to Dr. Cook for pointing me in some useful directions.

Click here to read. Enjoy!

[Cross-posted at IntoAllTheWWWorld.org]

As I mentioned briefly when I live blogged the Francis Collins presentation at the Christian Scholars Conference, some evangelicals do not accept the scientific conclusion that the human race descended from a pool of not less than about 10,000 distance ancestors rather than from one historical couple, Adam and Eve. NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports that this scientific and theological argument has come to a head in some evangelical circles. Hagerty writes,

But now some conservative scholars are saying publicly that they can no longer believe the Genesis account. Asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, replies: “That would be against all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all.”

It’s distressing to me that Hagerty would use the phrase “no longer believe the Genesis account” without further qualifier. I believe the Genesis account, I just don’t think it literally describes our genealogy. But, as is clear from the remainder of the article, such are the (I believe, sad) terms of this debate.

In any event, it’s a good article, and an important one. Perhaps most intriguing is the section exploring whether or not this is “a Galileo moment” for Evangelical Protestantism.

Hat tip to The Lead at Episcopal Cafe for bringing this article to our attention.

17 June 2011

Percy Paper and Slides for Christian Scholars' Conference Presentation

For the benefit of people in the audience and for simple access for anyone else who's interested, I'm posting my paper and slides for tomorrow's talk. I hope you find these helpful and/or interesting.

"No end to the mystery": Scientist-as-prince, scientist-as-scientist, and what one has to do with the other in Lost in the Cosmos

Paper (PDF)
Slides (PDF, PPT)

Live Blogging Ted Peters Address at Christian Scholars’ Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

The final plenary session speaker at the Christian Scholars’ Conference is Ted Peters. Peters is a systematic theology professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s task force on genetics, and author of Sacred Cells?: Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research.


Francis Collins is asking a question: In vitro fertilization is OK by more traditions, and we’ve got lots of in vitro embryos sitting around. What do you think about us using them, even if you’re a staunch embryo protection person but want to use the embryos we already have, since they’re already been created? For that matter, and on the other hand, how are embryo protection people being consistent when they say in vitro fertilization is OK?

Peters: Some Catholics do in fact say we should oppose use of in vitro embryos because, in so doing, you participate in the original sin (of creating the embyos artificially?). “I want to say ‘Get a life!’” (?!) He then went on to say that, yes, Francis, that’s a great idea, potentially very ethically helpful, and I think that’s what’s already happening in some places.


Takeaways from Peters:

  1. Respect competing commitments as conscientious (this is a critique of the Vatican calling stem cell researchers “baby killers”)
  2. Understand with empathy the coherent logic of each framework.
  3. Be guided by “faith active in love.” (Gal 5:6)
  4. Take a stand with courage, but without malice toward opponents.


Singapore has a helpful policy: only use young embryos (<14 days), use surplus embryos when possible, or get special permission on a case by case basis. Apparently no one has gone for the last option. He’s making the point that the religious discussion has affected the secular policy.


He’s giving the theological foundations of this framework of beneficence by talking about eschatology and Jesus as healer. Quick survey of stem cell research beliefs in other traditions (he’s flying now–apparently he’s almost out of time): Jews and Muslims are for stem cell research, by and large. How about Christians? He’s going really fast, and his slides only give the groups not their positions. RCs against, Orthodox against, Anglicans and Episcopalians generally for (“to the extent that I can get them [to give me a position]“), … OK, I give up, he’s just going too fast. Presumably he’s written this down somewhere.


A third framework (I’m not sure I’m exactly tracking with his outline): nonmaleficence and beneficence. He’s explaining these with respect to the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite did no harm (nonmaleficence), but the Samaritan did good (beneficence).


I’m continuing to be unimpressed with Peters’ explanations of stem cell science. I’m not following his discussion of chimeras. He gave an example about DNA testing from sperm samples. Totally didn’t follow.


Peters’ point: this anti-Brave New World argument looks like the Vatican argument, but it’s not, it’s a secular philosophical argument.


Leon Kass from U. of Chicago (“That means you know he’s smart”) says we’ve got a slippery slope here, from “Yuck!” to “Oh?” to “Gee Whiz” to “Why not?” This is the anti-playing-God framework, but it came not out of a Christian context but, I guess, a sort of pagan context (appeals to Prometheus, etc.). Brave New World dehumanizes us, Kass says. “What does human mean for Kass? What it really means is family life. Families should have mommies and daddies and children … [and] death is a part of life.”


Those scientists are causing us to “fall into sin,” according to a Der Spiegel article after Dolly. Note the theological language in a secular context.


OK, back to Dr. Polkinghorne’s heart attack: “Suppose we take on of his skin cells … and activate that … and produce a stem cell line with his genome.” Can we do DNA nuclear reprogramming? Scientific researchers generally appreciate the possibility (they find it “appealing”) of making stem cells without destroying an embryo. Apparently it turns out you could form a baby from these cells, which Peters hopes the Vatican doesn’t realize and reverse their position that adult stem cell research is morally permissible.


Another thought is the 14-day position: When you get to the adherence of the uterine wall, that’s when for the first time you’ve got individuation. This happens at roughly 14 days in. This looks like a good candidate for a moral threshold if you’re willing to take your clues from nature. Conservative Catholics who oppose abortion but support stem cell research hold this view.


He’s now taking a shot at John Breck, an Orthodox theologian who makes a claim that the Orthodox Church has “always taught that human life begins at conception.”


The Vatican has done the most thorough job of thinking through the issues of embryo protection, he says. He’s going to walk us through JP2 and Benedict’s thinking: Egg from mother gets penetrated by father’s sperm, creating a unique genome not shared with anyone else. God then imparts a brand-new soul to this fertilized egg, they say. The genome is “crying out for the addition of a spiritual soul”–this was JP2′s theological anthropology. The soul is what gives us dignity, the imago dei, etc. And you cannot violate the dignity of this ensouled person. But notice that this theology was formulated before the abortion controversy, with nothing to do stem cell research. It was applied to the stem cell controversy, but note the differences, including that we’re not talking about a mother’s body in stem cells.


Peters thinks non-compatible shots were being shot across the related parties at each other. He’s giving three bioethical frameworks produced by the ethics board:

  1. Embryo protection
  2. Nature protection
  3. Medical benefits
  4. Professional standards


Peters wants us to pause and ask if Newsweek got the issue right: stem cells research vs. (pro-life people?–he switched the slide).


The ethics committee at Geron had been in place two years before human embryonic stem cells were isolated. Peters was on it. “You may not like what we do, but you can’t deny that we were there.”


He’s showing a Michael West slide now explaining why West is interested in human cloning: “From deep within my soul, I erupted in an explosion of anger; ‘This won’t happen!’ I shouted out loud at the thought of death. This was the most profound experience of my life. I realized it was simply not in my nature to accept death or be defeated by it.”

“Most scientists don’t talk that way,” Peters notes. But he’s “part of mix” when it comes to stem cell cloning.


Scientifically, he’s pointing out, the Dolly controversy was misunderstood. Willmot (sp?) didn’t want to create duplicate animals. Seriously, he’s going really fast, I think not taking the time to explain the science as carefully as the other speakers have (though maybe I’m just experiencing it this way because this is the area I know the least about).


Oh dear: Peters is proposing a thought experiment where Professor Polkinghorne has a heart attack. Could he be treated by foreign stem cells? Of course not.


Scientific preliminaries: We get human embryonic stem cells from a fertilized egg in a petri dish providing totipotent cells with a full complement of the genome. You could make a baby or any kind of tissue out of these cells. Days later we have the blastocyst surrounding … he’s going too fast: here’s a similar diagram from Wikimedia Commons.


These science are promising, he notes, the possibility of a new picture of human well-being and flourishing.


Peters points out that the goal of stem cell research is regenerative medicine, which will apply to a long list of problems plaguing the human body (spinal cord injury, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc.).


He’s now showing cartoons showing two disparate viewpoints: one with science running off with the ethicists following from far behind, and the other espousing the opposite view (scientist: “I’m having a hard time getting any work done with all these ethicists hanging around”).


Peters is summarizing Knud Løgstrup and Emmanuel Levinas, both students of Heidegger. I’m getting started slow, so I missed his exact point, but he wants us to keep in mind the difficulty in supposing that science can be an interpretation-less enterprise. I’ll try to keep up better as we go along.


Peters is giving a history of the founding of UC-Berkeley, which was apparently originally named (the town named for the school that would be founded there?) for Bishop Berkeley (another Anglican) who said that science and religion would be harmonious in this great new land (ouch, not yet, huh?).

Live Blogging Simran Sethi Address at Christian Scholars’ Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

This morning’s plenary speaker at the Christian Scholars Conference is Simran Sethi, a prominent environmental journalist who got her start at MTV News. I know much less about Sethi than the other speakers here, practically nothing in fact. But she’s got an impressive CV and should be an engaging speaker. The topic of her presentation is “Our Daily Bread: Food, Faith, and Conservation.”


We’re now discussing taking up a collection for the people of Joplin, especially students and faculty at Ozark Christian College.


She’s giving the genuinely touching personal wrap-up now, admitting that this has been a challenging presentation for her. She’s quoting biblical sources and yesterday’s “Augustine” quote from Collins about unity, charity, etc. (someone told me yesterday that it can’t be traced to Augustine). The plea is for us to look at the issues of climate change and creation care, to think critically about our food system, and to ask ourselves if this is the best answer. Cool McKibben quote to the effect of “There is no silver bullet, only silver buck shot.” When I was getting a “precautionary principle” link, I missed a cool thing about Kant and examining the intentions of Monsanto, etc., which was I think the boldest part of the presentation.


“Hungry people in the developing nations have no right to choose,” is our logic, she’s pointing out. They should, I’m extrapolating here, be desperate enough to eat whatever we have to offer, even if it’s dangerous. And it is, very likely: she’s now citing a first-of-kind study about “[m]aternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods” in Quebec. These toxins are in the animals, in the meat, and int he blood of humans, including “humans who aren’t even here yet.” So back to the precautionary principle (this is a technical term you may not be aware of if you haven’t followed the technology, science, and policy wars, see here).


Grant says solution to hunger problems are to double or triple yields. Pollan asks “yields of what?” Sethi thinks the best way to tackle these problems is to let farmers save their seeds. (I missed connection between these two ideas, sorry.)


What’s are the implications of GMOs and “terminator seeds” (GURTs) which don’t reproduce (Farmers will have to buy them every year)? Monsanto is talking up the ownership themes, which Sethi finds theologically problematic. Huh, the environmental discourse around this is known as “seed sovereignty.” Love it. Also, Monsanto’s CEO’s name is Hugh Grant.


The point of contact between man and nature is spiritual. She’s riffing on Matthew 31-33 metaphors. “Christ doesn’t say ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a chariot race’ … The kingdom of heaven is like a grape vine.” Food patents work directly against this spirit.


Public policy should follow the precautionary principle, she and other advocates maintain. But this hasn’t gone well. Monsanto has grown in proportion to GMO adoption. They control the seeds. It’s not germane to her argument that Monsanto created Agent Orange, she notes. She doesn’t want to give the impression that multi-national corporations are bad. That’s why she has a grad degree in business. She would want to celebrate Monsanto if they were doing good things, because “Man, they’re big. When they do something, the world changes.” But that’s not the case. They present themselves as feeding the world, but most of the crops they create are commodity crops generating bioplastics and biofuels. But “whoever controls the seed controls the food system.”


Up to 70% of packaged goods in the U.S. contain GMOs, mostly in corn and soy, which are a huge part of our diet, Pollan points out. Hehe, the only person in the room who raised his hand when she asked if this was surprising “is also wearing a DNA tie.”


GMed cotton sounded like it would be a good idea, since 25% of insecticides were being used on cotton. But, constant exposure to the toxin in this cotton has created an evolutionary pressure for insects to adapt resistance. “The engineered crop is no longer resistant to the pest it was designed to kill.”


GMOs and non-GMOs can cross-pollinate (“that’s what nature does; it tries to be fruitful”). But this drift (out-crossing) actually turns out to be detrimental. This doesn’t just contaminate local organic farms. It has also led to Monsanto, et al., to sue small farmers whose crops have been so contaminated. There’s a patenting of life forms going on.


She’s talking about Pluots, plumb-apricots that she would call “part of God’s plan” that any horticulturalist could do. Using recombinant DNA technology is of a different quality, and this couldn’t happen naturally. She describes this strategy of “man’s plan.”


“To understand the world as God’s creation is to understand … our accountability to God as tenants.” We can’t destroy what has been so richly provided to us. Our works should be “in harmony with the laws that produced them.”


She’s now moving onto GMOs (genetically modified organisms). She’s prefacing it with an admission that she longs for a silver bullet even though there isn’t one. But she’s saying that GMOs are, at the very least, not that silver bullet. Investors and many others have come to that conclusion, but she humbly disagrees, citing (in part) conflict of interest among the big seed makers. Do these practices honor life and stewardship, she asks? Simple asnwer: these GMOs feed people. But her point is that it’s not that simple.


The highest rates of obesity correlate quite compellingly with the highest rates of food insecurity. Telling a compelling story about the urban food desert in Sugar Hill, Harlem.


Insecticide endosulfan is a chemical cousin of DDT and was only recently banned. It’s an endocrine disruptor with risk of accumulation. 1.4 million pounds were used in the U.S. EPA is missing the point in saying small amounts are OK: what about the people handling it? What about people drinking nearby water? Why all the fuss, including the push to exempt Global South farmers who couldn’t afford substitutes? It was a multi-million-dollar industry, of course (I missed the exact number).


Agricultural chemicals can cross the placental barrier, studies say, so farm workers and city dwellers alike are doing great harm to, at the very least, their children.


“Monocultures deplete the soil of important nutrients: diversity creates harmony.” She’s very theological/philosophical, notice. Lovely speech and lovely visuals. Just as we could tell yesterday that Collins is a scientist (and now bureaucrat), we can definitely tell Sethi is a journalist.


Hehe, quoting “Good Crop, Bad Crop.” Its analysis of Green Revolution: farms had to adapt to seed variety rather than the other way around.


“Our food is oily,” both in terms of food shipping and petro-chemicals, as she noted before. Plus we’re “growing” plastics and fuel (ethanol, etc.). Many farmers feel like they can’t afford to grown anything but corn. Price volatility makes us incredibly vulnerable (and more so people who depend on us) with our one-crop economy. Historical and contemporary parallels: Irish potato famine, “rice crisis” in Southeast Asia. We’re pushing out crops that came about by “the methods of diversity” for a “one-size fits all” solution controlled by seed companies, etc., who want to maximize yield, not nutritional value (for the most part).


Food inflation hurts the least among us, she’s noting “the worst form of taxation on the poorest of the poor” (she’s quoting someone).


Food First Institute realized years ago that world farmers were producing four pounds of food per person per day. The fact that we won’t have enough of it is a much more recent occurrence. She’s noting that her home country of India has great poverty along with the most Forbes-list billionaires of any country in the world (think I have that right).


It’s going to be a luxury to have food at all “and as people of any faith … we should find this unacceptable.” Anglican Bishop Jeff Davies argues that overpopulation and overconsumption are our two greatest sources of environmental harm. [Lots of Anglicans are popping up at this conference, this one is happy to note.]


Talking about European e coli. Pointing out the petro-chemical inputs and transportation costs of our food practices and whether our answers about the global food market are misleading and detrimental. Food prices could double in next ten years, analysts say.


She just read a lovely excerpt from David Mas Masumoto about peaches and the coming of summer. Modern farming puts us out of touch with this spirit, and it’s causing us to be filled with a spiritual longing.


Sethi has an M.B.A but nevertheless has strong critiques for Big Agribusiness. Farm subsidies mostly help diversify these large corporations.


“How many of you come from agricultural states?” We have a luxury in that we can know a bit more about where our food comes from. Although we’ve lost 300,000 small farms in this country (?!).


“Eating is an agricultural act,” says Wendell Berry. “I just started growing my own food this year,” and it’s a humbling experience.


“Everyday meals carry with them sacramental power.” We know that food is a part of spirituality, a reflection of “what we hold sacred.” “We know that God dwells in the host, but can we bring [Christ] into the Big Mac?”


Need a food ethic that believes that the earth itself is sacred (“or very good”).


She’s having trouble with the slides “I’m ‘Girls Gone Wild’ with the clicker here.” [Laughs.]


She’s not a Christian but a believer (Hindu): “The food and the eater of the food are both forms of divinity.” Talking about Prince Siddhartha’s food experiences and discovery of the middle path between self-mortification and (missed the other exact term).


“We all eat,” she says. And “our food system is in great disrepair.” And–this is intriguing–she thinks faith-based efforts will be what helps bring about a solution to the food system problem.


Sethi says she’s a “an unlikely fit,” neither Christian nor scholar, used to seeing a lot more hippies in the audience.


The Provost of ACU (I think) is giving the introduction: Sethi is a “Top Ten Eco-Hero of the Planet” according to The Independent. She blogs on environmental matters, including on her efforts to “green her own home.” Sethi is “impatient” in her advocacy, saying we need to get way past new light bulbs and reusable bags.

16 June 2011

Live Blogging Francis Collins Address at Christian Scholars' Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

I really dug the live blogging thing this morning and am going to keep it going for this afternoon’s Francis Collins address. You probably know that Francis Collins was the director of the Human Genome Project and is now the director of NIH. He is also an Evangelical Christian and the founder of the BioLogos Foundation, about which there have been several sessions today here at the Christian Scholars Conference. Same two notes as with the Polkinhorne lecture: (1) Read from the bottom, obviously. (2) Forgive my EDT time stamp; the talk began at 4 p.m. PDT.


Just got a much more interesting question about continuing human evolution, and whether we should be a part of it. He gave a cool answer about recent human mutations (why pre-historical white people didn’t get rickets). As for whether we should be a part of it (genetic engineering), he had both scientific (what if we screw up the germ line?) and theological (playing God, etc.) answers.


Wow, someone just got up and asked a really hostile question about macro-evolution. Collins is giving a kind, careful answer about why we ought to expect the gaps in the fossil record. Now he’s moving on to the point about the genomics evidence, which the questioner obviously either doesn’t get or is choosing to ignore. This is a very classy answer, classier than my characterization of the questioner (who also said that lead would be gold but for “one electron”–a comment that evoked a meaningful look from a molecular biologist I met earlier today).


Final slide was Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” A nice note to end on given how this topic is usually treated.


Another interesting question: Even if you accept Nowak’s evolutionary altruism, “the fullest and noblest expression of altruism are a scandal to evolution.” Even if we can explain truly radical altruism in evolutionary terms, this won’t bother Collins, who thinks it’s conceivable that God brought it about via evolution like everything else. A final point: if the Moral Law is purely a consequence of purely blind evolution, then there is no absolute God and evil (this is the “Can we be good without God?” question).


He’s talking now about Adam and Eve with respect to Denis Alexander’s book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?


  • A literal Adam and Eve as sole founders of the race
  • An historical couple of Neolithic farmers chosen by God
  • An historical event where God intervened and created the species Homo divinus from Homo sapiens (suddenly? gradually?)
  • Everyman [which Collins is not at all comfortable with because it's hard to square with the rest of Scripture. This is the second time today (both of them Collins talks) where I've been made very aware that, as a mainliner rather than an evangelical, I'm in many ways an outsider at this conference.]


OK, now he’s back to fast-and-loose apologetics, dismissing giant arguments with single PowerPoint bullets. “Isn’t evolution a purely random process? Doesn’t that take God out of it?” is a considered objection that oughtn’t be dealt with in ~10 seconds. A careful reading of what Dawkins is rightly saying requires this, in my opinion.


He’s telling the story of founding BioLogos (bios = life, Logos = Word = Jesus), a foundation that creates a meeting place of people interested in these questions. In my opinion, his proposal that BioLogos replace “theistic evolution” is flawed. He explains why he did it (to appeal to evangelicals who don’t like the “theism” playing second fiddle to “evolution”), but I think it’s an inappropriate term because it’s replacing theistic evolution, not Christic evolution. We’re excluding the other theistic religions in our choice of a term that need not exclude them.


He’s doing a cosmic history now. First, God was an awesome mathematician, fine-tuning the universe to give rise to complexity. Here’s the crux of his argument: “After God’s plan for evolution, in the fullness of time, had prepared a … [sufficiently large brain]” [he changed the slide] we were endowed with rationality (created in God’s image) and eventually fell…


[Sorry, just lost my connection for a few minutes.] Now he’s doing the Adam and Eve question. We’re from a pool of about 10,000 ancestors (definitely not just one or two), and we definitely have a common ancestor with Neanderthal (then a bottleneck of one or two would be very strange).


He’s showing the computer-generated, genomics-based “tree of life” that coheres so well with Darwin’s own drawing (one of the neatest parts of his book), though he admits this won’t meet the creationist “special creation” argument.


[After the clip:] “If you think that was rehearsed, you’re wrong. All he said was, ‘You’re Collins? I’m gonna get you.’”


Collins is doing great, way funnier than most Colbert guests. Just the right level of pushing back and playing along.


“Evolution is your friend,” he said to Colbert. “Evolution is God’s plan for giving upgrades.” Opposable thumb? Upgrade! Bigger brain? Upgrade! Love it.


He’s showing a hilarious Bizarro cartoon about Goldfish Crackers. Another good laugh from the audience. Now we’re seeing “one of the scariest moments of his life”: when he was on The Colbert Report: “Sorry, God doesn’t speak DNA, he speaks English.” This clip is pretty funny.

  • Collins: How do you think we got the ability to do science?
  • Colbert: Uh, because we misused God’s gifts?


NIH is “Steward of Medical and Behavioral Research for the Nation,” according to slide. He’s talking with some laughs about a Sam Harris editorial that opposed his appointment: “Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?” He took this as an opportunity to point out the differences between science and scientism. He’s noting that this has not generally been his experience in this position. He says he’s treated very well by scientists, though some think he has a “weird streak.”


Talking about “The Cancer Genome Atlas,” looking at genomic changes in major types of cancers. Definitely feeling like I’m at a scientific conference. He’s got lots of touching anecdotes about individuals he’s worked with. New targeted gene therapies are “not carpet bombing but smart bombing.” “Beverly’s doing great,” though not everyone does (their genetic misspellings are different).


Interestingly, the cost of sequencing base pairs followed Moore’s Law for quite a while but is now getting cheaper faster. Within three years, it’s going to cost about ,000 to sequence an individual’s entire genome. “Not a bad cost curve” from 0 million (I think he said). While I’ve written this, he’s been talking about therapies for rare diseases with genetic risk factors. His job is to push such insights into “new diagnostics and new therapeutics as fast as we can.”


Talking about all the different genome projects that they did after the human. Showed a great picture of the Nature cover with the dog genome article. It’s a picture of dogs looking up at the famous picture of Crick and Watson pointing at their double helix model.


The big question, he says: “Isn’t evolution incompatible with faith?” He never had the knee-jerk Christian response to the world evolution because of not being brought up in a conservative Christian household.


Slide describing what he missed when he was “falling in love with second-order differential equations”:

Nature provides some interesting pointers to God

  • There is something instead of nothing
  • “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” [that's Wigner]
  • The Big Bang [need an Augustinian creator "outside of time," notice]
  • The precise tuning of physical constants in the universe
  • The Moral Law [he always capitalizes it]

He just said Dawkins admits that “that fine-tuning thing” is the argument from believers that bothers him the most (though “none of them bothers him very much”).

[By the way, this presentation is basically a chapter-by-chapter summary of Collins's book.]


Just got a chuckle that his anthology of writings on faith and belief covers writers “from Plato to Polkinghorne.” Giving his testimony: Jesus is the bridge to a God who is “good and holy” though he, Collins, was not. Another common Collins theme: “book of nature” to complement the book of faith.


As in his book, Collins is giving a very narrative presentation, talking about his move from atheism to Christian faith via his experiences in medical school. He was impressed by the power of the “psychological crutch” belief seemed to be for his calm, but very sick, patients.


He just gave an explanation of why the “all your mind” thing creeped into Matthew 22:36-37 when compared to Deuteronomy. I think he’s wrong. It’s not for emphasis, it’s because in Hebrew you think with your heart.


“Adam and Eve with no clothes on is a lot better than DNA,” he says, commenting on a Time Magazine cover. Anyway, “For me, this [genome science + religion] is a coherent whole,” he says.


Topic: “Reflections on the Current Tensions between Science and Faith.” Collins is very tall. One of Collins’ themes both earlier today and now is the worshipful nature of science as practiced by Christians. Apparently as a presidential appointee, Collins was very difficult to get here. They’re apparently not allowed to do all sorts of public speaking that may appear to be representing the government.


NIH budget is billion. I’m actually surprised it’s not larger. Introducer is now telling a personal story about Collins’s “bedside manner” when getting badgered by eager (and disturbed) students after a lecture Collins gave at the C.S. Lewis Society (Foundation?). “Dr. Collins is a consummate bridge-builder, healer and friend.” [Applause.]


Hehe, Collins at Yale (?) was “relentless gene hunter.” Stirring reminder that the genome is 3 billion letters long. Talking about Collins’s careful consideration of ethical and legal issues around genetics. Hehe, I believe he just said within like two sentences that Language of God was published in 1910 and was on bestseller list for 20 years.


Introducer is talking about the Human Genome Project, his coming to love molecular biology, and then his decision to go to medical school.

Live Blogging John Polkinhorne Address at Christian Scholars' Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

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I’m going to live blog the John Polkinghorne address at the Christian Scholars Conference. Two notes: (1) Read from the bottom, obviously. (2) Forgive my EDT time stamp; the talk began at 11 a.m. PDT.


Now an organizer is reminding me that I won’t be able to go to Polkinghorne’s second Saturday session because it overlaps with mine. Grrr…


Question: You gave an argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ at a lecture you gave at a public university. I said to the atheist who organized your talk “That’s the first time I’ve heard the gospel preached in this place.” So I have a testimony, not a question.

Answer: Well thank you. It’s been great fun being here.


Question: My wife is a biologist, and one of her favorite quotes is attributed to ? (I have heard this quote recently): “I’m afraid that when we ascend to the top of the mountain, we’ll find the theologians already there.” Do you think spending lives denying the importance of theology is part of what’s going on in their meanness toward it?

Answer: No, not really (essentially). The quote is silly because scientists ask scientific questions and theologians ask theological questions. We work in complementary ways.


There’s another reason: biologists see a much more ambiguous picture of the world. Biologists see wonderful fruitfulness, but they also see the wastefulness and blind eyes and ragged edges of the evolutionary process. “We as believers have to take that absolutely seriously.”


He’s making an interesting point here about how the biologists are going through right now what physicists have already gone through, this idea of a mechanistic universe. Physicists have emerged on the other side of that process, and he thinks that will happen to biologists as well.


Question: Why is it that so few scientists are believers given all the discoveries about our surprising and open universe?

Answer: I don’t think there’s a general answer to that. “Physics looks at a world that is full of wonderful order.” There’s a “cosmic religiosity to be found among physicists,” even if they’re not traditionally faithful. Einstein felt like a “child in the presence of the elders,” and so on. But he said he saw he saw no evidence for the personal God of theism. “Of course, that’s not surprising, because he wasn’t looking in the right place.”

There’s far less openness to religious belief among biologists. One of the reasons is this terrible bickering over evolution. (He said some fairly unkind thing about supposed servants of the God of truth here, which I quite catch, unfortunately.)


Question: Do you think philosophy of science is a good resource for those of us working on science and theology?

Answer: Yes, there’s a certain cousinly relationship between all these disciplines. “I think philosophy is a wonderful handmaid. Like all scientists, I’m a bit wary of philosophy. They so often come up to us and say, ‘I’ll tell you what you’re really doing.’”


A note to Americans: British academics prefer to be called “Professor So-and-so” rather than “Dr. So-and-so.” Don’t I have that right?


There’s no universal epistemology either. The appropriate question about a proposition isn’t “isn’t it reasonable?” (quantum physics wasn’t) but “what makes you think that might be the case?” Theology also needs to take this outlook. Need to be willing to be bottom-up thinkers, beginning with our experience. The problem with the top-down approach is that clear and certain ideas so often turn out to be “neither clear nor certain.” Dual nature of Christ is, of course, a more perplexing claim than the dual nature of light. But the continuing worshiping experience of the church continues to offer answers to the question “what makes you think that might be the case?” And so, for this and other reasons, we still need theology in the modern university. Full stop. (I’ve missed a few things in here, of course.)


Realism commends itself because of the “stubborn recalcitrance” of nature. It just does not want to conform to our evolving understandings of it. There’s no universal rationality.


As in physics, successful theories in metaphysics also needs to offer us a certain explanatory power. “Atheists are by no means stupid, and many are genuine truth seekers.” But, in P.’s view, the theistic view is more properly explanatory.


Two metaphysical traditions from the West: (1) naturalism — takes existence of nature as their basis, and (2) theism — takes existence of a divine creator as basis. Nature seems to point beyond itself. Wonder is a pointer toward that second view, P. says. These are not knock-down arguments, he notes.


“Intuitive powers of perception” made Einstein’s discoveries possible. Desirable metaphysical properties motivated him, notice.


“Exercise of judgment” is too important to science to overlook. “We know more than we can tell,” Polanyi says. There’s a sense in which science is an art.


I don’t know MacIntosh, but what P.’s saying about him sounds a lot like Thomas Kuhn to me.


“Natural history ends and science begins precisely when we interrogate the world from a particular point of view.” Our theoretical science has to be open to correction. The process is a subtle mechanism, subtler than Popper would have us believe (P. sides with MacIntosh’s idea of a research program).


Both religion and science, Polkinghorne says, are shooting for “reliable insight” not “indubitable proof.” The term “proof” is used way too often. Even in mathematics, Goedel showed, we can’t expect systems to internally derive themselves (I’m not getting that phrasing quite right). So even mathematicians have to take a certain leap of faith.


[Lost track of how we got here...] Whitehead’s “fellow-sufferer” observation meets the problem of suffering head on, though of course it doesn’t solve it.


Notice: Theorizing in theology is bound to be less successful than theorizing in science, because of the nature of what we’re talking about. And so we see Chalcedon, etc., merely draw off some boundaries about what we can say and what we can’t say and still be working within the same theory-space (my term).


Now let’s use Christology as an example of the pursuit of truth in the religious realm. The “phenomenology of early Christian belief” has to be assessed with appropriate scrupulosity (he does this in Faith of a Physicist). But after we do that, we can observe that what’s going on in that phenomenology is the construction of models. These monotheistic Jews played with models for what would describe their experience of Jesus.


So we’ve got two models: Bohr and Bohm. Polkinghorne says the choice between them has to be made for metaphysical reasons, since they’re empirically identical. While constrained by physics, the question between determinacy and indeterminacy is a metaphysical question.


Quantum physics has a probabilistic character, of course. We don’t know when a nucleus will decay. There are two possibilities: (1) there are all kinds of factors we can’t understand that are contributing to the time of decay, and (2) actual ontological indeterminacy. The early quantum physicists followed Bohr in adopting the latter. But Bohm in the ’50s made a more deterministic move that nevertheless makes the same predictions as the Bohr model.


Key point: It took a long time to get some theoretical machinery in place. His process is (1) phenomenology, (2) theory, (3) models. (I think I got these right.) Now to the point about realism: We’ve got to be quite convinced of the reality of these theories when, say, Dirac combines quantum mechanics and relativity and then makes “unforced” predictions about the physical world that turn out to be true.


He’s talking about the history of theorizing about the quantum lines of hydrogen, etc. I’m trying to take pictures.


Let’s return to the theme of “motivated beliefs.” “Indispensable role of theoretical interpretation” can’t look purely Baconian. “Truly insightful understanding is a much more complex activity, and exercise in creative imagination to see truly illuminating underlying patterns.” Einstein: physical meaning (?) has to be created. Einstein was pointing to the need for open, intuitive insight in describing reality. He didn’t brood on the failure of Michaelson Moorely (sp?), he thought about what it would be like to ride on a wave of light.


This project will leave us with a wide circle, and universities should embrace “this whole spectrum.” Universities are “loose affiliations” of researchers on narrow bands of this spectrum. Universities without theology departments are missing out on this perspective on truth-seeking.


Both are engaged by the great human quest for truth “attained through motivated belief.” (Helpful phrase, no?) “So theological questions receive theological answers given for theological reasons.” We can separate these as “how?” and “why?” questions. But their answers “must be consistent with each other.”


“Science has achieved its great success by the modesty of its ambition.” It concentrates on process not on value and purpose. But we know these latter things are “both meaningful and necessary.” Scientist: “the kettle is boiling.” A different kind of answer: “The kettle is boiling because I’m making tea. Would you like some?”


Encounter with “sacred reality” is what is meant by revelation. “Bible is not divinely dictated textbook set forth in propositional terms.” Bible is “more like a laboratory notebook in which are recorded” spiritual experiences.


Theology is concerned with “interpersonal encounter” and “transpersonal encounter with the sacred reality of God.” Here “testing” has to yield to “trusting.”


We meet reality at different levels with different kinds of experience in both science and religion. We reach “high degree of intersubjective agreement” in science because the way we approach the world is based in experiments.


Hehe, “My [scientist] friends do not want to commit intellectual suicide. Of course, neither do I.”


“Enormous explanatory success of science” says that the interpretive circle involved in science is virtuous rather than vicious. Scientists who reflect on their methodology generally say that their perspective is that of “critical realism.” Einstein feared that the Uncertainty Principle created a bit of a monster of the world. He made the mistake, Polkinhorne says, of confusing reality with our experience of it [I think this is his gist. I'm still getting the hang of the live blogging workflow...].




Conference organizer is giving an overview of the conference, it’s theme (“The Path of Discovery: Science, Theology, and the Academy”), and its special guests.

Provost of Pepperdine University is now welcoming us as well. He’s quoting a Wesley hymn about the pairing of knowledge and “vital piety.”

Learning from third introducer that Polkinghorne studied under Dirac. It’s also apparently inappropriate to call him “Sir John Polkinghorne” because he’s also ordained.

Polkinghorne: People say science is about facts and religion about opinions. The latter is about personal preference, they say. There are two bad mistakes in this judgment, he says. The first is a mistaken idea about scientific discovery. No interesting facts are not already interpreted.