Science and Faith as BFFs: a book review

When I was a teenager, in my fundy evangelical days, I was taught to be suspicious of science. Scientists were you using their big bang black magic, their carbon-dating-voodoo, and evolutionary processes to explain away the Creator.  My youth leaders would do role-playing exercises designed to help us take a brave Christian response to our godless philosophy or biology professors when we got to college (I’m convinced that the entire plot to God’s Not Dead was written in a youth group). I was told if Genesis 1 was not literally how God created the earth, that would mean you couldn’t trust anything in the Bible (there is a logical fallacy there, see if you can spot it).

8741I can’t say this is all entirely to blame for my undergrad, underachieving self, but it is pretty hard to make yourself try hard in class if you think your Geology professor is lying to you (I think this suspicion of sciences is also partly to blame for certain Christians’ ambivalence to global warming or evidence-based research).

Thankfully, there are a number of Christians today which are exploring the interconnection between science and faith. Among them is Greg Cootsona. Cootsona directs Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries (STEAM) at Fuller Theological Seminary and teaches religious studies and humanities at Chico State. He wrote Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults as a manifesto for pastors, emerging adult ministries leaders, and emerging adults themselves (18 to 30-year-olds). He discusses the disconnect between science and faith, places where they may be brought into greater integration and dialogue, and he provides various case studies of relevant issues to faith and science.

Mere Science and Faith unfolds in eight chapters. In chapter 1, Cootsona describes his own history of science and faith—his Christian conversion in college at UC Berkley, and subsequent antagonism toward faith he experienced from faculty and fellow students. He then introduces his thesis, an integrative approach to faith and science. In chapter 2, Cootsona cites psychological and social scientific research to discuss how to engage science and faith with emerging adults (18 to 30-year-olds). He concludes that the conversation between faith and science has shifted with the development of new technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence, transhumanism, screen time), new understandings of faith, and the eclectic “Spotify mix” style of engaging faith and science of emerging adult Christians today which breaks down some of the old dichotomies (28-29). A bricolage of mismatched ideas (Spotify) instead of an LP album, allows emerging adults to see connections between science and faith, or at least regard them as independent spheres without any felt antagonism. Cootsona extends this analysis in chapter 3 (“Emerging Adults: Are They None and Done?”).

Chapter 4 and 5 are a crash course on biblical hermeneutics. Chapter 4 has an eye to how best make sense of the creation passages in our Scientific age. Cootsona discusses creation narratives of Genesis 1-2, and other relevant passages.  Chapter 5, looks at  Adam and Eve and human history. Cootsona concludes this section on hermeneutics with 5 reflections on reading the Bible:

  1. We hold to the Bible because there we find our relationship to God through Jesus Christ.
  2. Although we seek integration, we need to  interpret Scripture with a sufficent dose of independence between science and faith when necessary
  3. The interests of the interpreter are critical to the task of interpretation [i.e. we bring ourselves to the text and engage it with critical realism]
  4. Science is not the sole arbitrator of truth.
  5. Our biblical interpretation is about learning to live with the narrative of Scripture (96-98).

These hermeneutical reflections help Christians navigate truth in science and Scripture while acknowledging that each has a peculiar lens for comprehending reality. Chapters 6 and 7 describe the gifts and limits of technology and chapter 8 concludes the book.

Interspersing these chapters are various case studies exploring: the New Atheism, Cognitive Science, the Big Bang and Fine Tuning, Intelligent Design and the problem of irreducible complexity, climate change, and human sexuality. If the chapters are more conceptual, these case studies explore the nature of the dialogue between faith and science as they relate to particular issues.

I didn’t have this book during my own emerging adulthood, but somehow I discovered that pressing into scientific questions (e.g. evolution, cosmology, geology) and adjusting how I understood particular passages, did not cause my faith in God to slide down a slippery slope toward secularism. For myself, it was exposure to Christians outside my narrow evangelical bubble that enabled me to make my peace with science, but certainly, a book like this would have been quite helpful. As an erstwhile and intermittent pastor, I appreciate the sound advice which Cootsona offers in guiding emerging adults to greater integration of science and faith. I particularly liked the emphasis on hermeneutics. I was reminded of one of my seminary professors saying, “When science and faith disagree, there is always a hermeneutical problem. Either we are misreading God’s Special Revelation (i.e., the Bible) or we are miss reading Creation. Or both.” Cootsona explores how to navigate the issues well (I did wish his chapters on technology probed the issues a little more, but this is a short book).

This is a book about science, but not really a science book. Cootsona mentions research and some important thinkers, but this is pretty accessible to us non-scientists. I give this four stars – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

Trinitarian Traces in Sciency Spaces: a ★★★★★ book review

Science and theology are two different disciplines and, allegedly, never the twain shall meet. The hard sciences lay their claim to objectivity, dealing with sense-data and the observable world. Theology, for its part, is relegated to the realm of the subjective and ethereal. But what if theology and science had more in common than it may appear? What if the Triune God has so imprinted reality with His Presence that the resonances between God and his creation create contexts for dialogue between science and theology? What if these distinct disciplines were more coinherent than conflicted?

9781532616846This is W. Ross Hastings’s argument in Echoes of Coinherence: Trinitarian Theology and Science Together.  Hastings is especially qualified to speak across these disciplines. He has a Ph.D. in organometallic chemistry from Queen’s University, Ontario, a Ph.D. in theology from the University of St. Andrews (under Alan Torrance!) and he is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Associate Professor of Theology and Pastoral Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.  He has been a working scientist, a pastor, and a theologian. He brings these skills together as he probes how the perichoretic and coinherent Triune God and the incarnation of the Son have stamped humanity with the image of God and left traces of Triune coinherence on all creation.

Hastings details his aims as these:

I am first seeking to describe coinherence as a feature of the Divine life, acknowledged widely in the tradition of the church, both in the incarnation and within the Trinity. Second, I am seeking to support the further claim that coinherence can be seen to have echoes in creation. And third, I wish to propose that we may, because of the first two, predicate coinherence of the disciplines of theology and science. That is, I affirm that coinherence is part of the  Divine life (an ontological statement) can be said to have echoes in creation (a metaphysical statement ) and may be predicated further as a way to frame these two great disciplines of human knowledge (an epistemological statement)(5).

Thus, through the rest of the book, he explores the coinherent relationship between science and theology with special emphasis on the history of ideas, epistemology (how we know stuff), ontology and metaphysics (the nature of being).

Hastings argument unfolds in 8 chapters. In chapter 1, he lays out the aims and scope of this project and the idea of coinherence. In chapters 2, Hastings gives a short history of coinherence in the Theology/Science tradition, highlighting his conversation partners of Theologian scientists (scientists conversant with theology) and Scientist theologians (theologians conversant with the sciences. Chapter 3 describes the intertwining History of Ideas for both disciplines—the development of the sciences within a Christian context, its compatibility with theology during the Medieval-Renaissance, and the growing conflict and the fragmentation of the two disciplines from the late Middle Ages, on through the Enlightenment to today.

In chapter 4, Hastings tackles epistemology. He argues that though science and theology have been described as having two different ways of knowing (i.e. Scientists have evidence, Religious people have faith), both disciplines have a fideistic epistemology (taking on faith that their subject is knowable),  weigh evidence, and enter into a critical dialogue between the knower and their subject. Hastings traces this ‘Critical Realism’ in both the sciences and theology, concluding:

Critical realism is thus a philosophical system grounded in faith that the Revealer of truth in every realm is neither capricious nor obscurantist and yet also not controlling, in that he does not make things plain easily, for he has created persons in his own image who he expects to be inquisitive, and to explore, and to think and to worship. (120)

Chapters 5-7 describe the coinherent ontologies of science and theology. Whereas theologians take as their object the Triune God, the Creator has left his traces on His Creation. This allows for various resonances between the realm of theology and the world of science. the Trinity’s relationality, freedom, goodness, immensity, particularity and agency are written in Creation and God’s goodness, intelligibility and relationality are imprinted on humanity as God’s image bearers.

Chapter 8 draws these ontological and epistemological threads together:

The common doxological aim is what makes the sheer hard work in both worthwhile. It is the reality that the kingdom of God has already broken into history in Christ, which brings with it a doxological orientation in both theology and science. Christ has come to recapitulate old Adam’s orientation. (221)

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a teaching assistant for Ross (Hastings) once upon a time and he was one of my professors at Regent College. This is by no means an impartial review (if there is a such thing). Ross’s perspective and insights have stamped my own thinking in significant ways, particular his Trinitarian thought, ethics and missional theology. But I think the subject matter of this book is significant and worthwhile for our North American, post-Enlightenment context. I know good Christians who are suspicious of the sciences for the way materialist approaches undermine the idea faith. I also have scientist friends who have felt like the church undervalues and fails to appreciate their work. The time is ripe for a deeper dialogue between science and theology, not to blur the distinctions of each discipline—scientists are gonna science and theologians will theologize—but to mutually enrich our understanding of both God and Creation. Coinherence provides a good, missional model for a way forward.

Hastings describes this well:

The great opportunity of our times for thoughtful, missional Christians is to offer fresh articulations of the Christian doctrine of creation, grounded in the Trinity and the incarnation, which allow theology to be theology and science to be science yet which also affirm the mutuality and inter-enhancement of each. That is, accounts for theology and science which manifest the coinherence of the epistemology and the ontology of these disciplines. In an era when scientism is less and less credible, in which global warming threatens our existence, there is, I believe, a hearing for a world-affirming, science-embracing gospel. A gospel that offers a humble apologetic, a holistic and communal worldview, (or better, world-love), a gospel that is grounded in the triune Creator God, supremely transcendent and yet infinitely immanent; a gospel that leads to human flourishing and creational shalom. (93-94)

Vocationally, he also describes his specific hopes for those in the sciences:

My rather audacious hope is that this work may help scientists to value their work and to contextualize their science within a broader creative and even doxological framework this helping them and all humans to pursue their vocations in more satisfying and humanizing ways (15).

I give this five stars and highly recommend it. Hastings is a meaty thinker and this book will demand a slow read. Scientists who are believers will be encouraged in their calling as scientists. Thoughtful Christians will be more open  to seeing the way the Coinherent Divine nature marks not only the things of heaven but the very stuff of earth.  – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock in exchange for my honest review

Mind Your Health: a book review

Marchant  is a popular science writer with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology who has written for New Scientist, Nature, the Guardian, and the Smithonian .  She is rigorously skeptical of alternative therapies and the miraculous; however she isn’t dismissive  of the fact that people are sometimes helped by them. Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body is her examination of the mind’s  power to influence physical health and well being. She reviews various scientific studies, interviews those who have participated in them, and explores what the brain can or cannot do as far as healing our bodies.

cureMarchant observes a well known phenomena in contemporary medical research: the placebo effect. She cites research which shows that in some instances, a placebo works even if the person knows they are getting the placebo, though it impacts symptoms rather than the disease itself (still valuable for quality of life). She also notes the ‘nocebo effect’ where a person’s health declines because of the belief that something is causing them harm (i.e. believing you were poisoned, or had a curse put on you). Placebos can be a powerful counter medicine to these psychosomatic ailments and empathetic patient care does make a real difference in prognosis.  So Marchant admits some value in alternative medicines:

Therapies such as homeopathy and Reiki contain no active ingredient and show no benefit in rigorous clinical trials. They are based on principles that from a scientific point of view are nonsensical—almost certainly do not work in the way they claim they do. But with long, personal consultations and empathetic care, they are perfectly honed to maximize placebo responses. For that reason they probably do provide real relief, particularly for chronic ailments that conventional medicine is not well equipped to treat (39)

Marchant examines the benefits of combining a placebo with Pavlovian conditioning, the benefits of cognitive therapies in fighting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, hypnosis in treating Irritable Bowl Syndrome,  and the benefits virtual reality for Pain management. In the latter part of the book she talks about how stress affects health, the benefits of meditation the importance of relationships and  positive outlook for aging well, and how manipulating the vagus nerve through electricity may impact our immunity. Her final chapter examines the role of faith in healing, specifically at Lourdes.

Marchant doesn’t believe in miracles and treats religious ritual like a powerful placebo. She does volunteer at Lourdes and record her observations of a worship service she participated in:

I feel out of place amid all the singing and signing. I’ve never attended a Catholic Mass, and I usually try my hardest to avoid religious ceremonies. I get uneasy about the idea of substituting reason and clear thinking for robes, incantations and mysterious higher powers. But at the same time it is beautiful; a hugely impressive assault on the senses. (266).

Later she writes, “Lourdes didn’t turn me into a believer. But after attending this giant underground service, I’m struck by the physical force that religious belief can have” (227). She sees the power of religion to effect people’s health, for good or ill,  in mechanisms like stress and ritual. She prefers a naturalistic interpretation of how healing occurs—a scientific explanation of how healing took place invalidates it as a miracle (which she doesn’t believe in anyway).

I have participated and benefited from healing prayers, but I am also aware of studies on intercessory prayer that show no significant change, and reveal  faith healers’ success rates as equal to that of a placebo (about 29%).  I don’t share Marchant’s skepticism of the miraculous. I do, however, appreciate her  well-documented look at the science behind the power of the mind to influence physical health. Her bias towards a rigorous look at the evidence is what made me want to read the book. I especially found the studies of the placebo effect in the first part of the book interesting, and this is a fun read. I recommend this for anyone interested in our current understanding of the brain’s ability to effect our body. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Random House and Crown Publishers through the Blogging For Books Program in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Doubt Has Its Limits: a book review

Some people think faith is about swallowing Christian truth claims full-sale and never doubting again, ever.  As the saying goes, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it). However when you become a Christian, you aren’t really supposed to leave your brain in the front closet.  We need our minds to help us think through problems, wrestle with ideas and to be able to discern truth properly.  Faith and doubt work together to help us press into God’s truth and experience al that God has in store for us.

Christina M. H. Powell is a person who knows well the tension between doubt and faith. In her day job she is a Harvard educated  biomedical research scientist conducting research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She is also an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God.  When asked if she has ever questioned her faith, she answers, “Sure I question my faith, but I also question my doubts” (17).  Faith takes us into a realm beyond human reason, but Powell knows professionally and personally there is real value in doubt.

So in Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith she showcases the value and limits of doubt. In three sections, she unfolds some of her own faith journey and struggles and how she has resolved them, both as a scientist and as a person of faith.

In part I, she begins by ‘thinking through doubts.’ In chapter one, she takes up Isaac Newton’s challenge to ‘build more bridges than walls’ (17-8).  Rather than seeing doubt and scientific inquiry as antithetical to ‘real faith,’ Powell sees the value of science, doubt and inquiry for examining and exploring our world and weighing evidence. Faith takes us beyond on the realm of  measurable evidence and experience toward hope and expectation. Powell would have have us doubt and investigate even in the midst of faith  because both science and faith have important things to teach us (29). Chapter two explores deeper the ‘interplay of influences’ between faith and facts. As a scientist and a believer Powell has a keen eye for aspects of each that have shaped her calling and experience (48). Chapter three and four describes the value of doubt and questioning for discernment and growing in knowledge and understanding.

Part two explores the sources of doubt. Chapter five describes the limits of human reason. Sometimes doubts arise because are ability to reason and read the evidence only takes us so far (we see through a glass dimly). Sometimes we doubt because are questions remain unanswered (chapter six). Still doubts are not always intellectual. Sometimes our doubt is born out of real-life-pain (Why would a good God let this happen?) or disillusionment (why is the church so hypocritical?). Powell gives good strategies on how to hold out faith in the face of tragedy and how God uses disillusionment in our hearts to turn us into agents of change (chapters seven and eight, respectively).

Part three speaks about resolving doubts, not in the sense of getting an answer to every question, but in making your peace with them. Chapter nine talks about the authentic journey. Rather than trying to stuff doubts down, Powell shows that there is real power in honestly wrestling with them. In Chapter ten she talks about ‘retracing the path’ and the reality that a ‘reason’ for something is not always apparent in the moment. Sometimes we see God’s hand most clearly  in hindsight.  Finally Powell closes where she began with a passioned plea to ‘build bridges’ between faith and science:

I remain confident that the key to a greater understanding between scientists and minsters will come from making connections. If pastors reach out to scientists within their congregations to learn more about their work, then science might not feel so intimidating.  If scientists share how they integrate their faith and their profession with seminary students, then the next generation of pastors will be better equipped to minister to those with technological backgrounds. The friendships that form between individual scientists and individual ministers will become the bridge betwen the two professions. With mutual respect in place, dialogue will become much easier. (192-3).

What the above summary doesn’t fully reveal is how much Christina Powell shares her own journey: existential crises, discernment, clarifying her sense of call and making peace between science and faith. This book is not a detached, abstract ‘thought experiment,’ but describes her own journey of faith (and doubt) and offers the insights she has gained. She weaves together her own story with biblical reflections and insights on faith and science.

I think that pleasantly surprised me about this book. When I picked it up, I thought it was a new book on apologetics. It is that, but it is also is a book for Christians to how to better think through their faith. This will certainly be helpful for new college students (sometimes youth graduate church when they graduate high school because they were never given tools to think through their faith). But I think it can also be useful for deepening a conversation in church on the relationship between faith and doubt, God and nature, the scientific method and Revelation. As a pastor, I appreciate Powell’s challenge to be a better bridge builder and commend it to you.  I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Answers are Also Great: a book review

Living the Questions (LtQ) publishes a series of resources for progressive Christians. LtQ is a ministry which helps thinking Christians wrestle with the issues we face in contemporary culture.  They publish a series of DVD curriculums which are used by ‘nearly 6000 churches and other groups across the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.  Recently I viewed one of these courses entitled, Paint the Stars: Science, Religion and an Evolving Faith. It consists of seven twenty-minute sessions where various Christian theologians, pastors and bloggers (Rachel Held Evans) discuss the interaction between science and faith, especially in relation to evolutionary thought.

The overarching theme of these videos is to illustrate. that science is not opposed to the spiritual life. Science and evolution   cause of wonder and give us new metaphors for faith and life. Contributors to this series certainly paint a compelling vision of scientific and spiritual cooperation. In the faith tradition I was raised (conservative, evangelical Protestantism), I was taught to mistrust my biology teachers and look askance at evolutionary theory (after all it is only a theory, right?). So I applaud what I think is a move in the right direction: an affirmation of both scientific and spiritual truth without necessitating that one negates the other.

I loved the tenor of all this. I did struggle with what was actually said on the DVD. There is an affirmation of science and spirituality, but there is no deep engagement with either sphere. This is not a video series that makes the biblical case for evolution. Or much of a theological/philosophical case. They also use science suggestively without engaging with hard data. On both scores I think the Biologos forum offers more substance.

I also thought the contributors were a mixed bag. It makes sense to include Rachel Held Evans in this project. She grew up as a conservative evangelical and embraced a more progressive form of faith (when she evolved in Monkey Town). But some of the contributors do not have what I would call a robust ‘Christian’ faith. People like Matthew Fox, John Shelby Spong, and Gretta Vosper are not inspiring witnesses for me. Though I did appreciate the words of Barbara Rossing, Philip Clayton and Michael Dowd.

My nit-picky point of critique is a single line of misinformation. One of the contributors (I forget who), quoted Amos Yong of Regent College to illustrate a point. I have read Amos Yong and highly respect him. I regard him as one of the foremost Pentecostal scholars of our day, but as a graduate of Regent College, I know he doesn’t teach there. He does teach at Regent University in Virgina. Despite the similarity in name, and  their mutual evangelical commitment, these are two very different institutions. An easy enough mistake to make, but I found myself turned off by this piece of editorial sloppiness.

This was an interesting video series and I found it thought provoking at places. However I didn’t think it said enough, I didn’t trust those saying things. As such I wouldn’t really recommend this DVD. Certainly it could be a good discussion starter, but I don’t want to just live the questions, I want answers too.  I give it two and half stars.

Thank you to SpeakEasy for providing me a copy of this DVD video series in exchange for my honest review.

Back to Genesis (with Science): a book review

Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story by Karl W. Giberson

The ecclesial tribe which has most contributed to my spiritual formation (American evangelicalism) has been suspicious and dismissive of Evolution and fearful of  the way science  has banished the Creator. We’ve worried that if  we accepted the scientific explanation of our origin, we would be turning our back on God and the Biblical worldview (i.e. ” if Genesis 1-2 is not literally true, how can you trust the rest of the Bible?”).

The interpretation of the Creation story is complicated. While I affirm the truth that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, I find some of the scientific explanations compelling. This doesn’t mean I rend Genesis 1-2 from my Bible, but I do read them differently. Genesis 1 doesn’t seem to be a literal account of Creation as it happened but a poem. There is evidence of Hebrew parallelism in the first three days describing the creation of realms while the next three days seem to be the filling of those realms:

Creation of Realms Filling of Realms
 Day 1: Creation of light and darkness Day 4: Creation of the sun, moon & stars
Day 2: Creation of sea and sky (separation of

the waters above from the waters below)

Day 5: Creation of birds and fish
Day 3: Creation of dry land (and vegetation Day 6: Creation of land animals and humanity

 

Beyond the obvious literary crafting in the Creation accounts, they also appear to include elements of other ancient creation myths and telling the tale in this way subvert the gods of the nations (every created thing mentioned in Genesis 1 was an object of worship in the Ancient Near East).

And so I absolutely love the opening chapters of Genesis, not because I read there a scientific account of creation, but because the pages drip with the Glory of God who creates, sustains and speaks worlds into being.  It testifies to the creativity of God and the sacredness of the created order. It vividly portrays the goodness of all that is.

In Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story, author Karl W. Giberson re-presents the Genesis 1 narrative in light of the best scientific explanations of our origins. Thus the seven days are re-written to explore elements of creation through the lens of contemporary cosmogony, astronomy, quantum physics and biology.  Giberson  teaches Science and Religion at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts,  a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a regular contributor to various journals and periodicals and has written extensively on the relationship between science and faith. He is also popular lecturer and author, he has been a presenter (and vice president) of the BioLogos Foundation and the editor of Science and Spirit for the Templeton Foundation.  In this book, Giberson brings together his skill as a scientist and his literary skill as a lay Christian theologian.

The result is a popular level book which culls together the best of human inquiry into Creation and presents it in a warm engaging way. The chief value of this book is not apologetic–I doubt that the young earth creationists or ardent atheists would be convinced by Giberson’s prose; however for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and other powers of observation) this book is a hymn of praise and wonder to God for our fine tuned universe.   The topics which Giberson covers range from the Big Bang (neither big nor a bang),  the formation of matter at an atomic level, the existence of supernovas and their contribution to the development of the elements in the periodic table, the precise conditions and various factors which conspired to make life possible, and the mysteries of human development. So while his ‘rewriting  of Genesis 1’ is a radical departure from the biblical narrative, he covers significant ground and I found it fascinating. This is not a book which explores in depth the biblical account for its theological import. It’s aim is much more modest: to show how our scientific knowledge bears witness to our Creator.

I liked this book a lot. One of the joys of reading this book is that Giberson does more than present a God friendly cosmogony; he also tells a little of the history of science and the way in which our current scientific knowledge testifies of the remarkable world we live in.  This is a beautiful, worshipful book and well worth reading.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.