Monday, April 28, 2008

The Dignity of the Giver

From Thomas à Kempis…
Be thankful for the smallest blessing, and you will receive greater. Value the least gifts no less than the greatest, and simple graces as especial favors. If you remember the dignity of the Giver, no gift will seem small or mean, for nothing can be valueless that is given by the most high God.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Faith Effects of 9/11

My aviator friend Bob Perry has another insightful blog post I'd like to recommend. It's his thoughts about an article discussing the various faith responses of people who lost loved ones in the terrorist attack of 9/11 (some turned farther from God, whereas others had their faith strengthened). Here's Bob...
Every one of those named in the story who rejected God in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks did so for emotional reasons. They could not accept a God who would allow such a thing to occur. In contrast, every one of those named in the story whose faith was renewed or grew in the aftermath of the attacks attributed it to a thoughtful analysis of the issues that led them to a reasoned conclusion about the way the world is.
Please check out the post, An Unexamined Faith, in its entirety.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ornate Hawk-Eagle

A short while back (on a post highlighting a small, venomous snake I'd seen in Guatemala), I promised to show you a photo of one of the Ornate Hawk-Eagles (Spizaetus ornatus) that we studied there. There was a healthy population of these beautiful raptors in the semi-deciduous tropical forests of Tikal National Park, and the research we performed there (in the early 1990's) enabled us to learn a great deal about their food habits, nesting behavior, and home range size and spacing. This bird, newly telemetered, is here held by two of my Guatemalteco colleagues and friends (and soccer teammates), Julio Madrid and Sixto Funes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gandalf on Stewardship

For Earth Day, let me share some words from J.R.R. Tolkien that express my understanding of what we are called to in the area of creation care. This is taken from The Return of the King (I assume it's also in the movie, but I've never seen that), and Gandalf is talking to Denethor, the despairing Steward of Gondor (shortly before the latter, in his hopelessness, takes his own life). Gandalf said...
...the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward.
May you be a good steward today (and every day) of all that with which God has entrusted you!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Green Amorality

In the last post, I suggested that commitment to the Judeo-Christian worldview very logically leads to a keen sense that we are to be good stewards of the environment, of God’s creation. I also alluded to the fact, however, that Christians in our day are not generally noted for their commitment to creation care. In this post, I want to identify some reasonable concerns that Christians have with regard to environmental issues. Specifically, I will mention three different (albeit interrelated) aspects of modern environmentalism that (rightly) give Christians pause.

First, environmentalism as we know it today has largely been co-opted by those with a neo-pagan or pantheistic worldview. This is easily seen around Earth Day, whose most vocal participants openly honor “Mother Earth” or worship Gaia, the earth goddess. Thus, for Christians to join the existing environmental movement would involve closely aligning themselves with people whose religion and worldview are diametrically opposed to their own. (I find overwhelming logical and evidential warrant for concluding that pantheism—in all of its various forms—fails to correspond to the reality of this universe, but that argument will have to wait for another post.)

Similarly, the environmental movement in America has been twisted for political means, to the point that unbiased, reasonable discussions of environmental issues have become all but impossible. At the extreme, the most vocal calls for environmental activism are frequently imbedded in a larger agenda most of which is morally repugnant to Christians—an agenda that includes socialism, radical feminism, abortion activism, and the glorifying of homosexuality. But even where these elements are not involved, political biases all too frequently cloud the environmental discussion beyond hope of rational progress.

Third, the modern environmental movement has a distinctly pro-death (anti-human) aspect to it. For many in this movement, the biggest problem facing the planet is human beings. Most vocal environmentalists support abortion and euthanasia, and some (like biologist Eric Pianka) go so far as advocating deliberate reduction of the global human population. Christians are right to want nothing to do with such a culture of death.

For these (and perhaps other) reasons, Christians are acting reasonably and responsibly in not associating with the environmental movement as it currently exists. While the presence (in this movement) of these amoral and anti-Christian elements makes it reasonable for Christians to avoid such alignment, it does not absolve them (us) of the responsibility of either personal or corporate environmental stewardship. If anything, it requires us both to stiffen our resolve to be the very best creation caretakers that we can be and to better understand why good stewardship makes more sense from within a Judeo-Christian worldview than from a pantheistic or atheistic perspective.

(This post originally appeared on 18 April 2007.)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Dominion Mandate

(This post originally appeared on 17 April 2007. I repost it here during the run-up to Earth Day 2008.)

As Christians, we are called to be true environmentalists. That is, the rational link between the Judeo-Christian worldview and the call to care about and for the planet and its component parts is straightforward and clear.

According to the Scriptures, the universe, the planet Earth, and all of its inhabitants were created by God. Psalm 24 begins this way,
The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
Moreover, God gave man (at the very beginning of human history and again later) dominion over the Earth and all of its other inhabitants. This "dominion mandate" is both descriptive and prescriptive. It accurately describes reality. Human beings, with their reasoning (an important aspect of the "image of God" with which they alone of all creatures are endowed by the Creator), do indeed have greater potential and actual impact on the global and local environment than does any other species. The biblical understanding is that this impact can be for good as well as for harm. (By contrast, some of today's most zealous environmentalists see the effect of humans on our planet as only harmful; they deny our potential for being good stewards or carrying out beneficial husbandry.)

The prescriptive aspect of the dominion mandate says that not only do humans have dominion over the planet but that they should take that dominion seriously. We are expected--and accountable to our Creator--to be good stewards of all that he has created.

While the Bible does not teach extensively on this issue (and is largely silent on the how of good stewardship), we can be certain that followers of the one true God are called by him to care for the creation with which he has blessed us. And while being Christian does not automatically give one any expertise in environmental science, it nonetheless behooves us to be salt (a preserving influence) in our generation with regard to creation care. This means (among other things) being responsible with our individual and local resources (indeed, I would argue that we should be on the forefront of such responsibility) as well as educating ourselves so that we might offer and support reasonable, well-founded solutions to more widespread environmental issues.

There are at least three reasons that Christians need to be better (than we have been in recent generations) at creation care. The first is simply that we are to obey God in all things, and being good stewards is one of those things he has commanded us. Another is for the sake of the environment itself, for the future generations of humans and other creatures that will need its resources. Many of the decisions our generation faces have greater potential for long-term effects on the future livability of our planet than the decisions of any previous generation. (I am not here denying God's sovereignty over such things, but affirming that that sovereignty involves the free will of the humans he created.) Third, our failure to obey the dominion mandate--the fact that Christians have not maintained a position at the forefront of creation-care issues--represents, for many in our generation, a further barrier to their considering the claims of Christianity.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Reading Literally

So, back to this question of reading the Bible "literally."

"Literally" is a terribly abused and misused word. At the worst extreme is the person who uses it this way, "I was so embarrassed that I literally died on stage." Obviously a misuse of the word. But almost everyone considers the primary usage of "literally" to be in contrast to "figuratively." Synonyms for this usage wood be "woodenly" or "concretely." And while using "literal" to distinguish from "figurative" is frequently valid, there are a couple of (intertwined) problems with such a usage with reference to Bible study.

First, to interpret the Bible "literally" actually has a broader--and more important--meaning (than just "not figuratively"). Second, when "literal interpretation" is advocated as a hermeneutical principle (a Bible study method), it has always been (whether among the Protestant reformers or Bible scholars today) this other, broader meaning that is in view. To cut to the chase...

To interpret literally is to pay attention to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax, and--especially--context and literary genre. The Bible contains passages that run the gamut of literary genres, including historical narrative, Hebrew poetry, parable, proverbs, prophecy, epistles (letters), apocalyptic literature (to name just a few) and further contains all sorts of stylistic touches (hyperbole, simile, anthropomorphism, figurative usage, and such).

So, if someone were to ask me whether I read the Bible literally, the answer would have to be "Of course!" But then, we all do this normally with whatever we're reading anyway. Think, for instance, about this newspaper headline...
Indians Mauled by Tigers
You would very naturally and easily interpret this brief message in two different ways depending upon whether you were currently reading the World News section or the Sports Page (during baseball season). If the former, you would end up interpreting the headline woodenly, whereas you would recognize the latter as hyperbole, exagerration, or figurative.

So the question of interpreting Genesis One is not whether it is to be taken literally but rather what is the correct understanding of the genre (historical narrative, poetry, or other) and how much emphasis to put on the anthropomorphisms and such. This is why I suggested (in the last post) that all twelve of the views of Genesis One are literal views. By that I meant that even those four views that do not interpret this account woodenly nonetheless represent attempts to accurately assess the genre and other literary conventions. Proponents of the Framework Hypothesis come to the conclusion that Genesis One is more properly considered a poetic polemic than an attempt at scientifically accurate historical narrative (and they may very well be right).

Many evangelicals in our day seem to think that it is more spiritual (that it somehow demonstrates greater faith) to interpret the Bible woodenly ("literally"). But this is silly. There are times when we certainly must not ("I am the vine, and you are the branches"), many times when we must, and many, many passages in which we cannot be certain. (This is the heart of the issue that divides Roman Catholics and Lutherans from most Protestants regarding the text "This is my body." Luther--with the RCs--insisted on a wooden interpretation of this verse, where most Protestants take it figuratively or symbolically.)

The bottom line is this... interpreting Genesis One depends upon accurately assessing its genre, context, and intent. Believing, inerrantist scholars vary broadly on their conclusions, and there are no rewards offered for interpreting a passage woodenly/"literally" merely for the sake of doing so. It may be easier for modern evangelicals to interpret Genesis One woodenly (easier in that doing so alleviates the need for the hard work of understanding the Hebrew, comparing other relevant Bible passages, and considering how general revelation informs the issue). But insistence on such an interpretation presents to unbelievers in our day (especially those with some understanding of the latest discoveries about our universe) a significant and unnecessary barrier to considering the more central claims of the Bible--including the claim that the eternal Son of God died to redeem them.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Genesis One Interpretations

In a comment thread a short while ago, I told a reader that I believe that dinosaurs lived much prior to the first humans. She asked,
How does this view fit into a literal reading of Genesis 1...? And if Genesis 1 is not to be read literally, then what is the reason why?
By way of response, let me share a list of twelve different views of interpreting Genesis 1, each of which is--or has been--held by Christians who accept the doctrines of the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture. These were compiled by Professor Robert Bowman (of BIOLA University); for brevity's sake, I'll just list them here with only minimal comment.

Of the twelve views, fully eight of them are considered "literal" interpretations (and I'll argue in a later post that the other four deserve to be considered literal as well). Further, only two of the twelve result in the conclusion that the Earth is young (on the order of thousands or about ten thousand years).

Four views are considered (by Bowman) to take a "partial-creation" approach. These are the gap theory (popularized by C.I. Scofield), hesitation theory (William Lee Stokes), Edenic creation view (John Sailhamer), and intermittent days view (Robert C. Newman).

The two that take a "young-earth" approach are the plain-day view (Martin Luther, Henry Morris, and others) and relativity-day view (for which Derek Humphreys is the most well-known proponent).

Two theories that take a "long-day" approach are the millenial-day view (apparently held by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, among others) and day-age view (Gleason Archer and Hugh Ross, among others).

Four views that (according to Bowman) take a "non-literal" approach are the revelation days view (Bernard Ramm), figurative day interpretation (Augustine and Origen), framework hypothesis (Charles Hummel, Meredith Kline, and others), and the cosmogonic view (Karl Barth, Claus Westermann).

The take-home point (for now) is simply this... although the very well-funded and vocal proponents of the plain-day young-earth view have insisted (for the last fifty years) that theirs is the only "literal" and "orthodox" interpretation of Genesis 1, there is nothing like consensus about this among serious, believing theologians and Bible scholars.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Porthidium nasutus

Here's a pic of a rather small (albeit venomous) snake I once came across in my wanderings in the forests of Guatemala. This beauty was curled up like this in the middle of the trail down which I was walking (heading, if I recall correctly, to a blind we had built overlooking the nest of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Spizaetus ornatus). I snapped a bunch of photos without ever disturbing the snake, and then went merrily on my way. This was the only individual of this species I ever saw in my three field seasons in Tikal. The local common names for this snake are nahuyaca and xalpate de palo. (One of these days I'll share a photo of one of the Hawk-Eagles we studied.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Pursuit of Knowledge

What time I've had for this blog lately has been largely spent in a mind-numbing morass of comments from a couple of folks that are hyper-skeptical of knowledge and of our ability to gain it (and one who, though professing Christ, seems also to pooh-pooh the authority and inspiration of His revelation to us). So, as an antidote, I reread a couple of classics.

The first is C.S. Lewis' Learning in War-Time, and specifically a portion where he is answering--for himself and his fellow-students--the question of what justifies their remaining in academia when most of their peers were fighting the Nazis. Here are a couple of relevant suggestions...
A man's upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life... I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God's sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so. Humility, no less than the appetite, encourages us to concentrate on the knowledge or the beauty, not too much concerning ourselves with their ultimate relevance to the vision of God.
The second passage to which I turned (for stability in these postmodern times) comes from Paul's epistle to the Ephesians (Eph. 1:15-23)...
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe , according to the working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.
The Bible presupposes that we--although finite creatures--have the ability to grow in our knowledge of our Creator (through reason and revelation), and also seems to see such growth in knowledge of Him as one of the most important things we are to do.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Quantum Uncertainty

In a recent comment thread, I asserted that the law of non-contradiction—and the laws of logic generally—are aspects of this universe that are discovered by man (as opposed to being invented by man). One respondent made the claim that law of non-contradiction has been disproved and, as a corollary, that it can thus be seen to be merely a flawed law made by fallible men. The basis of my respondent’s claim was quantum mechanics. Because this (relatively new) sub-discipline of physics is so poorly understood by the man on the street, and (more importantly) because it is so commonly abused to make claims like this one, I thought it would be worth a bit of discussion here.

First, however, it is worth noting that (even if he were correct in thinking that quantum uncertainty refutes the laws of logic) my respondent is still utilizing the laws of logic throughout his post; he is acting as though these laws do exist and do apply in the universe in which this thread is taking place. And this is just one of the most obvious problems with postmodern epistemological claims—the postmodernist cannot live consistently as though what he is claiming (about truth and knowledge) is really true. That he finds argumentation and discussion worth engaging in is evidence that he really believes in truth and logic, whatever he might say. But back to QM…

Quantum mechanics is the field of physics that seeks to understand the behavior of subatomic particles. Central to this very specific field and scale is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. [Apparently, it is “certainty” (on the part of anyone making a truth claim) that is the greatest anathema or offense to those steeped in postmodernism. Thus, when a scientific principle includes in its name the word “uncertainty,” that principle seems readymade for use in denying our potential for certainty. Postmodernists are not the only ones to misapply this principle. Naturalists use it to avoid the obvious conclusions to which the cosmological and astrophysical evidence points—that there is a transcendent Creator behind the beginning of the universe.]

But QM generally and Heisenberg uncertainty in particular apply only to the micro scale of subatomic particles. According to Wikipedia…
In quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is the statement that locating a particle in a small region of space makes the momentum of the particle uncertain; and conversely, that measuring the momentum of a particle precisely makes the position uncertain.

In quantum mechanics, the position and momentum of particles do not have precise values, but have a probability distribution. There are no states in which a particle has both a definite position and a definite momentum. The narrower the probability distribution is in position, the wider it is in momentum.
Quantum physics does not refute or replace general relativity. Rather, it represents a refinement—a recognition that there is this one scale at which the physics with which we are familiar (those at the macro level) do not apply.* At the scale at which we live (and argue and discuss), quantum physics and Heisenberg uncertainty do not come into play. All quantum mechanics shows us is that at the very specific level of particle physics, man is limited in his ability to measure specific aspects of quantum effects.

But this is not the only problem with my respondent’s claim. Even if it didn’t suffer from this problem of scale, the claim involves a nonsequitur. There would seem to be a huge number of unsupplied premises between the starting point “quantum mechanics indicates a level of uncertainty previously overlooked” and the conclusion “the law of non-contradiction is broken.” (And again, the law of non-contradiction is assumed whenever one attempts—even fallaciously—an argument such as this.) If there were in QM some basis for questioning the laws of logic (which there is not), it would still require a rigorous argument to demonstrate that. I trust that the readers of this blog are critical enough not to be impressed by vague appeals that are meant to replace reasoned arguments.

The law of non-contradiction remains an important aspect of the universe in which we live, and quantum mechanics has in the end nothing to say about that.

*Similarly, general relativity neither refuted nor replaced Newtonian physics. Rather, it represented a refinement, a recognition of a scale and set of circumstances at which Newtonian physics are not comprehensive and adequate. To say that quantum mechanics refutes the law of non-contradiction is a bit like saying that we need not bother worrying about gravity now that general relativity has been verified.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Life on Enceladus?

I am amazed at how frequently I encounter an argument that involves the fallacy known as "special pleading." Such an argument utilizes only whatever evidence supports one's view, and ignores whatever evidence is contrary to that view. I see examples of this fallacy in a variety of philosophical and scientific arguments, but one area of science in which it seems especially prevalent is the search for extraterrestrial life. Indeed, it could be argued that continuing the search for life on other planets necessitates turning a blind eye to a host of evidence regarding the requirements for life.

For example, according to this article, NASA scientists think one of Saturn's moons, Enceladus, has real potential for life. This belief comes from evidence sent back by the Cassini spacecraft, which found both "organic materials" and temperatures as high as minus 135 degrees F. According to the University of Colorado's Larry Espositi, "We see on Enceladus the three basic ingredients for the origin of life," by which he means energy, water, and organic compounds.

I find two big problems with this claim (which serves as an example of many of the claims that come out of this research area). The first is that other scientists have identified a whole host of other ingredients and attributes (of a planet or moon) that are critical for any possibility of life support.

This recent article indicates that scientists have hopes that somewhere below Enceladus' surface there might be temperatures high enough to allow for liquid water. But most serious researchers admit that life actually requires an abundance of water in all three phases, ice, water, and water vapour, and that for a moon or planet to support advanced life, all three forms of water would have to have existed for long periods of time. In light of these realizations, the finding that Enceladus surface temperatures may be minus 135 (rather than, as formerly believed, minus 225) degrees F seems to caution against the optimism of these researchers.

Other characteristics (of a planet or moon) that have been identified as critical for life support include just-right surface gravity, inclination and eccentricity of orbit, axial tilt, rotation period, albedo, magnetic field, crust thickness, seismic activity, and a host of atmospheric characteristics. In addition, researchers believe that even the rate of asteroidal and cometary collision must be just right to allow for life support. In this regard, Saturn and (especially) Jupiter serve a critical function on Earth's behalf, shielding us from most of the comets and ateroids that pass through our solar system. By contrast, Enceladus would be expected to take many more life-destroying "hits" (because of its proximity to such a large planet).

But the other problem routinely ignored by scientists searching for extraterrestrial life is that life support is only part of the equation and that the other part--life's origin--is if anything more improbable (naturalistically) than is life support. Some of that evidence can wait for a later post. In the meantime, don't count on NASA actually finding life on Enceladus, since those hopeful of so doing must ignore a vast array of evidence disqualifying this moon from consideration.