Friday, June 27, 2014

John Lennox and the Myths of Faith and Science

It is a privilege to get to hear John Lennox in person, and I would recommend that if you are interested in matter of the Christian faith and science you should look up some of his debates or lectures.  In his first plenary session at the AG Faith and Science Conference, he focused on thee "myths."  These are ideas currently floating around about science and God that are false, and in their ways, dangerous to reasonable reflection on either topic.

Here are the three myths and a few brief thoughts about each.

1. There is a war between God and science.  The conflict is not about God on one side of the issue and science on the other.  There are very good scientists who do very good science on both side of the issue.  The conflict lies on a deeper, more worldview level.  What passes for the conflict right now is the difference between Theism (specifically Christian theism) and Naturalism/Materialism.  Lennox's basic axiom, as he called it, is that the universe is not neutral in its proclamation about God.  He detailed several issues concerning both the history and philosophy of science making the case that Christianity is the engine that drove the scientific revolution.

2. The more we do science the less we need of God.  This myth is a misunderstanding about God, or more appropriately, a conflation of ideas about gods and the idea of God.  If you define God as a simple explanation for things we don't understand, then it follows that the more we learn about the universe the less we need of God.  But only people who don't understand who the God of the Bible is define him that way.  It has always been the case that deeply pious people have done science and grown in their appreciation of God exactly because God is known to be the ground for, or reason for, all that exists.  Lennox used a wonderful image here - the more I understand about art the more I appreciate the greats and the more I understand about engineering the more I can appreciate the Space Shuttle.  The more we know about nature leads to the same growing appreciation of God, not less.

3. Science is coextensive with rationality.  This current conception of science is akin to what he calls scientific fundamentalism.  It is scientism which is the belief that science is the only actual means to knowledge about reality.  It is often claimed that evoking God as some kind of cause cheapens the explanation and has no place in science.  Lennox's approach to this was incisive.  There can be more than one cause for the same effect which do not contradict or exclude the other.  (This part of his presentation reminded me of Aristotelian causality.)  Why does the pot of water boil?  It boils because a heat source is applied to water and energy is released.  It boils because I want a pot of tea.  Both are correct answers to what caused the boiling, each in their way.  But the modern scientific endeavor wants you to think the first one is the only one.

One big-picture idea he made sure to put across is that the follower of Christ need not be intimidated by the bombastic claims of the New Atheism.  What matters is that their ideas are not very good and don't take much work to refute.  There is no "war" between science and the Christian faith.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Necessary Corrective In The Current Atmosphere of Ministry

David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All The Answers, Revised Edition. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2012). 219 pages.

I read this book in a day and a half. I never do that, but the Forward intrigued me and the book quickly pulled me in.  I am interested in the role of Pastor - how to define it, what it looks like from day to day, who the Pastor stands responsible to, and so on.  I am convinced that with the past 30 years (at least) of the corporatization of the pastoral vocation, we stand in an arid landscape and don't know exactly where to find water.

Hansen's book is water in a dry land.  Hansen refuses to be boxed in by the all too common expectations  every modern pastor knows, and instead, has his eyes on Christ and Christ's ministry to people.  My experience resonates with his when he says, "When I began the pastoral ministry, I had lots of books prescribing pastoral ministry - the so-called how-to books.  I had books on how to preach, how to administrate a church, how to do pastoral counseling and how to lead small groups.  They didn't help me" (pg 11).  Each chapter addresses an important component to the pastor's ministry as he discusses things like the pastor's call, preaching, prayer, and leadership.  Within each chapter his experiences as pastor of a yoked parish in Montana plays the central role, but as he makes clear the stories he relates are about the theology that shape them.

Pastors need to leave the dry land of management techniques and rediscover the fertile soil of Christ's kingdom among us.  Hansen is clear about his relationship with what we would call vision and mission statements, and he would rather see a pastor reading theology and preaching Christ.  You can't go wrong if you learn how to preach Christ from the pulpit.

In my opinion Hansen wrote a necessary book 20 years ago and I am thankful for its new edition and my fortuitous discovery of this gem.  From now on I will refer my pastor friends to this book and refer myself back to it when I need a course correction back to the good country.

If you find my review helpful, please say so on Amazon.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Pastor as Philosopher

[This is one in a string of posts made up of me processing the role of the contemporary pastor. For the other posts follow the tag, "The Pastor."]

This one may seem like a stretch to you.  We are much more accustomed to thinking of the modern pastor as someone who is counselor, businessman, or cheerleader.  We might even stretch ourselves to think of the pastor as a kind of theologian (which we, hopefully, accomplished), but considering him or her a philosopher seems out of bounds to us.  But that might stem from two problems - evangelical anti-intellectualism and a short-sighted conception of what a philosopher is.

I want to save a discussion about evangelical anti-intellectualism for the future, so for now we will think about expanding our sense of what it means to be a philosopher.  Our current culture, and modern philosophy, has filled the term "philosopher" with the image of someone who speculates about or analyzes reality and the human condition.  And in an unfair turn to that conception, we have by in large decided that is a purely "academic" and non-useful expenditure of time.  Without spending a great deal of effort defending the role of philosopher as thus conceived, I am intrigued by how this term was understood at the roots of the Christian faith.

Citing Socrates the church historian, the Russian Orthodox priest, Gabriel Bunge, says, "One understands 'philosophy' in this sense preeminently as the perfect unity of Christian accomplishment in life and Christian knowledge of God" (Despondency, pg 17).  Thus understood, several early Christians were labeled as philosophers who would not be today.  Desert monks who sought the presence and wisdom of God in long stretches of silence and solitude were called philosophers.  Abbots who spoke in proverbs were as well.  Those who studied the leading thinkers of the Greek and Roman worlds were called philosophers, as were those who produced reasoned defenses for the Christian faith in the Roman world.  So, more properly understood, the philosopher is a lover of wisdom (which is the etymology of the word, anyway), and easily applies to anyone in the Christian faith who applies themselves to the things of God to understand them in a deeper and clearer sense and then strives to live by what they learn.

How could that not describe the proper role of a pastor?  The pastor as philosopher is a lover of God's wisdom and a liver of God's life.  And in the role of pastor, they lead others in this kind of life as their vocation intersects with their lives.

A few brief thought on what this means, intended to plant seeds for further thought, will suffice for now.

This kind of pastor is not satisfied with culturally conditioned evangelical pop culture.  They are not the kind of preacher who buys their sermons on the weekend and replaces all the specific references in order to make sure it sounds like they are not warming up someone else's leftovers.  This pastor is driven by the search for God's wisdom in his Word and in the world around him.  They know that wisdom rarely if ever fits into neat boxes of "5 Steps" or quick answers to life's tendency to bludgeon people.

Their reading habits are different than other people's.  While they may be aware of what "most people" read, they are hunting down more insightful and longer lasting things.  Their library - virtual or tree - reveals a fairly broad set of interests.  The philosopher pastor is a synthesizer and analyzer.   They learn how to take in what they encounter and filter it through the lenses of prayer and sound theology.  What comes out of them, then, is simply different from what most people can put out as a result of their pop culture consumptions.

They are driven by the fascination of seeing the things they learn about God's will and work applied to the lives of the people in their congregation and to the community around them.  And they are fascinated by conversations that reveal what Christ is at work doing in people's lives.

This pastor does not allow their role to be relegated to other boxes created by other professions that are, currently, better understood.  The pastor is a counselor, but not a professional therapist.  The pastor is a leader of sorts, but not a corporate CEO.  And on the story goes.  The pastor as philosopher is wise enough and courageous enough to play those roles when needed, but to not be cornered into one of those cubicles.  They take their cues from the biblical understanding of spiritual shepherding rather than from the career resumes currently at the top of the cultural importance list.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Early Christian Female Philosopher

One of the advances of the Christian faith is that women took a greater role in private and public life than they had in the Roman and African world around them.  It is a simple matter of history that Christians educated and learned from women at a time when it was ridiculous to think it possible.  I ran across one small example in an ecclesiastical history written by a man named Socrates.  This history covers the period of time from 305ad to 438ad.

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

She fell victim to false political slander and was murdered.  Socrates adds, "And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius."