Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Review of Religion and the Sciences of Origins by Kelly James Clark

Kelly Clark, a philosopher and senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, provides some much needed reflection and historical perspective on the often contentious relationship between scientists and religious believers. Clark begins by exploring possible models of engagement between the two realms:
  •  Conflict - If fiery spokesmen like Richard Dawkins, Maarten Boudry and Ken Ham are to be believed, the scientific and religious communities are locked in a mortal combat out of which one must ultimately emerge as victor. Which one? Depends on whom you ask.... 
  •  Separation - Stephen Gould's "non-overlapping magesteria" formulation compartmentalizes science and religion into separate, independent spheres. 
  •  Integration - In this view, science and religion provide two different perspectives on the same underlying reality; therefore they reinforce and correct one another. 
Clark espouses integration, pointing out ways that each discipline can inform the other. Neuroscience and biology can inform religious conceptions of personhood, and astrophysics and geology can help us discern what in ancient creation accounts are the essential points and what are the cultural accommodations. Perhaps more counterintuitive to advocates of the conflict and separation schools, religion can shape the scientific enterprise in return by providing an understanding of epistemology, the ethics of research methodologies, and the limits of what science can prove. The remainder of the book elaborates the often fruitful collaboration between the domains, both historically and today.

The author proceeds with an essay on the development of science--from the Aristotelian approach of "sense and common sense," to Bacon's idea of God's "two books" (science and Scripture), and eventually to Darwin's evolution, which liberates William Paley's divine watchmaker from the task of specially designing every species de novo, but not necessarily from his role as creator and ruler of the universe. Pioneers of scientific research like Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton all pursued "natural philosophy" (what we now call science) because they believed both that God created the universe in an orderly way (governed by universal, mathematical laws) and that he invites us to investigate and understand it. For many modern scientists and philosophers, though, science's implicit dependence on epistemological support from religion has shrunk to the point of seeming invisible. I must thank Clark for drawing my attention to the scientific pioneers' explicit affirmation of theology's role and impetus in science.

Clark devotes a chapter to the Galileo controversy, a major turning point in the relationship of science and religion. In particular, Clark carefully examines Galileo's hermeneutical approach to Scripture. As noted elsewhere in the book, religious thinkers like Augustine and Maimonides had previously concluded that God accommodated his revelation to the scientific worldview of his audience, rather than insist that they acquire a more accurate understanding of astronomy or geology prior to entering a covenant relationship with Him. Galileo, however, deepened the accommodation principle by putting it in a broader framework of four points:
  1. "The Naturalism Stance: When we examine the physical world we ought to bracket out religious considerations." This could also be called methodological naturalism. 
  2. "The Accommodation Principle: When speaking of the natural world, the Bible accommodates the opinions and views of the common people." 
  3. "The Doctrine of the Two Books: God has revealed truth both in Scripture and in nature. On matters of faith, the Book of Scripture has authority; on matters relating to the material world, the Book of Nature has authority." 
  4. "Interpretive Humility: We ought not think our interpretation of the Bible is final, especially when dealing with matters extrinsic to the central message of the Scriptures." 
While both Catholic and Protestant theologians were amenable to methodological naturalism and the doctrine of the Two Books, the principles of accommodation and interpretive humility were more controversial. As Clark notes, the Roman curia was especially indisposed to interpretive humility because of its acrimonious struggle against Protestantism. In my opinion, Clark indulges in a bit of blame-the-victim analysis by stating that the dust-up was more the result of Galileo's inflammatory rhetoric than a deep-seated conflict between science and religion. I disagree for two reasons:

  • Prior to the release of his sardonic Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo had long struggled under the burden of widespread and nasty rhetoric from leading theologians. As Clark himself quotes from Galileo's Letter, "no small number of professors" had "hurled various charges and published numerous writings" against Galileo's observations. In other words, Galileo didn't pick this fight, the theologians did. 
  •  While the Roman curia might have been in theoretical agreement on the doctrine of the two books, there was a strong conflict over how to apply it. What Galileo regarded as "a matter relating to the material world" was regarded inalterably by Pope Urban and the curia as "a matter of faith." The Pope stated that the Church, in accord with its traditions, was the only party allowed to interpret Scriptures that spoke of the sun moving but the earth not being moved. Ultimately, Urban's stance had to result in conflict, because there were no scientists making observations with telescopes and microscopes when the Church's foundations of Scripture and tradition were first being laid. 

The synthesis Galileo so elegantly articulated in his letter to the grand Duchess Christina (found in Works of Galileo Galilei) remains to this day a useful framework for integrating faith and science, however, so I learned much from this chapter.

The majority of the book is a discussion of a broad range of issues: evolution and creation, randomness and free will, the implications of evolutionary psychology for religious belief and morality, neurobiology and the existence of the soul, and what the design of the universe says (if anything) about the existence of God. Clark begins each chapter by presenting the various approaches to a question, including the evidence adduced by the proponents. While Clark clearly favors integration approaches, I found his discussion of differing viewpoints to be generally even-handed. The author typically closes a chapter by offering an explanation that integrates scientific and religious perspectives. For example, he notes that God can provide direction to the supposedly undirected process of biological evolution by putting his finger on the scale of circumstances that undergird natural selection. Although he also presents other models for integrating evolution and the doctrine of creation, I found this one quite intriguing. If I might be permitted to riff on Clark's idea ... we could envision God saying to Himself at the end of the Cretaceous: "Hmmm, these dinosaurs have reached a point where smaller ones could evolve into birds. The larger ones, however, are suppressing the rise of mammals. I think I'll nudge a massive asteroid in the direction of the Earth to wipe out those hulking tetrapods."

Clark finishes with chapters on debates over evolution and creation within Judaism and Islam. I didn't realize that Islam has its own Ken Ham wannabe, a Turkish artist name Harun Yahya who often borrows Ham's arguments almost verbatim to attack the (supposedly) idolatrous claims of (supposedly) infidel scientists. Clark also quotes Jewish and Muslim scholars who promote an integration viewpoint; I appreciated their analysis, even if I don't fully agree with their religious views. The extensive endnotes and bibliography are excellent resources for those who want to investigate the historical and contemporary debates more fully.

I will close this review by sharing some views on how Clark could strengthen this already commendable and helpful work in a future edition:

1) Even though the Intelligent Design camp has staked out a lot of territory in contemporary debates, nowhere does Clark engage their claims. ID has gained a lot of traction among religious believers who want to integrate their faith with science--or at least with geology, physics, and astronomy, if not with biology. In a book that aspires to provide an overview of the key ideas in contemporary debates, the absence of any analysis of ID is puzzling. Clark does spend a paragraph on how the recourse to supernatural causation--the "God of the gaps" approach--is ultimately self-defeating. However, the ID camp has made a broad array of claims (irreducible complexity, mathematical probabilities of mutations, methods of selecting between competing explanations for historical events) that need to be addressed. I wish Clark had included a chapter (or at least a few pages) on contemporary ID claims.

2) The chapter on geocentrism would be strengthened by a recognition of how key Protestant theologians (Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon) joined in the rejection of heliocentrism on the basis of its contradiction to the (supposedly) ordinary and crystal-clear message of Scripture. Contemporary proponents of Young Earth Creation like Ken Ham and the Institute for Creation Research make similar claims about the (supposedly) ordinary and crystal-clear meaning of the Genesis creation account, yet they seem completely unaware of how their Reformation theological heroes were ultimately proved wrong in a similar debate 400 years ago.

3) While Clark's irenic approach is refreshing in our era of hype, I would prefer describing the relationship between science and religion as dialogue, rather than integration. Integration implies that disagreements between the two domains cannot remain intractable, but some scientific findings (e.g., that a bodily injury to a brain can dramatically alter someone's behavior and even faith) strongly challenge Clark's sunny optimism about their accord. The Biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes indicate that the religious believer may sometimes have to hold on to faith in the face of a universe that elicits doubt; we can sympathize with Job's wife who, surveying the destruction of her world, exclaims, "Curse God and die!" There are mysteries, contradictions whose resolution awaits a more complete revelation than we can ever view with our mortal eyes. To his credit, Clark recognizes some of these conundrums; he just doesn't seem to recognize their implication for his terminology. On the other hand, using the word integration allows Clark to reference the popular television series CSI (Conflict, Separation, Integration--get it?), so I won't lament his terminology too much!

Clark's broad perspective makes a unique contribution to a debate dominated by treatises on more narrowly defined issues (just biology, or just the age of the universe, etc.) where authors often do not examine their own premises. I have some disagreements with Clark, but I nevertheless found this book to be extraordinarily helpful and insightful. Highly recommended for undergraduate courses, church discussion groups, or anyone interested in the relationship between science and religion.
The author provided a review copy of this book to me.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Young Earth Creationism: Wrong Analysis, Wrong Battle

As I continue the journey to better harmonize God's Word and God's world, I have taken interest in the fascinating research of a Christian biologist, Dr. Richard Colling. I discovered that Christian Networks Journal interviewed Colling and YEC advocate Ken Ham in 2005 for a debate about the age of the earth. Frankly, Ham proved to be the better debater. He quickly took the offensive by devoting much of his presentation to a rebuttal of Colling's (presumably anticipated) old earth arguments. Moreover, Ham’s arguments also appealed to the strong emotions surrounding the subject of biblical authority. Underlying his words was an ever-present question: "Why would a believing Christian trust the word of materialist scientists over a message from God?" This can be quite an effective argument among evangelicals, who tend to see themselves as continually battling destructive, worldly influences.

Being the more effective debater does not squarely put you in the right, however. Since Colling did not really address the majority of Ham's arguments, I undertake in this blog post to weigh Ham's assertions carefully.1 And a lot is at stake in this debate. Christian scientists, especially in the fields of geology, astrophysics, and biology, need to be encouraged in their work done in faith, rather than being rejected, despised, or misunderstood by their fellow believers. Enquirers of Christianity need to see our representatives speaking accurately with regard to Scripture and science; otherwise, they may not trust what we say at all. Finally, as many Christian youth are figuring out how to engage the world they may feel (unnecessarily) compelled to jettison their faith if their spiritual mentors have erected a false dichotomy between faith and science.2 That was certainly my experience

Genesis Creation Account

According to Ham, "The Bible does give us enough information to compute the approximate age of the Earth. We read in Exodus 20:11 that God made the heaven and earth and all that is in them in six days. It is clear from context that these days were literal, ordinary, approximately 24-hour days."

On the other hand... Eminent and godly scholars have carefully examined the context of the Genesis creation account and concluded precisely the opposite.
  • Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the greatest scholar in church history and whose teaching later inspired the Protestant Reformation, taught that the Genesis account does not speak of 24-hour days.
  • Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, author of The Reason for God and The Prodigal God, lays out a strong case that the creation account is an exalted prose narrative that does not support a literalistic exegesis.
If you want to explore the historical and linguistic background of the Genesis creation account more deeply, I highly recommend "Genesis Through Ancient Eyes," a video featuring John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Walton digs into Israelite culture to show that they viewed the first chapters of Genesis as an account of how God brought order out of chaos. Moreover, God's purpose in ordering the world was to make His abode with us. So the message of Genesis is not a modern scientific analysis of how the house got constructed, but rather the purposes for which God arranged the home. And if we're paying attention to its message, we won't be thinking as much about scientific theories as about whether we are living in tune with our Creator's purposes.

The Science

While Ham was careful to assert that his primary case for the age of the earth rests on Biblical authority, he also asserted that much scientific evidence buttresses the young earth theory. Let’s examine Ham's scientific arguments, one by one.

Philosophy of Science

Ham distinguishes between origins science and observational science, and disputes the validity of the former. According to Ham, "There is no scientific way to prove the age of the earth. Observational science operates in the present, and deals with observable, repeatable processes."

But consider this... This division between origins science and observational science is artificial and ultimately unviable. Scientific research assumes that the laws of nature are equally applicable throughout all of time and space in our universe, both past and future, without exception. Thus quantum mechanics and relativity were operating a second after God created the universe, just as they are today. Moreover, we can use science not only to project future events, whether in a lab or in the universe itself,3 but also to infer previous states.

An example from astronomy illustrates how science can help us understand what happened in the past. In 1928, astronomer Edwin Hubble--yes, that Hubble, whose name adorns the amazing orbiting telescope--observed that the Crab Nebula was expanding outward. Based on the rate of expansion, he calculated that the Crab Nebula was in fact the remnants of a stellar explosion approximately 900 years earlier. Since Chinese astronomers had observed a supernova in the same region of the sky in 1054 AD, Hubble further concluded that the Chinese had observed the birth of the Crab Nebula.

Please note: if the observations of the Chinese astronomers had somehow been lost, Hubble would still have concluded that the Crab Nebula was the remnants of an eleventh-century supernova. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is in earshot, it still makes a sound.

You don't have any problems with Hubble's method of inferring what happened in the 11th century, do you? Well, now we get to the point of the story: in the same way Hubble calculated backwards from observations of the Crab Nebula, astronomers make observations today on a much larger scale and conclude that the universe itself is the result of an explosion of sorts--a Big Bang--approximately 13.8 billion years ago.

If you accept that a forensic pathologist can use his observations to infer how long a victim was dead before being discovered, why can’t you accept the background microwave radiation observations that an astronomer uses to calculate how long ago the universe was formed?

If you accept the DNA evidence that a forensic scientist uses to identify who handled the weapon that killed a victim, why can’t you accept the radiometric dating that a geologist uses to identify how old rock formations are? Is it really the case that science cannot help us understand what happened in the past?

Motivations for Believing the Earth is Old

According to Ham, "Evolutionists reject such estimations [of a young earth] because they first believe evolution, which requires many billions of years."

Sadly... This is an ad hominem argument--i.e., it suggests that we should judge arguments based on the motives of the speaker. In this case, Ham asserts that arguments for an old earth are predominantly based on a desire to remain consistent with the theory of evolution. But Ham's line of reasoning is wrong in many ways.
  1. True, it's common sense to exercise caution about a statement because of the speaker's motives. But rejecting statements outright based on the speakers' motives descends quickly into chaos, because you can always find a way to question someone's motives. The ad hominem argument could even be turned back on Ham; perhaps he is rejecting a large body of good science because he first believes the earth is a few thousand years old. If two people try to change each other's opinion on a subject but both decry the other's motives, how will they ever make progress?
  2. Some proponents of Intelligent Design believe in an old earth, but dispute evolution. In so doing, they show that you can trust the geological and physical evidence for an old earth without the requirement of believing in evolution.4
Radiometric Dating

No, we are not talking about the successor to! According to Ham, "Rocks from very recent volcanoes have been tested using this method [radiometric dating]; their radiometric 'ages' show up as being hundreds of thousands to millions of years old – even though we know the rocks are only a few years old! So radiometric dating certainly does not prove that the Earth is billions of years old."

On the other hand.... Ham does not take measurement error into account. Depending on what geologic formation is being measured, radiometric dating has a standard error of up to 100 million years. This means it's no more useful for measuring the age of rocks from a recent volcanic eruption than a bathroom scale would be for measuring the weight of a postage stamp, or a radar gun would be for measuring the velocity of a snail. But it's more than accurate enough for measuring the age of rocks suspected of being billions of years old, in the same way that the Summerville Police Department's radar was more than accurate enough to justify my speeding ticket,5 and my bathroom scale was not lying when it said I gained a few pounds over the Christmas holidays.

Carbon-14 Dating

According to Ham, "Carbon dating gives estimations of ages that are recent – a few thousand years old at most."

However... Radiocarbon dating is actually reliable to approximately 50,000 years ago. That's not enough to prove that the earth is billions of years old, but it's enough to call the result of Ham's dating methodology into question.

Ocean Sediments

According to Ham, "Sediment accumulates on the ocean floor at a rate of 25 billion tons per year. If the oceans were really billions of years old (as evolutionists teach), then there would be many times more sediment than we have. But the amount of sediment is perfectly consistent with a few thousand of years."

But there's more to it... Ham assumes that sediment deposits can only rest on the ocean floor, but this is not the case. Geologists have identified several factors that explain Ham's sediment mystery:
  1. The subduction of tectonic plates as they slowly collide transforms much sediment into mantle. Taking account of this single factor would stretch the age of the earth to 12 million years.
  2. Sediment can also become part of the continental crust as tectonic movements push ocean floor up on to land, or as the sea level falls.
  3. As ocean basins periodically close up in the Wilson cycle, sediment "is piled up on the edges of continents or returned to the mantle."
Combined, these three factors explain how billions of years of sediment are not just accumulating on the ocean floor, but are continuously being transformed into crust or mantle.

Earth's Magnetic Field

According to Ham, "[The earth's magnetic] field is decaying; it gets weaker every year. That means it was much stronger in the past. If the Earth were older than a few thousand years, the magnetic field would have been much too strong for life in the past. This isn’t a problem for the biblical age of 6,000 years, but it is inconsistent with billions of years."

It would seem that Ham is relying on the work of Thomas Barnes, in particular the book Origin and Destiny of the Earth's Magnetic Field. Unfortunately for Ham's argument, Barnes' work has been thoroughly discredited by geophysicists. The data Barnes cites are better explained by a "dynamo" model of the magnetic field, which predicts polar reversals and field fluctuations that explain not only Barnes' data but also many eons worth of data he ignores.

Fighting the Right Battle

If you are a Christian reader, perhaps you feel unsettled. You may feel that for decades an important part of your mission has been the struggle against the perceived evils of science that would deny key truths of the Bible. Consequently this blog post, which doesn’t join the fight against geology and astrophysics and doesn’t affirm a literalistic exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis, may seem to undermine that struggle and even your identity.

I can sympathize; I have been in your shoes and felt those feelings. But the key insight I want to share with you is this: when we Christians argue that scientists in the disciplines of geology, biology, and astrophysics must be wrong, we fight on the wrong terrain and unwittingly concede enormous gains to the secular worldview. When a scientist claims that evolution proves that life has no purpose, or that astrophysics proves that God did not create the heavens and the earth, and Christians respond with the knee-jerk tactic of disputing their scientific claims, we tacitly and unnecessarily agree with the secular view that science is the archenemy of faith.

Instead we should argue that scientism--the notion that science can explain everything--is just as much a faith assertion as any religious system of thought. So the real enemy of faith is not science, but scientism. Instead of fighting against biology, geology, and astrophysics, we Christians can proclaim that science, while having many notable successes, does not have answers for the ultimate meaning and purpose of our existence. Our good news is that our Creator has provided these answers in the Word that was made flesh, Jesus Christ.

But what of Ham’s assertion that Biblical authority, and with it our faith, is inextricably linked to young earth creationism? While the Scripture is sacred, our interpretation of it is not. Already the study of history, linguistics, and archeology has informed and changed our understanding of the Bible, and so must the study of science. As Augustine observed over 1600 years ago in his commentary on Genesis:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up [perceive] vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

While I admire Ham's zeal, I think I'll stand with Augustine on how a Christian should approach the Genesis creation account. It isn't a science textbook. Instead, it is a textbook for the character of God and His relationship to Man. It shows us that God created the whole universe for His divine purposes. He created humanity in His image, to be like Him. He loves us, and He has made us stewards of His creation. We have rejected His Presence and His call on our lives, but He has nevertheless shown us mercy and offers us redemption. These are the Biblical truths I will defend to my dying breath. If you have come to this blog post with the perspective that science is the only path to truth, I hope you will now consider the viewpoint that science and Scripture are in fact complementary. If so, perhaps you will also give the spiritual truths of Genesis a fresh look. 

(I want to thank my beautiful wife, Linda, for her incisive feedback and mad editorial skills that have shaped this blog post. Any errors are my own, of course.)

EDIT 02/26/2015: Used superscript numbers instead of asterisks for footnotes.
(1) Before I analyze Ham’s ideas, I want to speak positively of Ham's obvious zeal for God and for the Scriptures. We should all possess such passion! It's important to direct such passion with wisdom and knowledge, though. As 2 Peter 1:5 teaches, knowledge is a partner to faith and goodness. 
(2) While I have been aware of these three impacts for some time, I owe a debt to John Walton for discussing them so cogently at the conclusion of his "Genesis Through Ancient Eyes" video.
(3) Yes, the universe will keep expanding
(4) I am not an Intelligent Design proponent, but I tremendously respect the movement's desire to incorporate insights both from God's work (science) and from God's word (Scripture).
(5) The officer was off by about 2 miles per hour when he clocked me. But I still got the ticket. And if I had said to the judge, "It's ridiculous to use radar, it would say I'm going 2 MPH when I'm in fact standing still," I don't think I would have won the case. Do you?

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Vatican Speaks Out for Millions of Poor Victims, and the Mainstream Media Ignores It

Recent news reports state that Pope Francis will very soon release an encyclical that calls on Roman Catholics to work to reduce human-induced climate change and its related, serious upheavals. It is somewhat akin to stepping into the middle of a firefight. The climate scientists who publish papers in peer-reviewed journals have come to a widespread agreement that recent human activity has released enough carbon into the atmosphere to provoke a radical warming trend. You would never know this, however, if you prefer to pay attention to GOP presidential hopefuls, who rely on press releases from wealthy oil and coal industry funded research organizations to dispute the scientific consensus.

Why would the Roman Catholic church step into such a messy debate? Wouldn't it be safer to stay on the sidelines? Well, Pope Francis has never been one to value safety over faithfulness, and he has been vigorously leading the church in following her Lord's footsteps--which as we know, led to a gruesome crucifixion about 2000 years ago.* Moreover, the Roman Catholic church has a longstanding commitment to promoting responsible stewardship of our environment on behalf of future generations. As the US Catholic Conference of Bishops explains:

Care for the earth is a duty of our Catholic faith. We all are called to be careful stewards of God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for vulnerable human beings now and in the future.

Okay, we can understand why human-induced climate change would be an important issue to Catholic faith--assuming that the almost-unanimous opinion of published climate scientists is correct. But has the Church leadership done its scientific research homework to lead the flock on this controversial issue?

Let me answer the question with a question: did you know that the Vatican sponsors a Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help it gain a sound understanding of scientific issues? Before today, I didn't.** Just three years ago, the Academy commissioned a working group of glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists, physicists, chemists, mountaineers, and lawyers to study the issue of glacier melt and its underlying causes. This esteemed group came to the following conclusion:

In response to the argument that 'since the Earth has experienced alternating cold periods (ice ages or glacials) and warm periods (inter-glacials) during the past, today’s climate and ice cover changes are entirely natural events', we state:

The primary triggers for ice ages and inter-glacials are well understood to be changes in the astronomical parameters related to the motion of our planet within the solar system and natural feedback processes in the climate system. The time scales between these triggers are in the range of 10,000 years or longer. By contrast, the observed human-induced changes in carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, and soot concentrations are taking place on 10-100 year timescales –at least a hundred times as fast. It is particularly worrying that this release of global warming agents is occurring during an interglacial period when the Earth was already at a natural temperature maximum.

Moreover, the Vatican working group states that this human-induced climate change is not just melting glaciers:

Human-caused changes in the composition of the air and air quality result in more than 2 million premature deaths worldwide every year and threaten water and food security —especially among those “bottom 3 billion” people who are too poor to avail of the protections made possible by fossil fuel use and industrialization.

Now it is easier to understand why Pope Francis is planning to use his influence on the climate change issue: he is speaking up for the millions of poor who are already dying. While I can scarcely claim to know the mind of His Holiness, I suspect his encyclical will recommend action similar to the three recommendations of the Vatican working group:

I. Reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions without delay, using all means possible to meet ambitious international global warming targets and ensure the long-term stability of the climate system. All nations must focus on a rapid transition to renewable energy sources and other strategies to reduce CO2 emissions. Nations should also avoid removal of carbon sinks by stopping deforestation, and should strengthen carbon sinks by reforestation of degraded lands. They also need to develop and deploy technologies that draw down excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These actions must be accomplished within a few decades.

II. Reduce the concentrations of warming air pollutants (dark soot, methane, lower atmosphere ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons) by as much as 50%, to slow down climate change during this century while preventing millions of premature deaths from respiratory disease and millions of tons of crop damages every year.

III. Prepare to adapt to the climatic changes, both chronic and abrupt, that society will be unable to mitigate. In particular, we call for a global capacity-building initiative to assess the natural and social impacts of climate change in mountain systems and related watersheds.

How Will the Faithful Respond?

The Roman Catholic faithful will be tested severely when the encyclical is released. Even today, Catholics might subscribe to the Fox News and GOP stance on climate change because they simply aren't aware of the Church's stance on the issue. Have you seen the conclusions of the Vatican's scientific commission reported before you read this post? Climate change is an issue I follow, but I never saw any such news. But when the Pope releases an encyclical, this incipient conflict between the Church's leadership on the one side and a well-moneyed assemblage of powerful politicians and wealthy capitalists on the other will no longer be in the shadows. Which side will the faithful choose?

Even though I have left the Roman Catholic church in favor of evangelical Protestantism, I still have tremendous respect for its courageous leadership on issues of social justice. Consequently, I will not be a sideline observer as the drama unfolds. I will do whatever I can to stand with my brothers and sisters in the catholic faith*** in favor of the poor who are dying because of unanticipated consequences of our carbon-based modern economy. Change to a sustainable economic market economy won't be easy...but since when does the ease of the task dictate the terms of our service to our Lord, who suffered a cruel death for the sake of His flock?

* And a subsequent resurrection! Pope Francis, by the way,  is not by a long shot the only Roman Catholic leader with this vision of preferring faithful service to safety and comfort. He just happens to be communicating the vision with particular clarity and visibility of late.

** How many denominations or Christian organizations have such a commitment to scientific inquiry as to maintain a staff of world-class scientific talent? I am impressed with the Roman Catholic church's approach.

***  In Latin, "catholic" means universal, and I consider evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Orthodox adherents, etc., to be members of the universal church.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Textual Criticism, Explained by Dr. James White

Textual criticism, like any of academia's black arts, can serve many masters. Filtering the scribal errors from the Bible's manuscript tradition in order to recover the original text does not inherently breed unbelief. Many textual critics contend, however, that the vast number of variants between the ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts make it impossible to determine what the original manuscripts said. Bart Ehrman, the most prominent scholar on the subject, has published 27 books that include these flamboyant titles:

"Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why"
"Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are"
"How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee"

James White, the founder of Alpha and Omega Ministries, thinks that the evangelical church has done a very poor job of explaining the manuscript tradition of the Bible. I have to agree; most of the Christians I've known display little grasp of the subject. The problem, according to White, is that the evangelical student enters college a firm believer in inerrancy, convinced by the sermons he (or she) has heard and the worldview seminars he's attended--but knows nothing about the manuscript tradition. Then he reads a book by Bart Ehrman--or has a roommate who's read Ehrman--and is thrown for a very serious loop.

Instead, White contends, we Christians need to deal with the manuscripts as they exist, not as we wish they existed. If we believe that God cares about the truth, then we shouldn't be afraid of the manuscript tradition, warts and all. And indeed, a careful examination of the subject reveals that we have nothing to fear.

When White debated Erhman a few years ago (video here, transcript here), he made these following key points:

1. While there are more variants than words in the Greek New Testament, the vast majority are either insignificant (e.g., spelling errors) or not viable (i.e., they are not attested in any of the best and most ancient manuscripts). Only 1% of the NT words are subject to any significant variants.

2. The variants that remain do not rise to the level of calling into question any of the orthodox teachings of Christianity. For example, it is hard to discern on the basis of Greek manuscripts whether Jesus responded to the leper in Mark 1:41 with anger or with compassion. But in either case, neither of the possibilities change our view of Jesus. (Here's how my analysis runs: if Jesus responded with anger, then he discerned that the leper was bitterly accusing him of not wanting to heal. We see Jesus in other passages responding to willful doubt with anger, so our understanding of Jesus would not change. And of course if Jesus responded with compassion, that would be consistent with many other Gospel passages as well.)

3. Scribes had a bias toward keeping what was passed down to them. They occasionally made errors of various kinds (such as spelling errors), but there is no evidence that scribes just omitted or deliberately skewed passages they didn't like. This means that we can carefully reconstruct the original text, since one of the variants in a passage has preserved the original, even if other variants are in error. White compares the manuscript tradition to a 1000 piece puzzle with 1010 pieces: with due care, you can assemble the puzzle while discarding the extra pieces.

4. The rapid distribution of NT documents across the world, as attested by the manuscript tradition, made it impossible for anyone in a central location--say, Rome--to corrupt the text. They had no way of hiding or destroying all the existing copies, thousands of which we possess today. In other words, libraries get it right when they put Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code in the fiction stacks.

On the other hand, Ehrman makes an interesting case for our inability to prove that we truly have the original text. Could it be that the manuscripts we have today only go back to a second or third generation copy? This certainly seems possible. And since copying was an imperfect process, Ehrman continues, maybe that second- or third-generation source of our manuscripts was not identical to the original.

However, that argument does not seem winning to me, at least in the sense of destroying orthodox Christian faith. As we have seen, 99% of transmission errors we know about are irrelevant (e.g., spelling mistakes), and none of them influence doctrine. Since the numerous transmission errors we know about are so innocuous, there is no reason to conclude that a transmission error we don't know about might somehow have been nefarious. To re-use a metaphor, just because one or two pieces are missing from a 1000 piece puzzle doesn't mean we can't feel confident about the picture we assemble. Also, Catholic and Orthodox scholars would hasten to add that the church itself, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, assured the faithful transmission of the gospel of the kingdom during the hundreds of years before the canon was finalized.

Before I conclude this post, I do want to express a couple of important disagreements with White. First, when he attacks Peter Enns' scholarship, I feel he does so unfairly. After noting that Enns thinks the Genesis creation accounts "breathe the same air" as the Babylonian creation myths, White states that it's irrelevant because the Genesis account, unlike the Babylonian, presents a God who existed before anything in the universe, a God who created everything out of nothing by simply speaking it into being, and who both loves and holds everyone human accountable. But in fact, Enns also notes these same key differences between the Biblical and Babylonian accounts. So White must not have read Enns very carefully.

Secondly, White regards evolution as terrible stumbling block. He thinks it impossible to love God and obey Him radically if you believe what scientists say about evolution. As I have stated previously, the equation of Biblical inspiration with young earth creationism does a great disservice to the church, especially our young adults.* When the topic is textual criticism, White has the right attitude: we should accept the facts of the manuscript tradition, because a deep understanding gives us nothing to fear. I wish White would also accept the facts we learn from biology, geology, and astronomy, because a right understanding of our magnificent 13.8 billion year old universe, and the evolution of life over these past 3.5 billion years, likewise gives us nothing to fear. Scientist-theologians like John Polkinghorne and apologists like Vern Poythress aver that a right understanding of the science can lead us to marvel at our Creator and worship Him more deeply; I concur wholeheartedly.

With these two caveats, I commend James White's scholarship to you.**

What do you think? Do we need to understand the Biblical manuscript tradition, warts and all? Can we believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture, even today? Leave a comment!

* I am not saying that YECs are heretics, or hate God, or anything like that. The disservice is the converse: a lot of YECs (such as Ken Ham) claim that those who disagree with the YEC position are in terrible peril, heretics, or fundamentally disobedient to God. This stance, repeated vehemently and frequently, leaves someone who wants to be faithful to God--while dealing with scientific evidence authentically--in dire straits.

** A tip of the hat to my blogging friend whitefrozen (Josh Gillies) for pointing me to James White's material on textual criticism.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Faith-Based Science: The Earth Is Motionless While the Sun Revolves Around It

The most esteemed Bible scholars of the Reformation believed that contemporary scientists like Copernicus were peddling a heresy when they contended that the earth revolved around the sun. The only possible interpretation of many verses, according to these scholars, was that the earth was at the center of God's universe, and the sun revolved around it.

Here's Martin Luther (from Table Talk) exegeting Joshua 10:12 -
"There was mention of a certain new astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. [Luther remarked] “So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth."

Here's John Calvin exegeting Psalm 104:5 -
"Here the prophet celebrates the glory of God, as manifested in the stability of the earth. Since it is suspended in the midst of the air, and is supported only by pillars of water, how does it keep its place so stedfastly that it cannot be moved? This I indeed grant may be explained on natural principles; for the earth, as it occupies the lowest place, being the center of the world, naturally settles down there."

In the same reference we find Phillip Melanchthon's condemnation of heretics who teach that the earth revolves around the sun:
"The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun revolves . . . Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it."

Many evangelical scholars today insist that the only possible way to interpret the Genesis creation account involves a literal 6 24-hour days. This stance is remarkably similar to that of Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon, who taught that rejecting a literal interpretation of certain Bible passages was unbelief. We evangelicals usually consider ourselves to be the heirs of the great reformers. Yet here we are today, completely at ease with a metaphorical, rather than a literal, exegesis of Psalm 104:5 because we accept the scientific theory that the earth revolves around the sun.

I believe the universe is 13.8 billion years old, the earth is 4.8 billion years old, and the early chapters of Genesis are not to be interpreted in the most literal manner possible. Consequently I sometimes feel like a cultural outsider in the evangelical movement. So I make this plea: before we jump to conclusions about how the early chapters of Genesis must be interpreted, let's look at the history of the exegesis of passages like Psalm 104:5 and Joshua 10:12. The question of what in the Bible is literal and what is metaphorical is not easy to answer. But let's learn from the mistakes of Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon; let's be open to what we can learn from the scientists who study the works of God, which ultimately are in harmony with His words.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Governor Haley: Please Care About the 200,000 South Carolinians Who Are Shut Out of the Health Care Marketplace

Honorable Governor Haley -

You have made a lot of noise to the press about the supposed dangers of federal dollars. If they are so terrible, why did your own office of Executive Policy and Programs obtain 73% of its funds from the federal government in 2012-13?

Moreover, almost 40% of your 2012-13 budget for SC was funded by federal dollars.

It is quite evident that you are against federal dollars, except when you are for them.

Surely the plight of SC's poor should make you reconsider this glaring inconsistency. If SC's roads, ports, education, and commerce can benefit from federal funds, why should our noble and gracious state refuse to expand Medicaid enrollments for the poor?

I am aware of the Healthy Outcomes Plan that you have championed in lieu of Medicaid expansion. Unfortunately, it has only enrolled about 3000 impoverished individuals to date, and if it reaches its target (which seems very unlikely) it will have enrolled 8500. Contrast that to Medicaid expansion, which would have enrolled over 200,000 individuals.

After performing the simple math, I must sadly conclude that you are directly responsible for approximately 200,000 poor South Carolinians' lack of health care coverage. The Healthy Outcomes initiative is scarcely a drop in the bucket compared to this vast number of indigent South Carolinians who are shut out of the health care market.

SC already accepts over a billion federal dollars annually in order to provide Medicaid to approximately 800,000 South Carolinians. If you are so opposed to federal Medicaid dollars, why are you not ending the SC Medicaid program immediately? I suppose the fact that those 800,000 South Carolinians would greatly suffer, and sow further chaos into the SC health care marketplace is sufficient explanation.

If 800,000 is good, why isn't 800,000 + 200,000 better?

Please, Governor Haley, stop trying to look good to wealthy Republican donors, and start showing you care about the well-being of 200,000 South Carolinians who are shut out of the health care market.

Respectfully yours,

Chris Falter
Summerville, SC

Monday, March 10, 2014

Global Warming: Fred Singer is Skeptical

A few days ago I received an email from someone I deeply respect who is better connected in conservative political circles than I. He had forwarded it from a chain that included Tea Party members and email addresses at, and everyone seemed impressed that PBS, that purported bastion of fuzzy-headed liberal mushiness, had published an interview with Fred Singer, a climatologist and renowned global warming skeptic. My correspondent joked with me, referring to global warming as "the Gore theory." That's funny! First Gore invents the internet without the help of technologists, then he single-handedly turns climate science on its ear by creating a new theory that no scientist had every considered or researched in any way.* But on to the interview.
First, all those Tea Party groups that were suddenly planning to join fund-raising campaigns for PBS might want to reconsider: the interview was one of five that PBS conducted with scientists in conjunction with their "What's Up with the Weather?" investigation, and the other four scientists all agree with the anthropogenic global warming theory. Kudos to PBS for airing a minority dissent along with the consensus, but there's no reason to conclude that PBS was endorsing Singer's views.
More importantly, Singer gave the interview in April 2000. Fourteen years ago. Fast-moving climate scientists have done a lot of research since this interview was published. Fourteen years ago, Singer identified some unanswered questions that had led him to dissent from the consensus, but do his critiques still apply in 2014?
Climate scientists, like the scientists in other disciplines, abhor a vacuum of knowledge, so they've been steadily pushing back the boundaries of ignorance and uncertainty. When I was a kid my dad, whose only barrier to being beatified by the Church is that he is still energetically and joyfully among the living, gave me a subscription to an "astronomy for kids" series that I loved. I still remember the plum-colored covers, the single-staple cardboard binding, and the serious questions about whether the universe was essentially steady-state (as Einstein believed) or had originated in a big bang. At that time the vast majority of astronomers subscribed to the Big Bang, but a few steady-state holdouts didn't believe the evidence was convincing. Winning them over to the consensus required the confirmation of cosmic background microwave radiation, which won its discoverers the Physics Nobel in 1978. What had seemed likely but not quite conclusive in the mid-1960s became accepted as fact after further research.**
Personally, I am always eager to hear out dissenters--with whom I feel a certain kinship--so I read Singer's arguments with a willingness to be convinced. But knowing its age, I wanted to find out if later research confirmed or refuted his ideas. Would subsequent developments support his contentions, or would his statements look like the last gasp of the steady-state astronomers in the 1960s? In the remainder of this post, I'd like to assess Singer's arguments in the light of subsequent research.

Singer Contention #1: The Earth has not been warming.

"Since 1979, our best measurements show that the climate has been cooling just slightly. Certainly, it has not been warming."
What does subsequent research show?
Oceans, which hold 80% of the heat energy from the sun, have actually been warming from 1979 to today. This August 2013 source looks back at the past decade of oceanic temperature research and concludes: "How do scientists resolve these kind of disputes – bearing in mind that such disputes are the very stuff of science, the essence of true scepticism? One way is to find more data sources – different ways of measuring the phenomenon in dispute. By using results from seven different teams of scientists, all using different tools and methods, we are able to see a clear trend. And while there is variation between team results due to the differences in technique and measurement methods, one thing they all agree on: long term, [oceanic] temperatures are going up."

Satellite measurements of troposphere heat content (most of the remainder of earth's solar heat energy) show warming. These are the measurements that Singer purports to trust ("I personally prefer to trust in weather satellites.")

Discrepancies that existed in 2000 between surface and satellite measurements of temperature have been subsequently resolved; the data irrefutably indicate a trend toward higher temperature now. The above link includes this paragraph: "Previously reported discrepancies between the amount of warming near the surface and higher in the atmosphere have been used to challenge the reliability of climate models and the reality of human-induced global warming... This significant discrepancy no longer exists because errors in the satellite and radiosonde data have been identified and corrected. New data sets have also been developed that do not show such discrepancies."

Singer Contention #2: Global climate models are too imprecise and do not include cloud feedbacks.

"Until the observations and the models agree, or until one or the other is resolved, it's very difficult for people--and for myself, of course--to believe in the predictive power of the current models. ...  the clouds are not captured by the models. Models are not good enough to either depict clouds or to even discuss the creation of clouds in a proper way. So it's not possible at this time to be sure how much warming one will get from an increase in carbon dioxide."
What does subsequent research show?
Models are not perfect, but they have proven very useful, and in fact have been quite accurate in predicting trends over the past 24 years, in spite of their limitations.  As of 2013 models have successfully incorporated cloud interactions.

Singer Contention #3: The worst case scenario for rising sea level is not very bad.

"Of course, if the warming is extreme, and melts all the ice caps, all bets are off. But no one is talking about that."
What does subsequent research show?
The melting of the ice caps is a very serious long-term concern that portends devastating consequences.

Singer Contention #4: Jim Hansen is backpedaling on the predictive value of climate models.

"One of the leading climate modelists is Jim Hanson. [sic] He actually was the man who, ten years ago, went out on a limb and said he was sure the enhanced greenhouse effect was here. He now says we can't really tell. He says the forcings are so uncertain that they're much more important than the climate models. In other words, until we get the forcings straight, the climate-model predictions are not worth very much. That is basically what he said."
A 2013 interview with Jim Hansen, however, shows that he is strongly convinced by the climate models:
“If we burn even a substantial fraction of the fossil fuels, we guarantee there’s going to be unstoppable changes” in the climate of the earth, he said. “We’re going to leave a situation for young people and future generations that they may have no way to deal with.” 

Singer Contention #5: Hemispheric differentials in temperature increase refute climate models.

"Are the aerosol effects hiding the effect of carbon dioxide now? We can tell. We can find an answer to this, because we can look for fingerprints in the climate record. Since aerosols are mostly emitted in the northern hemisphere, where industrial activities are rampant, we would expect the northern hemisphere to be warming less quickly than the southern hemisphere. In fact, we would expect the northern hemisphere to be cooling. But the data show the opposite. Both the surface data and the satellite data agree that, in the last 20 years, the northern hemisphere has warmed more quickly than the southern hemisphere. So it contradicts the whole idea that aerosols make an important difference."
What does subsequent research show?
Climate models can and do account for the difference in hemispheric temperature increase. The two key factors are global ocean currents and hemispheric differences in land mass.
  • The Journal of Climate published two studies in April 2013 that show global ocean currents "transport heat away from southern waters and into the North Atlantic and North Pacific, helping to warm nearby land areas in the north even more." Researchers at Columbia University have confirmed this finding.
  • Per this 2013 research, "the Northern Hemisphere has more land and less ocean than the Southern Hemisphere, and oceans warm relatively slowly."

Conclusion: Singer Needs to Write a New Song

I am sure that tens of thousands of folks like my correspondent, maybe millions, have read the Singer interview without realizing just how much the field of climate science has changed in 14 years. The evidence for anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming has greatly strengthened since he gave the interview to PBS. The leadership of the Roman Catholic church, among many others, believes that we can no longer afford to wait for more scientific research: to be responsible stewards of God's creation, we must act now to counteract the consequences of global warming.*** I hope to explore the ethical implications of the scientific research in a future post. But for now, let the scientists have their say: the earth is warming because we have released carbon wastes into the environment, and the consequences will likely be grave.

* Irony alert! Irony alert!

**Helping the formation of the Big Bang consensus was the lack of a well-funded industry, concerned about its long-term profitability and willing to fund dissident scientists, that needed to refute Big Bang astrophysics.

***Look for a discussion of views of Roman Catholic and evangelical leaders in a future post.