Tag Archives: Faith

What a Wonderful World

(“What a Wonderful World”: what whimsical words to write while waging war with influenza! Would that I win!)


I’m guessing most of you, if not all of you, have at least heard Louis Armstrong’s classic recording of the song, “What a Wonderful World.” Upon preliminary reflection, it seems to me that the song is, among other possibilities, a song about perspective: namely, the perspective we choose to take on our daily lives, and the attitude that accompanies that perspective. Will we perceive life as a gift with many goods, or as something always falling short? Perhaps choosing to see the world as wonderful can transform us.

Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World” (from Wikipedia)

Last night, propped up in a spare bed, battling flu symptoms and desperately hoping not to infect my wife and daughter, I watched a documentary (Take that, you stupid, vaccine-evading strain of flu!). It was a science documentary about …

Influenza Virus (from Wikipedia)

… fossils. It was a 2016 National Geographic documentary about recent discoveries of human fossil remains.

Get this: A scientist (Lee Berger) in South Africa hired a fossil hunter (Pedro Boshoff) to explore their area for possible fossil-rich sites.  (Africa has numerous sites where human fossils have been found.) Boshoff found an underground cave that he got two cave divers (Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker) to explore  more thoroughly. Deep inside the cave, Hunter and Tucker found a large chamber with numerous fossils buried in sediment. They took pictures, which they shared with Boshoff. Boshoff, in turn, shared them with Berger.

Berger immediately began organizing a multi-week, multi-person (including multi-scientist) exploration of the site. To make a long story short, fossils of several (about 15) individuals were found, all judged to be members of the same species, and all belonging to our genus Homo, but of an extinct species. The discoverers named the species Homo naledi. You can read the Wikipedia article about Homo naledi here. You can read the first scientific report here.

Homo naledi Skeletal Specimens. From the Lee Roger Berger Research Team (https://elifesciences.org/articles/09560#fig1), which does not necessarily endorse my article or my use of this photo.

At this point, rather than focus on the fossils themselves, I want to say that I found myself struck by how excited the participating scientists were about their work. They were filled with wonder before, during, and after the fieldwork, lab work, and reporting. The documentary’s first-hand footage of the expedition helps us viewers see the role of emotions in science. Scientists are human. In the documentary, you see smiles, laughter, tears, shouts, and hugs.

To be sure, there are other emotions to behold in the documentary — and in science as a whole, as evidenced by pushback against the discovery from several prominent scientists, reported in the March 2016 issue of Scientific American magazine (article “Mystery Human” by Kate Wong). From the article, I sense anger and irritation, for instance. But here I wish to focus on the wonder and joy.

To watch these scientists, you could tell that, in powerful ways and at least for significant moments, they loved what they were doing. The world was wonderful to them. Their work was wonderful. The fossils they found were wonderful. So much wonder. So much awe. So much appreciation for life, for curiosity, for unexpected discoveries, for shared (and sharing) experiences.

An Old Testament scholar, Bill Brown, has written about the experience of wonder that frequents, not only the work of scientists, but also the Old Testament Scriptures. In 2010, he had a book published entitled The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.  In short, throughout this 240-page, Oxford-published book, Brown argues that Old Testament authors and modern scientists alike see the world as wonderful.

William Brown’s The Seven Pillars of Creation (from Amazon)

In Brown’s view, the concept of wonder provides common ground on which Bible readers and scientists can meet to talk about each others’ views, beliefs, and work. That is, Brown is trying to promote peace, and he believes that our wonderful world itself has a role to play in bringing about that peace. Picture a scientist scraping away sediment from a fossil, revealing it more clearly, and smilingly exclaiming, This is wonderful! Now picture a Bible-believer reading a nature-psalm (e.g., Psalm 104), which exclaims, This world is wonderful! Thirdly, now picture a Bible-believer alongside a scientist exploring the world and together exclaiming, This is wonderful!

Brown does not think that wonder is a magical concept. Just getting two people alongside each other and saying that the world is wonderful will not automatically bring about peace between science and Christian faith. But if scientists and Christians alike — and I should note that there are many scientists who are Christians — can posture their relationship with each other based on their agreement that the world is wonderful to them both, then perhaps they will lower their guard enough to listen and share their wonder. Perhaps understanding will emerge, even if some disagreements persist.

As a Bible, theology, and ministry guy, I’ve seen (but also often missed) the nature-wonder throughout the Bible. Even so, I have experienced wonder in the natural world. And I have also shared time with a scientist (a paleontologist) who wonders at the fossils he finds and shares with others. In fact, I’m cleaning some fossil sea shells for him now. He puzzled excitedly over something I found, and his joy at my discovery made me happy — a contagion much more welcome than this flu virus. And that’s Brown’s point: wonder is a healthy contagion for Bible readers and scientists alike.

So then, what if we gave the song “What a Wonderful World” new lyrics for the science / faith relationship? How might they read? Could they, like Armstrong’s singing of the song, gently invite us to look at the world with resolve and intentionality? And do our own habits of talking about the world posture us to spread the contagion of wonder so that more and more fighters in the science / faith battle lay down their weapons and enjoy the world together? Perhaps choosing to see the world as wonderful can transform us.

Believing in a Creator God (Part 5): Science and Faith

It has been some months since I last contributed to my series on the meaning of creation. Now, at last, I bring to you my fifth and final post for “Believing in a Creator God.” The reason I have written this series is to share the fruits of private studies and, more importantly, to provide clarity to my readers on what the Old Testament’s word bārā’, “create,” does and does not mean.

This clarity is important to me because numerous Christians in the United States use the language of “create” (e.g., “creation,” “creationism,” “creationist,” etc.) to talk about their faith, and about science, in ways that actually misrepresent what this word meant to Israel. In my view, if Christians are going to use Israel’s words as holy Scripture, as God’s words to them, then they should expend significant energies to understand those words — all the more so when they presume to respond to science on the authority of God.


If Christians are going to use Israel’s words as holy Scripture, as God’s words to them, then they should expend significant energies to understand those words.


Brief Review of bārā’

In Part 1, we met our word bārā’ in overview. Since bārā’ is a verb, in Part 2 we sampled some passages in which it occurs to look for clues to the kinds of action being conveyed. Especially helpful in this connection was seeing other verbs used alongside of bārā’. Beyond the kind of action itself, the meaning of verbs includes the time dimensions involved: when it is that the actions occur. In Part 3, then, we looked at the tenses of bārā’. In Part 4, we discussed direct objects: what kinds of things are acted upon by, or are the results of the action of, the verb bārā’.

I consider several important lessons to have emerged. First, Israel used bārā’ to denote the act of God making and forming things, both entities and events. Second, we learned that Israel quite regularly used bārā’ to refer to occurrences in the world in which agents other than God were fully active at the same time. In other words, “create” was not a way of saying that God had acted alone. Nor was it a way of saying that God did part of the action and something or someone else did the other part (50% God + 50% nature). It was more like overlapping ways of referring to the same occurrences.

Third, Israel used bārā’ in ways that denote past, present, and future action: God created, God is creating, and God will create. God is always active creating, and thus God is always a Creator. New events, ongoing occurrences of regular processes, new generations of living things, etc., are all God’s creative work.

Fourth, Israel identified a fairly comprehensive scope of objects with God’s creating. God creates the universe and everything in it. He creates humans and animals, not just in the past, but in ongoing generations. He creates Israel as his special, covenant people, including their experiences of judgment and destruction and of hope and deliverance. God creates the wind and other regular, mundane features of the larger natural world. It is thus difficult to detect anything that is off limits for the creating action of God.

To support my summary, I quote a summary of bārā’ that appears in a professional theological dictionary of the Old Testament: “Both human and cosmic, natural and historical entities are brought into existence by God; temporally, creation includes not only acts of origination but the ongoing succession of entities and conditions within the cosmos up to the present of the biblical writers. Finally, the OT can describe the same creative events as occurring both by God’s word and by natural means and processes over time (Stek). The OT does not separate, though it may distinguish, divine and ‘natural’ causality in creation” (Van Leeuwen, 1997, p. 730).


The OT does not separate, though it may distinguish, divine and ‘natural’ causality in creation.


Before I proceed with the implications of all of this for Christian thinking about science, I should address what, in biblical studies, is called the overload fallacy. The overload fallacy is a fallacy that occurs when a person (1) sees one word used in different places, (2) observes different meanings for that one word in those different places, and then (3) combines many or even all of those meanings for each individual occurrence of the word.

In the present case, the overload fallacy would occur if we took all of the meanings we have seen for bārā’ and then argued that each use of bārā’ contained all of those meanings. We would be overloading bārā’ with more meaning that it could possibly contain for a single use of the word. That is not how language works. Just because a word can mean different things in different contexts does not lead to the conclusion that a word means all of those things at once.

Here is my point: By summarizing the uses of bārā’ in the Hebrew Old Testament, I am showing the scope of the word, learning how extensive and flexible the word was. This enables us to draw better conclusions about Israel’s beliefs about God as one who creates. I am not, however, trying to suggest that all possible nuances of bārā’ are present with each use of the word.

Christians, Creation, and Science

Given all of the foregoing, I would like to make some suggestions for how Christians think about God’s creating, especially as such thinking relates to scientific investigations of the world.

First, we have seen how Israel often used bārā’ as a way of focusing on God’s action on occasions that still involved fully the actions of other agents (humans, animals, etc.). Since scientists study natural occurrences and try to explain them in terms of natural, observable causes and effects, science will focus on natural agents, and not on the action of God. Science as such is neither equipped nor qualified to make definitive claims about God’s action or inaction. Sometimes, scientists forget this limitation on their part.

Often, though, Christians are the ones at fault here, expecting science to uncover proof of God’s action. When it comes to creation, some Christians want to use science to prove that God must have created something, and, by this, they mean that God must have acted alone, without anything or anyone else being involved or fully active. In light of how Israel actually used bārā’, this is not a defensible use of the Old Testament.

Christians should think of create as a faith claim about God’s action: a way of stating belief that God is the ultimate, sovereign, governing agent acting in and through the world.

“God’s relationship with the world is comprehensive in scope: God is present and active wherever there is world. God does not create the world and then leave it, but God creates the world and enters into it, lives within it, as God. … God is present on every occasion and active in every event” (Fretheim, 2005, p. 23, emphasis in original).

Christians should not look for evidence of God’s action by looking for (currently) scant or nonexistent evidence of the actions of other agents. We may not yet have good understandings of how other agents are involved in the world’s events, but this shortcoming on our part does not somehow constitute evidence of God.

Second, we have seen how Israel used bārā’ for God’s action in the past, present, and future.

Thinking about science and time, science studies the way the world works, and thus conducts its studies in the present. However, since science continues from generation to generation, it builds upon past studies and can preserve ongoing observations of the world, keeping a running record. In addition, science can use its insights from the present to give plausible interpretations of the past, as, for example, in scientific interpretations of rock layers and fossil remains. What is more, scientific methods often make short-term predictions of the future to test hypotheses, as well as make long-term predictions about future occurrences in our world and universe.

Christians who think that God created in the past and ceased creating are mistaken. And, as we have seen already, it is also a mistake for Christians to think that a lack of scientific explanation for things in the past or present are markers of God’s special action then and now. Why? Because, according to Israel, God is always creating. Therefore, any time in the history of the universe is a time during which God is active in creating.


It is a mistake for Christians to think that a lack of scientific explanation for things in the past or present are markers of God’s special action then and now.


Third and finally, we have seen how Israel identified so many direct objects with bārā’ that it seems they saw everything as God’s creation. (This is clear in Gen 1:1-2:3.) If the earth, universe, humans, animals, wind, human morals, and human social and political events are all objects of God’s creating, then it would be remarkable if there were things that Israel did not regard as created by God. At the empirical level, then — the level where science takes place — everything constitutes evidence of God’s creating.

Perhaps some Christians would respond, Now, hang on, Daniel: If everything is God’s creation, then how can we prove God’s creating? This is a good question, but does it not start with the prior assumption that the objects of God’s creating were meant to bear some sort of special mark — a divine signature that might as well say, “Made by God”? Israel did not use bārā’ to divide the world into (A) Objects Made by God and (B) Objects Not Made by God. This whole mode of thinking misunderstands the emphasis of God’s creating.

No, Israel seems to have faced their world, in all of its wonderful and dizzying variety, with all of its complexities and ambiguities, with a fundamental belief about God: No matter what has happened, is happening, or will happen — no matter what has lived, is living, or will live in our universe and world — God is the sovereign Creator, the Maker of the universe and all that it contains and does. bārā’ is a faith word, a courageous statement of belief about the world: courageous because so much of what happens in the world offends or troubles us, and to associate these offenses and troubles with God takes courage — provided this belief is confessed, not as a cop-out, but as a response to rigorous engagement with the world.

Israel was not naïve. Their faith was hardly childish or underdeveloped. In fact, the biblical writings evince a theological maturity and courage that put many modern American Christians to shame (myself included). If we think that scientific discoveries so easily threaten the theological claims of bārā’ in the Old Testament, it is perhaps because we modern readers have a less mature belief about creation than Israel did, not because Israel failed to think about the impact of future discoveries on their faith claims. Perhaps Israel’s comprehensive creation faith is meant to push us readers, to pose questions to our precious assumptions.


If we think that scientific discoveries so easily threaten the theological claims of bārā’ in the Old Testament, it is perhaps because we modern readers have a less mature belief about creation than Israel did.


Believing in a Creator God does not have to be an alternative to practicing scientific investigations of the world. Believing in a Creator God does not have to function as a stand-in explanation when we lack a naturalistic one. Believing in God can be a willful, insistent, even experimental mode of engaging the world, choosing to see God in all of the life forms past, present, and future, to see God in all human lives and human events in all their messy and disturbing variety, to see God as intimately and dynamically interactive with a world that he enjoys seeing be and become as it acts with its own integrity, will, and power.

Believing in a Creator God is the choice to see the world and its happenings as God’s masterpiece, a work of art that is itself fully alive and interactive with God — whether it knows it or not — to see ourselves as God’s creations and our lives as blessings and opportunities to contribute to something bigger than we are, to a world that is not ours but within which we’re grateful to play a part.


References

Fretheim, T. (2005). God and world in the Old Testament: A relational theology of creation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

Van Leeuwen, R. (1997). ברא [br’]. In W. A. VanGemeren (Ed.), New international dictionary of Old Testament theology and exegesis: Vol. 1 (pp. 728-735). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Just Out! Important Book on Science and Religion

Do you want to know what people think about the relationship between science and religion? I’m not talking about the popular-level myths that circulate all too often in our culture: you know, those episodes that produce more heat than light, that involve the loud-mouths and the angry, insistent voices. No, I’m talking about accurate, scholarly insight into what people really think — the opinions that are unlikely to get the publicity they deserve.

I just got my copy of a brand new, Oxford-published book on sociological research into science / religion relationships. I’ve started into it, and I can already recommend that you prioritize it for your own interests and readings in this field of study.

Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 224 pp. (Amazon link here.)

To whet your appetite for the book, and, more importantly, for the research and insights revealed in the book, allow me to post a couple of quotes that exemplify the message of the book.

“In Religion vs. Science we argue that the way religious Americans approach science is shaped by two fundamental questions. First, what does science mean for the existence and activity of God? Second, what does science mean for the sacredness of humanity?” (p. 2)

That is, these sociologists are trying to help people, whoever their readers might be, to understand what is really at stake for those whose religious convictions compel them to respond to science in particular ways. The second quote speaks to the difference between popular impressions and actual realities.

“Despite the dominance of the conflict narrative in the media and public discourse, in reality most Americans actually do not perceive religion and science as being inherently in conflict.” (p. 16, emphasis in the original)

In other words, there is this powerful and pervasive belief in our culture that science and religion are at war, but when you sit down to listen carefully to what religious people really think, you learn that most religious people do not see or support a war model (“conflict narrative”) for science / religion relations.

Ecklund and Scheitle’s book will go a long way toward making us informed about reality, and God knows that in our social and political climate we need people to be informed about reality.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Honest Questions, Deep Commitment

“Replying to troubling texts with honest questions reflects a far deeper commitment to the entirety of Scripture than the cold response of ignoring whatever we don’t like.”

Source: Matthew Richard Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 98.