Alister McGrath: “Richard Dawkins vs. C.S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life”

Several weeks ago, I once again had the enormous pleasure of hearing Dr. Alister McGrath lecture at the Lanier Theological Library here in the greater Houston area. Dr. McGrath is a Image result for alister mcgrathleading scholar in the discipline of Science and Religion; he holds advanced degrees in both biochemistry and theology, having served in a biophysics research laboratory at
Oxford before turning to theological studies. He now serves as Andreas Idreos Professor in Science and Religion at Oxford. His scholarly and popular level work is a great asset to the Christian community. I use his
introductory textbook as a main resource in the Science and Faith course I teach at Houston Baptist University (next term begins in May, and the course is available fully online!).

A high quality video of Dr. McGrath’s lecture is now available. Enjoy!

Lecture by Alister McGrath from Lanier Theological Library on Vimeo.

Resource Alert! Cold-Case Christianity for Kids

I’m a huge fan of J. Warner Wallace’s work. As a former atheist and cold-case homicide detective, he offers such a fascinating and compelling voice to Christian apologetics. I recommend his books, Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene all the time, usually with the comment, “Hey, if you’re a fan of detective drama, you’ll love the angle this author takes concerning the evidence for Christianity.” The diagrams and other illustrations make the books as entertaining as they are informative. After hearing that J.W.W. and his wife Susie were working on a kids’ version of Cold-Case Christianity, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

ccc-for-kidsCold-Case Christianity for Kids is an outstanding resource for children in the upper elementary and middle school age range (approximately 9 to 13, I’d say, but that’s probably being a bit conservative). The cover design is appealing, and the text is saturated with the type of helpful sidebars and fun graphics found in the grown-up version. I particularly like that the book is written as a story in which the reader is immersed as a participant; this is engaging in the best sort of way–it’s encouragement to really think about the body of evidence for yourself rather than simply read what the other characters conclude from it. All along the way, as the book covers various areas, such as science and the reliability of the Gospels, it explains the proper way to analyze evidence using detective techniques. So, not only does the reader get a taste of the objective evidence for Christianity, they also get some entry-level training in good critical thinking.

I unreservedly recommend Cold-Case Christianity for Kids. It’s a valuable resource both for its quality content and for the ongoing discussions it is sure to spark!

How Studying the Great Books Enhances Apologetics

Confession: Sometimes it feels like I’m going to be in school forever.

Like today. I feel like that today. I’m procrastinating on a Sophocles essay by writing this blog post.

I love learning. I mean, I REALLY. LOVE. LEARNING. But there are most certainly days when I dream about what it would be like to not have a paper deadline pressing down upon me! If all goes as planned (I’ve lived too long to believe that things always go as planned), I’ll defend my dissertation and graduate in December of next year. Pray for me, I beseech thee!

Usually, when people discover that, in addition to my academic and ministry work, I am a doctoral student, they immediately conclude that I’m working towards an advanced degree in apologetics. They’re surprised to learn that I’m actually doing an interdisciplinary humanities degree through a Great Books program (my chosen concentration being philosophy). I’m usually asked to explain what that means and why I chose this route.

Photo from my personal library--The Great Books of the Western World

Photo from my personal library–The Great Books of the Western World

Many have never heard of the Great Books of the Western World, also referred to as the “Western canon.” Basically, this refers to a collection of major works, from a wide variety of genres and academic disciplines, that have significantly shaped human thought in the West on many important topics. The canon contains some of the most ancient literature still in existence and goes all the way through major scholarly works of the 20th century.

Through nearly 2500 years of writing, we see unbroken threads, commonly spoken of as the Big Ideas–ideas that are both ancient and contemporary, ideas that have endured because of how deeply they connect to the human condition: the existence of God, the nature of man, and what it means to live “the Good Life.” Basically, who are we, where did we come from, where are we going, and why does it matter? (Or, does it matter?)

When I first began investigating PhD programs, I didn’t dream of doing anything other than apologetics or philosophy of religion. Yet, one divine neon sign and seven semesters later, here I am, and I’ve discovered that there couldn’t have been a better course of study for me. Being immersed in the Great Books has transformed the way I approach conversations on philosophy, science, and Christianity (the triad of my academic and ministry passion). Here’s why.

Understanding the intellectual history of the Big Ideas shapes the way you think and talk about them. Before my current academic journey began, I didn’t fully appreciate the fine pedigree behind most philosophical arguments related to major apologetics topics. The ancient Greeks were debating some of the same things we still debate today.

For instance, some of the pagan (lowercase “p,” meaning not Jewish or Christian) arguments for a rational mind behind the cosmos have endured extraordinarily well, due to their strength and the fact that they transcend scientific progress. When we point to the features of the cosmos and mankind that seem to suggest a transcendent mind, we’re standing on the shoulders of great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Copernicus, Augustine, Aquinas, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Planck,  and Einstein. Note that not all of these were monotheists, yet in their observations of the world and of mankind, they all had sharp insights about the rationality of nature that are strongly resonant with orthodox Christian theism. We are deeply indebted to them.

When we’re able to point to the ideas promoted by great minds of history, we’re not saying, “Look, a really smart guy in the past believed this, so it must be true.” That’s a fallacious statement. What we’re saying (or should be saying) is, “Notice how great thinkers of history have understood ultimate reality; look how they integrated their observations of the world with metaphysical considerations. Their approach is insightful and instructive.”

Here’s an example from my own work. Often, when I quote from the works of great scientists of history who were also devout Christians, an atheist will respond to me with something like, “Oh, they were Christians only because they lived before the Enlightenment and before Darwin” (Alert: genetic fallacy). Logical flaw aside, this response demonstrates much ignorance about precisely how these scientists viewed the relationship of science, reason, and religion. Examining their philosophy reveals that they would very likely have had no problem whatsoever incorporating modern scientific theories into their Christian worldview, because they would have realized, as many contemporary scientists and philosophers have, that science itself doesn’t entail the worldview of scientific materialism. You can have the former in all its glory without the latter and all its misery. I LOVE how the great Stanley Jaki (a Catholic priest who held doctorates in both physics and theology) put it: being a “guru of evolutionism” (scientism) is an entirely separate thing from being a good scientist who studies evolution. The trouble is, many try to justify the former with the latter. That just doesn’t fly.

Okay that last part was a little bit of a rabbit trail. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

All of that to say, I have grown tremendously in my understanding of the importance of intellectual history. Ideas and arguments we may consider great are, way more often than not, rooted in thought that goes back centuries if not millennia. (The same goes for views we may disagree with!) Reading, in the original sources, how opposing ideas have interacted down through the ages is both encouraging and enlightening, offering a much richer picture of any scholarly discipline we pursue. I have found that it is a framework in which apologetics truly flourishes.

If you would like a very readable, easy introduction to the Big Ideas of Western thought, I highly recommend this collection of short essays (actually, they’re edited TV show transcripts) by Mortimer Adler, a man who has been described by many as the most broadly educated man of the 20th century. I have this on my shelf, and I return to it periodically. Happy reading!

How to Think About the Great Ideas 

Image result for how to think about the great ideas

 

March for ALL Women, Including the Unborn Ones

The so-called “Women’s March” last weekend officially excluded some pro-life sponsors, making their pro-abortion perspective even more explicit. So essentially, it was a march for women willing to promote that agenda. I didn’t follow much news of the march, but this photo came across my Twitter feed:

Image result for women march abortion shirt

The tragic irony of this photo is that here we have an African American woman glorifying, and rallying for, a procedure that takes the lives of five times more African American babies than white babies. This amounts to approximately half of unborn African-Americans. Another irony is the fact that  sex-selection abortions  take the lives of a vastly disproportionate number of girls. The women of tomorrow.

The “choice” argument for abortion rings so very hollow. Let us not forget that in the United States, over one million lives are ended by abortion each year, and of all the reasons documented for abortions, only 1% of patients say that their pregnancy was the result of rape.

This weekend, in Washington DC, will be the March for Life 2017. If you can, go and march for all women: the pregnant women who deserve so much better than abortion and the unborn women who deserve to live. If you cannot attend, pray. Pray for women in crisis pregnancies who are considering abortion, that they will choose life, have the care and support they need, and have wisdom in choosing adoptive families for their babies. Pray for the hearts of abortion providers to change, the way this doctor’s heart did. Pray for women who now have to live with the pain of having an abortion in their past, that they would know the beautiful forgiveness and glorious redemption that Christ offers.

Christian Art Inspired by the Scientific Revolution

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in the history of the natural sciences over the past several weeks, doing research for my forthcoming book on science and faith (formal announcement and further details to come after the publisher has officially nailed down the title and release date). Intellectual history is an exciting aspect of my academic discipline; it’s invigorating to trace big ideas back through the ages and see the timelessness and persistence of truth. The millennia-old intersection between science and theology is rife with examples of this.

Interestingly, we often see these important ideas creatively celebrated. One delightful surprise during my research of the 16th-19th centuries has been the discovery of Christian art that was inspired by the enormous strides being made in the scientific understanding of the natural world. Just as many of the greatest mathematical, philosophical, and theological thinkers of those centuries saw the new insights into the material creation as bringing glory to God, so did painters, poets, and musicians. Sometimes, the artists were scientists themselves! (In a future post, I’ll profile a scientist-poet.)

One example of science inspiring art made a deep impression upon me this past week.

boyleRobert Boyle (1627-1691), the “father of chemistry” who is credited with the modern experimental method, was a devout Christian of the Anglican tradition. He argued that the “first act of religion” is the study of nature, and he followed Johannes Kepler and others in referring to the universe as a great temple of God in which man is a priest, working to illuminate nature’s divine mysteries. In a 1665 book entitled Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects, Boyle expresses his amazement with the fact that, despite its extraordinary complexity (which he knew firsthand from doing dissections!), the human body can operate correctly for long periods of time. However, when one part falls into disharmony with the rest, illness results. He compares the body with a many-stringed yet finely-tuned musical instrument. He writes: 

 …an Instrument with above a thousand strings (if there were any such) should frequently be out of tune, especially since the bare change of air may as well discompose the body of a man, as untune some of the strings of such an Instrument; so that ev’n the inimitable structure of human bodies is scarce more admirable, than that such curious and elaborate engines can be so contriv’d, as not to be oftner out of order than they are; the preservation of so nice and exact a frame being the next wonder to its Workmanship.          

                                                                          Section II, Meditation I 

Hymn writer, logician, and theologian, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was struck by Boyle’s words of wonder, and wrote a hymn honoring them:

When I with pleasing wonder stand

And all my frame survey

Lord, ’tis thy work, I own thy hand

Thus built my humble clay

Our life contains a thousand springs, 

And dies if one be gone.

Strange that a harp of thousand strings

Should keep in tune so long.

Composer William Billings composed music for Watts’ lyrics and included the hymn, Creation, in his final collection, published in 1794.

Stay tuned (pun intended) for future posts on how the natural sciences have inspired works of art, particularly painting, sculpture, and poetry. In the meantime, for your listening pleasure:

 

Are Common Descent and Intelligent Design Compatible?

In the fall of 2009, seven years ago this month, I attended my first scholarly conference on evolution and intelligent design (ID). As a brand new graduate student working towards my MA in Science and Religion, I was thrilled by the opportunity to meet some of the scientists and philosophers whose work I was studying, including Dr. Michael Behe. In preparation for his lectures, I had read his recently published book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. The book, which makes an argument for design from biochemistry, wasn’t the lightest of reading, even with an undergrad degree in biology and five years of experience as a biotech bench scientist under my belt, but I think many would find it manageable.

If you haven’t read it, something that may surprise you (as it did me) is that the arguments put forth in the book aren’t concerned with ruling out the common descent of animal species (one of the tenets of Darwinian evolution). In fact, in the very first chapter of the book, Behe says, “Evolution from a common ancestor, via changes in DNA, is very well supported” (p. 12). 

“Hold the phone! One of the leading figures in the intelligent design movement–really the Godfather of ID–doesn’t deny evolution?!”  

common-descentHere’s the thing. There are about a dozen different ways to define the term “evolution,” and intelligent design, properly speaking, only requires one of those ideas—ONE—to be false. Specifically, it is the claim that all of the [alleged] evolutionary change necessary to account for the observed complexity and diversity of living things has been driven entirely by a blind, trial-and-error mechanism. ID claims that, even if natural selection (a non-random mechanism) is the engine of biological change, the genetic mutations it is fueled by are not all random in the sense of being unintended occurrences. The ID theorist argues that even if all living things descended from a common ancestor, intelligent design is somehow built into the process, and marks of intelligence can be discerned scientifically. Dr. Behe argues that, from a biochemical perspective, we can roughly make out the “edge of evolution,” beyond which intelligent orchestration is required to drive evolution onward and upward.

So, to merely say that the mechanisms involved with evolutionary change are the result of pre-planning for an intended, purposeful outcome is to affirm a minimalist account of ID. This is not to say that all advocates of ID theory are as convinced as Dr. Behe about common descent being the truth about biological history. There is a spectrum of views within the ID community about this. My point is, common descent need not be rejected for ID to be accepted. (Whether or not the theory of common descent is scientifically viable is an entirely separate question. )

In discussions with science-oriented skeptics, I have discovered that this fact catches them off guard. When they make a claim such as, “The fossil evidence is strongly conclusive in favor of evolution,” my response is, “Even if that is so, intelligent design isn’t ruled out. Ultimately, common descent is beside the point.” It’s interesting to see how this completely changes the trajectory of the conversation for the better. By granting them their convictions on biological history for the sake of the argument, I help them lower their defenses and become more willing to investigate the philosophical underpinnings of both sides of the debate. This, in itself, is a major win for both of us.

In terms of Christian apologetics, what is the utility of ID theory? Essentially, ID theory has theistic implications. In other words, evidence for a designing intelligence behind nature, whether at the cosmic or biological level, is supportive of the claim that a Creator exists. ID doesn’t try to defend any interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative; it completely transcends those kinds of questions. It’s very much a stepping stone in the overall project of Christian apologetics.

Some well-known intellectuals, such as the late Dr. Antony Flew (a notorious atheist who turned theist before his death) and Dr. David Berlinski (who describes himself as a secular Jew) stopped on this stepping stone, granting ID but not embracing Christianity or any other faith. (I got to meet Dr. Berlinski at that 2009 conference, and he is delightful!) But others have been convinced of a Designer’s existence and then moved further on to become Christians. A very recent example of this is Dr. Gunter Bechly, a paleoentomologist who is also the Curator at the Stuttgart Museum of Natural History in Germany. I strongly encourage you to read about him.

Of course, there are many secondary discussions about the intersection of science and faith, such as whether or not common descent is compatible with an orthodox Christian view of creation. By no means do I intend to suggest that this, and others, are not important questions; they indeed involve deep theological considerations. Neither am I saying anything at all about where I happen to stand on common descent. But when it comes to opening minds to the most fundamental thing–that a Creator is responsible for the existence and intricacies of living creatures–ID is a most valuable tool. 

 

C.S. Lewis on Why He Wasn’t Roman Catholic

I was Anglican for a long time before I knew it.

Having been in the Anglican tradition (officially) for about 8 months at this point, I continue to have unexpected moments of child-like delight when I discover that a theologian, philosopher, scientist, novelist, or artist that I have long and deeply admired turns out to be Anglican. It’s like this running inside joke between the Holy Spirit and me. Sometimes I’ll go off on a mysterious rabbit trail in my research, thinking I’m wasting valuable time, only to end up at, “Oh my, I didn’t know she was Anglican! How did I not know?” The rabbit trail ends there, and I laugh, again.

Image result for c.s. lewisC.S. Lewis, who has significantly influenced my philosophical and theological thinking, captured my attention years and years before I knew anything at all about Anglicanism. It never crossed my mind, really, to look into Lewis’ faith background. Sometime in my early thirties I finally stopped to absorb the fact that Lewis was a member of the Church of England, and it was a bit later that I came to understand some of the defining characteristics of Anglicanism as a Christian denomination.

I’ve done quite a bit of biographical reading on Lewis, and one of the things I love about him is how well he related to Christians of other traditions. He truly lived out his “mere Christianity” philosophy, which so beautifully reflects Christ’s heart for the universal church. It is a philosophy that I strive to emulate both professionally and on a personal level. As a champion for the mere Christianity ethos, Lewis very rarely wrote publicly about why his chosen “room” of Christendom was Anglicanism, or why he chose Protestantism over Roman Catholicism. However, he carried out private conversations and correspondence with his academic colleagues, acquaintances, and friends who were Roman Catholic laypersons or clergy about why he was so firmly Protestant. Importantly, he did so without being argumentative and with admirable graciousness.

So what were Lewis’ reasons  for choosing Canterbury over Rome?

According to the available body of evidence, it seems that there were three main issues that prevented Lewis from embracing Roman Catholicism. Brothers and sisters, please note that I do not offer these as my personal arguments; I outline them because I find the information both fascinating and helpful in understanding Lewis, the Anglican. (I would like to give full credit to Dr. Stewart Goetz’s excellent, thoughtful book, A Philosophical Walking Tour with C.S. Lewis, from which I gleaned the following excerpts.)

Here are the three issues that seem central to Lewis’ non-Catholic position:

The Papacy. In a letter dated November 1947, addressed to a Father Calabria, Lewis explained that “we disagree about nothing more than the authority of the Pope: on which disagreement almost all others depend.” In another letter, dated May 1945 and addressed to Hart Lyman Stebbins, Lewis said that the papacy seems “foreign to the attitude of St. Paul towards Peter in the Epistles.”  In the Stebbins letter he goes on to say, “In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claim [concerning the papacy].” Essentially, Lewis rejected the concepts of papal supremacy and infallibility and the “one true church” claim of Roman Catholicism.

Mariology and Devotion to Saints. In the Stebbins letter, Lewis says that part of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary “seems utterly foreign to the New Testament: where indeed the words ‘Blessed is the womb that bore thee’ receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction [Jesus’ rejoinder is ‘blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it’ (Luke 11:27-28)]” In a letter to Mary van Deusen dated June 1952, Lewis elaborates upon what he sees as the theological dangers of Mariology and devotion to saints:

Hail Marys raise a doctrinal question: whether it is lawful to address devotions to any creature, however holy. My own view would be that a salute to any saint (or angel) cannot in itself be wrong any more than taking off one’s hat to a friend: but that there is always some danger lest such practices start one on the road to a state (sometimes found in [Roman Catholics]) where the [Blessed Virgin Mary] is treated really as a deity and even becomes the centre of the religion. I therefore think that such salutes are better avoided. And if the Blessed Virgin is as good as the best mothers I have known, she does not want any of the attention which might have gone to her Son diverted to herself.

System of Dogma. In an ecumenical essay entitled, “Christian Reunion: An Anglican Speaks to Roman Catholics,” Lewis said:

the real reason why I cannot be in communion with you is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but to what he’s going to say…To us the terrible thing about Rome is the recklessness (as we hold) with which she has added to the depositum fidei [deposit of faith]…the proliferation of credenda [what must be believed].

In other words, Roman Catholics are required to believe any doctrine that is declared by the Pope (at any point, past or future) to be dogma (a non-negotiable of the faith). One example of a Roman Catholic belief that didn’t become official dogma until quite recently is the doctrine of the Assumption, the teaching that the Blessed Virgin Mary did not experience physical death, but rather was assumed into Heaven bodily. Pope Pius XII exercised his “papal infallibility” when declaring this doctrine to be Roman Catholic dogma on November 1, 1950.  

So there you have what seem to be Lewis’ main reasons for being a layman of the Church of England rather than the Church of Rome.