Scientifically informed faith

January 31, 2015

Notes on The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder by William P. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Brown CreationThe challenge is always present—to find constructive ways to connect classic religious texts and their instructions with the ways that people think and live in a world that differs significantly from that in which the ancient texts emerged.

Many scholars in Protestant and Catholic traditions have sought to interpret the Bible in the light of the intellectual disciplines and cultural conditions. Some tend to restate the ancient text while making only the slightest accommodation to modern life. Others emphasize contemporary intellectual traditions with such vigor that the vitality of the ancient text is largely vacated.

A third course of action is to be fully immersed in and committed to both realities—the ancient religious text and the modern intellectual world—and to bring them together in constructive dialogue. In this dialogue, each partner speaks in such a way that its basic elements can be understood and responded to by the other partner.

The value of this method can easily be understood and appreciated. It allows tradition to live peaceable in modernity and for modernity to provide space for ways of life that have the strength that has sustained the human community from ancient times until now.

The title of William Brown’s book indicates that he is determined to work seriously at this task. He examines a topic—the origins and meaning of life on earth—that is fundamentally important both to the Bible and to the intellectual world of our time.

He tells the Bible’s accounts of creation, all seven of them, in careful, sympathetic detail, pointing out the distinctive accents of the biblical narrative. Then he presents his summary of the research, findings, and conclusions of scientists from various disciplines, making it clear that he is ready to embrace their understanding of the beginnings and later development of the world we know.

These seven creation accounts, by the way, are: “The Cosmic Temple,” Gen. 1:1–23; “The Ground of Being,” Gen. 2:4b–3:24; “Behemoth and the Beagle,” Job 38–41; “The Passion of the Creator,” Psalm 104; “Wisdom’s World,” Prov. 8:22–31; “The Dying Cosmos,” Eccl. 1:3–11 (plus 3:1–8; 12:1–8); and “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” Isaiah 40–55 (excerpts).

Brown has two more factors in his method. He shows how the two patterns of analysis support, challenge, contradict, and enrich each other. He doesn’t try to show that one is right and the other misguided. Instead, he is persuaded that within its own frame of reference each describes aspects of reality that can help readers today live intelligent, effective, and satisfying lives. A paragraph in his concluding chapter states this result very well:

In short, through its encounter with science, the text’s meaning undergoes change: it is extended, deepened, supplemented, narrowed, and transformed. But not willy-nilly. Textual meaning evolves in the act of interpretation, and as it evolves, the new emerges out of the old. Meaning is created ex vetere, not ex nililo; it remains textually based, and as such the text retains its constraints on the interpreter.

Science, too, places constraints upon the interpreter. But acknowledging the constraints is only a part of the process. Engaging biblical tradition and scientific understanding also opens doors. As new discoveries about the world are reached, new discoveries about the text are made, and a greater complexity of meaning emerges in the process. The hermeneutical quest, thus, plunges us more deeply into the world of the text and into the world around us” (226).

One final point is that Brown’s analysis provides an ethical framework for life today (234). He refers specifically to the environmental crisis of our time. Science, he writes can give us the full information we need about the world and how it functions. Science can describe the dangers and point to actions that could help us move to a new and better way of life.

Brown then writes: “Science can explain the crisis, identifying its root causes and projecting trends into the future; it can even suggest ways to mitigate it. But science cannot bring about the repentance, indeed conversion, necessary to chart a new way of life. Science alone cannot provide the impetus for changing human conduct” (235).

Continuing this line of thought, Brown writes: “If science excels in revealing the wonders of creation, then faith excels in responding to such wonders in praise, humility, and gratitude, out of which emerges the holy passion and sacred duty to ‘serve and preserve’ creation and to address anything that would threaten its integrity. Scientifically informed faith raises both consciousness and conviction” (236).

Brown then points to the seven creation accounts in the Bible and shows how each one can help us resolve the crisis of our time. The concluding paragraph in his book is a strong affirmation of how an ancient sacred text can function effectively in our scientific world.

To claim the world as creation is not to denounce evolution and debunk science. To the contrary, it is to join in covenant with science in acknowledging creation’s integrity, as well as its giftedness and worth. To see the world as creation is to recommit ourselves to its care, not as the fittest, most powerful creatures on the animal planet but as a species held uniquely responsible for creation’s flourishing”(240).

Among the most useful sections of this book are two tables printed in the appendix (241–4). Table 1 presents the main points of the biblical text in column one and the main points of scientific understanding in column two. Table 2 is described as a field guide to the seven creation stories, and it has three columns: God as Creator, Character of Creation, and Character of Humanity.

The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa

January 17, 2015

A review of The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, by Neil Peart (Lawrenceton Beach, Nova Scotia: Pottersfield Press, 1996).

Peart-Africa“Some people travel for pleasure,” writes Neil Peart on the second page of this book describing his bicycle adventure in Cameroon, “and sometimes find adventure; others travel for adventure, and sometimes find pleasure. The best part of adventure travel, it seems to me, is thinking about it.”

Travel takes you out of your context, he continues, away from home, job, and friends; “traveling among strangers can show you as much about yourself as it does about them. That’s something to think about, and if you try you might glimpse yourself that way, without a past, without a context, without a mask. That can be a little scary, no question, but you may get a look behind someone else’s mask as well, and that can be even scarier.”

Since I rarely listen to Classic Rock, I had not heard of Neil Peart until recently coming across another of his books, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, which describes a motorcycle trip around much of North America as grief work following the deaths of his daughter and wife. One of my coffee shop friends in Portland, however, tells me that Peart is one of the finest drummers in the world, and one of the highlights of his own activities was the privilege of chauffeuring Peart when his band Rush played here.

In The Masked Rider Peart describes a trip, “Cameroon: Country of Contrasts,” that he took with four others in 1988. David, who made his living taking groups on bicycle journeys in Africa, told them that this was the hardest trip he offered, which may have been one reason why only four had signed up for it even though he had been advertising it for a year.

David, Neil, Leonard, Anna, and Elsa carried their personal gear on their bikes, bought their meals in restaurants or wherever they could, and found lodging in whatever accommodations they could find in the towns and villages they passed through. Their route sometimes took them on paved roads and streets, but most of their cycling was on unpaved, often unimproved, roads, trails, and rough territory that made cycling virtually impossible.

The European language most often used by people in Cameroon was French, and only Neil and David could speak it. Neil says they used “survival French,” but even that was better that the meager amount of French they frequently met among the people with whom they dealt. The other three travelers had virtually no knowledge of the language that could have helped them communicate in their own right.

Even so, all five of these cyclists, including the two women, soon were willing to travel alone, sometimes riding out ahead of the others and sometimes lagging back. After agreeing on where they would meet on down the road or in the destination village, they were bold enough to travel by themselves part of the time.

For an entire month they traveled this way. They maintained a civil relationship, but did not bond with one another in an intense relationship as might have been expected.

Neil made the trip because he was fascinated with Africa. The previous year he had visited the East African savanna, where he could easily see animals but found it difficult to become acquainted with people. After the bike trip in Cameroon, he vowed never again to bike that way, but he soon changed his mind and the next year took another bicycle trip, this one through Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.

Neil’s tendency to use travel as the stimulus to think was augmented by the books he took with him on this trip: Aristotle’s Ethics and Dear Theo, Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother. Frequently he refers to passages in these books and also to other books about Africa that he read in connection with this Cameroonian adventure.

More important in understanding the book, however, are the many passages where the author comments about his companions and muses about his own attitudes and actions. The fact that that the book was published eight years after the trip may have given him the freedom to speak so candidly about the actions of the other members of the troupe.

Even more important than these features is one more: Neil’s reflections on human life, happiness, attitudes toward life’s experiences, and religion. These will be treated in part two of this review. Online booksellers indicate that Neil Peart’s The Masked Rider is available in hard and soft cover books, as an ebook, and as an audiobook. Even if you are not an adventure cyclist, this book is worth reading.




Reforming Islam

January 13, 2015

Noteworthy Speeches of 2015 

As the new year begins, I intend to comment from time to time on speeches that focus attention on topics that attract attention. The first in this series was delivered by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, president of Egypt, to Muslim clerics at a meeting held to honor the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.  I have not yet found a link to the speech itself and am depending upon a report by Sarah el Deeb and Lee Keath, distributed by the Associated press and published January 9 in the Vancouver, Washington, newspaper The Columbian. 

Because of the terrorist events in Paris during the early days of 2015, it is easy to overlook the speech on January 1 by Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The reporters write that this speech was President el-Sissi’s “boldest effort yet to position himself as a modernizer of Islam.” He hopes “to purge the religion of extremist ideas of intolerance and violence that fuel groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State,” and inspire events like those in Paris.

According to Mohie Eddin Affifi, a religious leader in Egypt, the president’s intention is to promote “a contemporary reading of religious texts to deal with our contemporary reality.” The sacred texts themselves would remain unchanged. Instead, the focus of attention would be the textbooks used in the large network of grade schools and universities” operated across Egypt by al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old center of Sunni Muslim thought and teaching. “Texts on slavery and refusing to greet Christians and Jews” are examples cited in the Associated Press report.

This speech is one more example of el-Sissi’s effort to present himself “as a pious proponent of a moderate, mainstream Islam.”

An important criticism of el-Sissi’s approach to reform is that he “is clearly seeking to impose change through the state, using government religious institutions like al-Azhar.” Although this organization “has always claimed to be the bastion of ‘moderate’ Islam,…it has moved to silence progressive and liberal re-interpretations just as often as radical ones.”

A contrasting approach to the challenge facing Islam was featured in “The Saturday Profile” published by the New York Times on January 10. Written by Alison Smale, it features Mouhanad Khorchide, a Palestinian scholar now professor of Islamic pedagogy at the University of Münster. He is described as being “part of Germany’s effort to offer an alternative both to those who criticize and fear Islam and to Muslims seeking to practice their religion without extremes.”

His work is important because it is helping to “groom some of the thousands of teachers needed as Germany’s 16 states gradually shift to teaching Islam in primary and secondary schools, putting it on par with the Christian and Jewish faiths.”

The reporters offer only one example of Khorchide’s interpretation of Islam, and it is drawn from his book entitled God Is Mercy, which is available in English only as an e-book. Since the ninth century, he teaches, “the spirit of the Muslim world has been restrictive”—and that “the relationship between God and the individual is a loving one.” This idea comes as a shock to Muslims “raised only to fear God.”

Khorchide’s method of teaching differs sharply from the approach advocated by el-Sissi in his New Year’s Day speech. While the dominant method in Islamic countries is for students to learn to repeat back opinions and ideas that their teachers have delivered, Khorchide wants students to ask questions and develop answers. He hopes that they will experience what he refers to as an “aha!” moment while practicing their faith.

Commenting on the recent shootings in Paris, Khorchide told the reporters that “Such events force us to discuss openly about theological positions. . .It is too simple to say, ‘No, no, that has nothing to do with Islam.’ These people [referring to jihadists] are referring to the Quran, and we must confront these passages in the Quran.”

Some of the people who justify their violent actions carry this sacred book in their backpacks and have said “With the Quran, I am strong.” Yet when asked if they have read it or know what it says they answer “No.” Khorchide then said that he calls this “a hollow religiosity,” like “the thin and fragile peel of a fruit.”

Smale says very little about Khorchide’s approach to interpreting the Quran, nor does she indicate whether he discusses his principles of interpretation in his book. My preliminary online search did not bring up a listing for his e-book, but it gave links to reviews of the book and interviews with the author, one of which was reported in with the title “God Is Not a Dictator.”

He also is listed as one of three editors of a book that has been published in English with the title Religious Plurality and the Public Space: Joint Christian-Muslim Theological Reflections.



The mellowing of an aggressive cyclist

January 2, 2015

Second in a series on bicycling my way through 2014

Crossing I-205 on the Marine Drive Bike Trail

Crossing I-205 on the Marine Drive Bike Trail

When I started my blog in 2014, it was easy enough to describe one of the identifying descriptors I would use: religious historian. I intended to write about a wide range of topics in American religion, thus continuing work I had done during my career in academia.

Choosing a descriptor for the blog’s second focus was the problem. Bicycling, yes; but what kind of cyclist am I? What kind of cycling would I write about?

Competitive? Although I have never raced or ridden time trials, I do like to hold my own with any group with which I’m riding. Even though my family laughs at me when I say I’m not competitive, this descriptive term doesn’t seem right. It suggests racing rather than the constant hard-charging that has been my style.

Serious? This word suggests giving constant attention to cycling—to its technology, techniques, history, and literature. Again, the word fits. Cycling is important to my intellectual life and to my bodily activity, enough so that serious fits well enough that it would be a better choice than competitive. If only it had more bite to it.

Avid is another word that often appears in descriptions of the kind of cyclists with whom I ride, but the word has always felt insufficiently serious. Avid cyclists are spirit-filled, enthusiastic, ready to head out for a ride, but I have never been able to use that word with any degree of comfort. It has seemed superficial. An unabridged dictionary suggests another reason not to like the word avid. Its first meaning — “craving eagerly : desirous to the point of greed”—doesn’t describe the way I feel about cycling.

So I chose aggressive, by default rather than by careful analysis. The word has one advantage, that it catches people’s attention. The word is brash, pushy, hard-edged. Aggressive describes the way I have always felt about climbing steep grades and keeping up the pedaling cadence at the end of a day of hard cycling. Aggressive includes focused attention, impatience at impediments, and the determination to keep going, no matter what.

During 2014, however, this word has been losing its luster. The negative side of aggression seems more prominent than I had realized. One reader recently suggested that this word will turn off the very readers who interest me, especially older cyclists who want to keep on riding even as their energies and abilities diminish.

Another reason why aggressive seems like the wrong descriptor is that my ability to ride long and hard is diminishing. My doctor, a cyclist himself, tells me that this is inevitable for someone my age. “No matter how disciplined your training and determined your attitude,” he explained, “you’ll keep slowing down; so get used to it.” He said it gently and with understanding, but it’s still hard to take.

But during 2014, a third factor has arisen that makes it necessary to think about a different term: my inner push and self-confidence have wilted. In recent years I had already modified some of my ground rules, stopping earlier in the day because I knew that I was less resourceful than in earlier years.

With my wife’s death earlier in the year, however, I have become aware how much my mood and manner were supported by her love, loyalty, and trust, and even more by the way I had come to depend upon her response as I told her about the riding I wanted to do. Now that I’m only half of what I used to be, the aggressiveness has lost its punch.

So, if aggressive no longer fits, what descriptor should take its place? Midway through 2014, I toyed with the phrase open road cyclist, even posting a blog on what the phrase means. More recently contemplative has come up as a contrast to competitive. The one term describes a readiness to ride in all kinds of places under a wide range of conditions. The other term indicates the bookishness of everything I do, including cycling.

For now, Aggressive Cyclist will continue on the blog’s masthead, but sometime during 2015, when the metamorphosis is complete, a new descriptor will take its place. Which will it be? Open Road? Contemplative? Or another characterization still to come? Let me know what you think.

Desert Sign

Essays on religion in America: anticipations for 2015

January 1, 2015
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

As the masthead for my blog indicates, one of my primary interests is American religion. My graduate studies were in this field and my career in the church and academy has always focused upon the historical dimensions of religion and life in America. Even in retirement, I continue to read and write on historical topics, as my recently published book The American Church that Might Have Been makes clear.

With a relatively clear desk and a new and very portable computer, I’m ready for the new year, and here are the historically oriented topics which will occupy my attention and therefore often appear on the blog keithwatkinshistorian.

The twisting flow of water: As cyclist, citizen of the world, and religious historian I have been increasingly preoccupied by the challenges revolving around water—its availability to people around the world, its role in political and economic life, and the ethical and religious issues pertaining to water. Because this field already is so vast and complex, and because it continues to grow, I will never be able to claim mastery.

I may be coming to a place in my work, however, when I can draft an extended essay on this subject, and this is my first goal for the new year. It will include a review of literature that has influenced my understandings of water in the world and proposals for how Americans, and especially the religious communities, should respond to the emerging crisis. Since I am committed to doing a paper on this topic for the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion in early February, this project is number one on my list.

Death and dying in America: This aspect of American life and religious practice was part of my regular work as professor of worship for more than thirty years. Because of my wife’s long illness and recent death, I have been involved in these matters in a new and very personal way.

During the past several months, I have posted columns about these matters and I have developed a preliminary draft of a paper on the church’s ministry at the time of death. One goal for 2015 is to continue my work in this field, reporting these labors from time to time on this blog, and by the end of the year write an extended essay on this subject.

The heretical imperative: In a slender book entitled The Heretical Imperative, Peter Berger has discusses the challenge that comes to all people, which is to  develop a viable synthesis of the traditions on which life is based and the constantly changing social systems within which our lives are lived. During recent months I have posted blogs on this subject, including reviews on how the Qur’an and Book of Mormon are understood and used by contemporary scholars who are committed both to their classic religious texts and to secular canons of scholarship.

Since my retirement from academic life twenty years ago, I have lived in an environment marked by two unsettling characteristics: a disparaging attitude toward the classic Christian tradition and an indiscriminate acceptance popular values and practices. I feel an increasing pressure to resolve the tension I feel.

My reading in this field has been occasional and not well focused, but I hope that in this new year I will be able to bring some kind of order to the process. One way of doing so may be to collect some of the book reviews and incidental reflections that I have already composed and shape a third extended essay that would serve as a progress report on a project still under way.

Could there be a book in the making? In recent years, my friend Joe R. Jones has published two books of essays, sermons, and other occasional writings that he has composed during retirement years. The model appeals to me, and one of the guidelines that I intend to use in shaping the extended essays described above is to bring them together in that kind of book.

So what do you think? Your ideas and evaluations are hereby invited and encouraged.