A blog by Paul Wallace

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    I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.

    -Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

    Is B.o.B just doing what his science teachers told him to do?

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    Image source: theapod.com

    It’s not often that the worlds of rap music and science education collide, but it’s happening.

    You’ve probably heard about rapper (and my fellow Decaturite) B.o.B’s recent tweet storm — still happening — in which he claims the Earth is flat, and about science advocate extraordinaire Neil deGrasse Tyson coming out against him in the name of education and rationality.

    ”There’s a profound failure of our educational system if people come through it and have the absence of critical thinking skills to leave them susceptible to believing that the Earth is flat,” said the King of Science to the Daily News.

    B.o.B is having none of it. “I’m going up against the greatest liars in history,” he tweeted to his 2.31 million followers. “You’ve been tremendously deceived.”

    We have known the earth is round for centuries, millennia even. The ancient Greeks not only knew it was spherical, but also had a decent sense of its actual size. So of course the Earth is not flat. B.o.B is wrong about that.

    But he’s not completely wrong about everything. In this Atlantic article, Lizzie Wade points out that B.o.B is really just observing the world around him. He’s using his sense experience along with reason to draw conclusions, just like scientists do.

    He’s about 25 centuries late to the round-Earth conversation, and that might make for some good jokes, but his arguments do require some effort to refute.

    For example, this one:

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    These statements are not self-evidently false. Explaining why they are not true requires a little knowledge of optics.

    I’m not saying that B.o.B is a paragon of reason. Nor do I think it’s a good idea for someone with well over 2 million Twitter followers to promote the idea that scientists are no more than a bunch of power-mad liars (and that those who agree with them — “ballers” — are unthinking sheep), which is what B.o.B’s doing.

    I just think it’s funny that, in his own strange and misguided way, B.o.B is doing what scientists (and science educators) have been doing (and asking their students to do) ever since Galileo turned his telescope skyward: look at the world around you, think for yourself, and question authority.

    Beyond “beyond creation versus evolution”

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    The old religion versus science duality is perhaps best exemplified by debates like the one that occurred between Ken Ham and Bill Nye nearly two years ago. Dull as this combat might be, however, most popular efforts at reconciliation are not much better. Image source: Christ & Pop Culture

    The following is Copyright © Fortress Press 2016. It is drawn from the Introduction of Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos, available for pre-order at Amazon, or, if you prefer not to feed the beast, at Fortress. It will be released on 1 March.

    I HAVE READ many books, academic and popular, on the well-worn topic of religion-and-science. I have attended (and delivered) more than my share of religion-and-science lectures and watched more than my share of religion-and-science debates. I have taught religion-and-science courses in churches, colleges, and seminaries. These experiences have taught me a lot about the topic and about the great interest many people have in it.

    They have also led me to conclude that, at the popular level, the topic has become dull and lifeless.

    You may disagree. After all, the Internet is full of people arguing about this issue; books about religion and science tend to sell; religion-versus-science debates make for exceedingly popular viewing; evolution continues to divide Christians in America. How can I claim this topic is lifeless? How is it dull?

    Because the issue has utterly stagnated.

    People are arguing and books are selling, but (again, at the popular level) I have not encountered a new argument or sensed any development since at least 1999, well before Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists revved up their scientifically-motivated harangue against religion of all kinds (what’s new about them is their attitude, not their arguments). There is plenty of noise but no life. Nothing new is happening.

    The popular media tend to emphasize the divide between those who embrace science and reject all forms of religion (e.g., the New Atheists) and those who embrace religion and reject science (e.g., creationists). These two groups seem to do little more than heave rhetorical bombs at one another. Such bombast sells books, and there’s nothing like it for fueling Internet rage, but man is it boring.

    Between these extremes is a broad field occupied by those who wish to reconcile religion and science. In general they believe, as I do, that there is no essential conflict between the religious and the scientific. Many in the middle have labored honorably to bring these two great ways of knowing together, and, seeing how neither religion nor science seems to be going anywhere soon, I believe the future belongs to them. I value their erudition and their dedication to the hard work of peacemaking.

    But frankly, I find nearly all of the (popular) middle-ground work to be unconvincing. Much of it is written by traditional Christians who love and understand science, but who nevertheless tend to view science as a problem that must somehow be “dealt with” or worked around by people of faith. They never allow science or the cosmos to shape their theology at a deep level. The driving idea behind much of their work seems to be that if you’re creative and put in enough effort, you can bring traditional Christianity together with the evolving cosmos in such a way that both retain their integrity. And they may even succeed at this, at least in the narrow sense of logical consistency. The academic problem may be solved, but the resulting models are so out of harmony with themselves, so unwieldy, monstrous, oftentimes goofy, and so contrary to lived experience that it seems hardly worth the effort.

    This must be a result of the relentlessly academic nature of the topic. There seems to be a widespread belief that religion-and-science is, at root, an intellectual issue and therefore it must be explored by purely intellectual methods. This is an understandable mistake, for religion-and-science writers must import ideas from (at least) the fields of science, theology, and philosophy. Each of these is a vast discipline — or, to be precise, family of disciplines — with its own language, assumptions, and values. When you bring them together in an attempt to construct a universal model of reality, it can bog down into a head game pretty quickly. Unwieldy, monstrous, and goofy results come as no surprise at all.

    One solution to this problem is to start not with universal principles or concepts but with normal human life. A wise pastor friend once advised me that, whenever an issue is to be worked out, you should do what Jesus did: “Start with the person.” At the time we were talking about same-sex marriage, but I think his suggestion can be applied to religion-and-science. Stars Beneath Us is, so far as I know, the first religion-and-science book written from a consistently — and explicitly — personal perspective.

    “Just as surely as atheism follows conventional theism for many people who face the realities of science and the agonies of life, a new kind of faith and a new vision of God can arise from the ashes of a lost and discredited belief. Paul Wallace tells his story of such a loss and recovery in a way that encouraged and inspired me and I believe will do the same for you.”

    –Brian D. McLaren, author, speaker, and activist, on Stars Beneath Us

    Now showing: six planets at once

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    The planets before sunrise on 25 January. Look here for a 1 February chart. Image courtesy of Sky and Telescope

    From now until about 20 February you can see six planets at once: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Yes, you’ll have to go out about 45 minutes before sunrise, but that makes it thrilling, like sneaking out of the house when you were a teenager.

    Except you won’t be rolling houses or smoking weed down by the railroad tracks. You’ll be gazing at the clear cold planet-filled sky, which is way better than vandalism or dope or any combination of them.

    The non-Earth planets rise in this order: King Jupiter; followed by closer, dimmer, and redder Mars; then pale Saturn; brilliant Venus; and elusive Mercury. A couple of bright stars, Virgo’s Spica and Scorpius’ Antares, add to the parade. By 45 minutes to daylight all of these these far-off twinkly lights will be strewn out above and along your southern horizon (see image above), following a celestial reference line called the ecliptic.

    Mercury’s the tough one. It is small and dark and remains near the Sun at all times. You may need binoculars to see it for the next few mornings, but from the last week of January through the first week of February it should be high enough to see with the unaided eye — assuming you have decent vision and a good horizon to your East — before the Sun blasts away all that lovely darkness.

    From 28 January to about 6 February the Moon will be gliding eastward through the scene, waning as it goes.

    Hope y’all enjoy it.

    The same, only different: Islam and Evolution at Wheaton

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    We’re all connected. Borgny Bay, Chart of Evolution, 1937

    There is difference in this world, and there is commonality. Which do you choose? On which side of that fence do you pitch your tent?

    These are the questions I find myself asking after reading a couple of recent articles about the role evolution might be playing in the Wheaton College-Larycia Hawkins kerfuffle. One is from Pete Enns and the other is by Fred Clark.

    For those who don’t know, Larycia Hawkins is a professor of political science at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian institution in Illinois. Back during Advent she began wearing a hijab to work (and everywhere else) in order to express solidarity with Muslims, who have been, shall we say, marginalized in America lately. At about the same time she wrote the following on Facebook:

    I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

    The strategic coherence of Hawkins’ hijab-donning has been debated, but her basic position is clear and admirable. Christianity at its best has always been about identifying with and loving those on the fringes of society.

    But Wheaton, an institution bound by a Statement of Faith, is not so sure about that. After several back-and-forths between the college and Hawkins, who was granted tenure in 2014, she was placed on administrative leave. The college is now moving toward terminating her employment.

    It’s a story with lots of moving parts: Islam in America, the shifting borders of evangelicalism, the tension between activism and scholarship on one hand and fidelity to institutional beliefs and ways of doing things on the other, the meaning of tenure on Christian campuses, etc.

    But the immediate issue, at least as far as Wheaton is concerned, is Hawkins’ insistence that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Representatives of the college have taken exception to this claim, and they have a point: Muslims reject the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus along with it, so it’s hard to see how the two gods are the same in any strict theological sense.

    Yet there is a sameness-in-difference that is impossible to avoid — Allah is the God of Abraham as surely as is Yahweh. The two are in fact related at the roots. The historical connection is clear, and I think it’s convincing.

    Wheaton is not convinced, however. The college has emphasized the differences between Allah and the Christian Godhead, stating that

    While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer.

    So there is sameness, and there is difference.

    Until the last few days the spotlight has been on Hawkins’ words regarding this God business. But, as Enns pointed out, just above the Facebook lines quoted above, Hawkins waxed cosmic:

    I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind — a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.

    In writing this Hawkins does not mention evolution exactly, nor does she strictly contradict all possible creationist readings of the Bible. Yet Sterkfontein has produced some of the most ancient hominid fossils known to exist (2-3 million years old) and is a centerpiece in the search for our evolutionary origins. No one can claim that those caves are “the cradle of humankind” while rejecting evolution.

    I have long thought — for no clear reason, I now know — that Wheaton had, as an institution, given the theory of evolution the stamp of approval, that it was one of the more forward-leaning of evangelical institutions. But no. Right there in its Statement of Faith, a few lines below an affirmation of biblical inerrancy, is this:

    We believe that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness.

    Distinct from all other living creatures.

    Yes, we are distinct. Any space alien that were to visit our fair planet would see immediately that there is something singular about Homo sapiens. But, in contrast to Wheaton’s statement, Adam and Eve were not actual people and human beings were not created separately from other creatures. There is a clear and convincing biological and historical connection between us and other species. We are in fact linked to all living things, related at the roots. This is Evolution 101.

    So there is difference, and there is sameness.

    So I suspect that evolution as well as theology is driving the trouble at Wheaton, and in both cases what’s really being fought over is which side of the difference-similarity divide to stake one’s claim. In both cases Wheaton has chosen to stand on “fundamental differences” (God is distinct from Yahweh; humans are distinct from other species) while Hawkins leans toward commonality.

    As for me, I’m with Hawkins. I have pitched my tent close to that divide but decidedly on the side of unity, both in the case of Islam and evolution.

    I acknowledge difference and celebrate particulars but my reflex is to seek similarity first, and dream of unity always.