November 15, 2019

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 3.

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 3.

In Chapter 4- Strangers, Friends, Lovers: Cooperation, Not Competition, Wallace continues to expand on his version of Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA: that faith and science occupy separate spheres of influence with science covering the empirical universe and faith covering the moral and ethical universe.  His metaphor is that faith and science meet and go out for coffee.

What happens next?  Well, what happens when you meet someone new? You ask questions… You look for common ground… At the coffee bar, they take a corner booth and promptly discover that they’ve both been misunderstood…  Science complains that everyone thinks it’s always super-objective and universal, the final word on everything.

“People think I show the whole world exactly, precisely, as it is, science complains, “But I see through my own lenses.  I do not provide unbiased and complete information about all things.  I ask and answer only certain kinds of question.  I do not stand outside the world.  I am a part of it and share its messiness and uncertainty.”

“I’m misunderstood also”, says faith.  “So many people think I depend only on private and personal and touchy-feely emotions!  It drives me bananas.  I, too, live in this world and am likely to see it clearly as anyone else.  I, too, have methods and norms.  I, too, am shaped by reality.  I am at my best when I engage the world as it is, just like you.”

Then Wallace supposes that faith and science hit it off completely.  They fall in love and get married, and in the words of Jesus become one flesh.  He thinks this perspective is most commonly expressed in two kinds of theology.  The first, he says, is natural theology, that looks not to the Bible or Christian tradition, but to reason and nature and science for clues about the character of God.  In other words, learn about someone by considering the things they create.  The second kind is process theology; that attempts a complete synthesis of science and Christianity.  It rejects divine omnipotence and claims God creates in cooperation with his creatures and is not in complete control of the universe.

All three perspectives he outlines – strangers, friends, and partners in marriage – emphasize cooperation over competition, and maintain that faith and science share a common status, like two fundamentally equal human beings.  In the next chapter he considers how either science comes to rule over faith or faith will come to encompass science.

In Chapter 5- A Universe with a Point: How Science Enlarges Faith, Wallace tries to deal with the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg who said, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”  Wallace says that science indeed cultivates wonder and fills his mind but “leaves his heart stranded in the midst of a vast alien dance”.  And yet he says not a single person inhabits a world without a point.  None of us has lived a single meaning-free moment.  He says:

Even experiences of meaninglessness point to this truth, for it is out of our craving for meaning that such feelings arise.  We continually think and speak and write and act on the basis of values like love.  Questions of purpose and meaning (what should be) occur to us at least as often, and nearly always more urgently, as questions of science (what is).  We are bound to morality and driven by love, the greatest of Christian virtues.

And he points out the love that goes far beyond natural affection and gives the examples of Oscar Schindler, Rosa Parks, and James Harrison, an Aussie who donated his unique antibody-laden blood once a week for sixty years, thereby saving 2.4 million lives.

Wallace sets up the “two roads diverge” dichotomy between faith and science.  Down the first road we are moral creatures coughed up by an amoral universe, saddled by evolution with the unshakeable sense of value and an obsession with meaning.  We are, he asserts, doomed to live out our short and difficult life in a cosmos that doesn’t care about us or our choices. We may endure a while, but all things will eventually wind down in the face of endless cold and infinite time.  The universe will not be tamed: it will swallow us.

He says down the second road, our morality and sense of values reveal something as actual and fundamental as energy, time, space, and light.  We belong in the universe no less than electrons and quasars.  We cannot stop living our lives as if love were real and as if it matters ultimately.  So, he says, maybe it is real and does matter ultimately.

Of course, there is the famous quote from Richard Dawkins, from Out of Eden:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

The Ask an Atheist” site expands on that somewhat with:

This is really a two-part question that deserves unpacking. The first part is: “Did the emergence of life in the universe have a purpose?” In brief, atheists believe that it did not. Atheists would prefer that life have a purpose just as theists would. However, just wishing something to be true does not make it true. Atheists believe that any meaning that we can derive from life can only be done here and now.

This brings us to the second part of the question: “Do our lives have purpose?” Each of us, atheists and theists alike, want to achieve something in our lifetime. Purpose can be anything from finding happiness to raising kids to ending hunger and suffering. This is the kind of purpose we each find in our own lives. From this perspective, life most definitely has a purpose!

Wallace quotes P.Z. Meyers from The Happy Atheist:

You don’t have a heavenly father at all.  You’re a mediocre product of a wasteful and entirely impersonal process.  We’ve done the paternity tests.  We are apes and the descendants of apes, who were the descendants of rat-like primates, who were the children of reptiles, who were the spawn of amphibians, who were the terrestrial progeny of fish, who came from worms, who were assembled from single-celled microorganisms, who were the product of chemistry.  Your daddy was a film of chemical slime on a Hadean rock, and he didn’t care about you – he was only obeying the laws of thermodynamics.

Wallace then re-writes Meyers thusly:

You have a heavenly father.  You’re an amazing product of his ongoing creation project.  We’ve discovered a lot about that project, which has been going on for billions of years.  We are human beings, the descendant of apes, who were drawn from earlier smaller primates.  Our lineage also includes reptiles and amphibians and fish and worms and even single-celled organisms.  Like a flower that grows from the dirt itself yet is not itself dirt, we have been gradually assembled out of chaotic and disorganized elements.  You were formed from the dust of the ground, given the breath of life, and carry the image of a loving and creative Father who is crazy about you.

Wallace then forces the point home, that no matter which meta-narrative you choose, no scientific experiment or observation can distinguish between them.  These statements differ only in what is not scientific about them.

iMonk Classic Series: Christians and Mental Illness (3)

Is there mental illness in the Bible? This question seeks to move us toward the question of mental illness and the Gospel.

Throughout the Bible- Job’s speeches, Jonah’s self pity, the depression of the Psalmist, the cynical death wish of Kohelleth- we see the kinds of emotions that make up much of common mental illnesses. How are these persons viewed? How are their emotions presented to us? The question becomes, not so much about what is and is not mental illness vs sin; the question becomes, what is God’s word to the mentally ill, and to those of us who may find ourselves ministering to them, or becoming one of them?

I believe the answer is two fold: (1) compassion, and (2) in proportion to the type of mental illness, responsible humanity.

The most certain case of mental illness in the Bible, in my opinion, is Saul. Saul’s behavior is consistent with manic depression or similar emotional conditions. The Biblical writer interprets this in the language of his understanding, but this does not change a major point: God was still dealing with Saul, even as a mentally ill person. Saul was a mentally ill King. God never told him to step aside, but to do what was right. In Saul, we are reminded that anyone, and any one of us, can be mentally ill.

We see God’s dealings with Saul in two ways: the compassion and forgiveness of David, and the tragic consequences of Saul’s actions. In both of these, we see these two Biblical truths. Saul was a fully human person while he was mentally ill, and his actions were actions of moral responsibility. David, however, incarnates God’s mercy toward Saul, and shows us God’s compassion for the mentally ill.

I would suggest that to see all mentally ill persons- which includes many of us at some point in life- as purely victims is dehumanizing to an extent that compromises human dignity. God addresses Saul as responsible throughout this episode. Saul never ceases to be a human person to whom God’s commands can be addressed.

Yet, at the same time, David deals with Saul as one afflicted. He respects not only God’s choice of Saul, but Saul’s suffering with the “evil spirit.”

This leaves us in an uncomfortable place. Many would want the mentally ill to be absolved of all responsibility. I believe this is the wrong way to view most mentally ill persons. Yet, we must also view them truthfully, fully taking into account what we can know about their condition, and treating them in full awareness of their diminishment or affliction.

This appears to be the Bible’s approach to persons who are in intense grief (Job), in oppositional-defiant mode (Jonah) or who are enslaved to addictions (Samson.) The Psalms show us prayers from the depressed and the paranoid, yet they are prayers in scripture. The cynical tunnel-vision of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is part of his journal-narrative examining life from all sides. While none of these qualifies as full-blown mental illness, there is enough here to see the lesson: It is part of our humanity, and God, in his grace, is in the river with such persons.

Are there examples of mental-illness in the New Testament? As I have suggested elsewhere, a “demon possessed” person such as the man in Mark 5 may be afflicted with spiritual forces, but he also shows evidence of what we call mental illness. This man cuts himself and lives much as many manic depressives or psychotics would if left un-cared for or unmedicated. If this man is demon possessed- as the text suggests with the invasion of the pigs by the spirits- the manifestation of symptoms was similar to mental illness. Certainly those in this culture who were severely mentally ill would have been treated and viewed much life this man.

Jesus responds to this man with compassion his community and family did not have for him. He treated him as a human being, and not simply as a collection of demons. It was a man that was liberated, and it was a man who was commissioned to be a witness among his neighbors.

The Synoptic Gospels make it clear that much of Jesus’ ministry was among those who would have included the severely mentally ill. These persons would have been tied down, beaten and subjected to strange and awful cures. Jesus’ willingness to touch them, speak to them and accept them as liberated members of God’s kingdom says something very important about how we view the mentally ill.

They are our fellow human beings. They are our potential brothers and sisters. We should not view them as overcome with evil or robbed of their humanity. We should strive to love them as God does: in compassion and in truth.

We do not see mental illness spoken of particularly plainly in the Bible, because the cultures of the day did not view mental illness as we do. But mentally ill persons are surely there, in all the brokenness of human sin and in the persons who are touched with the kingdom announcement and the power of the Spirit. Their presence moves us to the next question: What is the church’s responsibility to the mentally ill?

iMonk Classic Series: Christians and Mental Illness (2)

iMonk Classic Series: Christians and Mental Illness (2)
The following is excerpted from part 2 of Michael’s original series.

Because the Bible is authoritative in Christianity, it is often difficult to come to terms with forms of knowledge that ignore the Bible, and especially difficult to deal with systems of knowledge that threaten to transcend or neutralize the Bible. In America, this tension did not fully dawn until the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early twentieth century. While Darwin continues to get most of the attention, it is more likely Freud who has created the most perplexing tensions for Christian believers.

Psychology does not appear to be an immediate frontal assault on the Christian view of truth. Many Christians, especially in more moderate communions, have been open to psychology as a way of compassionately understanding human beings. More recently, however, psychology has met with sterner opposition from many evangelicals, who have become aware that the discipline was atheistic, even religiously hostile, from the outset, and that its ways of explaining, understanding and helping human beings have potentially dire consequences for the Christian view of truth.

Today, many serious Christians often reject any and all reference to psychology. (This varies enormously and is an admitted generalization.) A minister may practice Christian counseling, but let him claim to be a Christian psychologist and fully half or more of the Christian community will refuse his assistance. Christian counseling has developed its own alternative approach to dealing with mental, emotional and behavioral problems, with dependence on scripture at the center and a rejection of psychology as mandatory.

This shift has brought the entire concept of mental illness into question for many Christians. Should we be using the categories, vocabulary, diagnoses and treatments of psychology to describe and treat human beings? Many conservative Christians say “no,” and will refuse to recognize common conclusions and approaches of the psychological disciplines. When psychiatric treatment is recommended, these Christians are even more resistant, and often refuse recognized and accepted treatments for mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. As enamored as our culture is with the authority and insights of psychology, many Christians are unconvinced and even belligerent.

This creates conflicts and tensions in the lives of many Christians, however, I believe Christians cannot–and should not–entirely reject or escape the “knowledge base” that exists within their culture, including psychology and the concept of mental illness. These concepts and “namings” of human conditions can, if appropriated correctly, be useful and compassionately helpful.

Psychology, as science, is a discipline largely based on conclusions developed from repeated, careful observations. From observing, listening to and treating millions of individuals over time, a descriptive approach is acquired. These various descriptions are what we refer to as mental and emotional illness, and Christians committed to the idea that truth is the greatest friend to a hurting family or person should always embrace truthful observations, even if they come to us from other sources of understanding the world than our own.

The observations of human beings by psychologists are where we get the language of mental and emotional illness. We should be cautious and careful in appropriating this language, but as much as it is descriptively accurate, Christians should have no fear of it. Calling depression “depression” is not surrendering to the worst assumptions of psychology. Depression is a set of observations. They allow a set of responses. They help us build a plan for treatment. And so on with many many kinds of mental illness.

The persons exist, and their problems exist. It is not wise to reject what repeated observation and treatment have yielded in the quest to help people.

At this point, many Christians will point out that the psychological concept of depression does not contain the Biblical content necessary for a true solution. “Depression,” they will say, is not a disease, but simply a manifestation of sin or loss. This may be quite true in many cases. The Christian vocabulary may be the most meaningful way to approach and respond to an individual case, but when we look at the culture as a whole, this is not going to work. If we insist on refusing the diagnostic language of psychology and using the language of faith, we will have to limit our involvement with people to the Christian community and control the problem so that whatever response we make is understandable.

Mental illness, as a descriptive tool and category, does functionally exist for persons in any culture. Becoming conversant with how a culture describes mental illness is far more useful than rejecting the concept, and it allows the resources of truthful observation to come into the picture.

I will admit that it is not always pleasing or helpful to me as a Christian to be told that Johnny-who-can’t-do-anything-in-school has a syndrome or disorder. This approach seems to shift some of what is needed for Johnny to change into an arena outside of his control. Medication-based treatments have a tendency to minimize responsibility for seeing our emotions, behavior and mental state as part of our own human stewardship. But in the vast majority of cases where mental illness or behavior disorders are diagnosed, these issues do exist, and the diagnosis and the treatment suggested by psychology will most likely be rational and reasonable enough that help can be offered and expected.

Still, even with these observations, I believe the category of mental illness is useful, even essential for Christians in western culture. With a generous allowance for our manifold humanity, we still can look at “collections” of observed behavior revealing to us something that can be called–and treated–as mental illness.

Because the Bible’s description of mental/emotional illness comes in the package of its own culture, Christians have to decide if they are going to reject the contemporary language of psychology and resort to the language of ancient culture, or if they are going to “read” contemporary culture with the Gospel at the center. Can the concept of mental/emotional illness be transformed through the Gospel to be of useful service to Christian compassion?

This same question is present for physical illness as well. The Bible is a pre-scientific book, and most contemporary understanding of human biology and physiology is absent. Science has given us tremendous tools to use in treating disease, and if we reject these in favor of the understanding of disease in the Bible, there is going to be a lot of suffering and death that could have been prevented.

The entire question of accepting contemporary ways of thinking about studying, labeling, analyzing and treating human beings for their mental/physical and emotional illnesses is a question that calls upon Christians to contemplate their view of the Bible and its proper use. If their view of the Bible’s truthfulness includes the assumption that it is a book providing a specific plan for treating illnesses of body and mind, then that commitment will, I believe, take the Christian down a road that is ultimately less compassionate than the acceptance of some form of accommodating the knowledge and insights of science, medicine and psychology.

The Bible is about Christ, and is not a manual for treating mental and emotional illness. The Biblical presentation of the Christian story stands in judgment over psychology and every other form of knowledge because CHRIST IS LORD AND JUDGE, not because the book of Proverbs is the best manual for dealing with emotional illness.

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