Monday, October 26, 2009

Science, Christianity and the Sovereignty of God

As an evangelical Christian I sometimes feel like a bit of an oddity because, unlike many other evangelical Christians, I have no problem with science. I like science. I think science is useful for understanding our universe. I don't believe that any scientific theory threatens my belief system in any way.

I think most Christians, even a lot of evangelical Christians, feel the same way. The problem is that we don't express our beliefs as often or as forcefully as Christians who oppose science. Today I'm going to begin to explain my position and why I feel that it's well justified by both scripture and by experience.

The obvious thing to do would be to talk about evolution and the book of Genesis, but I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to do it, first of all, because that's a topic that deserves its own post. The second reason I'm not going to do it is because, while that's the hot button issue in our culture right now, that's not really what this debate is about.

At its heart this debate is really about the sovereignty of God.

For a Christian that's the only question that matters in this debate. Is God still in control or not? For some reason people seem to believe that every time scientists invent some new theory to explain how the universe works, God looses some of his power. As though scientists are somehow gaining mastery over the universe merely by understanding it.

The first thing we need to understand is that God is in charge of completely natural processes. The Bible says that he created everything and that he sustains everything. If the universe behaves in an orderly fashion according to scientific principles, it's because God made it that way. In fact, it shouldn't be surprising that it works that way because God is a God of order.

The other reason that people might think that science impinges on God's sovereignty is because scientific theories define what is and isn't possible. This is a more serious concern, especially if you believe that God can work miracles, which I do.

It's this second consideration that prompted me to write the post, Science as a Worldview. In that post I make the claim that, while science is a reliable source of knowledge, it isn't the only source of knowledge. Along with that I would also say that, while the universe usually conforms with known scientific theories, it doesn't always.

Some might argue that because I don't believe that science is always true I don't really believe in the scientific method. It's true that I don't hold scientific claims to be absolutely true under every circumstance. But I do believe that science does provide an explanation for how the universe typically works. I think this knowledge is still invaluable, even if it's not true in every single circumstance.

In any case, scientific knowledge doesn't require absolute belief. In fact, science wouldn't be able to progress if scientists weren't allowed to question accepted scientific theories. The fact that people are allowed to question science is possibly its greatest strength.

There is, of course, much more to be said about this topic. In future posts I'll be talking more about science and miracles. I'll also talk about evolution and the book of Genesis. Please leave a comment if you'd like to hear more about either of those two topics, or if you want to respond to what I've written so far.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Importance of the Kingdom of God

I've written a post previously asking the question, "What is the Kingdom of God?" Today's post is going to be about why that question is central to Christian theology.

First and foremost, the Kingdom of God is important because it is central to the message of Jesus. As I've already mentioned, Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God more than any other subject. When Jesus preaches good news to people, he's preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.

(If you don't believe me, go to Bible Gateway and search for "good news". Every time the words appear on Jesus' lips he's either preaching the good news of the kingdom or he's quoting a passage from Isaiah about the Kingdom of God.)

That right there is fairly significant. Most people know that Christians are supposed to evangelize. Some people even know that evangelism means telling people the good news. In Jesus' case, good news meant good news about the Kingdom of God. We don't usually think of evangelism as telling people about the Kingdom of God, but it's pretty clear that Jesus thought of it that way.

The second reason it's important it is the first thing that Jesus tells us to pray for. When Jesus teaches his followers how to pray, he gives an example prayer that we call the Lord's Prayer. As you can see, in it, the first thing he prays for is for God's Kingdom to come. And Jesus' early followers probably prayed like this several times a day.

The third reason it's important is because Jesus tells us that our first priority should be to seek the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells his followers not to worry about food or clothing. He tells them to seek God's kingdom and let God take care of the rest. This is a bold teaching that really underlines how important the Kingdom of God really is.

The Kingdom of God is important because, as Christians we are called to tell people about the Kingdom of God, pray for God's Kingdom to come and seek God's Kingdom ahead of everything else. In other words, the whole Christian life revolves around the Kingdom of God. If we have a flawed or a deficient understanding of God's Kingdom it impacts everything we do as Christians.

That's why I think it's important for believers to think about what the Kingdom of God truly is. More than anything else, it's the one concept that shapes the whole religion.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What is Knowledge?

This is a question that is easy to ask, but can be difficult to answer. In order to answer we need to understand what it means to say that we know something. This study is called Epistemology. If you're not up for reading a long Wikipedia article, this comic also offers a pretty good explanation of epistemology.

If you'd read either of the two links you would know the most common answer. Knowledge is, "Justified, true belief." When we say that we know x, we mean that we have good reason to believe that x is true. There are some problems with that answer, but it's a good start.

The nice thing about this definition is that it's simple. We all know what beliefs are, and I think we all know what truth is. The interesting question is, what counts as a justification? How do we know that our beliefs are justified? That's the question I'm interested in answering.

First of all, there are some beliefs that seem to be self evident. These beliefs don't have a clear justification. These beliefs are our basic assumptions about how the world works. Some of these beliefs can be almost invisible. They're so basic that it doesn't even occur to us that they might be questioned.

For example, most of the time we assume that our memories and our sense perceptions are accurate. We know that at times both can be deceived, but under normal circumstances we don't need to provide an explanation for why our senses and our memories can be trusted.

Another example is logic. If you've taken a logic course, then you've probably been taught that logical arguments are truth-preserving. Most people accept that that is true without the need for any further justification. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how someone would provide further justification for that belief.

The interesting thing about this first class of beliefs is, just because something seems self evident to us doesn't mean that it actually is self evident. If you and everyone around you shares a similar belief system then it is natural to assume that those beliefs are self evident. For this reason I think it's good to interact with people with radically different beliefs. They keep us honest and force us to examine our beliefs.

Of course, most of our knowledge isn't self evident. Most of our beliefs require some form of justification. Loosely speaking, these justifications can come in one of two forms.

First of all, some of our beliefs are justified logically. We start with those beliefs that we consider to be self evident and we use some form of logical reasoning to discover additional truths.

Secondly, some of our beliefs are justified by experience. Assuming that we can trust our perceptions and our memories they can be a rich source of knowledge.

In practice, most of the things we know represent a synthesis of our basic assumptions, our reasoning ability and our perceptions. All of these factors come into play when we talk about what we know.

The problem is that these are complicated issues and we don't all address them the same way. The result is that two different people can end up having very different beliefs, even if they're both very smart and they both think things through very carefully.

What about you? What assumptions do you make about the world? What roles do reason and experience play in shaping your beliefs?

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Eschatology of Star Trek

Talking about the eschatology of a show like Star Trek is silly for two reasons. The first reason is that eschatology is normally a religious term and Star Trek isn't exactly religious programming. The second reason is that eschatology deals with serious beliefs about the future and Star Trek is a work of science fiction whose purpose is to entertain.

That being said, I'm going to do so anyway. The first reason is because, as I said in my post about eschatology, I think that the term can reasonably be applied to any beliefs about the future that affect how we live our lives in the present. The second reason is that, while Star Trek is a work of fiction, in many ways it represents Gene Roddenberry's vision of what life in the future would be like. The third, and most important, reason is because it's an interesting thing to think about.

I think we can talk about the eschatology of Star Trek in terms of a few major claims that the show makes about our future. The first claim I want to talk about is the claim that technology will one day solve all of our problems. This claim is common in a lot of science fiction writing. This sentiment is best expressed by the maxim, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Out in space there are still problems, but even those are often solved by the correct use of their technology. The shows and movies make it clear that on Earth, problems like violence and poverty have been solved centuries ago. The message is pretty clear. If we want to make the world a better place, we should invest our time and energy into developing new sciences and new technology.

The next claim is one that comes up less often, and they aren't always consistent with it, but it sometimes get mentioned that within the Federation they no longer use money. This is likely related to the first point. If technology has eliminated all of our problems, including scarcity, then it makes sense that traditional economic models would all be out the window.

Of course, when they say that in the future we won't be using money anymore they're making a significant statement. The implication is that Capitalism is a flawed economic system and someday we'll realize that we're better off without it. The present day implications of this belief are a little less clear, since there aren't ever any detailed discussions about economics in the twenty-fourth century. At the very least, though, it seems to suggest that our current economic system is flawed and that we should be looking for a better alternative.

The last claim I want to talk about is that in the future most people won't take religion seriously. This isn't true of the original series, but in Star Trek: The Next Generation it's pretty clear that religious beliefs like Christianity are viewed as backwards superstitions. Some people may hold on to beliefs because of tradition or to provide moral guidance, but nobody seems to believe in a God who answers prayers.

When religion comes up, the main characters will often say that the people of Earth used to be religious, but they have since outgrown such silly superstitions. The implications of this belief are pretty clear. Gods and spiritual forces don't exist, and the people who believe in such things are irrational. Furthermore, society will be better off when no one takes those kinds of beliefs seriously anymore.

It's an interesting view of the future and when I was growing up I tended to agree with it. Obviously my views have shifted quite a bit since then. Watching Star Trek these days is interesting because it shows me how much my opinions have changed over the years.

I'm interested to hear what you have to say. What do you think of Star Trek's vision of the future? How does it line up with your beliefs about humanity's future?