Tag Archives: Science

Miracles

November 2018 Credo

Even the most casual reader of the Gospels will be struck by the many stories of miracles they tell.

On page after page, the Gospel writers describe Jesus cleansing the leper, opening the ears of the deaf, giving sight to the blind and even raising the dead. There are stories of Jesus turning water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread and fish to feed the hungry multitudes and calming the raging storm.

Should Christians today take these stories of miracles seriously? Can Christians who inhabit a world that is so vastly different from the writers of the Gospels – informed and shaped as they are by the scientific worldview – still believe in miracles?

Many have replied these questions with an emphatic ‘No’.

The 19th century Scottish philosopher and essayist, David Hume, is an example of a modern skeptic whose vision of reality is shaped by the natural sciences. Defining miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ or ‘a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity’, Hume argues that it is unreasonable to believe that miracles are possible because they fly in the face our standard notions of how the world works.

Thus, in his celebrated An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume writes: ‘as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws [of nature], the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined’.

The positivists in that century, influenced by the reductionisms of modern science, argued that belief in miracles belonged to a stage of human development in which the dominant vision of reality was shot through with the supernatural. Describing this phase as ‘theological’ these positivist philosophers went on to assert that humankind has now entered a new phase in which knowledge of the world is established on empirical facts obtained by the scientific method, not superstition.

Consequently, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) famously postulated that belief in God and the supernatural are simply objectified (and personified) projections of basic human desires. And Levi Strauss (1808-1874) suggested that the Incarnation and miracles are just mythological images conjured by primitive people.

In his attempt to reconcile Christianity with science F. D. E. Schleiermacher, who is christened as the ‘father of modern theology’, maintains that the only miracle is the act of God in sustaining the world he has created. All other lesser ‘miracles’, according to Schleiermacher, are just extraordinary events that science will eventually be able to explain.

Bewitched by the explanatory power of the natural sciences, many modern thinkers accuse Christians who believe in miracles of fabricating a ‘god of the gaps’. Christians attribute to divine agency the extraordinary phenomena or occurrences for which science has yet to provide satisfactory explanations. But the ‘god of the gaps’ will shrink – and perhaps one day he may even disappear – as science narrows the gap, so to speak, by providing ever more comprehensive accounts of natural phenomenon.

It is crucial to note, however, that the rejection of miracles is based on a certain view of science and a certain power that we have given to it, a power that it does not in fact possess. We have placed our hope in science’s omnicompetence – its ability to penetrate the depths of reality, and its ability to explain everything.

This hope is misplaced. In his book entitled, The Limits of Science Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Prize winner (and atheist) offers a sober (and sobering) estimate of science, its possibilities and its limits. ‘That there is indeed a limit upon science’, writes Medawar, ‘is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer’.

Theologian and scientist John Polkinghorne has perceptively pointed out that ‘no one lives as if science is enough’. This means that everyone knows that reality has a depth and breath that science is simply unable to reach. It has a profundity that science simply cannot fathom. Positivists, secularists, and atheists (including the new atheists) would all agree to this, if only they chose to be honest to themselves.

Miracles not only point to those depths inaccessible to science, they point more significantly to the God who is at work in this world.

The New Testament describes miracles as ‘a wonder’ (Gk: teras), an ‘act of power’ (Gk: dunamis) and a ‘sign’ (Gk: semeion). Theologian James Oliver Buswell offers this concise but comprehensive definition of a miracle in the biblical sense. A miracle is (1) an extraordinary event that cannot be explained on the basis of natural laws, (2) an event that causes the observers to conclude that God is at work, and (3) an event that points to a reality much greater than itself.

Even Christians who believe in miracles sometimes miss their true significative purpose. In the Bible, miracles, signs and wonders are never ends in themselves, but point to a greater reality.

Miracles in the Bible signals the presence of the kingdom of God that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, came to inaugurate. In Matthew 12:28, Jesus said: ‘But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’.

In sending the twelve apostles to preach the good news, Jesus instructed them thus: ‘And proclaim as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons’ (Matthew 10:7-8).

Miracles are a sign that the kingdom of God has come into our world through the incarnate Son. They are a pledge and foretaste of the blessings to come when God’s inaugurated kingdom will be fully consummated when the risen and ascended Christ returns.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

The Politicisation of Science

August 2018 Pulse

The Swedish meteorologist working in the UK, Lennart Bengtsson, is without doubt one of the most respected climate scientists in the fraternity. In April 2014, Bengtsson joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank that raised questions concerning the current ‘consensus’ on climate change based on data.

Bengtsson pointed out that climate change predictions that are based on computer models might not give the true picture of the actual state of global warming. ‘Since the end of the 20th century’, he said, ‘the warming of the Earth has been much weaker than what climate models show’.

Note that Bengtsson did not deny that global warming was occurring. He merely raised the scientifically valid question about the accuracy of model simulations and pointed out that observational results have differed.

Shortly after raising this issue, Bengtsson faced the ire of the climate community for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. He came under such unbearable pressure from his colleagues that he was forced to resign from the think tank.

‘I have been put under such an enormous group pressure in recent days from all over the world that has become virtually unbearable for me’, he writes. ‘If this is going to continue I will be unable to conduct my normal work and will even start to worry about my health and safety’.

He adds: ‘Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship, etc. I see no limit and end to what will happen’.

The politicisation of science is an inevitable fact, argues Roger Pielke in The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Politics is enmeshed in many of the hot-button issues raised by the biological sciences, including evolution, stem cell research and protection of endangered species.

‘The only time you can stay above the fray is when you are a grad student’, says Pielke in an interview. ‘The minute you have to file a grant proposal with NSF or NIH, you’re in the realm of connecting science with the world outside of science’.

That science should be the candidate for politicisation should not surprise us. In the modern world, scientific authority is replacing religious authority, and the pronouncements from the scientific community have achieved the status of dogma. ‘The scientists have spoken’ appears to be an updated version of ‘This is the Word of the Lord’.

Science has ventured beyond the laboratories and exerted its influence in almost every aspect of society. Science has pontificated on how parents should raise their children, how relationships should be conducted, how we should have sex and what food we should eat.

In an age of moral relativism, as politicians find it more and more difficult to justify their agendas and ideologies by moral arguments, science has become an invaluable ally. The authority of science is asserted surely but subtly in our habits of discourse across the disciplines.

For example, with regard to climate change, Sir David Read, the vice-president of the Royal Society, is reported to have said: ‘The science very clearly points towards the need for us all – nations, businesses and individuals – to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change’.

The profound significance of the definite article before the word ‘science’ must not be missed. As Frank Furedi puts it, ‘“The Science” is a deeply moralised and politicised category’. Science is hailed as an authority that demands almost unquestioning submission.

The politicisation of science is an extremely complex and multifaceted phenomenon.

One the one hand, we have politicians commandeering scientific evidence – albeit selectively and at times even dishonestly – to advance their own political agendas. On the other, we also see scientists jumping on this bandwagon and aligning their scientific findings to certain ideological commitments.

Politicians and scientists could respond to the same published research in dramatically opposing ways, depending on which side of the political fence they happen to be situated. A case in point is the 2003 paper published in Climate Research that argued that from a millennial perspective climate changes in the 20th century are unremarkable.

Advocacy groups comprising politicians and scientists who oppose the Kyoto Protocol on climate change praised the paper as a sterling example of ‘sound science’. But the groups that supported the Protocol immediately denigrated it as ‘junk science’.

This example makes it painfully clear that issues like global warming are no longer of just scientific concern. They have become political causes. As Kim Holmes observes, ‘Political activism has so penetrated the science of climate change that one can barely tell the difference between a United Nations conference of scientists on global warming and a rally of political activists lobbying governments to adopt controls on carbon emissions’.

To make matters worse, there is also considerably bullying going on in the scientific fraternity. Those who dare to question the findings and conclusions of the majority or contradict the prevailing orthodoxy are sometimes humiliated and ostracised.

Such baneful attempts to shame and shun dissenters go against the spirit of science, which encourages open inquiry. But it shows just how politicised science can be in our modern world.

It should be noted that both the political right and left are guilty of the politicisation of science, even as they blame each other for this crime. So, if as Pielke points out the politicisation of science is a fact of life, what should our response to this state of affairs look like?

For the Christian, both science and politics are moral activities that should be carried out in the service of the truth. While the politicisation of science cannot be entirely avoided, one should nonetheless always strive for an ever-greater objectivity and truthfulness.

To begin with, scientists should be more self-conscious of their political commitments and scrupulously avoid conflating science with ideology in a way that is misleading.

In addition, scientists should also make it clear to the public when they are engaged in advocacy. And instead of merely championing a particular cause, scientists should clarify how the data allows for a variety of policy choices.

Pielke and others have argued that both scientists and politicians must understand the difference between politics and policy. The political perspective is necessarily narrow, limiting the range of alternatives as it pursues a particular agenda and desired outcome.

However, as Pielke explains in an article entitled, ‘When Scientists Politicise Science’, ‘For science, a policy perspective implies increasing or elucidating the range of alternatives available to decision-makers by clearly associating the existing state of scientific knowledge with a range of choices’.

One way in which science can be depoliticised, Pielke suggests, is to ‘ask scientists to participate in the process of connecting science with policy alternatives, to explicitly consider what alternatives are and are not consistent with scientific understandings in relation to different valued outcomes’.

Finally, both scientists and politicians need to achieve a more realistic appreciation of the possibilities and limits of science. Sobriety is the best response to scientism’s distorting portrayal of science and its alleged omnicompetence.

A sober appreciation of science would lead us to conclude that although science is helpful in many ways, it can never be the sufficient basis for solving the world’s problems. By itself, science cannot even resolve political debates on important issues.

To accord science with the competence it does not in fact possess and to use it for political ends is to court disaster for the human community.

As Daniel Kemmis perceptively argues: ‘… the repeated invocation of good science as the key to resolving complex ecosystem problems has itself become bad science. What is infinitely worse is that this bad science is all too readily made the servant of bad government’.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Reflections on the Galileo Effect- Was the Galileo Affair a Conflict between Science and Religion?

August 2017 Feature

The arrest of Galileo Galilei for proposing a sun-centered model of the universe despite being told not to has been cited as an embarrassing example of the inevitable conflict between the forward-looking nature of science and regressive character of religion.

This article will offer a brief recounting of this episode in order to show the difficulty of drawing simplistic conclusions concerning religion’s conflicting or cooperative relationship with science at the time. It will then mention some lessons the episode can offer us today.

Galileo, who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, made seminal contributions to physics, engineering, and astronomy. With the creation of a superior telescope, his corresponding observations led him to favour the physical reality of a sun-centered Copernican model of the universe, whose mathematical calculations he had already favoured beforehand.

The Catholic Church had previously accepted the Copernican model insofar as it was a useful  predictive mathematical tool that did not otherwise assert that the sun must be at the center of the universe. Instead, the Church and many astronomers accepted the physical reality of an earth-centered model of the universe based on Aristotelian physics.

Aristotelian physics conceived reality as composed of five elements, four of which consist of inferior material which tended to the center of the universe, that is, earth, which was unmoving. The fifth element, quintessence, an incorruptible and unchanging material, was what made the heavenly bodies and determined that they revolve around the earth in perfect circles for eternity.

Galileo’s observations revealed to him, among other things, that the surface of the sun and moon were not perfect, as quintessence would have it; and that Jupiter had four moons, which indicated that the heavenly bodies did not all revolve around the earth.

He published these findings indicating his preference for the Copernican model in 1610 and 1613. This led Holy Office – the office charged with ensuring orthodoxy – to declare the implications of these findings false.

Many scientists disagreed with Galileo as well. They argued that the Copernican model could not yield superior predictions to the earth-centered model partly because both assumed circular rather than elliptical orbits. They also argued, wrongly – because they did not have powerful enough measurement equipment at the time – that stellar parallax, which should be observable if the earth was moving, could not, in fact, be observed.

However, by 1613 and 1615, he had already sent out widely circulated defending the Copernican model on scriptural grounds.

In the letters, he relied heavily on the interpretive principles of the Church Fathers, especially Saint Augustine’s concept of “accommodation,” which is the idea that the scriptures have been written to accommodate the mind of the common person, giving priority and clarity to matters pertaining to salvation, not to scientifically robust descriptions of reality.

The verses which had been appealed to in support of the Aristotelian model included Joshua 10.13, Psalm 19.4-6; 93.1; 96.10; 104.5; 119.90; Ecclesiastes 1.5, and I Chronicles 16.30.

Unfortunately, by engaging with scriptural interpretation, he was treading on thin ice. The Church had been embroiled in theological and political conflict with the Protestant Reformers for some time, and had declared at the Council of Trent in 1545-63 that “no one, relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, had held and does hold.”

Thankfully, Pope Urban VIII, who was a long-time admirer of Galileo’s work, told him in 1624 that he could discuss Copernican theory but only as one hypothesis among others. This emboldened Galileo to, rather unwisely, promote Copernican theory by publishing a fictional dialogue between three individuals about cosmology in 1632. And he gave the name Simplicio, which means someone who is simple-minded, to the advocate of the Aristotelian position, a position which the Pope personally favoured.

In other words, Galileo seemed to be accusing the Pope of being simple-minded in an underhanded way. As one might imagine, the Pope did not take this lightly. He was at the time embroiled in the Thirty-Years’ War, had just switched his allegiance from the French to the Spanish and felt that he needed to come down strong on Galileo to show his new allies his authority and decisiveness.

Thus, in 1633, he was summoned to the Holy Office and found guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy. He was ordered to publicly recant his Copernican astronomy and be confined to his home in Florence where he remained until his death in 1642.

A century later, the Church began the gradual process of publicly shifting their stance toward Galileo. In 1744, Galileo’s Dialogue was republished with the Church’s approval. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII advanced a view concerning the relationship between the scriptures and science in his encyclical like those in Galileo’s letters. Between 1941 and 46, several academic clergymen occasioned a partial and informal rehabilitation of Galileo in their published work. And in 1979, Pope John Paul II initiated the latest informal rehabilitation of him.

From this brief recounting of the episode, it is apparent that interpreting the affair as a conflict between science and religion would be an over-simplification. To appreciate the complexities involved, the minimum factors, of varying weight, that should be considered include the legitimate disagreement among scientists toward Copernican astronomy, the Reformers’ challenge to the Church’s interpretive authority, Pope Urban VIII’s own political troubles, Galileo’s commitment to the primacy of mathematics over Aristotelian physics, and his unwise jab at the Pope.

What can be learned from this episode? We can learn that the relationship between the scriptures and the deliverances of modern science is not a straightforward one. We can also learn to appreciate the different kinds of literary genres in the scriptures and value their theological import without necessarily committing ourselves to their corresponding literal descriptions of reality.


 

Keith Leong studied Theology and Religion with a focus on science and religion at Durham University and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom from 2013-2016. He is a member of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore.

Mathematics and Reality

July 2017 Pulse

At a recent Ethos Institute seminar on ‘Science and the Christian Faith’, a participant asked an important question pertaining to the relationship between mathematical models and reality. Mathematicians and philosophers are still debating this contentious issue, and it looks like the jury will be out for some time yet.

I offer these reflections as a theologian and philosopher, and not as a mathematician.

There can be no doubt that mathematics is held in the highest regard in modern society as many believe in its power to unlock the truths of the universe of which we are a part. Mathematics has been triumphantly described as ‘the language of the universe’ because of its ability to depict physical reality with such precision and elegance.

The veneration of mathematics can be traced to the golden age of Greek philosophy. The great Pythagoras could say that ‘All is number’, and Aristotle who came after him could echo his view approvingly by declaring that ‘The principles of mathematics are the principles of all things’.

Closer to our day, Albert Einstein expressed his amazement at the power of mathematics thus: ‘How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?’

Mathematicians and philosophers are drawn to mathematics because of its sheer beauty. Whether it’s the mathematical constant π or Einstein’s famous E=mc2, the sheer elegance of mathematical models and the way in which they help us to make sense of the physical world is at once stunning and attractive.

The presence of beauty in mathematics should urge the Christian to contemplate the beauty of God, the Creator of all that is. As mathematician and theologian Paul Schweitzer, S.J., notes: ‘Just as when the beauty of the lilies of the field, the songs of birds, or the smile of the child overwhelms us, in the contemplation of mathematical beauty a window opens onto eternity and one can sense the holy presence of our loving God’.

Mathematicians and philosophers generally agree that mathematics is in some sense related to the physical world, but how this relationship should be understood is still a matter of considerable debate.

In contrast to the so-called mathematical Platonists who believe that mathematical objects and ideas exist independently from the material world, I hold the view that they are mental abstractions of our perceptions of reality. This means that mathematical concepts are grounded in and therefore dependent on the material world.

The history of mathematics itself bears this out as ‘natural numbers’ emerged very early in human consciousness and systems representing numbers can be traced to very ancient times.

‘The counting of numbers’, writes Schweitzer, ‘… arose at the dawn of human consciousness, to make it possible to number the oxen in a herd, or the number of coins in a purse, or the number of people in a tribe. Thus numbers are abstracted from concrete reality’.

Sophisticated systems like multiplication tables can be traced to the Sumerian civilisation during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. The great Sicilian mathematician, Archimedes, developed a system of numbers that is so sophisticated and precise that it is said that he could calculate the number of grains of sand in the universe! Geometric figures and spaces are also abstractions based on our perceptions and observations of reality concerning spatial relations between objects.

Mathematics, Derek Abbott maintains, is the product of the human imagination that is used to describe or portray reality. Abbott even argues that although the majority of mathematicians claim to hold the Platonist view, they are in fact closet non-Platonists!

But why is the philosophy of mathematics important? It is quite obvious that mathematicians who have very different views about the nature of mathematics could do their work unimpeded.

I think this question is important for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it is important to have a realistic estimate of the power and effectiveness of mathematics. The non-Platonic view, in my opinion, alerts us to the fact that mathematics is a human enterprise and not the ‘miracle’ that some scientists have made it out to be.

Put differently, because perfect mathematical forms do not exist in the physical universe, mathematics is just a mental construct and the models it creates are merely approximations of reality. Seen in this way, mathematics not only has its limits, it is also vulnerable to mistakes and failures.

That said, the precision and effectiveness of mathematics is truly remarkable, prompting Eugene Wigner to write his famous paper entitled, ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences’ in 1960. ‘The mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience’, Wigner writes, ‘leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena’.

But lest we get carried away with the perceived omnicompetence of mathematics (which the Platonic approach encourages), we should evaluate its successes more closely.

In response to Wigner’s paper, Abbott wrote a piece entitled, ‘The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics’ which, following the arguments of Richard W. Hamming, highlights some areas of human inquiry where mathematics has had lesser success.

He notes, for example, that mathematics has less success ‘in describing biological systems, and even less in describing economic and social systems’. One possible reason why this is so, Abbott speculates, could be the way in which these systems are adaptive and mutable. ‘Could it be they are harder to model simply because they adapt and change on human time scales, and so the search for useful invariant properties is more challenging?’, he asks.

But the question of timescale and the limits of human perception should also give us pause when considering the successful mathematical models. Abbott adds: ‘Could it be that the inanimate universe itself is no different, but happens to operate on a timescale so large that in our anthropcentrism we see the illusion of invariance?’

The second reason is related to the first. A realistic estimate of mathematics would prevent us from embracing a naïve epistemological exclusivism (scientism) that dangerously neglects or ignores other kinds of truth.

While mathematical models have a remarkable way of portraying reality, they are also deficient in a number of ways. For example, they present a world of quantities without qualities. As the philosopher and poet Raymond Tallis has brilliantly put it: ‘The energy in Einstein’s equation is not warm or bright or noisy, and the matter is not heavy or sticky or obstructive’.

Mathematics has a very important place in our lives. However, we must never take the hyperboles of Pythagoras or Aristotle too seriously.

Instead we must follow Tallis’ wise counsel and never neglect other kinds of truth, especially truths that are ‘rooted in the actual experience of human beings that lie beyond mathematics: situational truths saturated with qualities and feelings and concerns, and differentiations of space and time (‘here’, ‘now’)’.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

Obligation to Future Generations

January 2016 Pulse

One of the most significant and yet controversial developments in genetic science in recent decades is the Human Germline Genetic Modification (HGGM) technology. By employing a set of techniques, scientists hope to be able to change the genetic composition of the human germline (i.e., eggs, sperm, the cells that give rise to eggs and sperm, or early embryo) for the benefit of future descendents who will inherit them.

The main purpose of HGGM is to ‘cleanse’ the gene pool of ‘deleterious’ and inheritable genes that would predispose people to certain diseases. This approach, according to some scientists, is to be preferred to traditional therapeutic strategies. For example, molecular biologist Daniel E. Koshland, Jr. could argue that ‘keeping diabetics alive with insulin, which increases the propagation of an inherited disease, seems justified only if one ultimately is willing to do genetic engineering to remove diabetes from the germline and thus save the anguish and cost to millions’.

The ultimate goal of HGGM is therefore to eradicate harmful genes responsible for diseases like cystic fibrosis from the whole population.

In this sense, HGGM must be distinguished from somatic cell therapy that involves the genetic modification of cells in the body apart from the reproductive cells. Somatic cell therapy treats the person with a genetic disease in a way that does not affect his or her offspring. While there is currently an international moratorium on HGGM, many countries in the world allow somatic cell therapy.

Although it is the intention of many scientists to use HGGM for therapeutic purposes, some are advocating that it should also be used to enhance certain desirable traits in the future generation. While many theologians and ethicists are opposed to this, the debate is complexified by the fact that the distinction between eliminating harmful genes and improving hereditary is very often blurred.

The main concern about HGGM is safety. Because these techniques edit the genetic makeup of the gametes, the changes inherited by future generations are deemed irreversible. Thus, the European Council for the Protection of Human Dignity states in its 1997 document that ‘Whilst developments in this field may lead to great benefit for humanity, misuse of these developments may endanger not only the individual but the species itself’.

Many scientists and ethicists maintain that it is simply impossible to envision the consequences of HGGM at this point. The debate sometimes gravitates to the question about the acceptable criteria for ascertaining whether it would be safe to proceed with HGGM. Although the current standard and protocol for research states that an intervention is considered adequate if it enjoys 70% success, some are arguing (for obvious reasons) that in the case of HGGM the requirement should be no less than a success rate of 100%.

In 1979, the influential philosopher and ethicist Hans Jonas in his remarkable book, The Imperative of Responsibility reminded us that in the midst of the tantalising progress of science and technology we must always pause to consider our responsibility to the future generation. The advance of science should not only fill society with a sense of hope, Jonas argues. It should also fill us with a sense of fear.

It is only when fear has its rightful place in our reflections on the promises of science and technology, he wisely counsels, that we will come to see that the ‘starry-eyed ethics of perfectibility has to give way to the sterner one of responsibility’.

Because the long-term adverse consequences of HGGM for future generations are not yet known or fully understood by scientists, and in light of the ethics of responsibility that Jonas emphatically advocates, both religious and secular institutions are opposed to the use of this technology on humans.

Dignitatis Personae, issued by the Roman Catholic Church in 2009, states that ‘Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and as yet not fully controllable, in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause harm to the resulting progeny’.

This is echoed in a statement on HGGM issued by the United Methodist Church in 2012, which states quite categorically that ‘We oppose human germ-line therapies (those that result in changes that can be passed to offspring) because of the possibility of unintended consequences and of abuse’.

‘With current technology’, it continues, ‘it is not possible to know if artificially introduced genes will have unexpected or delayed long-term effects not identifiable until the genes have been dispersed in the population’.

In similar vein, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) calls for a moratorium on HGGM in a statement issued in 2015: ‘The ISSCR calls for a moratorium on attempts to apply nuclear genome editing of the human germ line in clinical practice. Scientists currently lack an adequate understanding of the safety and potential long-term risks of germ line genome modification’.

The call to acknowledge our responsibility towards future generations serves to remind us that no human being – present or future – should be excluded from our moral community or moral consideration. It must therefore be taken very seriously.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

Transhumanism

What is Transhumanism? And how should Christians respond to its philosophy?

The twenty-first century has been described by some as the ‘Age of Bio-technology’. Advances in science and technology, especially in cybernetics and nanotechnology, are so rapid and significant that futuristic techno-utopians or ‘technopians’ are predicting that it would soon be possible for scientists to engineer ‘better’ human beings who are not vulnerable to certain weaknesses and diseases. In fact some have predicted that the future that awaits humankind is ‘trans-human’ in that these new technologies will enable the human race to possess powers beyond our imagination.

The World Transhumanist Association based in the United States defines transhumanism as a ‘sort of humanism plus’. Transhumanists believe that human beings can ‘better themselves socially, physically, and mentally by making use of reason, science and technology’. At the heart of the transhumanist movement, therefore, is the desire to create a utopia by improving ‘humankind and humanity in all their facets’.

In June 2000, the first artificial retinas were implanted in the eyes of three patients in Chicago suffering from retinis pigmentosa, which enabled them to see. The implants, which are 2mm in diameter each, 1/1000 of an inch thick, converts -3500 microphotodiodes that changes light energies into electrical impulses, which in turn stimulate the functioning nerves of the retina. This is the exciting world of ‘cybernetics’, the science which attempts to combine living organisms with machines.

The journal Science published a report in its June 2000 issue that scientists Edwin Jager, Olle Inganas and Ingemar Lundstorm have successfully developed a synthesized micro-robot that can move micrometer-size objects and manipulate single cells and cell-sized particles in an area of 250 x 100 micrometers.

The term ‘nanotechnology’ was brought to public consciousness by Eric Dexler in his book, Engines of Creation, first published in 1986. The term refers to precision machining with the tolerance level of a micrometer or less. Imagine a robot so small that it can be sent into the human body to detect and destroy malignant cells and cancers. Imagine using these micro-robots as immune machines to detect and combat infection. Imagine robots that could repair or replace damaged tissues and non-cellular connective tissue materials such as the extracellular matrix, or remove atherosclerotic plaque in coronary and cerebral arteries.

Although none of these technologies exist presently, scientists believe that these nanorobots will be a reality in the near future, and that their appearance will revolutionize medicine. Inspired by the promises of cybernetics and nanotechnology, transhumanists look forward to a future in which the limitations and the burdens of the present can be overcome by science and technology. Transhumanists therefore could speak of an alternative immortality.

The transhumanist vision can be critiqued from various angles from the Christian perspective. The optimism that transhumanism exudes regarding the future betrays the fact that its ideology is very much influenced by the Enlightenment. Its confidence in science and technology to secure a promising future for (post-) humanity merely shows that it has given scientism a new face. Scientism is the view espoused by some that the natural sciences (and its close cousin, technology) not only has the ability to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but also the ability to solve all the problems we currently face.

Science is here presented as revealer and saviour, the roles which the Christian Faith properly accords to God alone. Its confidence in science and technology, and its very optimistic view of human nature has led transhumanism to boldly present its own secular ‘eschatology’. It envisions a posthuman future in which, according to Katherine Hayles, ‘there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulations, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals’.

Because transhumanism is a secular ideology, it has no conception of the divine, and so no understanding of the radical nature of human sinfulness. Seen from another perspective, however, transhumanism presents itself as something of a religion. Although it is a secular ideology, it is in some ways profoundly religious. It has deified science and technology, and gives them the powers to change human nature itself, and to bring about ‘eschatological’ perfection through the emergence of a posthuman race, the cyborgs.

At its very heart, transhumanism despises the nature that human beings now possess, with all its frailties and limitations. The goal of the transhumanist is to press towards the posthuman future in which homo sapiens become techno sapiens (‘transhuman’ is short for transitional human).  Hence the transhumanist writer Bart Kosko could assert: ‘Biology is not destiny. It was never more than tendency. It was just nature’s first quick and dirty way to compute with meat. Chips are destiny’. In similar vein, Kevin Warwick, another transhumanist writer could declare: ‘I was born human. But this was an accident of fate – a condition merely of time and place. I believe it’s something I have the power to change’.

At every turn, transhumanism presents itself as not just inimical to the teachings of the Bible and the Christian tradition, but as antithetical to them. The Christian Faith teaches that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator to bear his image. Our nature is not an accident, but a gift from our Creator. The Christian Faith speaks about sin and the fall which affects all that we do – even our science – and from which we must be saved. That salvation comes only from God, who in his love and grace has sent his only begotten Son to die on the cross for sinful humanity. Nothing from human culture, not even the most profound science and the most precise technology, can bring about salvation.

The Christian Faith teaches that God alone will bring about a new creation at the eschaton, a new heavens and a new earth. It speaks about the resurrection, not the ‘borgification’ (from the word ‘cyborg’) of humanity! In the final analysis, transhumanism presents itself as another attempt at constructing a Babel. It is as much a defiant expression of self-reliance as a manifestation of a sinful and perverse titanism of the human spirit.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today, January 2015.

Christian Spirituality in a Time of Resurgent Spirituality

August 2015 Feature Article

There was a season in world history when excessive confidence and trust was conferred on science, technology, and the place of the mind.  At the same time, suspicion and cynicism was directed at spirituality, subjectivity, and the place of the heart.

The mood of that season has since given way to a new season where the resurgence of spirituality is evidenced.  The age of globalization characterized by movement, change, disruption, and displacement has fueled spiritual thirst as well as increasing the number of options to satisfy deep spiritual longing.

In this article, I will present two growing stands of spirituality which have been observed.

The first strand which is readily discovered in popular secular culture affirms spirituality decoupled from God and religion.  The second strand found in growing numbers of churches is shaped by consumer oriented desire to be culturally relevant.  Both strands pose a challenge to historic Christian faith.

Finally, a third stand which focuses on the commitment to follow Christ is presented as the basis of authentic Christian spirituality and the aspiration which Christians should strive toward.

Spirituality decoupled from God and religion

The first strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form that is decoupled from God and religion.

Within this strand of spirituality is a yearning for spiritual experiences which exclude God and religious institutions.  Both the growing secularization of society as well as the loss of confidence in traditional religious institutions have contributed to the move toward this strand of spirituality.

A significant aspect of this stand of spirituality lies in its commitment to a particular understanding of transcendence.  The experience of transcendence is the sense of mystery and wonder when in union with something much larger that the human self.

While traditionally the experience of transcendence has been associated with union with God up there, this strand of spirituality gravitates toward union with the world down here.

Spirituality in this strand therefore celebrates without any reference to God, the exponential growth in understanding of the natural and supernatural world, the strength and tenacity of the human spirit, the breathtaking affordances and enablement of new technologies, the global diversity and multiplicity of human perspective, the awesome wonder at the universe’s mysteries, and even the angst of the world of complex human existence.

It presents a non-theistic vision of spiritual life and highlights the nature of the search for spiritual meaning in an increasingly secularized society.

Together with the secularization of society, the increasing lack of confidence in traditional religious institutions has also contributed toward the movement toward a spirituality which is decoupled from God and religion.  The unfortunate reality about traditional religious institutions is that they often grow powerful, exercise authoritarianism, are slow to address issues of abuse and injustice, remain inward looking, and are slow to adapt to changes in culture.

Kinnaman and Lyon’s study of outsider perceptions of Christianity revealed six points of skepticism and objections raised.  Christians were thought of as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental (Kinnaman and Lyon 2007).  Likewise Kinnaman’s later study revealed reasons why Christian youth were leaving the church.  The reasons include the church being overprotective, shallow, antiscience, repressive, exclusive, and didn’t allow room for doubt (Kinnaman 2011).

While the studies were conducted in the United States, the sentiments are often echoed in many other parts of the world with deep implications for families, churches, schools, and Christians in the marketplace. 

Both the secularization of society and a lack of confidence in religious institutions have thus fueled the growth of this first strand of spirituality.  Faith, hope, trust, and wonder remain, but are arrived at without an appeal to God or religion.  While skepticism toward spirituality has not been lost, a new skepticism toward Christianity is evidenced and proliferated within institutions of higher learning, in the popular media, and by influential cultural elites.

Spirituality shaped by cultural relevance

The second strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form within churches that enthusiastically and unreservedly seek to move with the times.  In a fast changing world, the race toward relevance has resulted in significant changes not just of the external forms of church, but also in the inner nature and character of its accompanying spirituality.

A metaphor that aptly describes the church in a changing world is “a young person with white hair.” For the church to remain relevant in every generation, its external form needs to be renewed and adapted.

Equally, for the church to remain faithful to its roots, it cannot lose fundamental aspects of its character to the forces of change.  In their quests for relevance however, some adaptive churches have began to take on a character that is best described as “young person with colored hair.”

The slowness to recognize the extent to which cultural influences have become mixed in and rooted in the church today is paralleled in the way coffee is served and drunk today.  In its most basic and unadulterated form, coffee is served black.  In many popular coffee chains however, coffee is served as flavored Frappuccinos.

In the contemporary consciousness, coffee is an appealing beverage only because of the sweeten flavors of Frappuccino, and not because of the coffee per se.  Presented with the alternatives of a cup of black coffee and a Frappuccino containing only coffee essence, it would not be surprising if some insist that the Frappuccino was proper coffee while at the same time rejecting the real thing.

This muddle finds parallel in the church today and is observable in many successful, fast growing churches and their fan bases.  In David Wells’ words, these churches “appear to be succeeding, not because they are offering an alternative to our modern culture, but because they are speaking with its voice, mimicking its moves.”

Quite unlike the first strand of spirituality described which challenges the church from without, this second strand and its growing popularity challenges the church from within and is rooted in a consumer-driven posture of the heart.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to follow Christ

If the first strand of spirituality is decoupled from God and religion while the second an embodiment of trending socio-cultural influences, a third strand is marked by a deep commitment to know and follow Christ.  In a crowded, noisy world with a supermarket of spiritualities on offer, this strand stands apart and requires special attention and intentional cultivation.

The call to follow Christ is always issued amidst rival and competing voices.

In addition, when recognized, the call provokes differing degrees of receptivity.  The call invites all to recognize the identity of Christ as king of the universe and head of the church.  It bids all to enter into a discipleship relationship with the Master.

Finally, it summons all to appropriate the benefits of his sacrificial death on the cross, the power of his resurrection over sin and death, and the offer of hope both in this life and the next.

What animates a spirituality shaped by a commitment to Christ is the passionate desire to follow him and to imitate his ways.  This deep yearning and ambition is clearly exampled in the life of the apostle Paul who modeled his life after Christ and called others to follow in the same spirit (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 2 Thess. 3:9).

Rodney Reeves comments on the core elements of this Christ-centered, life-altering spirituality embraced by Paul:

Since the gospel was more than a set of beliefs–it was a way of life–Paul believe his life revealed the gospel of Jesus Christ: he was crucified with Christ, he was buried with Christ and he was raised with Christ. Participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ was the template of Paul’s spirituality.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to Christ builds on the decision to follow him and grows toward maturity by pursuing the things Christ calls his disciples to become and live for.

Evidence of this strand of spirituality would include repentance from wrong doing, daily dying to self, embodying a spirit of service and sacrifice, demonstrating trust and dependence on God, and possessing a concern for the things that matter to the Master.  It upholds its integrity by resisting dilution and domestication of the gospel and by understanding that following Christ is not like bringing a puppy back home for personal amusement.

Bringing a puppy home requires some adjustment in personal lifestyle but still preserves a person’s status as the puppy’s master.  Following Christ however is better conceived as bringing a new master home.

That being the case, followers will need to note the adjustments in lifestyles, behaviors, and thinking that Christ demands of all aspects and arenas of life.  Having it any other way would be tantamount to preserving the rhetoric of following Christ while failing to uphold the reality in practice.  It would be to advance the great irony of following Christ on one’s own terms, not on His terms.

Concluding Words

The world we live in today is a world of global flows, shifting boundaries, and porous walls.  It is a world where our community, congregation members and children are exposed to different forms of spirituality.  It is also in the context of this world that Christians are called to develop authentic Christian spirituality.

Perhaps the invitation to develop authentic Christian spirituality in such as world can be compared to how fish we eat is served to us.  If developing Christian spirituality in an era past can be compared to being served fish with bones removed, developing Christian spirituality in the present age can only be compared to being served fish with bones on.

Eating becomes an exercise of wisdom and good judgment.  Under such conditions, it is necessary to discern what is beneficial, to distinguish from what needs to be spit out, and to know how to aid casualties along the way.



Dr Calvin Chong
is Associate Professor, Educational Ministries at the Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.

 

What should be the proper way of understanding the relationship between science and the Christian Faith?

Although significant progress is being made in the interaction between science and Christianity in this century, there remains a residual hostility between them that can be traced to the nineteenth century. When modern science as we know it first appeared in seventeenth century Europe, its encounter with Christianity could be generally described as friendly. Scientists then understood that God had created the world, and see science as the means by which they could examine the handiwork of the Creator. In the eighteenth century, however, there was a gradual rift between the scientific and religious communities. Influenced by Deism, which teaches that God, having created the world, is no longer personally involved with it, scientists maintain that they could study nature without the interference of religious metaphysics. This rift soon developed into open hostility in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the rise secularism.

The hostility between science and Christianity has resulted in the conflict thesis promoted by prominent scientists in the nineteenth century like J. W. Draper in History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and A.D. White in A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom. The scientists who hold this view argue quite simply that only science can enable us to understand reality, which according to them is the material world in which we live. But it would be a mistake to think that only scientists are responsible for the rhetoric of conflict and warfare. Theologians who take a literal approach to the interpretation of the Bible also come to this conclusion. The conflict thesis is therefore supported by materialism on the one hand, and biblical literalism on the other.

Some scientists and theologians maintain that it is misguided to speak of the conflict between science and religion because these two spheres of knowledge are totally distinct from each other. Religion, these thinkers claim, asks a totally different set of questions, work on totally different assumptions, and employ a different methodology from science. Science and religion in fact speak two different languages with totally different functions. Science is concerned with objective, public and repeatable data while religion is concerned with aesthetic experiences and the inner life. Science asks the ‘how’ questions, while religion asks the ‘why’ questions. The authority of science is the empirical study of the material world, while religion is dependent on divine revelation. Those who argue for the independence of science and religion wish to safeguard the integrity and autonomy of both.

Both these approaches, however, fail to appreciate fully the complex nature of the relationship between science and religion or theology. The conflict thesis fails to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of reality. And the independence theory, while acknowledging the fact that reality is multi-faceted fails to give an account of how these facets are related to each other. Furthermore, this latter approach will ultimately result in the privatisation of religion, treating it only as subjective experience that has no objective basis whatsoever.

The proper understanding of the relationship between science and the Christian faith is dialogue. Dialogue suggests a more constructive relationship between science and religion than both conflict and independence because it acknowledges the differences as well as similarities between the two. Dialogue requires science and theology to have a clear understanding of their own as well as each other’s presuppositions and methods. This would prevent caricatures that would inhibit fruitful conversations between them. For example, some philosophers have argued that science is objective because its theories are validated by clear-cut criteria and indisputable evidence. Theology or religion, on the other hand, is highly subjective and is based on individual or cultural assumptions. Many philosophers of science and theologians have rightly rejected this simplistic view of both science and theology. They have shown on the one hand that science is theory-laden, and on the other that although theological statements are not amendable to strict empirical testing they can nevertheless be taken to be objective.

There are indeed many areas of possible dialogue between science and theology. One such area is the intelligibility of the cosmos. Physicists and astronomers have long been seeking for a unified theory of the cosmos based on the conviction that the latter is simple, orderly and rationally intelligible. Theologians can account for the intelligibility of the world that scientists assume because they believe that the God who ordered the world is rational. In creating the world, God has given it an independent reality distinct from himself, which implies that the creation has its own integrity. Theologians like Thomas Torrance and John Polkinghorne discuss the intelligibility of the world within the theistic framework thereby bringing science and theology into serious and creative dialogue with each other.

Taking this dialogue seriously implies that consonance between theology and science is to be actively sought. But it also implies that all hasty attempts to achieve a happy but superficial synthesis between the two must be resisted. Failure to arrive at a synthesis, however, should not discourage further dialogue because the dialogical process itself is beneficial for both science and theology. As Pope John Paul II has so insightfully put it, ‘Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Have scientists discovered the gay gene?

Perhaps the most frequently cited study that maintains the connection between genetics and homosexuality is that conducted by molecular biologists at the National Institutes of Health under the direction of Dean Hamer in 1993. By examining DNA samples from self-identified gay men and other gay male family members, Hamer and his team claimed to have discovered a DNA segment, called a ‘marker’, on the X chromosome. Men inherit this chromosome only from their mothers, not from their fathers. By defining this marker more closely, Hamer and his team of scientists hope to identify a ‘gene for gayness’ on the X chromosome. In his report Hamer, who is a gay man, concludes that there is a strong genetic basis for homosexuality, although he admits that the environment also has a part to play.

Scientists have found Hamer’s methodology questionable and his conclusions unconvincing. In the first place, Hamer did not check if straight men also share the marker in question. His theory would be disproved if only a few straight men were found to have the marker. The second and perhaps more serious flaw has to do with Hamer’s definition of who is gay. Hamer only studied what he considers to be ‘real’ gay men, that is, men who have never veered from the preference for men in their sexual activities. But because Hamer ignores the large population of men who have sexual relations with men but who do not identify as gay, his research is seriously compromised. It simply fails to account for the diversity of sexual identities. According to an article by the Council for Responsible Genetics, Hamer’s study is ‘currently under investigation by the Federal Office of Research Integrity for possible scientific misconduct, because one of the study collaborators alleges that Hamer suppressed data that would have reduced the statistical significance of the reported results’. Unfortunately the outcome of the investigation is not available to me at this writing.

Another study, conducted in 1991 by neuropsychologist Simon LeVay with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California also argues that homosexual orientation is genetic. By examining the brain structures of gay and straight men, Le Vay concluded that a specific structure in the brain of gay men is smaller (about the size of the brain structure in heterosexual women) than in straight men. Le Vay concludes that there is a certain connection between homosexuality and biology. Le Vay’s study, however, is seriously compromised for two reasons. Firstly, his observations were made on cadavers, and his evidence about the sexual orientation and practices of the people in life were at best circumstantial. And secondly, the ‘gay men’ all died of AIDS, which is known to affect brain structures. Thus scientists have generally found Le Vay’s conclusions unconvincing.

Space does not allow me to discuss the studies by Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard at Northwestern University and the Boston University School of Medicine that argue for a biological basis of sexual orientation. But many scientists have also found these studies problematic and inconclusive. Furthermore, most scientists reject the one-gene-one-trait theory as naïve because of its reductionism and determinism. Such theories fail to take human freedom seriously due to its simplistic correlation between genes and human behaviour. Human beings are such complex creatures (profoundly different from the other animals) who interact creatively and meaningfully with their environment. Even Dean Hamer admits that it is ludicrous to reduce human beings to their animal prototypes. ‘Pigs’, he writes, rather humorously, ‘don’t date, ducks don’t frequent stripper bars, and hoses don’t get married … Animals don’t speak, write love songs, build churches, or do a lot of other things that we consider worthwhile’. Human sexual behaviour, in other words, cannot be simply reduced to genetic predisposition.

But what if one day the one-gene-one-trait theory is proven to be true? What if scientists can demonstrate that homosexual orientation has a genetic basis? What if the scientific community and society at large accept the view that homosexuality is ‘natural’? Must the church abandon her traditional position concerning homosexual behaviour and revise her teaching?

Here we must clarify what modern culture means by ‘nature’. From the time of the European Enlightenment, the concept of nature has been increasingly secularized, plucked out of its original context of a theistic worldview and the Christian doctrine of creation. ‘Nature’, according to this view is defined by science and no longer by a religious metaphysics. Nature, then, is that which can be subjected to empirical observation and the scrutiny of modern science. According to this view, it follows that if a certain behavioural trait is the result of the presence of a particular gene, that behaviour must be ‘natural’.

For the Christian faith, however, what is natural, and nature itself, cannot be gleaned from the scientific study of the world. It is disclosed only by revelation. What is natural is not based on the way things are but on God’s original intention for the creation. The empirical study of the world cannot yield knowledge of the created order as God had intended it to be because ours is a fallen world. The world as we see it is denatured due to the Fall. In addition, the scientific instruments, methods and concepts that we use are also affected by the Fall.

When Paul argues that homosexual behaviour is unnatural (Rom 1:26-27), his assertion is not based on a secular understanding of nature or a particular social convention. Rather it is based on the doctrine of creation. Paul is referring to human sexuality as God had intended it when he created human beings male and female. In the same way, the Christian’s conception of what is natural cannot be based on scientific research but on God’s revelation in Scripture.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.