Left brain/right brain theology…

Great discussion today on Radio 4’s ‘Start the week’– a debate between scientist (Dawkins and Lisa Randall) and the Chief Rabbi, Johnathan Sachs. You can listen again here if you missed it.

The debate was predictable in subject material- Dawkins expressing his logic-first model, and exorting us all to let go of our superstitious addiction to the supernatural and Sachs talking about the why questions rather than the how, and the truth and beauty we humans experience that is not understandable in a scientific way.

However, there was a respectfulness about the debate that I really enjoyed.

Sachs at one point talked about the wonder of a creator who creates a creative universe- I liked that.

He also said something about the Greek filter that many biblical texts have been through- a familiar theme to anyone who has read any Brian McLaren (the ‘Greco-Roman narrative’ that he describes so well in ‘A New Kind of Christianity’.) However Sachs approached this from a different angle.

He suggested that the Greek Language was the first one to be written left to right, and to contain vowels. Previously, writing was mostly right to left (apart from Chinese which went down.)

This is significant not just because of the left brain (analytical) right brain (instinctive/feelings) split that tends to characterise how we understand the hemispherical nature of our brains. It also asks questions about our theological lens.

Because the older languages lacked vowels, they could only be understood in context- their meaning was only understandable in the paragraph as opposed to the individual words.

So what? Well, when these earlier understandings were translated into the Greek, and then onwards into our modern languages, they were forced to take on a more concrete form- one in which every word is individual in meaning and application. Words that defined and legalised. Sacred words.

Words that try to contain God.

Kind of reminds me of this post– and this picture.


Science/faith- apologetics worth chewing on?

Thanks to Jason Clark for this link to Test of Faith.

The site is another attempt to find that dangerous interface between science and faith. It is based around the thoughts of Scientists who are Christians.

I have mixed feelings about projects like this. I have spent some time in the past thinking about the whole creation/evolution thing (here for example) and more or less came to the conclusion that science asked different questions to those needed by people of faith- typically the scientific ‘how’ and the religious ‘why’.

I also worry that there is much BAD science that is being used by Christians to ‘prove’ the truth of their interpretation of the Bible. I find these dishonest and highly selective attempts to squeeze the world into a narrow set of prejudices repellent.

But then I am not a scientist, and never will be. I write poetry that celebrates mystery. Those with a different, more analytical and precise mind set will always need a different level of engagement with these issues.

This proposed set of resources and film seem to promise much…

Here is the trailer…

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Science/faith- apologetics worth chew…“, posted with vodpod

Creation/evolution 3- science…

Scientists are developing their own story of life. At present, it goes something like this;

Some of the most exciting areas of scientific discovery today are thought to be in the field of Astro-physics. The Hubble telescope, now in orbit around the earth, out from the obstruction of our atmosphere, has been able to see much further into space, and in doing so, to see light coming to us from further back in time. Through examination of what are thought to be the oldest stars, and by measuring the apparent rate that the universe is expanding, scientists have suggested a new age for our universe, of between 13 and 14 billion years old. This means, according to the predominant (physical) theory of the origin of the universe that around 13 billion years ago, out of nothing, something happened, and in a mighty explosion of unimaginable force, time as we know it began. Particles of cosmic dust formed globules, some burning bright as stars, others taking their orbit around these stellar objects and forming planets. The universe continued to expand – to get bigger.

EVERYTHING that we see around us is made up from molecules and elements that were spewed out into the universe by this one event- what scientists have somewhat unimaginatively called “The big bang”. More than this- look at your hand. It too is made of star dust. because, about 4.6 billion years ago, a small planet was formed, on the edge of one of the spiral arms of a small galaxy of stars- as a swirling mass of debris accreted and took on spherical form. We have come to see this planet as Earth, our home.

The conditions on this planet eventually became just right for the beginning of another process – life. For about a billion years, the earth was ‘without form and void’. But from around 3.4 billion years ago, we can find evidence in the rocks of microbes. Nobody knows WHY these primitive forms of life began. Some early research suggested that the right chemical reactions happened to allow for the production of amino acids, perhaps through the characteristics of the chemistry on early Earth, or maybe in the deep sea vents where volcanic heat stirred the seas. Others have suggested that organic matter was deposited on earth by comets, although it is not clear where the comets came from. We do not know whether it was ONLY on our planet that these conditions existed. We still wait to see if early forms of life developed on our neighbouring planet, Mars.

It was not until about 600 million years ago that we see the first evidence of multi-cellular life on Earth in the fossil record. However, diversity seems to have remained constant, perhaps even declining, until approximately 200 million years ago. Then there was an explosion of diversity- all the marine invertebrates, including many that no longer exist, plus plant life on the land. No-one knows why this diversity suddenly appears in the fossil record, although there are many theories- from levels of oxygen in the atmosphere, to more complex theories about cell structures. All subsequent forms of life on earth are substantially similar to the animals that came to be from this period- vertebrates, invertebrates, arthropods and so on.

The carboniferous period, from about 360 million years ago appears to have been hot and humid. Huge trees forested the land, but there were no flowers yet, and no grasses. Bony fish were found in the ocean, and somehow, some of these fish formed the ability to become amphibian. In the air were seen huge insects, including one with a 14 inch wingspan!

The Permian period, from around 286 million years ago, was typified by cooler climates- and many land animals began to take their place on our planet. However, at the end of this period, and for no clear reason, many of these animals became extinct. It took another 100 million years for this diversity to recover.

The next age, often called the Age of Reptiles was from around 245 million years ago. This period includes time of the Triassic and the Jurassic dinosaurs. They dominated the animal life of the planet for 150 million years, then disappeared, again for no clear reason. Giant meteor strikes have been suggested, but no-one knows for sure.
Next, the age of mammals – from around 65 million years. Mammals had been around for much longer of course, but during this period, they (and eventually, we) dominated the planet. Different species ebbed and flowed, some displaced by others as land masses move and reform, others varying hugely in size and shape as time places different demands on their adaptability. And we mammals were extremely adaptable.

The first hominids (Apes closer to human form than to that of the ape) lived in Africa about 7 million years ago. Around 2.5 million years ago, Homo Erectus appeared in Africa, with a brain almost as large as ours, and began to make use of tools and perhaps, fire. The first recognisably human remains date back to around 250,000 years ago, and have been called Neanderthals. They had, if anything, slightly larger brains than us, and evidence of their communities, and the residue of their lives, can be found in caves in a northern climate ravaged by advancing and receding ice sheets.

From about 50,000 years ago, there has been a mass extinction of animals in many different parts of the world. All herbivores of over 1000kg disappeared in Europe and America, and 75% of all animals between 100-1000kg. The rise of mankind, with our hunting skill, and communal organisation is the only logical explanation.

Around 30 million years ago, Neanderthals disappeared. They had been replaced, over some time, by what we now know as Modern Humans, who had first left records of their existence about 100,000 years ago in Africa. Palaeontologists have speculated that Neanderthals, despite their big brains, lacked something that the moderns had.

Their tools appeared primitive and poorly designed, and although they lived in social groups, there was little evidence of that oh-so human thing, abstract thought. The modern humans, on the other hand, from around 40,000 years ago, left cave art, jewellery, sophisticated tools. It was almost as if, by a freak genetic mutation, ‘humanity’ was switched on! Evidence has emerged recently however that suggested that this modern human behaviour started at least 30,000 years earlier in South Africa, where geometric carved pieces of Ochre and impressive tools were discovered from an earlier period. Human thought and abstraction seems to have been unfolding- emerging- for some time.

We stand as evidence of all that is amazing about the story told by scientists- of an unfolding story of life, beginning from nothing then gathering a fragile foothold, until at the very end of history, humans appear and make the world their own. We conquer mighty rivers, remake the building blocks of our planet into new composites and use the facts of our understanding to travel through the air, to communicate and to destroy one another. And some say that we are at the edge of destroying our planet because of our headlong rush to accumulate more and more.

This is the story given to us by the best scientific study and theorising.

Creation/Evolution 2- poets and butterflies

The first poem of the Bible concerns the origin of the world- the sweep of creation from formless void to the teeming tangle of animals, vegetables and minerals that make up this wonderful place that we live in. And perhaps most of all, this poem concerns the place of men and women in the order of things – our position in the mind and heart of God, as he unfolds his masterpiece.

This poem of the origin of all life has been one of those battlegrounds that men have argued over for centuries. Modernity, in all its scientific and analytical rigour, pinned the poem to board like a butterfly, and for a while, seemed to destroy its shape by pulling it a part – by measuring its width and depth, and finding no industrial application. From this world view, the poem is an irrelevance – it has no value to our understanding. Like the butterfly, its beauty and simplicity are categorised and filed, at best as a decoration to ornament the progress and rise of mankind.

Some religious people still try to defend the words of the poem. They too have it in a glass case of their own. For them, it has become a sacred artifact. Its words are open for analysis, but only by those who have the looking glass of correct doctrine, and anything that appears to question its absolute truth must be challenged and nullified, lest the power of the words be stolen.

But poems, like butterflies, were never meant to be pinned to boards, or kept in cases – they need to fly. Perhaps the truth of a butterfly can be measured in terms of its constituent parts, but much more than this, we understand the essence of the creature in the light of an early summer day, flickering and dancing in and out of the flowers, seeking nectar and spreading pollen – its flight seeming both impossible and triumphant.

I believe that the poem of life that has been given to us in Genesis is true. I am not a scientist, or a theologian – I am a poet. For poets, truth is given not as a blue print, or a mathematical equation, although these things are wonderful and creative in their own right. Poems bring meaning and beauty in the abstract, in order to make clear the obvious. They are often far more concerned with the why questions than the what, or the how. Poets should have no fear of scientists, who speak a different language.

As for those of us who have faith in the Creator God, I think we should also have no fear as we read the poem of life from the beginning of Genesis. We do not need to defend, or to stand against the scientific community. It makes us look stupid. Think of those folk in an earlier age who found their world view challenged by those who said that the world was not flat, and that rather than the sun turning around the earth, in fact we seemed to orbit the sun. This was the theological dynamite of the medieval age, and as such, was an idea suppressed by the religious powers of the day.

But God is not defined or limited by science – His was the art that birthed the science in the first place!