Book Review: The Big Question

The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and GodThe Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God by Alister E. McGrath

Science has progressed to the point that it can explain the origins of the universe, life, intelligence, and even ethics and morality by exclusive recourse to natural phenomena. In so doing, science has freed intelligent beings from the tyranny of the theistic superstitions that dominated our benighted past. So say the New Atheists, at least.

Not so fast. So might Alister McGrath say, although he does not do so in those words. Science provides us with deeper knowledge and understanding of the universe and the part of it that humanity inhabits with every passing year. For that, and for so much more that scientists do we should render due recognition and appreciation. But science does not prove the nonexistence of God, just as it cannot prove God’s existence. “Science is a non-theistic, not an anti-theistic, way of engaging reality.” (page 19; emphasis in original) Science instead supports and enhances the sense of wonder and awe that humans experience as we explore and interact with the universe. Alister McGrath shares his awe and wonder with the reader. He also shares how science can come alongside theistic faith to help us come to terms with our place and purpose in the universe.

Throughout this book Alister McGrath engages with the writing of such prominent atheists as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I have not read these authors, so I am relying on Alister McGrath to represent their arguments fairly and not to set up straw men. Similarly, I have not read Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson. I know of it and of Wilson’s arguments only through reading the response written by Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. So I have some reading to do if I am going to be completely thorough in my approach to The Big Question.

With regard to Edward O. Wilson, Alister McGrath mentions him and Sam Harris in his discussion of ethics and morality. Science and specifically evolutionary biology cannot by themselves explain the rise of ethics and moral principles. What is ethical or moral is not simply a matter of what behaviors will enable our species to survive or thrive. Notions of what constitutes ethical behavior transcend the common good and come from humanity’s interaction with a source outside of the physical universe.

When shopping for books online, readers are often able to read samples. The samples often come from the beginning of the book. It might be better in this case if the sample were the final chapter. That would reveal whether or not the butler did it, of course, but this final chapter encapsulates Alister McGrath’s thinking on the relationship between science and faith and it is worth working through the other 200+ pages to get to that summary.

If you are looking for more great reading on the subject of faith and science, why not visit Andy Walsh’s Science Corner blog on the Emerging Scholars Network.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

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Painted Ladies, Hurricanes, Earthquakes

A painted lady (Vanessa cardui) stopped and visited our coneflower (echinacea purpurea) today.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings closed

This butterfly visited as fall was arriving in the northern hemisphere. Like its more well-known cousin the monarch, the painted lady doesn’t stick around for winter. It gets out of winter’s way and heads toward a warmer locale. Some butterflies, such as the mourning cloak, can winter over in the temperate zone. That’s why mourning cloaks are among the first butterflies to be sighted in the spring.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings partly open

Sometimes we can see changes or events coming and we can prepare for them or get out of their way. In the past few weeks millions of people saw storms coming and got out of way or prepared to weather the storms. In spite of their preparations, many people suffered great personal harm from the storms. In Mexico many thousands of people had no way of knowing that earthquakes were coming and also suffered great personal harm.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings open

If you are like me, you do not have the skills to help the survivors rebuild their lives. But we can give, and we can pray. Please do both as you think about creatures who are preparing now for the coming of winter.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Is it Time to Put Hurricanes on a Diet?

We have been following hurricane news for several weeks now. Before it gets pushed out of the headlines by other events and out of our consciousness by cute animal videos or political diatribe, I thought it appropriate to do a little assessment and write out some thoughts.

Have you donated to an organization that is providing relief or recovery services in the stricken areas? If you have, good for you! If you have volunteered or will volunteer for one of those organizations, even better!. Please share your experience in the comments on this blog or on social media.

Next, have you considered the impact that climate change has had on the recent storms? That’s a little trickier to assess. Climate scientists can’t make a precise connection between a warmer climate and the characteristics or behavior of a specific storm. But they do tell us how a warmer climate can affect such storms. A warmer atmosphere, which we have, holds more moisture; storms such as Harvey can carry and deliver more rain. Warmer oceans, which we have, transfer more energy to the storm, which translates into stronger winds. We saw this in Irma.

Hurricane José graphic
Hurricane José running laps in the open ocean, 12 September 2017.

Like so much of the American population, hurricanes seem to be getting bigger. They could stand to lose a few pounds, so to speak. One solution might be to make hurricanes exercise more. As of this writing Hurricane José is running laps in the Bermuda Triangle. Let’s hope he exhausts himself before taking aim at any land mass. Inasmuch as past attempts to control the behavior of storms have failed, it seems unlikely that we will be able to do so in the near future, however.

Some changes in our diets might have a positive effect on climate change. Eating more vegetables, especially beans, instead of feeding vegetables to animals and eating the animals is one such change. If you can’t contemplate giving up meat, or even beef, altogether, may I suggest meatless Mondays or something similar? Oh, and please keep the beans-to-methane comments to yourself. Thanks.

There are limits to using vegetables as a protein source, but fish, eggs, and dairy products can help overcome those limitations while having less climate impact than red meat.

Not sold on beans as a protein source? What about crickets? Eating insects will take more of an adjustment than switching to beans, but when I shared the article on beans on social media some weeks ago, one of my connections enthused about eating barbecued mealworms.

Are you surprised that a small change that individuals can make could have an impact on the environment? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)

Next issue: food waste and climate change.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See is an easy read, and it is not an easy read. The narrative moves quickly and pulls the reader along, but the details of the depravity that characters face because of Nazi madness will haunt the reader’s dreams. The characters are well developed, and we see their doubts and convictions, fear and courage, humor and anger throughout. We wonder, as Werner does of one of his comrades, what they could have become if not for the madness they endure.

Also impressive is the descriptive detail. When Etienne is obliged to surrender his collection of radios, Doerr takes pains to identify each radio. We see the streets of Saint Malo through Marie’s sightless understanding of it. How many storm drains to the corner? What creatures inhabit the grotto where Marie wades in the sea?

The nonlinear narrative requires some mental energy. We read about a circumstance or event at the chronological end of the story and we can infer from that circumstance or event the outcome of a crisis that is earlier chronologically but comes later in the text.

Some years ago I read The Sojourn, a novel set in Austria-Hungary and Italy during the first World War. I still have mental images from some of the scenes and events in that book. The same will no doubt be the case with All the Light We Cannot See.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

DeKorte Park

Labor Day 2017 was an ideal day to spend out of doors in New Jersey. We chose to spend part of the morning at Richard W. DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. The park features several trails that wind their ways through and around tidal enclosures fed and drained by Kingsland Creek and the Hackensack River. It’s a great place to see migrating birds and year-round resident wildlife. (For great information on events at DeKorte Park and other New Jersey Meadowlands sites, visit The Meadowlands Nature Blog.)

When we arrived the tide was in, so few wading birds aside from great egrets were visible. Soon after we arrived we met two photographers whose camera lenses were longer than my forearm. One of them graciously directed our view to a nearby opening in the phragmites at the water line and said that there were several least bitterns hiding there. I caught a quick glimpse of the head of one and another flew past moments later.

great egret
A great egret at De Korte Park.

We were then treated to a display by a Forster’s tern. He hovered briefly a few yards above the water, then dove in, presumably in hopes of catching a fish. I wasn’t able to photograph the acrobatics, but I did manage to photograph him while he was resting on a metal railing. Please excuse the quality of the photographs. At maximum optical zoom my camera lens is the 35-mm equivalent of about 70 mm in focal length.

Forster’s tern
A Forster’s tern. Notice the comma-shaped eye- and ear-band.

We heard but did not see several other small birds hiding in the phragmites. Two pairs of medium- to large-size wading birds (dowitchers?) flew by while we were watching the tern. We also got to see several swans, an American black duck, several goldfinches, a ruby-throated hummingbird that was being harassed by a small brown bird that we could not identify, and a couple of turtles.

The walkways and other fixtures in DeKorte Park were heavily damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. They have since been repaired or replaced and, in some cases, enhanced. Sadly, invasive phragmites have replaced much of the native flora and this undoubtedly affects the well-being of the wildlife that makes its home in the park or passes through on its migratory journey. The park staff work to keep key viewing areas clear so that folks like us can spot birds and other creatures.

The Environmental Center also has an observatory that is open to the public on Wednesday evenings from 8:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., weather permitting. We went one Wednesday evening in 2016 and saw Saturn, rings clearly visible, through the telescope.

DeKorte Park is adjacent to the offices of the Meadowlands Environmental Center and the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority. It’s located at the southeastern end of Valley Brook Avenue in Lyndhurst, NJ. Valley Brook Avenue turns to the right and becomes Disposal Road just before the park entrance.

The name “Disposal Road” is fitting because the offices and park are located at the southeastern edge of a large landfill that is now closed. In our less enlightened past we viewed the Meadowlands region as someplace to dump our garbage. Thankfully our governments and businesses now recognize that wetlands such as the New Jersey Meadowlands need to be preserved and protected. It’s worth a visit to understand why. Also, check out this interesting article on how wetlands mitigate damage from severe storms such as Superstorm Sandy.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

Book Review: The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian NationThe Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher paints a dark picture of the state and status of American Christianity in the 21st century. It is hard to argue with his assessment. The decline and marginalization of the Church are evident, as is the secularization of American culture, even if one doesn’t accept the argument that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

Dreher’s answer to the crisis is for orthodox Christians to focus on maintaining and building up what remains through communities that focus attention inward. This is a simplification, but his answer conjures another picture, that of driving through a questionable neighborhood in the family car. Our orders are to roll up the windows and lock the doors. Don’t make eye contact with the shabby person carrying a paper cup and a hand-lettered “Homeless, Please Help” sign. Don’t look at the women in short skirts and halter tops. Don’t stare at the drunk lying on the sidewalk in a pool of his own urine.

How does an insular community deal with social justice concerns or creation care? How do we reach people who are marginalized by or excluded from the community, but who nonetheless are people for whom Christ died? What are Christians who can afford classical education or home schooling supposed to do? Where do civic engagement and involvement take place?

Honestly, these allusions to social justice issues are little more than lip service on my part. And The Benedict Option provides much to think about for someone who has drifted somewhat from the orthodox Christianity of his younger life. I would welcome a recommendation for a left-of-center approach to the decline and marginalization of Christianity that Rod Dreher so thoughtfully addresses.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you have not read it and don’t want the outcome to be revealed.

This was my first conventional novel by Neil Gaiman. I had read The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a graphic novel. Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quick read and hard to put down. The themes of identity, loneliness, and alienation are fairly easy to pick up. The narrator’s being saved from death by another character who dies in the attempt is unexpected and strikes me as being close to Christian in form. In that sense Lettie is a Christ figure, although I’m not sure that’s what the author intended.

What strikes me also is a similarity between this story and the story told in Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories we have benevolent female figures who come to the aid of a child or children in a battle between good and evil. I’d be curious to learn if anyone else reading this review might have drawn the same connection.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Cultivating Reality, by Ragan Sutterfield

Cultivating RealityCultivating Reality by Ragan Sutterfield

From the subtitle of this book, “How the Soil Might Save Us,” one might think this is a book about soil ecology and biology told from a Christian perspective. It is not. Rather, it is an apologetic for agrarianism as a biblically based response to environmental degradation, cultural ills, and the unraveling of our social fabric.

Ragan Sutterfield is a prophet in the tradition of Wendell Berry, whom Sutterfield cites more frequently than any other writer. One sixth of the entries in the bibliography are works by Wendell Berry. The other sources listed in the bibliography range from Bernard of Clairvaux to Richard Dawkins to Melissa Block of NPR to Bill McKibben to Michael Pollan to Jack Kerouac to Dallas Willard, to name a few. I was also expecting to see Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible in the list but it is absent.

One of the foundation stones of Sutterfield’s agrarianism is commonwealth. Others include humility, the sacredness of our physical beings, and a sense of place. Regarding commonwealth, or community, Sutterfield starts by introducing John Locke and his concept of property. Locke maintained that our bodies are property that can be rented or sold as we labor to accumulate more property, some of it in the form of consumer goods. In contrast Sutterfield argues that “The agrarian response is that we are members. . . . [W]e are part of a larger whole and it is through working well within that whole that we attain our own good, which is always in harmony with the good of the whole.” I was recalling Ephesians 4:15 & 16 as I was reading the chapter on commonwealth: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Reading this book, and reading Wendell Berry, I am tempted to dismiss their prophecies as arising out of an agrarian elitism. Wendell Berry lives on a farm in Kentucky. Ragan Sutterfield lives in Arkansas and his writing suggests that he has acreage at his disposal where he can practice his agrarianism. How is someone living in a suburban subdivision, or in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, or in New Delhi or Kampala supposed to practice agrarian living? But to make that argument is to miss the point. Sutterfield is calling us to cultivate a different reality regardless of our personal circumstances, a reality in which we live humbly in community, giving ourselves as a gift to others, regarding the physical creation as something that has been made sacred by God’s choosing to inhabit it with us.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Fireflies on the Basil

On a recent morning I was picking some fresh basil to make pesto sauce. I found two fireflies hanging out on the basil plants. By the time I got my camera to try to get a photo they were gone, so I’m substituting a Wikimedia photo of fireflies.

Fireflies, Georgia, US, April 20, 2017
Fireflies, Georgia. By Jud McCranie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
I checked each basil leaf as I washed them and I’m confident that the fireflies didn’t get into  the pesto (unlike the bug that survived three washings of the lettuce and found its way into a salad).

Two years ago, during our first year in our current home, we hardly saw any fireflies in our yard. Even now the air is not filled with them in the evening, but there are many more than that first summer. I should have suspected that we might not get many fireflies when I was contacted by a lawn care company that first spring. They wanted to have a technician come and spray the yard with pesticide. The previous homeowner had a contract with this company, and I think they also sprayed the lawn with fertilizer and weed killer. I declined the offer.

The decision to spray for pests is a difficult one, especially for families with small children. We want our families to be able to enjoy the great outdoors, but the great outdoors is filled with health hazards. Deer wander through suburban neighborhoods less than two miles from our home. They spread ticks that carry Lyme Disease. Recently lone star ticks have made their way to the northeast. In the southeast they carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but in some colder locales they are believed responsible for a potentially life-threatening allergy to meat. Mosquitoes can carry West Nile virus and the Zika virus. Pesticides and repellents can help us keep these risks at bay. Even something as simple as wanting to keep ants from invading our homes sends us to the store for some Raid®.

As we’ve observed in our yard, the use of pesticides can have unintended consequences. Protecting fireflies is not sufficient reason not to treat a yard to keep out or destroy harmful creatures. But maybe protecting other species that play a more active role in our well being, such as pollinators, is. Beyond consideration for individual species such as honeybees, protecting biodiversity is essential, including biodiversity in the soil, which can be greatly affected by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Whatever your summer plans are, dear reader, I hope they include plenty of time out where the bugs live: in your yard or garden, at the neighborhood park, or on a hiking trail or bike path. Do your homework and take precautions to guard your health and safety, as we will. Then when evening falls, look for the fireflies. Let them light your way toward a thoughtful, environmentally responsible plan for pest control.

Now, in honor of poet and friend Sandra Duguid Gerstman, a firefly haiku:

Firefly on leaf,
Do you light up in the day,
When I cannot see?

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Review: The Shadow of the Sun

The Shadow of the SunThe Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The writing style of Shadow of the Sun is lyrical and even poetic in places, and not what one expects from a book that covers such challenging subjects. Does that reflect the style of Ryszard Kapuściński or of his translator, Klara Glowczewska? In any case, the style alone makes reading the book enjoyable. Some of the personal accounts are harrowing, others charming. But to focus on the style is, of course, to miss the point.

Kapuściński asserts early on that to use the word “African” to speak in generalities about the inhabitants of the continent is a gross oversimplification (p. 15). With that understanding in mind he proceeds to pack into this book many vivid descriptions of African economic, social, spiritual, political, and physical life. These descriptions, coming from a white European, speak of an admirable acculturation and respect for the people in those descriptions. Statements such as “The kinds of borders for which blood is shed were yet to come into being.” speak also of a deep understanding of the history of Africa and of the lingering effects of the slave trade and colonialism that linger into the twenty-first century.

That history has more than its share of enormous tragedies. Reading the chapters on Uganda, Rwanda, and Liberia is like coming upon a bad motor vehicle accident on the highway. Damage has been done. People have been injured, lives lost. Lives have been disrupted and altered in ways that may take months or years to unfold and then restore if that is even possible. There is nothing we could have done to prevent the accident. Little we can do to bring about any restoration except to pray for the victims and their families, but we may gape and gasp at the damage anyway. What created the havoc that we see? Fog, whiteout conditions, slippery road surfaces? A distracted driver? An impaired driver? An angry driver?

Consider what Kapuściński says about the fall of Samuel Doe of Liberia on Page 252:

“History is so often the product of thoughtlessness; it is the offspring of human stupidity, the fruit of benightedness, idiocy, and folly. In such instances, it is enacted by people who do not know what they are doing—more, who do not want to know, who reject the possibility with disgust and anger. We see them hastening toward their own destruction, forging their own fetters, tying the noose, diligently and repeatedly checking whether the fetters and the noose are strong, whether they will hold and be effective.”

This book was recommended to a small book group of which I am a member. Like me, almost all of the other members are white of European descent. Speaking strictly for myself, my grasp of European culture and history is insufficient to enable me to understand current tensions on that continent. How can I expect to understand the whole of Africa or even a small part of it? Yet this book has added to that understanding significantly.

View all my reviews

Thanks as always for stopping by.