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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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

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

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.

Lessons Learned, or Not

During my first season of volunteering at City Green, I learned that having too much wood-chip mulch in the soil can retard the grown of plants. The organization had received a load of what was supposed to be horse manure and wood chips that turned out to be mostly wood chips. It was spread on part of one field and tilled into the soil as fertilizer. Soon afterward seedlings were planted in that part of the field; after a few weeks many were stunted and discolored.

The decomposition of wood chips removes nitrogen from the soil. Remove too much nitrogen, and the plants in that soil won’t grow properly or at all. I noted this in a guest blog post for City Green near the end of that season.

Spinach seedlings.
Spinach seedlings that should have been mature plants by the time this photo was taken. Note the wood chips visible in the cells with the seedlings.

This season, for our garden, I decided to start seeds for spinach, lettuce, and cilantro in some used potting soil from last season. I knew there were some wood chips mixed in with the soil; we had mulched our flower containers with cedar chips last season. But I worked to eliminate the larger chips and went ahead with my plan. Bad move. As can be seen in the photo, seeds planted in this soil mixture in late March had barely germinated and were nowhere near where I expected them to be by early May. In contrast, some seeds sown directly into the garden in subsequent weeks have grown into plants that will be ready to harvest soon.

We enjoy eating produce from our garden. Thankfully we don’t depend on it for survival. If we did we might be in serious trouble.

Some mistakes and errors, such as this one, are the result of foolishness. The Apostle Paul tells us in the seventh chapter of Romans that some of the poor choices we make come about because of the persistence of evil in human nature: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (verse 19)

I just finished reading The Shadow of the Sun, written by Ryszard Kapuściński and translated by Klara Glowczewska. It is a memoir that includes stories of the author’s travels in Africa from the 1950s to the 1990s, along with brief histories of some of Africa’s most tragic episodes from that period. I will post a more detailed review here and on Goodreads but here is a striking passage from the chapter on Liberia about the fall of Samuel Doe.

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. (p. 252)

Sowing vegetables in wood chips doesn’t fall to this level of benightedness, but history and personal experience teach all of us to think carefully about what we do and to seek wise counsel before we do something big and important. City Green’s field recovered and has yielded produce in abundance in the years since the wood chip debacle. Thankfully the more recent history of Liberia in particular also teaches us that, by God’s grace, healing and restoration are sometimes possible even when terrible mistakes are made.

Thank you as always for stopping by. Keep the conversation going.

Hats Off to Career Federal Employees

It can’t be easy to be a career U.S. federal employee these days. Many federal agencies are facing budget cuts, and they are being led by political appointees whose goals might include altering the missions of their respective agencies or eliminating the agencies altogether.

Two recent personal events demonstrate that, despite uncertainty and related stressors, federal employees are still hard at work, doing their best to respond to the requests of the people who pay their salaries.

Last month we applied to renew our passports. The opportunity to renew them by mail would end soon, so we completed the forms, got the requisite mug-shot photographs, paid the fees, and sent off our applications. We did not request expedited service, as we do not have any specific plans for international travel in the near future. To our surprise, the applications were processed and the new passports arrived in less than three weeks. Hats off to the passport office staff!

More recently we witnessed a citizenship ceremony at the Peter Rodino Federal Building in Newark, NJ. 102 people, representing 33 different countries of birth, took the oath of U.S. citizenship in the first of at least two ceremonies that day in that office. The staff of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices located in the Rodino building went about the tasks associated with this ceremony, which were many, with professionalism, courtesy, and respect. It would be easy for these staffers to be perfunctory and even cynical in the performance of their duties, but they displayed a genuine enthusiasm for their part in what for many immigrants may be a dream come true. Hats off to them as well!

judy_matt_citizenship
Judy, a brand new U.S. citizen, and her son Matt.

There may not be much I can do to express appreciation for the work that career federal employees do every day. I do like the approach that some U.S. citizens at large are taking to the plight of career staff at the EPA. They are baking and sending them cookies with personal messages of appreciation.

What other tangible things can we do to show our appreciation to the career federal employees with whom we interact?

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Book Review: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The Moral Case for Fossil FuelsThe Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex J. Epstein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m writing this because I want to allow myself some credit for having read this book. It is my sincere hope that no one reading this review will believe that I endorse the arguments in it. It will take some time to more fully understand them and work through a response to them, but this may suffice for now.

Alex Epstein is certainly an intelligent, articulate writer. He makes what appears to be a compelling case for continued use of fossil fuels to allow humanity to thrive and prosper. However, even at a quick glance it also appears that he is minimizing, or even completely ignoring the costs of that continued use.

“Human ingenuity can dramatically increase the amount of coal, oil, or gas that is available” (p. 18). Yet we need to drill in permafrost regions or deep ocean waters, blast the tops of mountains away and dump the poison-laced rubble in nearby streams, or inject brine deep into the ground and trigger nontrivial seismic events in order to do so.

Throughout the book his only reference to greenhouse gasses is to carbon dioxide. This ignores other carbon compounds such as methane that are many times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

On page 27 he compares the warnings of climate scientists to financial/investment advice given in the years leading up to the 2007–2008 financial crisis: take on more debt, riskier debt, because the things securing that debt are going to increase in value indefinitely. Doesn’t his own philosophy and advice compare more favorably with that advice, and aren’t the predictions and advice of climate scientists urging us to err on the side of caution, if anything?

He states on page 24 that the number of deaths related to climate is fifty times lower now than it was 80 years ago, even though CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have risen dramatically in that time. On page 62, in arguing in favor of nuclear energy, he observes that there have been zero deaths related to nuclear energy in the free world. That is true, but Chernobyl must be considered when evaluating the safety of nuclear energy.

I couldn’t help but think of the principle that it is possible to make statistics say anything one wants them to.

Fossil fuels allow us to pursue personal happiness (pages 84–85). This is central to his argument. Moreover, he affirms that his moral philosophy is based in the philosophy of Ayn Rand (pages 138, 213).

Mr. Epstein repeatedly claims that the greatest good is human flourishing. The resources we find around us are to be used in pursuing that aim. Their value is only seen in light of that aim. As a Christian I would argue that the created world, the environment from which we extract resources, is good in and of itself (Genesis 1:25) and deserves our protection even if we need to deprive ourselves of some physical pleasures. Yes, we need to use the resources we have to provide reliable medical care to people in The Gambia (pages 38 and 39) or clean drinking water to people in many developing nations. We don’t need to use the resources we have to indulge our passion for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (p. 85) if it means that we despoil the planet in the process.

Full disclosure: I enjoy a standard of living—yes, thanks in part to fossil fuels—that is obscenely high by global standards. If you’ve read this book and find yourself in a similar frame of mind, I’d welcome your thoughts.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Squiggles and Dots

A few days ago our daughter Betsy sent us a photo of Ellie Rose leafing through a copy of a magazine. Ellie is fifteen months old, so the photo isn’t really evidence of her precocity, especially since the section she was looking through at the time is filled with ads for graduate schools and seminaries. But it did start me thinking about forms of communication, and especially about communication that makes use of words.

Continue reading

Birds in the News

Greetings. I hope this finds you well. This is just to share two stories about birds published recently.

New York news outlets have been carrying stories about a painted bunting that has been seen in Brooklyn. This bird would ordinarily be in Florida or Mexico at this time of year, yet here it is in Brooklyn. Why? Who knows?

Meanwhile, the November 26 issue of The Behemoth carried this story about bird memory. Unlike the painted bunting, the black-capped chickadee is a common year-’round resident. If a New Jersey homeowner puts out a bird feeder, there’s a good chance that chickadees will find it.

Chickadee on the feeder.

The notion that chickadees and other birds have such remarkable memories brought to mind a post from two years ago on squirrels and how they find their stashes of food.

With no leaves on the trees, the late fall and winter represent a great time to observe birds and other wildlife in our neighborhoods. In New Jersey we will see an assortment of birds, including chickadees but probably not including painted buntings, throughout the winter. It’s worth enduring a few moments of cold to enjoy their presence.

As always, thanks for stopping by.