Links I liked, August 9-15 (Astrophotography, Brave New World, Biblical Anthropology)

1. An astrophotography timelapse from our East Lansing balcony

You can be in a city and still see a surprising number of stars.  Lasts about 2.5 hours (then our camera battery died), five minutes between frames, note Polaris barely moving down at the bottom middle!  (And, for a brief moment, a Perseid.)

2. “The division between politics and religion, I dare say, is an ideological ploy.”

I am reading this book.

3. The City That Unpoisoned Its Pipes

A happy story about how our beloved (yet often dysfunctional, shh) Lansing has quietly replaced nearly all of its lead water pipes.

4. Brave New World, 85 Years Later

In a post-Fordist economy and a digital age of personalized devices, mass society is no longer as straightforward as it once seemed. Far from being perceived as a threat, for instance, individuality is now deeply assimilated into our economic system, as we’re encouraged to differentiate, identify, and align ourselves through our chosen forms of consumption. The fact we’re all caught up in the same system is less obvious when we all wear bespoke chains we’ve chosen for ourselves.

5. How Global Elites Forsake Their Countrymen

Seemed like everyone passed around this article last week, but if you haven’t seen it…

But there was a fundamental problem with the decision that you can see rippling now throughout the West. Ms. Merkel had put the entire burden of a huge cultural change not on herself and those like her but on regular people who live closer to the edge, who do not have the resources to meet the burden, who have no particular protection or money or connections. Ms. Merkel, her cabinet and government, the media and cultural apparatus that lauded her decision were not in the least affected by it and likely never would be.

6. Reclaiming ‘Redneck” Urbanism: What Urban Planners Can Learn from Trailer Parks

Any discussion of trailer parks should start with the fact that most forms of low-income housing have been criminalized in nearly every major US city.

7. Biblical Anthropology

A lecture Kevin DeYoung gave in South Carolina last week.  Of especial interest to me, he talked about how his kids attend our public schools, and the message they receive at school that he feels he most often has to correct is actually the stuff they hear related to the environment. And the problem is that a model is adopted that portrays humans never as producers, but just as polluters, the Earth as a good functioning system on which humans are basically cancer cells that can only make things worse. The Christian position would be rather – in fact, humans are God’s highest creation, and meant to be creators like him on Earth. We should recycle and be careful how we live and all that – but we aren’t a cancer on the planet. Indeed the planet is a better place today, than it was 4000 years ago, because of our creative works.

8. Randy Travis – Forever and Ever, Amen

You cannot dislike this song.

This week brought to you by good times at the Great Lakes Folk Festival this past Saturday.



Links I liked, 5/18/2015 – 5/24/2015 (Economics, Superconductivity, Classical Liberalism)

1. EconPop – The Economics of Elysium

Actually I enjoy all these EconPop videos – brought to you by the same guys as that (more famous) Hayek/Keynes rap battle.

2. The Civic Project of American Christianity

An article from February that might be titled, “Did American-style liberalism undermine itself from the beginning?”  Not sure how much I agree with it, and I haven’t read the response pieces yet.  One of the reasons I’m a bit more optimistic than many of these authors when it comes to cries that “Christians are going to be excluded from the public square!” is because I know that the heartbeat of many progressives is “isn’t it so terrible that such and such a people were excluded from such a such a place where they would have thrived?”  Of course you might ask, if they really believe that, then why do we in fact see efforts to exclude Christians from the public square?  I don’t know, I suspect it’s a mix of things – for some people all the talk of inclusion really is just pretense, for others it isn’t but they aren’t leaping to defend people who aren’t like them because, well, humans just don’t do that very naturally.

3. LCC PHYS252 – Magnet levitates over superconducting disk

Hey, a little video from my class last semester.  Some explanation here.

4. Jeweller says he has been bullied, threatened

Lesbian couple discovers the jeweler for their wedding (who happily served them) is a Christian, demands their money back.  Internet outrage mob of course jumps aboard.  What really got me, though, was the claimed that the jeweler, who clearly serves all, was pro-discrimination, while apparently people who pick and choose who to do business with based on religion are not?  Beg pardon?

5. Review: The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War

I read a book.  It was good.

6. In Praise of the Dying Art of Civil Disagreement

I do think, in some quarters, to disagree civilly with someone is taken as a sign that you don’t believe in either the truth, or the importance, of what you’re saying.  And that’s sad.

7. Why religion will dominate the 21st century

It matters because theology has consequences. The post-Enlightenment secular worldview tends to treat religion as nothing more than a private hobby. It rejects out of hand the notion that people’s spiritual beliefs matter in a broader context. When evolution tells us we’re just genes trying to spread, when economists tell us all we do is maximize our self-interest, when psychologists tell us we just want to get laid — we become convinced that humans act on nothing but narrow material desires.

But that’s just not true. As a matter of fact, human beings are spiritual beings first, with a natural orientation toward transcendent realities. More prosaically, to state the obvious, human beings make decisions partly based on how we understand our self-interest, yes, but also based on our worldviews, on our vision of what is true and good and beautiful.

Downed Tree

This downed tree, near Lansing’s Sycamore Creek, brought to you by a beaver.

G.K. Chesterton on the difficulty in defending a philosophy

What follows is a great quotation from chapter VI of Orthodoxy.  Every time I want to share it with someone I cannot find it, concisely, anywhere on the internet.  Therefore I am putting it here!

It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness.

The book is highly recommended.

Albert Einstein on science and religion

I think most of us have heard the quotation “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”. I don’t think most of us have heard it in context – indeed, a quick web search revealed a lot of questions about whether the quotation was even validly attributed to Einstein. From Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium, then…

Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

Feel free to click through and read the whole thing – I can just about guarantee to you that you will disagree with some of it, but it is an interesting read. I especially appreciated…

But when asking myself what religion is I cannot think of the answer so easily. And even after finding an answer which may satisfy me at this particular moment, I still remain convinced that I can never under any circumstances bring together, even to a slight extent, the thoughts of all those who have given this question serious consideration.

I’ve said before – we just need to abandon the world “religion”. Our tendency to categorize belief systems which are very different from each other all as “religious” confuses discussions (no wonder it is hard to define “religion”). I would prefer the term “worldview”, which also makes it clear that everyone has one, whether yours invokes God or not (as indeed, even some worldviews usually called “religions” have little to say about a god or gods).

And also,

For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary.

Here here.

The death of Herod Agrippa and the reliability of the Bible

Just wanted to share two quotations that speak for themselves from this morning’s sermon by Kevin DeYoung. The first is the Biblical account of the death of Herod Agrippa, from Acts 12:20-25 (ESV).

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

Compare that with an account of the same incident by Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian (referenced here).

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea […] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor […] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, his flatterers cried out […] that he was a god; and they added, ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.’

Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and he fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, ‘I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.’

After he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.

Naturalism, consistently applied, makes life unlivable

I came across a speech yesterday by Andrew Sach entitled Science and God: do we have to choose?. I couldn’t find a current profile of him, but from his speech he’s a neuroscientist. His big point is that not only are science and Christianity NOT contradictory, but that in fact many of the people who argue that they are are really arguing for a certain philosophy (specifically, naturalism), and only acting as if they’re arguing science. Click the link to hear the entire thing, but I just wanted to share the portion near the middle where he argues that none of us really lives – and indeed couldn’t live – like we really believe in naturalism.

I want to read to you an excerpt from this book by John Gray. He’s a professor of European Thought at the LSE and apparently was Tony Blair’s favorite philosopher – I don’t know if that commends him to you or not! But this is what he says. Basically John Gray is arguing that we’ve failed to be consistent with our beliefs of naturalism. He himself isn’t a Christian. He gets to a kind of Gaia belief later in the book, but he’s of the opinion that we’ve failed to follow our beliefs to their logical conclusion, and he’s lambasting us for that.

“Man must accept that his or her existence is entirely accidental. He must awake out of his dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realize that like a gypsy he lives on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering, and his crimes.”

That last part is very perceptive – a world that is indifferent to your hopes, and to your suffering, my suffering. And to our crimes. A universe that is just random cannot be asked the question “why?”. See, here’s this dear friend of ours from church, he’s in hospital at the moment with a stroke, age 29. If you’re a naturalist you cannot even ask why. There is no one behind it. It is just an accident and your suffering is just bad luck, basically. No purpose behind it. And similarly your crimes.

And then later he relays a conversation he had with another neuroscientist.

“Kate, I can’t understand, if you’re right about the universe, why me killing you would be wrong. Now if I took out a dagger and kind of cut you in half all I would be doing would be increasing the entropy of the universe by a factor of two. Why would that be any different from cutting a grapefruit in half for my breakfast? Just rearranging the atoms in the universe in a slightly different way.

She thought for a moment and then she said “well, it’d be wrong because my mother would be upset with you!”

Good answer. But we were neuroscientists, so I said to her “Kate, what is ‘upset’? ‘Upset’ is just the increase in the concentration of a certain chemical in the random collection of atoms which is your mom’s brain. What’s it matter? What is the significance in anything that we do?

Bonhoeffer on compromise between the Church and the World

“…there is in truth no such thing as harmonious coexistence between the church and the world, for where there is no conflict it is because the world has taken over.” ~M. Wilcock

We read that quotation in our church small group last night – it was referenced in a Tim Keller Bible study on lessons from the life of Samson. But appropriately enough, I’m also reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship at the moment, and as you might imagine he has much to say about Christian compromise with the world, at one point describing the Christian life as nothing but “hand-to-hand combat” with the world. (Do we feel that?) And “the world” is not only outside our churches – he spends much time speaking against the proclamation of “cheap grace” from the pulpit, a sort of message that says “God will forgive you, so don’t worry too much about your sin”.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness with requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.

Because it is unconcerned with obedience, it becomes a message that justifies the sin, instead of the sinner. He says,

…do we realize that this cheap grace has turned back upon us like a boomerang? The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized Church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard. Where were those truths which impelled the early Church to institute the catechumenate, which enabled a strict watch to be kept over the frontier between the Church and the world, and afforded adequate protection for costly grace? What had happened to all those warnings of Luther’s against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living? Was there ever a more terrible or disastrous instance of the Christianizing of the world than this? What are those three thousand Saxons put to death by Charlemagne compared with the millions of spiritual corpses in our country today? With us it has been abundantly proved that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical church.

When fear is more than awe (as we now use the word)

The Bible is full of reminders to fear God, and I think for most of my life I’ve heard that the kind of fear expected from Christians is really a kind of awe of his greatness and power. You aren’t supposed to be scared of God, in other words.

But today, our sermon was on the story of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 5. You probably know it, but it just takes a moment to read (ESV),

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

“And great fear came upon all” – you read a story like that and you think, I bet these people were quite literally afraid. And it wasn’t an unreasonable fear – you’re scared of tigers because they might eat you. Fear of danger is a good thing. As to God, in the words of CS Lewis (speaking of Aslan), of course he isn’t safe! He is not a person to be trifled with (or, in this instance, lied to).

Maybe I’m just suffering from linguistic confusion. I looked up the definition of awe, “a feeling of amazement and respect mixed with fear that is often coupled with a feeling of personal insignificance or powerlessness”. Actually, that sounds right, I just don’t think that’s how many people use or understand the word today. I could easily imagine someone saying they were in awe of a Hollywood celebrity – but there is no fear there, they have no real power over you. God does.

Religious subjectivism and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

A little while back there was a post here about how religion in America is “personalized, psychologized, and pragmatized.” As long as your personal religious beliefs seems to help you they’re fine for you, and if I want to hold some different religious beliefs, that’s fine for me. The actual truth or validity of the belief seems to be a secondary concern.

The Ferengi bartender Quark praying.

I’ve been slowly rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while I’m grading or whatnot, and this sci-fi television show seems to take that kind of subjectivism to the nth degree. This show is filled with all kinds of aliens with all kinds of religious beliefs – the beliefs of the money-obsessed Ferengi are especially amusing. (They hope to enter the “Divine Treasury” when they die, and deposit little slips of gold-pressed latinum into their idols when they pray.) But the television show is centered around a space station (Deep Space Nine) near the planet Bajor, and the religion of the Bajoran people plays a significant role. The Bajorans worship gods they call the “Prophets” who live in the “Celestial Temple”, watching over Bajor, and send Bajor prophets (with a little “p”) and will one day send them a sort of super-prophet called the Emissary.

OK so far, but here’s the thing – beginning with the very first episode of the show, we learn that the Prophets are actually real. Commander Sisko, the main character, discovers a wormhole in space that the Bajorans quickly identify as the Celestial Temple. The wormhole is inhabited by a species of aliens (the Prophets) who live outside of time, seeing past, present, and future, and really do care for Bajor – and Commander Sisko is to be their promised Emissary. Over time, we also learn that the Prophets are quite powerful – they make an entire enemy fleet simply vanish, communicate with Sisko when he’s far away and apparently played a role in arranging his birth on Earth, etc. In other words, so far as I can tell, the Bajoran religion is empirically verified.

Yet somehow, despite this, many of the characters continue talking about the Bajoran religion just like they would talk about any other religion. Characters get asked questions like “do you really believe in the Prophets” – um, shouldn’t everyone believe in the Prophets? An Admiral gets annoyed by Commander Sisko’s inclination to “follow the will of the Prophets” – Sisko’s main job is to protect Bajor, and if you’ve got a group of aliens living outside of time who also want the best for Bajor, wouldn’t it just be good sense to listen to what those aliens have to tell you? One Bajoran character is asked if she would mind if her significant other believed in a different religion – personally, I would say “have you looked at the window at the wormhole, bub? My religion is actually true!”

Anyway! Kind of a nerdy post, and draw what conclusions you’d like. But it’s surprising to me, at least in this fictional environment, just how far the subjective treatment of religion extends.

Should we talk about freedom of conscience instead?

Obama’s healthcare reform law hasn’t been much in the media or on our minds as the election approaches – but maybe it should be. I was reminded last Sunday that the Christian publishing company Tyndale House Publishers, to pick just one example, is facing fines of $26,000 per day if they refuse to pay for abortifacents for their employees. Their president has released a letter about this, and it sounds likely they will refuse to pay for the drugs even if it drives them completely out of business. (h/t Acts 4:19)

But I wonder if, in the interest of communicating better with the populace at large, we should change (or at least add to) the language we use when talk about these issues. Because, while I think freedom of religion is an important principle, an increasing number of Americans seem to have a decreasing amount of respect for the principle. And part of the problem, I think, is that they can’t empathize – they feel like Christians are just sort of following the instructions in some book we have because that’s what we do, by golly.

But, while not everyone has some holy book they can point to, everyone has a conscience, and everyone can imagine what it would be like if someone forced you to violate that conscience. It isn’t just that Tyndale doesn’t want to pay for abortifacents because they’re following, in a detached sense, the instructions of some book they like. No, rather, they believe in God, believe that the Bible contains messages from God, and believe, with their hearts as well as their minds, that it would be a great evil for them to have any personal involvement in an abortion. And the freedom to obey your own conscience is a freedom cherished by everyone.