Friday, 10 October 2014

Science & Religion: Myths, errors and new possibilities

One common view of science and religion is that they are in direct competition with each other, offering incompatible explanations for the same phenomena. Hence, conflict between science and religion is seen as inevitable. Projecting this idea back in time, the whole of Western history can be understood as a protracted battle between science and religion. Science seems now to be winning that battle, even though there remain significant pockets of religious resistance.

Above: Image courtesy of Wiki Commons
In recent years, historians of science have attacked this idea of a perennial conflict between science and religion, demonstrating the numerous ways in which, over the course of history, science has been supported by Christian ideas and assumptions. These positive relations came about partly because the boundaries of science and religion were understood quite differently in the past. In the 2014 New College lectures Professor Peter Harrison discussed how these boundaries shifted across the centuries, and the way this offers insights into science-religion relations in the present.

In the first lecture Prof Harrison began by looking at how we have come to understand the world in terms of the distinct categories “science” and “religion”. He explored how we came to separate the domain of material facts from the realm of moral and religious values.

He spent some time unpacking how the use of the Latin word ‘religio’ in pre-modern times, was not the same as the later English translation ‘religion’. Rather than signifying specific beliefs and practices, it was seen as a form of worship. He cited varied sources including Augustine, who described ‘true’ religion as involving a form of inner worship rightly directed at God. Early Christians he stressed saw ‘religio’ as a form of worship not just propositional content to be claimed and accepted.

In the second lecture he outlined how modern science was invented. He argued that for centuries Natural Philosophy like Theology was also seen as an inner quality, not just knowledge and propositions. Aquinas building on Aristotle’s teaching, argued that science too was an inner ‘habit’, an intellectual virtue that was a gift from God.

But while in the pre-modern period Christianity and Natural Philosophy were seen as rival spiritual practices, by the 19th Century we were to see Religion and Science replacing Theology & Natural Philosophy, and the unfolding of a fierce conflict between what were now seen as two incompatible sets of beliefs.

In the final lecture on night three, Professor Harrison considered how the myth of conflict between Science and Religion developed and offered an insight into the narrative of the two contending powers. He also considered the work of New Atheists and their failure to understand how and why faith and reason, or religion and science can be held in relationship to one another.

For my part, this has been an extremely engaging series of three wonderful lectures. If you would like to listen to all three lectures visit the New College website for the lectures and a copy of his powerpoint presentation that you will need while listening to them.

You will find Lectures 1 and 3 on our website as well as the powerpoint presentations for all three lectures HERE

We are unable to provide the second lecture as the audio file has been corrupted.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Exploring the Territories of Science and Religion - 2014 New College Lectures

Have you ever been asked by someone "How can you reconcile your faith in God with what science has proven?" Have you doubted what you believe because of science? Has a child asked a question that challenges your ability to speak about the relationship between science and religion, faith and reason? If so, don't miss the chance to hear Professor Peter Harrison speak on the theme 'Exploring the frontiers of science and religion' this week (9-11 September 2014) at New College at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. If you're not living close then keep an eye out for the talks online after the lectures.


Overview

Some see science and religion as in direct competition with one another, offering incompatible explanations for the same phenomena.  Conflict is seen as inevitable.  Projecting this idea back in time, the whole of Western history can be understood as a protracted battle between science and religion.  Science is now winning the battle, in spite of minor religious resistance. 

But historians of science have demolished this idea of a perennial conflict between science and religion, instead demonstrating how science has been supported by Christian ideas and assumptions. In part, this reflects a different understanding of the boundaries of science and religion.  The 2014 New College Lectures will focus on the changing boundaries of science and religion, and consider how these positive interactions of the past, offer insights into science-religion relations in the present.

Lecture 1: Is Christianity a Religion?  (9th September, 7.30pm)

The first Christians did not consider themselves to be subscribers to a religion in the modern sense, but rather as part of a ‘new race’ or ‘way of life’.  This lecture offers an account of the emergence of the modern idea of religion—understood less in terms of a way of life, and more in terms of explicit beliefs—in the seventeenth century.   This idea of religion plays a key role in modern understandings of the relationship between science and religion.

Lecture 2:  The Invention of Modern Science (10th September, 7.30pm)

Close examination of the history of ‘scientific’ endeavours reveals that the study of nature, up until the nineteenth century, was vitally concerned with moral and religious questions.  Only in the nineteenth century were theology and morality definitively excluded from the sphere of science.  This nineteenth-century invention of modern science fixed the possibilities for future relationships between science and religion.

Above: Image of Chromosones (Wiki Commons)

Lecture 3:  Relating Science and Religion (11th September, 7.30pm)

This final lecture considers the ongoing legacy of these two ideas, ‘religion’ and ‘science’, suggesting that some of the problematic aspects of their present relationship arise out of the history of the ideas themselves.  It asks, in particular, whether the idea ‘religion’ is a helpful one.

Speaker:  Peter Harrison BSc, BA (Hons), PhD (Qld), MA (Yale), MA, DLitt (Oxford), FAHA. 

Peter Harrison was educated at the University of Queensland and Yale University. In 2011 he moved back to Queensland from the University of Oxford where he was the Idreos Professor of Science and Religion. At Oxford he was a member of the Faculties of Theology and History, a Fellow of Harris Manchester College, and Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre where he continues to hold a Senior Research Fellowship. He has published extensively in the area of cultural and intellectual history with a focus on the philosophical, scientific and religious thought of the early modern period. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Oxford, Yale, and Princeton, is a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. In 2011 he delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Marriage Reconsidered


I was born in the 1950s and have lived through extraordinary social, cultural and technological change. As a 6 year old there was just one television in my street, a single phone, about four cars and two parent families in every house.  For mothers work was usually 'home duties' (as defined at the time). Our news came from newspapers and radio (the internet was not to arrive for 40 more years). There was increasing cultural diversity, but of course the White Australia Policy ensured that few immigrants were Asian. Nuclear war was a constant threat and there were fears of ‘Reds under the beds’. Religious tensions were mainly between Protestants and Catholics, with daily fights in my school playground.
Much has happened since then, and many would suggest the progress has been good. Technology has changed the way we communicate, religious and racial tolerance is promoted (at least, officially), and immigration patterns have changed dramatically. Marriage and family mores have also changed and with them, the very structure of society. Australians now find normal and acceptable, things that during my childhood would have been unthinkable: de facto relationships, IVF, surrogacy, stay-at-home dads, same-sex relationships, prenuptial agreements, multiple remarriages. Divorce was rare in the the 1950s, seen as a terrible and shameful thing, and was announced in the papers (in full detail). Unwed teenage girls disappeared when pregnant, and the fathers of their children often ended up in prison convicted of ‘carnal knowledge’. Abortion was illegal, and rarely mentioned except in discreet conversations or gossip.
It is hardly surprising that some have called for marriage to be reconsidered. But should it be? Many Australians are clearly doing so. Laws relating to relationships and family have undergone significant changes to keep up with the changes society has made ahead of them. While writing this introduction, there have been calls for changes in surrogacy laws to cope with the most recent challenge: the birth of twins to a surrogate mother. One twin, born with Down syndrome, seems to have been unwanted and the transaction between adults about the two young lives has gone wrong. The latest issue of Case magazine grapples with some of the complexities around this topic as society reconsiders what marriage is and might be, and the many issues that arise as a result.
We haven't been able to cover every aspect of the discussion, but we've tried to cover a number of issues. Social researcher Hugh Mackay helpfully examines changes in attitudes and practices regarding marriage and family. He finds that while marriage was once the only option for those wanting to start a new family, people now prefer more flexible arrangements. Even those who do marry no longer see marriage as an inviolable institution, but something you stay in only as long as it’s working well.  David Phillips extends this by examining the current status of civil unions in Australia and the implications of this legislation for traditional marriage.

Yet another way in which marriage has changed over recent decades relates to increasing globalisation. In 1998, 52% of all marriages in Australia were between people from different birthplace groups (see Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Family Formation: Cultural diversity in marriages’. 4102.0, Australian Social Trends, 2000) and more recent figures show 87% have the same religion (Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Couples in Australia’. 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2009. Canberra). My co-editor Dani Scarratt looks at one aspect of these changes, the phenomenon of intermarriage, and particularly at the experiences of Christian couples who marry across a cultural divide.
It needs to be asked whether, given these changes, Christians should continue to insist on a biblical view of marriage, for better or worse?  Or should we reconsider whether the traditional requirements for Christian marriage should be adapted to this new social order Australians find themselves in? Tim Adeney and Stuart Heath look at what the Bible says and argue that when it comes to the basic structure of marriage, Christians should stand firm.
The remaining two articles look back to marriage from the past, and project forward to the future of marriage respectively. David Sandifer delves into the oft-mocked Victorian era of ‘prudery’ and innocence to find what drives the stereotype, and asks if we can learn anything from the Victorians about good marriages.
Changing gear, Jenny Kemp takes us into the immensely popular world of young adult dystopian fiction, to find out what such titles as The Hunger Games and Divergent are telling its readers about love, romance and marriage.

Our hope in bringing these varied articles together is that they will provide multiple lenses for reconsidering marriage and help us to understand why most Christians continue to argue for a biblical view of this God-given relationship between a man and a woman.
As always we provide one of the articles free to readers of this blog (HERE). You can subscribe to Case if you would like to receive our quarterly publication, including this latest issue on marriage.
Subscribers to Case should now have this issue. Individuals can subscribe to receive four issues per year (in hard or soft copy) for as little as $20 AUD per annum. Institutions can subscribe for $120 per annum (there is a special rate for schools and churches). You can also purchase single issues online. Explore all the options HERE

Sunday, 11 May 2014

'Home'

What do we mean when we use the word ‘home’? Often we seem to mean dwelling or place, but surely a home is much more. My wife and I sold our house recently and said to friends a number of times ‘we sold our home’. But did we? Surely our home was more than the bricks and mortar and the land on which they stood. We are now living in a small apartment at New College before moving to another house. It is nothing like our old house, and yet it feels like ‘home’. We’re happy being together with a small smattering of our possessions. What makes this small apartment feel like home? Surely, in large part, that my wife and I are together in this place. But what if you are the sole occupant of your residence? Is it still home? Can a person living alone be at home? Of course! So home must be more than just a dwelling or cohabitation.

We also use the word ‘home’ to speak of our nation or ‘land’. For Indigenous Australians connection with the land is something that leads them to speak of ‘home country’, a place associated with continuous occupation by their ancestors. Such places are intertwined with shared history and stories. Newcomers to any country can take time to feel at home, and immigrants can long for landscapes lost. Travellers returning to their place of birth also speak of going home and mean more than just a place. Rather ‘home’ means nation, cultural identity, and connection with race and ethnicity. Separation from one’s nation can cause alienation and a sense of loss.

The Israelites experienced what it meant to be aliens and strangers at the hands of the Assyrians. The Psalmist wrote of their experiences:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)

The longing of the Israelites is similar to the longing we have, to be in a place where we can sing our own ‘songs of joy’ with those we love. But more than this, the foundation of this longing for home is rooted in our relationship to God. True ‘home’, as God planned it, is a place of opportunity for fellowship with him, and service that brings glory to him. It is also a place where we can know love, peace, kindness and grace, and in turn understand the need to share this with others.

Graeme Goldsworthy
This idea of longing for home is a key theme in the latest issue of Case magazine published by CASE. There are a number of essays that explore the theme. One piece by Graeme Goldsworthy traces ‘home’ from Eden, through the wanderings of exile, to the New Jerusalem, an eternal home unlike the transient and decaying dwellings of our world.

Alison Payne explores the language of homesickness. This is a sense of disconnection, ‘rootlessness’, loss of shared cultural understanding, and a longing for common stories that bind us together. An echo of Eden lost, which one day will be restored. This longing may account for the distorted ideas of home we find around us—if it could just be bigger, have polished floors, a pool—maybe then we would be satisfied.

In another essay Gordon Menzies and Susan Thorp remind us, a house can become an idol rather than a foretaste of heaven. And at the other end of the spectrum, Michelle Waterford explains that the Australian housing crisis means that finding a place to live is an increasing problem for many people, Internationally, we also see thousands forced from their homes due to persecution, war, and natural disaster. Those of us who live in safety and sufficiency have the opportunity to show hospitality to those in need.

Finally, Erin Goheen Glanville examines the metaphor of ‘hospitality’ and calls for a refreshed understanding of the concept. Christians are to show hospitality to refugees. That is, as strangers we are to help strangers.

The Bible reminds us that while we can experience ‘home’ in this life, ultimately our true home is a heavenly one. In this life we may experience a sense of belonging in nations, places and homes—though many are denied even this—but our true ‘citizenship’ is in heaven (Phil 3:20). One day we will be fellow citizens with God’s people in his heavenly household with Christ as the cornerstone (Eph 2:19-22). We will dwell together, bound by a love founded on and in Christ. This is an experience of belonging that passes understanding and can never be realised in our attempts to capture some sense of what it means to be at ‘home’ on earth.

Subscribers to Case should now have this issue. Individuals can subscribe to receive four issues per year (in hard or soft copy) for as little as $20 AUD per annum. Institutions can subscribe for $120 per annum (there is a special rate for schools and churches). You can also purchase single issues online. Explore all the options HERE