How God and Science Mix

Over at First Things, Stephen Barr writes an interesting reply to a particle physicist who thinks that science entails atheism. Key paragraph:

For Jews and Christians, however, pitting God and the laws of nature against each other in this way is an absurd mistake; for it is the very lawfulness of nature that points to a divine Lawgiver. In the Bible, God gives laws not only to the people of Israel, but to the cosmos itself, as in Jeremiah 33:25, where he declares his fidelity to Israel in these terms: “When I have no covenant with day and night, and have given no laws to heaven and earth, then too will I reject the descendants of Jacob and of my servant David.”

Barr also provides an interesting take on the relationship between scientific laws and miracles. Read the whole thing.

“The Horrible Decree” by Charles Wesley

Charles Wesley was a prolific hymnist, with approximately 9000 hymns and sacred poems to his name. Among my favorites are “And Can It Be?” and “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing!” Welsey–along with his brother John–were also a theological polemicist, however, who wrote his polemics into his songs. One of his most blunt anti-Calvinist hymns is “The Horrible Decree,” which refers to the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. Here’s the text of the hymn, not exactly in honor of Calvin’s birthday, but apropos of it nonetheless.

[1] Ah! Gentle, gracious Dove,
And art thou griev’d in me,
That sinners should restrain thy love,
And say, “It is not free:
It is not free for all:
The most, thou passest by,
And mockest with a fruitless call
Whom thou hast doom’d to die.”

[2] They think thee not sincere
In giving each his day,
“ Thou only draw’st the sinner near
To cast him quite away,
To aggravate his sin,
His sure damnation seal:
Thou shew’st him heaven, and say’st, go in
And thrusts him into hell.”38

Worthy of whence it came!
Forgive their hellish blasphemy
Who charge it on the Lamb:
Whose pity him inclin’d
To leave his throne above,
The friend, and Saviour of mankind,
The God of grace, and love.

[4] O gracious, loving Lord,
I feel thy bowels yearn;
For those who slight the gospel word
I share in thy concern:
How art thou grieved to be
By ransom’d worms withstood!
How dost thou bleed afresh to see
Them trample on thy blood!

[5] To limit thee they dare,
Blaspheme thee to thy face,
Deny their fellow-worms a share
In thy redeeming grace:
All for their own they take,
Thy righteousness engross,
Of none effect to most they make
The merits of thy cross.

[6] Sinners, abhor the fiend:
His other gospel hear—
“The God of truth did not intend
The thing his words declare,
He offers grace to all,
Which most cannot embrace,
Mock’d with an ineffectual call
And insufficient grace.

[7] “The righteous God consign’d
Them over to their doom,
And sent the Saviour of mankind
To damn them from the womb;
To damn for falling short,
“Of what they could not do,
For not believing the report
Of that which was not true.

[8] “The God of love pass’d by
The most of those that fell,
Ordain’d poor reprobates to die,
And forced them into hell.”
“He did not do the deed”
(Some have more mildly rav’d)
“He did not damn them—but decreed
They never should be saved.

[9] “He did not them bereave
Of life, or stop their breath,
His grace he only would not give,
And starv’ed their souls to death.”
Satanic sophistry!
But still, all-gracious God,
They charge the sinner’s death on thee,
Who bought’st him with thy blood.

[10] They think with shrieks and cries
To please the Lord of hosts,
And offer thee, in sacrifice
Millions of slaughter’d ghosts:
With new-born babes they fill
The dire infernal shade,
“For such,” they say, “was thy great will,
Before the world was made.”

[11] How long, O God, how long
Shall Satan’s rage proceed!
Wilt thou not soon avenge the wrong,
And crush the serpent’s head?
Surely thou shalt at last
Bruise him beneath our feet:
The devil and his doctrine cast
Into the burning pit.

[12] Arise, O God, arise,
Thy glorious truth maintain,
Hold forth the bloody sacrifice,
For every sinner slain!
Defend thy mercy’s cause,
Thy grace divinely free,
Lift up the standard of thy cross,
Draw all men unto thee.

[13] O vindicate thy grace,
Which every soul may prove,
Us in thy arms of love embrace,
Of everlasting love.
Give the pure gospel word,
Thy preachers multiply,
Let all confess their common Lord,
And dare for him to die.

[14] My life I here present,
My heart’s last drop of blood,
O let it all be freely spent
In proof that thou art good,
Art good to all that breathe,
Who all may pardon have:
Thou willest not the sinner’s death,
But all the world wouldst save.

[15] O take me at my word,
But arm me with thy power,
Then call me forth to suffer, Lord,
To meet the fiery hour:
In death will I proclaim
That all may hear thy call,
And clap my hands amidst the flame,
And shout,—HE DIED FOR ALL.

The New Shape of World Christianity

Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). $25.00, 212 pages.

The Christian church is not American, demographically speaking. More broadly, it is not western. It may have been predominantly western at the beginning of the twentieth century, but at the beginning of the twenty-first, it no longer is. As Dana Robert wrote in April 2000: “The typical late twentieth-century Christian was no longer a European man but a Latin American or African woman.”

This southward demographic shift requires a new historiography of Christianity, one less focused on events and personalities in North America and Europe and one more focused on events and personalities in South America, Asia, and Africa. Writers—both western (Philip Jenkins, Andrew Walls) and southern (Ogbu Kalu, Lamin Sanneh—have already begun to do so.

But there is a connection between the Christian church in the west and the south: missionaries from the former (especially Britain and America) performed their work among indigenous people in the latter. How should these missionaries’ influence be characterized? More specifically, as American historian Mark Noll asks in The New Shape of World Christianity, “What…has been the American role in creating the new shape of world Christianity and what is now the relation of American Christianity to world Christianity?”

Noll suggests three possible answers: “First is to assume that Americans control events.” On this reading, Christian mission is a form of cultural imperialism. “A second view is to affirm that a strong relationship does exist between Christianity in the United States and Christianity around the world, but also that this relationship is defined much more loosely than simply active American cause and passive global effect.” On this view, it is better to speak of American “influence” than American “manipulation.” Noll goes on to identify a third option: “newer expressions of Christianity around the world, despite many differences with each other, often do share many characteristics of Christianity in the United States” because of “shared historical experience.” Noll’s answer to the question of America’s role in the new shape of world Christianity is a combination of the second and third answers.

Building on the insights of Andrew Walls, Noll argues that American Christianity in the nineteenth century was characterized by two major developments: “the successful adaptation of traditional European Christianity to the liberal social environment of the United States” and “the emergence of the voluntary society as the key vehicle for Protestant missionary activity.” European Christianity was implicated in Christendom, the explicit, legal, and formal alliance of throne and altar. The American churches, in all their riotous variety, were disestablished, even if culturally pervasive and influential. As voluntary institutions, they were quite entrepreneurial about winning converts to their way of thinking and living.

Broadly speaking, social conditions in the global south were more similar to frontier America than European Christendom, and the seeds of a voluntary, entrepreneurial religion grew better in that soil, just as it had on the American frontier. Of course, there are tremendous social differences as well. The settlers of the American frontier were of European stock and therefore familiar with the Christian message, whereas the indigenous people of the global south were converts from other religions. But one should not let these differences obscure the power of Noll’s insight into the similarities.

One of the benefits of Noll’s thesis is that it allows for the integrity of American missionaries while at the same time upholding the agency of indigenous peoples. In other words, American missionaries are not necessarily cultural imperialists, and indigenous peoples are not necessarily passive victims of American hegemony. Rather, American—and, more broadly, western—missionaries brought the gospel to indigenous peoples who, in turn, shaped Christian faith and practice into a culturally pertinent form.

In chapter 6, Noll tests his theory against sociological and anthropological criticisms of American Christian missions. Chapters 8 and 9 further test the thesis against two specific test cases: the rise of Protestantism in Korean and the East African Revival of the mid-twentieth century. I think his thesis withstands scrutiny well. Sociological and anthropological criticisms are shown to be biased and historically ill-founded in many cases, while the Korean and East African revivals are shown to be indigenously directed affairs.

This does not mean that Noll is above criticizing American missionaries or the American shape of Christianity. Instead of either simple affirmation or critique, Noll presents an ambivalent portrait of American Christianity and American missionaries. The American practice of Christianity—characterized by individualism, revivalism, cultural dominance, and cultural adaptivity—has both strengths and weaknesses. American individualism, for example, focuses the believer on God’s personal love for him. At the same time, however, it hinders the same believer from seeing the social form and implications of the faith.

In the end, perhaps the greatest similarity between American Christianity and the new shape of world Christianity comes down to this: Like Jesus Christ, the gospel comes to us in the flesh of a particular culture. The message of God’s redeeming power is transcultural but it must be expressed in the form of a specific culture, beginning with its language. Nineteenth century Americans did this with their inherited European faith—indigenizing it, Americanizing it. Christians in the global south are doing the same today. To the extent that Christianity in the global south has been shaped by American Christianity, it is not so much through the direct influence of American missionaries as through the similar social context of freedom from the constraints of Christendom, which aligned altar and throne and obstructed the development of indigenous Christianities.

Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal

Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). $22.00, 230 pages.

The diversity of the world’s religions raises several important questions: Do religions make truth claims? Can these truth claims be assessed? Can the assessment be negative without also being violent?

For one group of people—especially in the religious studies guild—the answer to all three questions is negative. Properly interpreted, they argue, religions do not make truth claims. That is why such people believe in the epistemic and moral parity of religions. However, they go on to argue, religious fundamentalists—who do not interpret their own religions properly—do make truth claims which are absolute and mutually exclusive. Such truth claims inevitably lead to violence.

For another group of people—especially orthodox religious practitioners, but also hardcore atheists—the answer to all three questions is affirmative. Religions make truth claims about the way things should be, the way things are, and the way to align is with ought. Religions diagnose the human condition and prescribe a remedy. These truth claims may therefore be assessed on the basis of how correctly they diagnose reality and how helpful the prescribed remedy is. And the process of diagnosis and prescription can be done nonviolently. As Pope John Paul II put it of Roman Catholicism: The church imposes nothing; she only proposes.

In their exploration and appraisal of Buddhism, Keith Yandell and Harold Netland clearly belong to the second group of people. Both are philosophers of religion and practicing Christians. Their study of Buddhism, in both its description of what that religion is and its assessment of that religion’s truth claims, strives to be fair and critical.

The authors divide their study into three parts: the first three chapters are historical. Chapter 1 narrates the history of the Buddha and the evolution of his religious insights within India, culminating in Theravada Buddhism. Chapter 2 narrates the history of Buddhism as it spread throughout Asia and developed new forms, culminating in Mahayana Buddhism. Chapter 3 narrates the arrival of Buddhism in the West, focusing especially on how D.T. Suzuki’s unique interpretation of Zen Buddhism shaped America’s understanding of religion. The next two chapters are analytical. Chapter 4 focuses on core Buddhist doctrines, while chapter 5 focuses on three schools of Buddhist thought: personalism, the varieties of Madhyamaka, and reductionism. The final chapter provides a concise description of fundamental differences—even contradictions—between Christianity and Buddhism.

Although Yandell and Netland eschew any intention of refuting Buddhism, at several points in chapters 4 and 5, that is the effect nonetheless. The authors argue that certain core Buddhist doctrines, considered singly and in relationship to one another, are problematic. Among the doctrines considered are karma, impermanence, no-self, dependent co-origination, conscious states, and nirvana. While chapters 1-3 and 6 are introductory and can be read quickly, chapters 4-5 are tough sledding for anyone not interested in metaphysics. They are the most philosophical chapters in the book, and they repay the dedicated reader with new insight.

I appreciated this book, both for its introductory chapters and its philosophical discussion. It is an excellent model of how adherents of one religion can engage adherents of another religion at a very high level of intellectual sophistication. However, the book had several shortcomings in my opinion.

First, the focus on metaphysics overwhelmed what interests many Americans—including many American Christians—about Buddhism: namely, meditation and morals. The book is largely, though not solely, a metaphysical critique of Buddhism. In the author’s defense, metaphysics lies at the heart of Buddhism. If Buddhism describes reality incorrectly, then its prescribed remedy will not work. In other words, if the metaphysics is wrong, the meditation and morals will be of no avail. Still, I would have liked to have seen more discussion of Buddhist meditation and moral philosophy.

Second, a glossary would have been very helpful. Many of Buddhism’s core doctrines have Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese names. In a book this long, one starts to get one’s Buddha and Bodhisattva confused, not to mention one’s karma and dharma. If there is a second edition of this book, I would recommend adding a glossary for the benefit of readers new to Buddhist terminology.

Third, the book provides a bibliography of secondary source material. I would appreciate a similar bibliography of primary source material. That way, I and other readers can read Buddhist “scriptures” ourselves. Finally, there were a few misspellings and typographical errors in the text, including a misspelling of Theravada in the table of contents.

None of these shortcomings should stop you from purchasing and reading this book, however. It is exactly what it says it is: “a Christian exploration and appraisal” of Buddhism. It is both fair and critical, and as I wrote above, a model of how Christians should interact with adherents of other religions. I recommend this book enthusiastically.

The Declaration of Independence

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

— John Hancock

New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York:
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey:
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina:
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

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