Science


This just in from the NYTimes.com:  Texas Conservatives Win Vote on Textbook Standards. Have mercy. We’re not just talking about adding Intelligent Design or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to the science curriculum, either; it’s the entire social studies curriculum. US History, World History, and Economics, in particular.

This is the last thing we need; clearly-defined ideologically based curricula at the state public education level. If you want that, there are plenty of options already; private Christian schools and homeschooling in particular. But to go beyond this and identify “Conservative” with “Christian” and “Christian” with “Republican” and interpret all of history in this light is way too dangerous.

I mean, just ignoring Jefferson? Arguing that the Enlightenment played only a small role in the US’ founding? That the US was established as a “Christian” Nation, based on a limited (and totally anachronistic) definition of “Christian”? Virtually leaving out the massive importance of Latinos in Texas’ history?

I’m emphasizing the seriously important role that Christianity has played in not only the founding of the US, but in the colonization of this continent in my US History course, but it is most definitely not along any particular party line because this is impossible. To recognize and emphasize the Christian influence is critical to understanding this country, but, as I tell my students, there were a LOT of different kinds of Christians between the 15th century and now, and to reify the term into a single concept yields a grossly inaccurate picture of US history. (Billy Graham’s or Francis Schaeffer’s version of neo-Evangelical Christianity, for example, has nothing to contribute to any discussion of the Christianity of the Fathers!)

This is anti-democratic at its core, in more ways than one.

Lucifer FallsAs a homeschooling family, every year we’re confronted with the  task of buying curricula for various subjects; math, reading, grammar, and… science. As a homeschooling family involved in the local coop, there are, um, certain expectations revolving around the science curriculum. If you do it with the coop group, for example, it is a pretty standard, “creationist” science orientation. (And yes, I’m fully aware of the problem placing “creationist” and “science” right next to each other in the same sentence.) If you DON’T have your kid do their science with the coop, it’s assumed that you’re doing  creationism at home. At the very least, something Intelligent Design-ish.  But to actually teach evolution? If you’re going to do that, you might as well forget homeschooling altogether and just stick your kid into your local secular, democrat, hegemonic public school.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

An anecdote: a few weekends back I spent a spectacular day at Robert Treman State Park in New York, which houses two glacial glens and some breathtaking gorges and waterfalls. You cannot but be stunned by the power of water and time and what it can do to rock.  I commented something to this effect; my 8 year old gets my drift and asks “how old is all this daddy?” Before being able to answer, the wife cuts in “oh, sometime between Adam and Noah, honey.” Well, yeah, that puts it in a context that the kid can understand and is still sufficiently vague enough to allow for a LOT of time. Fine, but when I pointed out that the glens were formed over a number of ice ages over two million years, well before “Adam,” I got the cynical “well, who knows if the earth is even that old anyway.”

Sigh.

Look, having been brought up fundamental Christian and who yet still is somehow wired to find elements of the sacred in the natural world, I have had a long struggle with evolution. But I can say this; I’m more unimpressed by religious responses to Darwin and evolution than I am by  evolution itself. Let me be clear: I take Darwin’s understanding to be a reasonably close approximation of how life has developed, and natural geological physics to be an equally fair approximation of the formation of planet earth as we now live in and experience it. In my own religious and academic development, I have gone from the combative creationist to the reluctant Intelligent Designist to a rather apathetic “science is science, and Bible is Bible, and ne’er shall the twain meet” approach. Now, not only do I find all three of these standard Christian “reactions” wide of the mark, but in reality irresponsible theologically as well as scientifically.

Part of the reason I’ve turned my back on these three so-called Christian/religious opposing positions is that I’ve come to realize that these, in fact, all give assent to the materialist skepticism promoted by the leading lights of neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought (namely Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Jay Gould) who have argued that religion, theology, and evolutionary science are fundamentally irreconcilable with each other. On this, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and “separatists” agree with their hostile critics, thus ceding the defining terms of the debate to their opponents. I no longer believe this starting point is even true, and as a result, I have to pull the rug out from under pseudo-scientific Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the separatist wall between church and scientia.

What this means is that I’m not signing off on a classically Christian fundamentalist oppostion curriculum for my school to teach (as homeschooling principal and Chair of the School Board) and I’m not signing off on my kids getting pseudo-science from the local coop (as the concerned, diligent parent). For the purposes of basic elementary education of my two kids, though, separatism is probably the best approach; teach Bible, teach science, and teach them both right and on their own disciplinary terms. In the meantime, during expeditions such as we love going on, I need to work on an evolutionary theology to make room for science in the concept of the sacred, and make room for the sacred in natural, scientific, evolutionary history. As a result, I’ve started a most fascinating powder-keg of a book by John F. Haught entitled God After Darwin. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. I’ll report back with some results as I make some headway.

moses.jpgGood grief. I’d have to say that, after this article, I’m going to agree with the rabbi quoted at the end: “We have to fear not for the fate of the biblical Moses, but for the fate of science.” Indeed, if this is what scientists find to do with their time, then only God can save the planet after all.

View of Crater LakeRecently I have been reflecting on what it means to try to live a real life in a world that strikes me as becoming increasingly unreal. Our world aspires now to unrealistic expectations of “progress” on the one hand or to the imminent advent of a salvific messiah to bring us to an eternal utopia on the other. Beauty is commodified and objectivized, to the point that we can no longer tell the difference between what is authentically beautiful and intrinsically good and what is a commercialized copy to serve ends that are anything but good. Seems like we have somehow exchanged genuine love for the beautiful and the good for a crass faith in fakes, as Umberto Eco puts it. Even when an occasional prophet comes along to expose the idols we have constructed, we typically have no idea how to restore, or re-create, an original beauty that can deconstruct our original sin.

In a recent post, Audrey (of saintsophia.wordpress.com) expresses her desire to be able to recreate in a way that gets her away from the pains and horror of the ugliness of real life, what Merton would call the “dread of emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity” that results in the “experience of boredom and of spiritual disorientation” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p. 25). I have been feeling exactly the same, and the recent events in Blacksburg, Virginia, as well as the student’s self-proclaimed justifications for his actions, demonstrate how much the faith in fakes has taken over. Like Audrey, I also seek to recreate and to develop a spirituality and consciousness of beauty and goodness and ingenuity that can combat the faith in fakes wherever we find it (and this includes, let it be said right now, our churches and communities of faith). How do we live a real life in an unreal world? How do we life a life that seeks creation and recreation, that consecrates the beautiful and cherishes the good, that names the holy and recognizes the sacred?

 

Diane Ackerman, “The Work of the Poet is to Name What is Holy”

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy:

the spring snow
that hides unevenness
but also records
a dog walked at lunchtime,
the hieroglyphs of birds,
pawprints of a life
tiny but resolute;

how, like Russian dolls,
we nest in previous selves;

the lustrous itch
that compels and oyster
to forge a pearl,
or a poet a verse;

the drawing on of evening
belted at the waist;

snowfields of diamond dust;

the cozy monotony
of our days, in which
love appears with a holler;

the way a man’s body
has its own geography –
cliffs, aqueducts, pumice fields,
but a woman’s is the jungle,
hot, steamy, full of song;

the brain’s curiosity shop
filled with quaint mementos
and shadowy antiques
hidden away in drawers;

the plain geometry
of you, me, and art –
our angles at rest
among shifting forms.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,

and not to mind so much
the pinch of words
to cope with memories
weak as falling buildings,

or render loss, love,
and the penitentiary
of worry where we live.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,
a task fit for eternity,
or the small Eden of this hour.

You’re Fired!Well, here we go. Twenty minutes after I found this, I find that Murmuring Jake posts this. Jake’s got a good discussion going, and I encourage you to check it out, because most of my reactions to this situation are already there. If you don’t feel like going to Fox’s site, linked above, the gist of the story is that an Oregon Biology teacher was fired by the town School Board for, apparently, raising ethical implications for evolutionary theory that included, among other things, references to specific passages in the Bible. It’s a short article, so have a look.

But, a few words are in order in my own space. For several years I have been resisting any kind of serious comment on the whole issue of whether creationism should be taught in public schools. I’m not really going to indulge in it here either, except to make a couple of comments. First, the bibliophobia of public school administrations has reached new lows. While I am not at all interested in biblical indoctrination in public schools, I do support the idea of teaching biblical literacy, meaning nothing more than that students should know certain facts about contents of and in the Bible. Although the Fox report is way too sketchy to even be called responsible journalism, it seems from the report that the teacher who was fired was simply calling to his students’ attention certain relevant passages from scripture for whatever his point was. For all we know, he may have been refuting the Bible. This is exactly why we need to raise our religious IQ. From what I can tell, there isn’t any agenda going on here other than to point out potential implications of evolutionary theory at (apparently) the level of ethics. The theory of evolution, regardless of where we position ourselves vis a vis its facticity, has historically led to certain questions of scientific, social, and medical ethics, like eugenics (see: Nazism and Holocaust) and racism, to name just two.

Jake’s post on his blog notes the related issue of why in the world this makes front page news. This is a good and very important question. What do you all think? My take is in the comments, but in my opinion it goes back to the relationship between rhetoric and religion that I suggested last week in the “F-Bombs” post. Take a news story that is virtually devoid of informational content, slap it on the front page of one of the most sensationalist news outlets, and Voila! Instant persuasive news piece, designed not to inform, but to ruffle feathers and create opportunities for bloggers.

I’m interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this, especially because it is related to much of what some of us have been discussing around the Aedificium water cooler.

Since the university actually cancelled everything after noon today, thanks to the latest blast of winter, I’ve had plenty of time to do two things: grade student essays and actually think a bit seriously about what they are writing about. It’s so easy to become robotic with these things. The assignment has them reflecting on the relationship between Religion/Experience and “Atheism/Rationalism” on the other.

Writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and other “Brights” of the New Atheism movement (as they seem to like to call themselves) seek to oppose Reason and Logic, represented by scientific thinking, with Experience, which they claim is more properly the appeal of religion. The onus is on the religious person to “prove” by reason, logic, and scientific demonstration the existence and validity of their religious experience.

The problem, though, is that Experience is hardly the “opposite” of Reason and Logic, and the last time I checked, science depends on experience to verify proofs and validate theories and hypotheses. Similarly, our western religions, in particular, have depended on reason and logic to articulate religious experience for over 2,000 years. Religious faiths have developed elaborate systems of tightly integrated logic in the forms of theologies, legal systems, and even highly sophisticated worldviews as equally fundamental to their faiths as revelation. (Modern fundamentalism is a nearly perfect case in point here.) To attempt a diametric opposition between Experience and Reason/Logic is disingenuous.

A better “opposite” to rationality is passion. In their extreme forms, rationality makes no room for passion, and passion rejects rationality. It is also in their extreme forms that both the New Atheists and the “Defenders of (the) Faith” use as their weapons in the discourse against each other; one side points to the atrocities in the name of God, while the other side points to eugenics and modern “scientific warfare.” The reality is that neither is sufficient by itself, a point that I don’t often see emphasized. Living passionately at the expense of rationality will result in our destruction; living rationally at the expense of passion will result in the same.

Just think of attempting to regulate your sex life totally on one of these and not on the other. Not good at all.

Yeah, I know Jefferson said “Church and State” in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association back in 1802, but today’s article “Believing Scripture but Playing by Science’s Rules” seems to invoke a similar wall that, apparently, “young earth” evangelicals are OK with.

I have to say, though, at least this is being talked about. My own field seems reluctant to ask similar questions: Can one be a professional scholar of religion and yet hold deep religious faith? There are a ton of ethical implications here, both for the scientific study of… well, science, but also the “religious study of religion…”