Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Science and religion

December 9, 2011

I posted an entry this week over at Qideas about science and evangelical religion. Columnists are hyperventilating at what they perceive to be the anti-intellectualism of the Republican candidates, and more than a few are drawing conclusions about evangelicals from what they hear. But survey data on attitudes toward science among evangelicals are more encouraging, and show that they more faithfully Christians actually practice their religion (for example by reading the Bible!), the more sympathetic they feel toward science and its findings.

One study showing that religiosity leads to harmony between science and religion comes from Baylor University, where researcher Aaron Franzen finds that increased frequency of Bible reading is tied to, among other things, improved attitudes toward science. “Respondents were 22 percent less likely to view religion and science as incompatible at each step toward more frequent Bible reading,” according to David Briggs, who reported the Baylor study for Association of Religion Data Archives. (Interestingly, higher rates of Bible reading were also correlated with greater support for social and economic justice, simple lifestyles, humane treatment of criminals, and with lower support for abortion, same-sex unions, the death penalty, and the expansion of the war on terrorism.)

Interesting this week that the Obama administration was derided for giving in to “anti-science” pressure when it blocked over-the-counter access to the “morning after” pill for minors. Those pundits are willfully ignorant about what is science and what is morality, thinking that measurements of a drug’s effectiveness ought somehow to determine whether a minor should be able to access it without adult guidance or parental input. The same goes for claims that opposition to fetal stem cell research is somehow anti-scientific. One can certainly accept that experimenting on human embryos may lead to advances in scientific knowledge, while at the same time affirming that it is entirely immoral to conduct such research.

What do Haitians think about God and the Earthquake?

January 13, 2011

I asked Dr. Gerald Murray, an anthropologist and an expert on Haiti, and a Catholic, to write a blog post for Q Ideas about the religious response of people in Haiti to the earthquake a year ago. I know several American Christians who found their faith in the goodness of God rocked by the tragedy last January 12. He writes about the reasons Haitian Christians did not experience a similar crisis of faith. Maybe their view of God, who controls the universe and sends things we consider good and bad, is more accurate than the benign grandfather we imagine in the West.

Read for yourself.


December 2, 2010

I get invited to lots of “interfaith” events. Most are mislabeled–they aren’t really interfaith, they are “multifaith”, as Ed Stetzer recently put it.  (I usually start my talks by asking if there are any “interfaith” people there–and there usually isn’t anyone.) I suppose people like the word interfaith because it doesn’t sound very threatening.

It also doesn’t sound very interesting.  The main common features of interfaith gathering are that they are usually very poorly attended, and sometimes pretty dull. Those features are related. There just aren’t that many people out there looking for interfaith events to attend. And running our deeply help beliefs through a filter of what everyone has in common tends to screen out the things that give us a real identity. Interfaith events tend to attract the people who are at the edges of their religious traditions, escaping from the core, who are finding freedom in cosmopolitanism and universalism. But they wind up talking in vague platitudes about actual faith, or grossly misrepresenting their traditions.

All of the interesting things about religions are particular things. What makes me a Christian, rather than a Jew, or a Muslim, or anything else, is that I subscribe to a certain number of particular claims about events that I believe actually occurred in human history. I also believe a lot of particular things about God’s revelation to us. I have in some ways a lot more in common with Muslims who are glad to be Muslim, and who know why they are Muslim, than with Christians who are watering down their faith to find the least common denominators.

The abstract things that I believe in common with some other religions are not what makes me a Christian. But they are the things that make me human.

Our commonalities, if they exist, are found in ancient history, not in where we’re going but in where we’ve been–as a Christian I would say we share the image of God, and we are called as image-bearers to tend and keep what is good in human culture and in the rest of creation. There’s a lot of room to care for the common good. The Bible-believers (like me) point out that our charge to steward creation comes long before the special revelation to Abraham and his descendants. Genesis 1:26-28 points to a common humanity and common responsibility we share with all people, not just our co-religionists. I find it useful to point out that the religions are not climbing the same mountain, only to be surprised to meet each other at the top. Where we can get along and work together is down at the foot of our mountains, not at the summits.

Working for the common good can therefore be more than what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerency.” Co-belligerency happens when people who would otherwise despise each other agree to hold their noses and work together on an issue (as when feminists and conservatives work together to fight pornography). They may agree on a particular policy, but got there for very different reasons. Common good issues call us back to the most ancient fundamentals of responsibility to something bigger than ourselves, and in the process reminding ourselves of what it is to be human. Even Christians

True believers in other religions are happy when we acknowledge that there are real differences between us. True believers in a squishy interfaithism are less happy to hear that we don’t think we’re climbing the same mountain to God. Perhaps we should have separate meetings for those who believe in the truth of their traditions and those who don’t.

My ground rules for interfaith events:

(1) I’ll be speaking and interacting as a Christian, though I’ll be nice about it.

(2) I don’t do interfaith worship or prayer services. The more something looks like a worship service, the more it should be particular and not general. I’m happy to visit someone else’s church, temple, or mosque, but I don’t want them to blend it with my tradition.

(3) I won’t try to tell people from other religions what their religions say (or should say). I think it is at best meaningless, and at worst unfuriatingly patronizing, for Christians to tell Muslims that Islam is a religion of peace. It means rather more for a faithful Muslim to say it. I don’t want Unitarians telling me what I should believe about the Eucharist and organic food, or eschatology and environmental action. I’ll look to Christian thinkers to help me with that.

NOTE: There are environmental organizations in many states that go by the name “Interfaith Power and Light”. They do good work, helping houses of worship become more energy efficient. They also organize religious people to advocate for policies that fight global warming. They’re obviously pretty wedded to the name at this point, but the name helps to explain why evangelicals have not flocked to their programs. Oh, and the fact that they believe in that whole global warming thing…

The New Religion of Environmentalism

January 14, 2010

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship academic institution, is one of America’s leading and most respected Christian intellectuals on matters of faith, culture, and politics. It’s interesting, then, that Mohler turned to a Buddhist scholar for insight into the modern environmental movement. He was inspired by Buddhist Stephen Asma’s article from the Chronicle of Higher Education to write about the religious nature of environmentalism.

I often hear the claim that environmentalism is a kind of new religion, usually from folks who are trying to disparage the movement.

I think it’s partly right. The human bent toward legalism, finger-pointing, self-righteousness and meddling finds its expression in various forms of fundamentalism, whether in churches, mosques, or environmental circles. Part of our sin nature is a desire to find some weapon to wield over others whom we deem less worthy than ourselves.

If you don’t believe there are environmental fundamentalists, try throwing way an aluminum can at a Sierra Club event. Or talking about the joys of Southern barbecue, or the happiness that comes with having three kids (or two, or more than none) in certain environmental circles. There can be a little venom in those green fangs. It can feel like a religion, with all its rules and finger-pointing.

But if our “critique” of environmentalism stops with its own finger-pointing and doesn’t provide a springboard for salty encounters with the world, we are missing a huge opportunity. It’s not enough to claim that environmentalism seems like a religion. We have to provide some answers for what to do about that.

After all, Jesus didn’t come to offer a new religion, or a new set of standards, or a new ethic. He came to offer himself–to us, and for us. Through his death on the cross, he offers us a restored relationship, first with our Creator, but also with our fellow man, and with the rest of Creation.

Thoughtful environmentalists are often racked by guilt, but so are non-environmentalists, who realize that in almost every dimension of life they don’t live up to their own standards, much less the standards of a holy and righteous God. Christians should be bold in proclaiming that the answers to today’s crises, whether political, social, moral, or environmental, are not found in Law but in Grace.

It’s no surprise that folks outside the church who perceive a crisis would want to find religious answers to it. The shame is that most Christians don’t even have a vocabulary for talking about the environment in Christian terms. Letting a Biblical worldview infuse our consciousness would allow us to cultivate conversations about how God’s grace operates in every sphere of life.

(1) God’s common grace operates to reveal his awesome power and divine nature through the created order (Romans 1:20; Psalm 19). Why do we fail to use this gracious revelation in our communications with environmentalists? I think part of the reason is that we Christans have failed to allow ourselves to encounter the incredible witness of Creation–we’re committed indoorsmen. Environmentalists may know more of the awesome nature of God than Christians do in this regard. If we aren’t humble enough to admit this, we won’t be very good at pointing people to Jesus.

(2) God’s common grace provides for our needs through the operation of the earth’s ecosystems. We may mouth the words about the rain falling on the just and the unjust, and the sun rising on the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45), but we too often leave rigorous learning about the operation and management of the planet to secular scientists and secular environmentalists. Because so few churches teach about this, we find ourselves unable to provide answers to secularists who understand something of how the world works, and want to offer thanks to someone or some thing. This is a travesty.

(3) God’s common grace restrains evil in the world, often through the hand of civil governments (Romans 13). Yet it is environmentalists who often have a better diagnosis of evil in the world, of how misuse and mistreatment of creation affects innocent people through pollution or wasteful resource use. They don’t usually find support in the church, especially in the evangelical church. Rather, they too often find Christians denying the very possibility of environmental problems through unsound prooftexting. And they find an anti-government, anti-regulatory streak that verges on rejecting the role of civil governments in the restraint of evil.

(4) Finally, and most to the point, God’s common grace operates through the human conscience, convicting the world of sin. Paul writes, “they [the Gentiles] show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:14-15; NASB). Isn’t this guilty conscience what Asma and Mohler are writing about?

It’s one thing for a Buddhist to complain about the operation of the conscience, but it is quite another for one of America’s best living theologians to seem to lament the operation of the conscience in non-Christians.

If people are convicted about their waste, their poor stewardship, their ignorance of the side-effects of their actions, shouldn’t we praise God for his grace by which this occurs, and point people to the answer offered by Jesus’ life and death on the cross? Awareness of sin is something we can share with the rest of the world; the disorder wreaked on the world by human ignorance is perceptible even to those outside the faith, and we can use this as common ground to communicate the gospel and to work for the common good.

God’s special grace, redeeming, sanctifying, and glorifying those who put their trust in Jesus, is the ultimate answer to today’s environmental crises. But we do a disservice to God, and to those he died to save, if we don’t use people’s awareness of creation and the disorder they find in it and in their own lives, to communicate the whole gospel story.

Environmental Stewardship and Virtue

December 11, 2009

Courage is a virtue...

Wendell Berry said in The Unsettling of America that “the environmental crisis is a crisis of character” (thanks Aaron James, for the reference). That idea reminded me of a lecture I heard given by N.T. Wright, talking about the nature of virtues (at last year’s Intervarsity “Following Christ” Conference, audio files available) . As a prelude to talking about the Christian notion of virtue, he talked about the classical notion. It’s an important idea for the tasks of environmental stewardship, decisionmaking, and action, because we so often drift into following rules, or “getting in touch with our hearts”–weak and unreliable methods for getting to right actions. Wright began by talking about the virtue of courage:

Take one of the classical virtues, namely, courage. What does courage consist of? Some might imagine that courage, if you’re going in to battle, say, consists in taking a very large swig of a very strong drink and then charging off into battle waving your sword around you, yelling some awful war cry and hoping for the best. That’s not courage in any kind of classical virtue sense.

Courage as a virtue, is what happens when you take a thousand small decisions over a period of time, consciously to place the safety and security of someone else ahead of your own safety and security, so that on the thousand-and-first occasion, when suddently a real crisis or danger appears you act in that way as though by instinct.

It isn’t instinct–we humans are self-preserving animals–but if you train yourself by conscious mental and moral effort to practice in the little things the virtue you know you ought to be developing it can become second nature–second instinct, if you like. Virtue is a matter of acquiring habits the way you acquire tastes, by sustained practice.

Seen like this, the moral life is not a matter simply of learning and remembering rules. Rules can help while you’re on the way, they may well point in the right direction, we are foolish to ignore them, but we need to practice the virtues which will enable us to keep them by transcending them.

Nor is it a matter of being true to whatever impulses you find within yourself–it’s more like learning a language, practicing it so that eventually you can go to the country and speak it like a native. It takes time, there is vocabulary to learn, there are irregular verbs to master, there are nuances and metaphors and emphases that make a living language the lovely but difficult thing it is. You’ll often get it wrong, but it is worth persevering for the goal-the telos–of what lies ahead.

Or you might think of it like learning a musical instrument: you have to master the basic technique, the angle of the bow on the cello, the position of the shoulders for the brass player. You have to practice scales and arpeggios not so that you can go on stage and play scales and arpeggios, but so that when you are suddenly faced with a complex sheet of music, you will know, as though instinctively, but in fact by second nature, by force of habit, what to do. It will seem to happen automatically, but that automatic behavior will be the result of practicing things which certainly didn’t feel automatic at the time. Now that’s how virtue ethics works.

Knowing that, the thing that we can’t do is simply experience a “conversion” to the project of creation care–an awakening to the need to exercise environmental stewardship–and expect that we are equipped to respond to the “environmental crisis”. That’s true for the Christian church as much as it is true for any individual. We don’t automatically have the skills, the virtue, to act courageously or prudently or justly when faced with environmental issues. Neither do we, as a Christian community, possess the automatic ability to distinguish between sound and unsound environmental claims. Those virtues and abilities, like a foreign language or musicianship, must be cultivated. And that takes time.

Having ignored environmental issues for so long, we may wish we could simply look up some Bible texts, or trust our hearts,  to determine what to do–how to steward the earth well. We can’t. We wind up aping the ideologies and practices of the left and the right, without much to contribute ourselves, being either uncritically accepting or unreasonably dismissive of claims of environmental crisis. The way to learn a virtuous approach to creation care, is to begin with small, repeated, steps of faithfulness, knowing that we will make mistakes, but concerned more to develop a virtuous character than to “follow rules” or “follow our hearts”.

In the end, we will find that sometimes it will be right to act swiftly, sometimes to wait and learn more, sometimes to make peace. But we can’t discern that by being thrown in the deep end of a cultural debate we’ve ignored until now, simply “choosing sides” without training in interpreting both special and general revelation (more on that in another post).

The classic virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. The “theological” virtues are faith, hope, and love. I’ll be covering some of these ideas in more depth in the future. But for now, which virtues do you think will help us be better stewards? How can we cultivate them?

Climate scientists, skeptics earn a “great big time out”

December 9, 2009

That's a time out for you, young man

By now you’re bound to have heard of the great “Climategate” scandal of late 2009. Hackers broke into the computer archives of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and stole data and email archives dating back 10 years. Then, somehow (who can say?) these files found their way into the hands of climate uber-skeptics. It was discovered that–shock, horror–climate scientists were saying rude and very unscientific things about their most relentless critics. (A good synopsis and discussion, written by someone outside the conflict, is the one by Peter Kelemen at Columbia University.)

Now, to put things in context, you should know something about my two boys, ages 7 and 9. Although they get on fine most of the time, and even like each other, there is some sibling rivalry. (more…)

Woe to the Label Makers

December 8, 2009

Guest post by Thomas D. Rowley of A Rocha USA. [Tom is a friend and colleague, and if you don’t knwo about the work of A Rocha, you should.–RP]

When I was a kid, my mother—queen of catalog shopping—bought a hand-held, squeeze-trigger device with a dial on top. It being the early seventies and I being a TV-addicted adolescent boy, my recognition of the contraption was instant: Star Trek Phaser!

Instant, but wrong.

It was, alas, a label maker—one of those things with which you squeezed out letter by raised letter on thin plastic tape such useful identifiers as “wedding photos,” “washers,” and “underwear.” And though useless against such menaces as the dreaded Salt Vampire of planet M-113, it was for a while fun. Soon every box, drawer and cabinet in our house had a label stuck on it. Now, the theory went, everything had a place. Everything could be stowed properly, found easily and used efficiently. Life under control.

Or not.

It turned out that wedding photos also contained grandparents, aunts and uncles. Should they be filed under “relatives” instead? Washers come in several kinds: flat, lock, and rubber to name a few. Could one box hold them all? (At least we got the underwear right.) Labels, it turns out, are tricky business.

Especially when slapped on people. Take me, for example. (more…)

Paul Metzger interviews Mike Abbate and Rusty Pritchard

November 5, 2009

Multnomah Biblical Seminary professor, and Director of the Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins,  Paul Metzger, interviews Flourish speakers Michael Abbate (author of Gardening Eden) and Rusty Pritchard (Flourish president) about the relationship between care of creation and lifestyle evangelism, on the Georgene Rice Show (interviews start at 38 minute mark). (more…)

Moody Primetime America Interview Oct 14 2009

November 5, 2009

Host Greg Wheatley of Moody Radio’s Prime Time America interviews Flourish President and Co-Founder Rusty Pritchard about how the church should respond to environmental issues.

Streaming audio available at:

All Creatures Great and Small

October 5, 2009

Animal welfare is a neglected issue for many creation care advocates. A blind spot perhaps, or an area of carefully-maintained ignorance (as it has been for me). It wasn’t so for William Wilberforce. The Christian anti-slavery hero was also one of the co-founders of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was a clear example of holistic thinking about mercy and justice.

My friend Christine Gutleben, the woman responsible for faith outreach at the Humane Society of the US, is currently touring the country with the band The Myriad, stopping at Christian colleges and universities (and plenty of other more hip spots) to promote the cause of animal stewardship. The tour schedule sounds exciting, and will continue through the first week of November. I hope she is able to inspire Christian students to follow in the footsteps of William Wilberforce.

I find it increasingly odd that many environmentalists are wary of animal welfare advocates; (more…)