Monday, October 27, 2014

Insignificantly significant - Brian Cox's universe

I love Brian Cox's TV shows, and have now seen him live twice. He seems a softer atheist than the "new atheist" crowd, and when asked last time around about his attitudes towards belief, he was generally tolerant. As long as you engage with science on its own terms, it is ok.

His recent tour promotes his new TV series Human Universe. So far I've enjoyed what I've seen. There are two major premises he makes - we are insignificant, and we are inevitable and hence have meaning (though I've also heard he denies meaning, so what does he mean by meaning).

Insignificance comes from the vastness of our visible universe, the huge number of galaxies and the likelihood there are many planets with life. However, he also claims that our appearance on Earth is so unlikely that intelligent life is rare. We are a freak accident. This revolves round the geology of the Rift valley and aspects of the Earth's orbit (Milankovitch cycles) as they conspire to produce an 800,000 year cycle that helped force our evolution. I've about 5 papers to read on this - and will blog in future.

I toyed with the theme of God's control over weather as described in the bible and human evolution a while back. But paleontologist Simon Conway Morris suggested other factors would have forced the issue at some point, and for example no large bolide was needed (as Cox contends) to do away with the dinosaurs. CO2 is in decline (present human forcing notwithstanding) so that the global climate has cooled and ice ages would have done it anyway (killed off the dinosaur), to make way for mammals. So it may be that Cox is over stating his case about contingency. Conway Morris certainly thinks so.

What makes us inevitable for Cox is the eternal multiverse idea, which falls out of quantum mechanics/inflationary theory, but also a desire to push science further back in time and God out of the picture. Cox assumes that the multiverse must be necessary and eternal, and hence functions like God. This is a philosophical assumption left unexamined, just as is the idea that such a multiverse must produce at least one universe that is biophilic. But why should it be the case that a multiverse should exist that produces an infinite number of universes with at least one that is biophilic (beyond our obvious presence)? What adds fire to the equations of quantum mechanics?

It is of course nonsense to suggest this gives us any sense of meaning, that I must exist because I exist an infinity of times. That makes me insignificantly inevitable. It's turtles all the way down.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stop fighting over who created the world

I love memes, so when I saw this one, similar to one I blogged about on my environment blog, I thought it worth a brief comment.

It is a difficult sentiment to argue with, and why would you want to? The key is that violence should never be the solution to any problem, let alone metaphysical issues. Indeed, when Jesus says that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, it seems to me that fundamentally Christianity is not about killing people for any reason.

That said, the meme betrays a couple of things, Firstly, we tend to take for granted that religion and politics should be separate (though I hope not that religious people shouldn't be in politics, these are not the same thing), and hence no issue (particularly in the middle east) is simply religious. It is political. Secondly, we would not want to forget the complex history of places like the middle east, and how western politics has helped shape the violence, even if it isn't the cause without remainder.

Thirdly, people are quit to forget that atheism kills as well as religion - think French Revolution, Hitler (he simply courted the church), Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, etc. These were all attempts to stamp an atheistic world view onto people, resulting in the death of religious leaders, intellectuals, pretty much anyone. It is intellectual dishonesty to suggest otherwise.

Dawkins would accuse people like me of compromise for not being literalists and fundamentalists. This is about as logical as accusing pacifist atheists of doing the same for not seeking to burn churches.

None of this is to deny the role religion plays in violence, and hence the meme as such is something I can agree with.

This leaves us with the opposite problem of the meme, which calls for us to fight against those who are destroying the world - in what sense can we 'fight' if we are opposed to fighting? Surely it doesn't mean it is ok to kill for non-religious reasons. It also doesn't mean we should go to war at the drop of a hat. It does mean that we should oppose violence in whatever form we find it, and perhaps pragmatically that means military interventions at times.

It does also mean we need to examine very carefully events that we see, and move past simplistic sloganeering.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Misconceptions in teaching science

In my wanderings on the net I happened upon a paper entitled Misconceptions in the science classroom by Michael DiSpenzo. Although it is aimed at high school classes, it still seems to me applicable to tertiary and adult education, thinking about public education in climate change and so on. I thought it would be useful for me (and maybe others) to summarise.

Factual misconceptions are errors in individual facts. This might be as simple as a wrong date or capital city; an error in a largely inconsequential fact. In this case, if such information carries little emotion baggage, some repetitious reinforcement can deal with it. DiSpenzo notes that in order to deal with these misconceptions, they need to be uncovered, and this is best done before learning.

Such pre-learning discovery of learner factual misconceptions shows the value of pre-testing. Applying it to what I do when I go speaking about climate change, it could allow for asking "what do we know about...?" type questions. It opens up the potential to be railroaded, but it also lets you know where your audience is. This second comment however makes it clear that some facts are linked to a broader set of beliefs, which I'll comment on below.

Conceptual misconceptions are concepts that are in error. A classic one DiSpenzo mentions is weightlessness in space, that gravity is negligble for astronauts. A meteorological one might be the direction water spirals down the sink in different hemispheres (it doesn't change). In climate science, it might be that trace gases like CO2 can have no effect. These are harder to root out if they can't be directly demonstrated in front of someone - so chains of reasoning, video demonstrations, graphs, charts, etc have to be used. Appeals to beyond reasonable doubt and best possible explanation come in.

Preconceived notions I have found less common in teaching adults. This is application of things seen everyday inappropriately into other areas. The only area I can think of it a confusion between weather and climate, and the tendency to think too much in cycles when there is a secular trend.

Vernacular misconceptions are problems with language. The classic was the so-called canali (Italian for channels), which was translated to canals and had English speakers looking for an advanced but dying race on Mars. In meteorolgy, ideas of clouds burning off or the air holding moisture are poor use of language that lead to confusion in the physics.

Finally, nonscientific beliefs continue to be problematic. This includes religious insistence on a young earth (note I'm an Evangelical Christian but understand both the science of geology, astrophysics, evolution etc to know the Earth is old, and that Genesis 1 is ancient near eastern polemics, a topc for another time), or political and religious opposition to climate change.

In some contexts, these issues can be dealt with head on, as I often do in talks and writing on climate change. In the classroom, the science needs to be dealt with head on, and being able to say "x is consistent with y because" is the best approach. Also being able to say that "z is not a science question ..." will mean that appropriate discussions will be had.

So when dealing with well established scientific ideas, knowing what our learners know and what and how they misunderstand some ideas is helpful in knowing how to address them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mark Driscoll, Rachel Held Evans and book burning

The above is one of my favourite scenes from Indiana Jones and the last Crusade, for it highlights that the challenge to all empires and regimes is not weaponry but ideas. A person I once knew at a church I was at, who I'd have to describe as theologically more liberal than myself (a hard term to define, but nonetheless) said that "It was easier to burn people than ideas". True enough, but we can burn books, or at least pull them off shelves.

A bookstore chain in the US, LifeWay stores, has recently pulled all of Mark Driscoll's books from their shelves after the various controversies that have surrounded him. Was this a good thing to do? It is also notable that they did not stock a book by Rachel Held Evans because a book she wrote contained the word "vagina" in it. I suppose if I ever expand my blogpost with Red Letter Christians entitled A Theology of Farts and Orgasms into a book, I can forget about their support? In all seriousness, Christian prudishness is no excuse for not facing the earthiness of Scripture and its implications for real life - but see the post for my views on that.

The issue is, when is it ever appropriate for a bookstore to either not stock, or remove from shelves, a book? I've only ever owned two books by Mark Driscoll. One is on mission which I've glanced at but not dug into. The other is one on marriage. The chapter on friendship is excellent, but I don't have it anymore. Mark is Calvinist and complimentarian, I'm Arminian and egalitarian. I've listened to some of his sermon series, seen him on the Elephant Room and been to an Acts 29 church for a time. I have ambiguous feelings about him. I think his personality has amplified all of the aspects of his theology I disagree with. But I think pulling his books was wrong.

Now of all of his sins (and let's call them that), the only two that really relate to books directly is the plagiarism (unintentional or not) and the dodgy attempts to promote sales.  Even then, only the book where the plagiarism occured provides reason for pulling it from the shelves, if at all. The dodgy promotional activity of paying someone to buy a bunch of copies doesn't change the usefulness or truth content of the book in question.

As for Mark's controversial character - Luther was an anti-semite and Calvin was a bourgeois snob implicated in Servetus' murder. Do we pull their books? Where do we draw the line on people's behaviour? And what about theology? Rob Bell perhaps? Brian McClaren?

Now all bookshops have to make stocking choices, and a Christian bookshop should stock books by Christian authors propounding a Christian world view. But what does that look like? For me, John Shelby Spong puts himself outside of historic Christianity by denying central tenets about the person of Jesus, but he was a bishop? Do you have a heretics section? Or ignore him? Or be brave and have a few copies? I don't think there is an easy answer, but it's an insult to book buyers to make up their minds for them, particularly if the filter is narrow.

Banning books, or protesting them is no where near as effective as loving the authors. I'm not about to jump into any Mark Driscoll, though in writing a book on mission I will be digging it out. Likewise I have just bought some Rachel Held Evans, and will buy her vagina book at some stage and see for myself just how liberal her exegesis is, as one person I know has contended.

Not stocking books for insubstantial reasons is a few steps behind book burning, but still too close for my liking.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Grappling for Christ: Martial arts and Christian mission

This article originally appeared in the Ethos publication Equip.

Mission minded

The raison d’etre or reason for the existence of the church is to ‘know Christ and make him known’. This has often been reduced to ‘spiritual disciplines’ and evangelism which has usually been along attractional lines. Attractional mission is where we organise an event like a guest or seeker service, and invite our non-Christian friends along. Over many years I’ve enjoyed many evangelistic sermons along with all my other Christian friends. My point is, that as the Church increasingly looks irrelevant, if not is irrelevant in people’s lives, we need to do good, be good and speak the good news out of our familiar contexts and into those of others. That means often (but not always) leaving behind the four walls of church.

The idea of incarnational mission (see for example Hirsch and Frost in The shape of things to come) is being where people are at, really being with them in what interests them. And this isn’t simply forcing yourself to engage in an activity simply so you can share the gospel (read, be able to trot out a standard tract-like approach). This means doing what you love, being with people you care about, and being the gospel. At times, you will also get to use words. For me, that doing what I love is the martial art Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

This isn’t Kung Fu fighting!

I’ve been a martial artist longer than I’ve been a Christian. And yes I’ve encountered all of the arguments about how the martial arts are demonic and violent. On violence I assume all of those people who are critical abhor the footy punch ups, western boxing and most TV and computer games, as well as foreign policy of most western governments over the past several centuries. On demonic influence I’m assuming none of the detractors have a problem with lust, money or any of the other idols the New Testament tells us have demons lying behind them. Yes the martial arts are often Eastern in their cultural form and carry religious elements either as echoes or implicitly. Stop celebrating Easter and Christmas then. Or learn that most things can be redeemed.

You can see I’ve been in these arguments; I don’t mean to sound impatient, but when you see what gospel opportunities can open up, particularly with young men, you’ll see the value in it. One certainly has to work through the issues. When I studied Judo there was a maxim from the founder Jigoro Kano that reads “maximum efficiency with minimum effort”. It is a great principle for martial arts, maybe too for business. But who wants efficient relationship? They are meant to be inefficient, time and effort costly. Likewise, when I did Goju Kai Karate, one of the five pillars we recited was a respect for Samurai chivalry. Sure they produced poets and artists, but that same spirit meant that an offended Samurai could cut the head off a peasant, or a disgraced Samurai had to commit suicide. Their noble “never surrender” attitude shaped the treatment of prisoners of war. So never be uncritical.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is an adaptation for traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu for self-defence and a combat sport. I remember once a famous instructor from Brazil explaining that we shook hands in BJJ instead of bowing (as in oriental arts) because one only bowed to God. Brazil is a good Catholic country, and while many are nominal, that Christian attitude has influenced at least this aspect of the sport/art.

The sport of BJJ allows people to engage in vigorous exercise with little risk of serious injury if practiced safely, with due regard to you and your partner’s health. It consists of taking an opponent down, controlling their movement and applying a submission hold such as the hyper-extension of a limb or the constriction of blood to the brain. This might sound violent, but the goal is to obtain the submission, the tap, and not the snap or nap. Supervision is key, and the ‘law of the jungle’ often ensures that the overly violent or aggressive don’t last long at a club, while the younger, fragile or women are often protected like family.

Shared values

I see three key intersections between BJJ and faith, and this is a speech I’ve given at least once in training contexts. Firstly, one must always be humble. There is always someone better skill-wise or athletically. Sometimes you are the hammer, sometimes you are the nail. You are only as good as your last roll. The goal is not always to dominate but to work together. Jesus coming off his throne to be born human and die for sinners (Philippians 2) shows us what humility looks like, and it often comes to mind when I am training.

The second intersection is community. There have been times when I have felt more at home on the mat than at church. People you struggle with, you relate well with. You share a vision, a goal. In the case of BJJ it is the journey of improving your technique, learning to flow better. Sweat makes close brothers. If only church were more like that! And this mat community should include young and old, men and women, athletes and strugglers. The church likewise is a body of many parts (1 Corinthians 12).

Finally, as one rises in the ranks, one is to serve. Help new students, run classes, coach and support at competitions. Far from individual ego, the ideal club member is always willing to help. As a brown belt with over 12 years of experience (no, we don’t hand out black belts like you six year old gets at the local Karate school), I run classes,  coach students and am always on hand to answer questions, or indeed learn from anyone above or below me in rank. Jesus said he didn’t come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). Service is meant to be a key lifestyle for Christians. BJJ reinforces this, not detracts from it.

Martial mission

So what does this mission look like? Well it looks like any number of things. The club I train at and help run, Renegade MMA, is run by brown belt and theology student Jamie. He in turn was inspired to open a club with an evangelistic shape by our friend Ninos, who runs a number of clubs under the banner of Australian Elite Team (AET). Ninos is Syrian Orthodox and one of the most Christ-like men I have met, as well as an excellent BJJ practitioner and coach. In turn, Renegade has inspired the Grappler’s for Christ club run by Woon in Geelong, at a Baptist church. Each club is different in the way it goes about its work, but with the same goal of sharing Christ and loving and serving the people who train. Let’s look at some of the key ideas.

Of course to be involved in an incarnational mission means you have to live it. As I emphasised at a workshop run by Stirling College and Urban Neighbours of Hope, you have to really, really, really love BJJ to do it as mission. Whatever project you choose, particularly trying to reach men for the gospel, they will smell insincerity a mile away. All of us who teach it, love it. I think about it at work, under the shower, on the drive home from training, and on rare occasion, dream about it. So always pick something you love. This will lend integrity to what you do. A martial arts club that teaches poor martial arts has little to make it attractive to other people interested in learning a good martial art. Anything you love, you put in a lot of effort to perfect. All of the clubs mentioned above have a good standard of Jiu Jitsu with coaches who care about the quality of the technique.

There is another key element of a good club, and that is mat culture. As the common myth purports, martial artists are violent, competitive and selfish. And clubs can become this way. You might apply techniques roughly because all you want is the tap and are not interested in the welfare of your partner. You might not roll with someone because they are better than you and it hurts your ego. Or maybe instead, if the coaches are Christian and set a good example, building a good mat culture that is shaped by the gospel without explicitly being so (preachiness not allowed), then this will create a safe environment that people actually enjoy being in. Egos are left at the door. There is no sense of superiority because we are Christian because this is a culture that most people can embrace and will sort people out – embrace it, enforce it or ask people to leave.

This all goes out the door in one sense at Grapplers for Christ, a BJJ club that meets in a church hall, and begins and ends in prayer. With a mix of Christians and those who are not Christians, meeting in a church hall gives them ‘permission’ to engage in Christian practice. At Renegade, apart from posters featuring the Grapplers for Christ organisation and competition sponsors, and patches on our Gis (uniforms), there is little explicit on the mat. At Australian Elite Team, culture and personal history mean that the cross features on the club patches. So, when thinking about incarnational mission, explicit branding as Christian needs to be done with care. First and foremost is a Christian shaped ethic. Opportunities to share the gospel will come.

People coming into a martial arts club, men in particular, are looking for something. Sometimes it is wanting to be a fighter; often the insufferable sort with lots of testosterone and little idea of what the implications are for amount of training, how long for, diet, etc. Some are looking just to get fit, some have seen BJJ before and know it is effective and fun. And some come with issues of self-esteem, spiritual need (expressed), histories of substance abuse and so on. Conversations do happen. Jamie, coach of Renegade is very able in introducing Jesus into the conversation at the right moment. New students will often hear that Jamie is a Christian and that this influences his business practices and club ethos. Such a clear introduction makes it easier for Jesus to get a mention.

Both Renegade and AET have bible studies on a Wednesday night, which are open for all to attend. In the early days at Renegade, the studies were small, rough and intense. Christian men shared in a real way their struggles – no pretend everything is fine – in a way that would not be possible in mixed groups. Over time however, this group morphed into one focused on outreach. Studies are at a basic level, free from theological sophistication or debate. The emphasis is on Jesus and on how faith affects basic issues of life. Regularly, those of no explicit faith commitment outnumber those of us who are Christian, and these are the best nights. Jamie is also in a position to one on one disciple new Christians and those struggling with various issues. What is clear is that men of integrity and respect in one area (teaching martial arts) can receive respect in other areas and opportunities for Christian service and witness will open up.

After some 28 years in and out of the martial arts scene, I have never experienced such a culture as I do at Renegade, nor had the opportunities to share the gospel with people so easily. When the gym was started, all I had in mind was enjoying rolling with my friends. What we have seen develop is a very successful business, competitive club and place shaped by the gospel. Lives are changed, from a physical to a spiritual level. While such an environment is not for every man, I can’t think of a single reasonable theological objection to this kind of ministry, and have seen too much of God at work to stop now.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Land of confusion

Watching world events of late has made me think about the Genesis song Land of confusion, also covered by Disturbed. The videos are shown below and are quite different in intent. The Genesis video uses the puppets Rubbery Figures to mock Ronald Reagan's cowboy politics. Recently reading An Angel Directs the Storm by Michael Northcott, I'm really struck by the influence of John Locke and dispensational premillenialism on US conservatism - neither of which strike me as biblical Christianity. American exceptionalism based on this and some idea of manifest destiny is truly frightening.

The Disturbed video is in one sense a better match to the music, with its view of empire, endless warfare and freemarket capitalism as a nationless fascism that only represses. As a Christian however, the idea that a violent uprising is the solution is repulsive - when violence is used to combat violence, violence wins.

To quote the song:

There's too many men
Too many people
Making too many problems
And not much love to go round
Can't you see
This is a land of confusion.

What is lacking is love. Lack of love in violent responses to old enemies, lack of love in public policy on climate change, refugees, the poor and so on. People make the problems, and love is crucified on a cross to put things right.

But regardless of your religious outlook, can't you see that only love will bring clarity to the confusion?

This is the world we live in
And these are the hands we're given
Use them and let's start trying
To make it a place worth living in.

Use your hands in love to make the world worth being in. I believe in the Christ, his kingdom come and still to come, and to love until it does.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

History, world views and public policy on guns

Gun ownership and control is a contentious issue for many people and often polarising. I recently had a discussion with an American friend over this. My challenge was, what's a Christian to do with something designed to kill and kept for "self defense" i.e. killing someone else to save at least one's own property.

That aside, and any issue of what policy might look like, why is gun ownership more of an issue in the USA than Australia? This is not a judgment on right and wrong as much as a genuine question. And a few thoughts came to me.

Firstly, America fought for its independence. Australia never really worried about this, and no doubt the complexities of history are such that we didn't need to. The closest we came was the Eureka Stockade, over mining permits. I suppose there are some superficial similarities with the Tea Act.

Secondly, we've never fought each other. Sure there is resentment about "Mexicans" in the south by those from the north, but we've never been at war (State of Origin Rugby Leasgue doesn't count).

I wonder if these two events have normalised guns in the USA in way in which Australian history never has. Even when Gallipoli is used as some kind of "forging of a nation" myth, much centres on character - the laconic Australian who is good under pressure, as much as the fighting ability of the troops. Many accounts show their respect for "Johnny Turk", and the attitude of Attaturk to our war dead often gets a mention (and always reduces me to tears).

The third difference is kind of sinister on both sides really. I grew up with toy soldiers (US) and cowboys and Indians. I've watched many Westerns as a kid. For so long, it appears as if Hollywood sanitised and valorised genocide. In Australia, we've tried hard to sweep it under the carpet, and culture wars have been fought over it (and still are).

So I think history has framed the debate on both continents. Whatever else you think about gun control or anything else, understanding history means you are not doomed to repeat it.