Bad Religion

In Prague there stands a monument to an odd couple: Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

Tycho, the Catholic Dane—by far the more colorful of the two-- dabbled in alchemy, wore a prosthetic nose as a result of a wound he received in a duel, and died as a result of an infamous drinking binge. In contrast Kepler--the German, Protestant mathematician--was rather dull. 

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Beyond the Cosmos: The Extra-Dimensionality of God

Beyond the Cosmos: The Extra-Dimensionality of God by Hugh Ross
(Book originally published 1996)
A Review by R. Greg Grooms

Can we really know God?” This, the opening sentence of the book, is the question Hugh Ross hopes to answer in Beyond the Cosmos. Keep it in mind as you read the book, because other questions—for example: How can God be sovereign and man free? How can God be good and still allow evil? How can God be Three in One?—will at times take center stage. Still, at its heart, Beyond the Cosmos is a book about what it means to know God.

That is by no means a simple question, as Dr. J. I. Packer reminds us in his book, Knowing God. “What are we talking about when we use the phrase, ‘knowing God’?” Packer asks. “A special sort of emotion? Shivers down the back? A dreamy, off-the-ground, floating feeling? Tingling thrills and exhilaration, such as drug-takers seek? Or is knowing God a special sort of intellectual experience? Does one hear a voice? See a vision? Find strange trains of thought coursing through one’s mind? Or what? These matters need discussing, especially since, according to Scripture, this is a region in which it is easy to be fooled, and to think you know God when you do not. We pose the question, then: what sort of activity or event is it that can properly be described as ‘Knowing God’?”

“In answering any question,” the late Francis Schaeffer once said, “there are at least two dragons you should be afraid of, lest in running from one, you end up in the mouth of the other.” And in the standard small group discussion, the answer to Ross’ question runs between the mouths of two very different dragons:

The God-in-the-box dragon: In the mouth of this dragon, saying “I know God” means I can answer any question about him completely. “I know” is a comprehensive statement; it means there is little or nothing about him I do not know.

The God-of-the-imagination dragon: In the mouth of this dragon, saying “I know God” means I have my own ideas and feelings about God, and in the absence of anything to restrict my imagination, I feel entirely free to call my ideas and feelings, “knowledge.”

Our day is dominated by the God-of-the-imagination dragon. Since Kant, theologies of the imagination have abounded, and claims to know God, rather than merely believe in him, have become increasingly intolerable. For the 20th century skeptic, Beyond the Cosmos may perform a valuable service: reminding him that God exists objectively and may actually be known. Ross seeks to assure the scientifically-minded that some of the traditional obstacles to faith—the Trinity, the problem of evil, miracles, sovereignty and free will—are not impossible to overcome with help from modern physics.

In so doing, however, Ross at times steers dangerously close to the mouth of the God-in-the-box dragon. In seeking to assure the believer that faith is reasonable, Ross seems at times to beg the question, “How much mystery can one tolerate and still claim to know God?”

Contradictions, Paradoxes, and Antinomies
Taking note of Ross’ definition of three terms helps the reader to understand his position:

Contradiction: a direct and unresolvable opposition between two statements, laws or principles.

Paradox: a direct but resolvable opposition between two true statements, laws or principles.

Antinomy: a direct contradiction between two statements, laws or principles in which both seem equally true and necessary.

Together with orthodox believers throughout the ages, Ross affirms that “the Christian faith is free from contradiction.” However, unlike many great Christian teachers, he also leaves no room for antinomies. Ross cites the Reformed teaching concerning sovereignty and free will, which men like Packer have described as an antinomy, as both undeniably true and undeniably contradictory, as a good example of bad thinking. In Ross’ words, “If only Christian leaders had recognized the ‘contradiction’ for what it is, a paradox, the church could have avoided untold damage and heartache.” Simply put, Ross believes that if a doctrine is true, it must be at worst paradoxical, never contradictory nor antinomic. Thus, the seeming contradiction in the sovereignty-free will tension (or with the Trinity or any other apparent theological contradiction) must be a problem of our perspective only.

So, what is Ross’ solution? Enlarge your perspective to include multiple dimensions.

Drawing freely upon one of the more arcane branches of modern physics (string theory, which attempts to explain the origin and structure of the universe), Ross postulates a minimum of eleven dimensions in reality, and argues that from this perspective no conflict of doctrine is ultimately unresolvable.

For example, in addressing the Trinity, Ross harkens back to the novel Flatland, in which beings in a two-dimensional world try to conceive of three-dimensional objects. Of course, if you take a walk in a two-dimensional world its inhabitants will perceive you as a footprint. In similar fashion, while the disciples’ perspective of the Incarnate Christ was limited to what they as three-dimensional beings could perceive, He remained God the Infinite.

As a reminder of the limitations of our three-dimensional perspective, Ross’ illustration from Flatland concerning the Trinity makes its point: the fact that modern man finds it impossible to conceive of God as Three-in-One by no means makes the Trinity impossible. Still, as a true explanation of the Trinity, the illustration falls far short, for God, Ross admits, remains as much a mystery in eleven dimensions as in three. “Even the best extra-dimensional analogies we humans could develop for God’s tri-unity fall short,” Ross says, “ultimately there are limits to what we can discover.” That’s an honest and (to me) reassuring admission, especially in light of the publisher-hype on the back cover of the book. Reading Beyond the Cosmos’ dust cover easily leaves the false impression that in this book, at last, the great mysteries of the faith will be made simple. In truth, Ross’ goals are less lofty, namely, to remind us that God is knowable, but that mysteries remain, well, mysterious.

Knowledge and Mystery
I, for one, rejoice in both the knowing and the mystery. Together with the prophet Jeremiah (and with Hugh Ross) I rejoice that I can know God. Let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me (Jeremiah 9:24a). The God of the Bible is no God-of-the-imagination, but a God who speaks to us in words in the Scriptures, became one of us in the person of Jesus, and teaches us now through the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of this we can know God, not just believe in Him.

At the same time, the God of the Bible is not a God-in-the-box, whose mysteries I can expose like a cheap conjurer’s trick. He is a God who not only knows Himself better that I do or can, but whose mysteries I will never fathom, as Isaiah reminds me: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

And it’s here that I would add a gentle word of rebuke to Dr. Ross, who despite his statements of humility can at times sound rather glib in his treatment of the great mysteries of the faith: Hugh, remember the words of C. S. Lewis on God—as with Aslan, He’s not a tame lion.

To be sure, I have other reservations about Beyond the Cosmos—e.g., Ross’ stubborn Arminianism and his tendency to make rather sweeping theological generalizations. I would warn readers, too, that at times Ross’ scientific “clarifications” of difficult Christian doctrines may seem more confusing than the doctrines themselves.

Despite my reservations, I recommend the book to those who are troubled by the Carl Sagans of our world, in the hope that Beyond the Cosmos will assure you that the questions it addresses, though troubling, are not insurmountable obstacles to a reasonable faith.

But to the rest of you, especially those still seeking to answer Ross’ first question (“Can we really know God?”), I would recommend J. I. Packer’s Knowing God as more helpful and more satisfying.

Darwin's Black Box

The argument from design is one the oldest for the existence of God. It deduces the existence of a Designer-God from the evidence for design—the order, complexity, and beauty in the universe. In the 18th century William Paley argued that finding a watch on a beach was evidence of a watchmaker. Later, under the influence of Darwin and others, Richard Dawkins dubbed natural selection the “blind watchmaker.” His argument is simple: in nature’s economy watches may not happen by accident, but people do.

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Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?

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Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong by Jonathan Wells
(Book originally published 2000)
A Review by R. Greg Grooms

"It ain’t necessarily so, it ain’t
necessarily so,
The things that you’re liable to
read in the Bible,
They ain’t necessarily so...”

George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” was the hit of the season in the fall of 1935. It soon had people all over the world singing of the dangers of naively believing what you read in a good book. 

In Icons of Evolution Jonathan Wells sings the same song, but with an important twist: the good book we shouldn’t trust isn’t the Bible, but rather our biology text. It seems many of the examples they offer in support of the theory of evolution—the “icons” of the title—are false or misleading.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone with school-age children. Through the years my own kids have come home with a mix of confused ideas about evolution often garbled in the teaching of football-coaches-turned-biology-teachers. (In 1981 British paleontologist Colin Paterson asked a group of experts at the Evolutionary Morphology seminar at the University of Chicago a simple question: “Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing...that is true? After a long silence one person replied, “I do know one thing —it ought not to be taught in high school.”) So I’ve often ironically found myself in the odd position of clarifying the teaching of ideas I don’t endorse. “No, kids, evolutionists don’t present X that way anymore.” Here X includes the Miller-Urey origin of life experiments, Ernst Haeckel’s embryos, Archeaopteryx, peppered moths, Darwin’s finches, 4-winged fruit flies, fossil horses, and the apes-that-become-men, just to name a few.

In Icons Wells chronicles for a broad audience what I’ve been muddling through with my kids for years. For laymen his explanations will clarify how the case for evolution has often been misrepresented. At the same time his careful notes and detailed appendices will satisfy the student in search of more detail. This is a book almost everyone can and should read.

To be sure, informed students of biology won’t find much that’s new in Wells’ work—much of this stuff has been a matter of scientific record for years—but that’s what makes his critique so damning: if publishers and teachers have been aware of this stuff for so long, why does it keep showing up in textbooks?

Take Ernst Haeckel’s embryos for example. When I was an eighth grade biology student, I was taught his maxim “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” i.e., an organism will retrace its evolutionary heritage in the stages it goes through in its embryological development. As evidence of this our text included a picture of the “gill slits” on a human embryo. Now embryologists have long known (even when I was in school) that the pharyngeal folds on the human embryo are not gills at all and never develop into a part of the respiration system. Furthermore it has been more recently recognized that Haeckel not only selectively chose embryos that appeared to make his point, he also misrepresented them in his drawings. (Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould once called this “the academic equivalent of murder.”). Still, Wells notes, despite these problems, some popular biology texts published as recently as 1999 include not only Haeckel’s conclusions, but his faked drawings, too.

The Important Question, of course, is why? Wells’ answer:

"Most biologists are honest, hard-working scientists who insist on accurate presentation of the evidence, but who rarely venture outside their own fields. The truth about the icons of evolution will surprise them as much as it surprises anyone else."

What about textbook writers who know they are distorting the truth? Here Well’s quotes Harvard biologist Louis Guenin:

"The pivotal concept here is candor, the attribute on a given occasion of not uttering anything that one believes false or misleading. We describe breaches of candor as deception. An investigator induces and betrays a listener’s trust by signaling “I believe it” while believing a false utterance false or a misleading omission misleading."

I’m pleased to note that in Icons Wells isn’t preaching to the choir; he doesn’t couch his arguments in tones that will appeal chiefly to those who already agree with him. His goal here is to persuade his readers, not to antagonize them.

This makes the response to Icons in the secular press the more puzzling to me. Recent reviews by Massimo Pigliucci (professor of biology at the University of Tennessee and chair of its Skeptics Forum) and Eugenie C. Scott (director of the Center for Science Education) dismissed Icons as nothing less than an attack on science itself. Neither challenges Well’s presentation of the facts, but both charge him with seriously distorting them in order to undermine science and advance religion. In truth his goal is much more modest: changing the way science is taught, for the goals of science (no matter how lofty) are never advanced if tied to falsehood.

One last word here: the same thing is true (or should be) of the goals of true religion. A noble goal—the doctrine of creation—isn’t advanced if it is tied to error. Creationists should bear this in mind because we, too, have been guilty at times of perpetuating our own dubious icons. Some (a moon that isn’t dusty enough) we should bid farewell to; others (the ‘missing’ layers of rock in the Grand Canyon) we should be careful not to oversell. Books like Icons rightly insist upon integrity in science, but in embracing them, creationists should insist upon the same integrity in our own scientific efforts.

I recommend Icons of Evolution. Those who enjoy it might also take a look at Science Held Hostage: What’s Wrong with Creation Science and Evolutionism by Young, Men-ninga and Van Till (IVP, 1988).

Mere Creation

An unprecedented intellectual event occurred in Los Angeles on November 14-17, 1996. Under sponsorship of Christian Leadership Ministries, Biola University hosted a major research conference bringing together scientists and scholars who reject naturalism as an adequate framework for doing science and who seek a common vision of creation united under the rubric of intelligent design. The two hundred participants, primarily academics, formed a non-homogeneous group. Most had never met each other. Yet virtually all the participants questioned the reigning paradigm of biology—namely, that natural selection and mutation can account for the origin and diversity of all living things.

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