Friday, January 30, 2015

Grant Events - Much Ado About Evolution

I've been traversing Canada in winter this past week, being present for two conferences organized under the auspices of my research grant, the first of which is available on youtube already here.

The second event, which had a different focus and (a very large student) audience, was held at King's University in Edmonton, Alberta. The programme for that event is here and it was a a lot of fun to host Tom Oord and Tim O'Connor who were the main speakers for that event.A big thanks goes out to Matte Downey, Ph.D. student at Concordia for her efforts at getting these events off the ground.

More follow-up information coming in the coming months.

Notre Dame in July

I will be a keynote speaker at an upcoming conference organized by Prof. Christian Smith at the Univ. of Notre Dame this upcoming July on the theme "New Conversations in Science and Religion: What Difference Might Critical Realist Philosophy Make?" The conference topic is described here with a sidebar link to the speakers here.This conference will mark the first time I am back at Notre Dame since meeting up with Ernan McMullin in 1999 when I interviewed him in conjunction with my doctoral thesis, which was published in 2006 by Ashgate.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Saved from Sin (and hurt)

Several years ago (already) I taught a graduate course on the topic of original sin. In the course, we covered a fairly wide swath of material from biblical understandings of sin (there are several distinct aspects of sin present in various biblical books), the thought of several key historical figures - notably Augustine - and contemporary theological perspectives on sin.

One of the characteristics of contemporary theology (at least in some quarters) is the attempt to separate out the dynamics of salvation from that of sin. That is: salvation is thought to pertain to human brokenness or something like human frailty. What such an association establishes is not quite clear. At least, it is not clear in comparison to the historical tradition which laid the blame for our condition solely on our propensity to sin. Our fallenness dictated the terms of our woe and not the other way around. And from that Augustinian perspective, all manner of soteriological accounts of Christ's work on the cross flowed. Think Anselm especially, but also Luther, Calvin etc.

Many contemporary theologians have tried to orient salvation around the problem of human limitation rather than sin. Phrases that become associated with this way of presupposing salvation's object include "the human condition", "human finitude" and a host of other equivalents.

However, while some theologians intentionally propose linking salvation to such general categories for the express purpose of leaving out an account of human sinfulness (this is how one might read, for instance, Philip Hefner), it is not necessary to suppose that salvation is a concept that pertains to only one or the other. It is perfectly valid to think of salvation as God's offer of reconciliation in response to the human condition and its limitations, the latter of which is understood in the light of sin.

Now, this is merely a conceptual discussion, and  there is much more to say about how and why it pertains to a host of issues in theological method, doctrine, biblical exegesis, ethics and so on. It was raised for me recently by reading this blog entry from Ben Myers, one of the internet's more colourful and insightful theological bloggers and who kindly provided a blurb for my Theological Method book.

The reason it resonated with me was specifically because of a fall I took at the beginning of this past week on some very thick and unforgiving sidewalk ice. (Montreal experienced a wicked ice storm and flash freeze Sunday night.) So, as someone who thinks of himself (proudly, it should be admitted) as spry and uncommonly healthy, this tumble was a bit of a wake up call. To my own finitude, and thence to the gift of life and my limits in shaping and controlling it.

Something Ben writes near the end of his report on his bike accident was especially interesting I thought. He writes:
Then slowly, as if waking after long sleep, my life’s deep hurts came creeping back into my mind. Memory laid its bitterness upon my heart, so that when I waked I cried to sleep again.

These words (besides evoking Augustine on at least two counts... at first I thought it was a direct quote...maybe it is...) seem somehow to establish the link between our physical, 'existential' finitude and "hurt", the emotional (non-physical) kind that takes hold of us and keeps us enchained to our past, to our mistakes, to our false needs, to vice and much else. Hurt, after all, is an effect of sin.

In short, experiences of finitude demonstrate a tangible link to sin, even if that link is indirect or prompted only on the heels of our reflection upon finitude. In other words, our hope for salvation is not predicated on either sin (exclusively) or finitude (exclusively) but on both of these things, which tend to come as a package in human living. Phyical or emotional pain/suffering seem to be particularly poignant occasions for thinking about salvation, its scope and power.

Indeed, Ben continues - immediately after speaking of his bitter regrets - to quote Augustine on memory. So, analogously, when we lose ourselves, we find God (or the transcendent shards of God's promises alluded to in American fiction and Bob Dylan) - according to Ben. I think that's what he is saying. It's comforting for those who lose their sense of themselves and their purpose in life. It is also a reminder that the best theology emerges from amidst great pain and inner turmoil as all the great spiritual writings attest.   

Friday, January 2, 2015

The pre-encyclical debate begins

Pope Francis is set to issue an encyclical in a few weeks or months that will focus attention on the ecological crisis. The debates about the meaning of this document have already begun, even though we have yet to see the text! While the tone of this article is a bit defensive, I appreciate the general point being made here that Popes Benedict and Francis, not to mention John Paul II, are of one mind when it comes to ecology.

Footnote (Jan. 8): There has been a small tsunami of content analyzing an encyclical that does not exist yet(!) So far, this piece by Michael S. Winters does the best job of analyzing the shortcomings of the Pope's critics.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Turning the big evangelical ship around

The fact that many evangelicals are wedded to a literalist reading of the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 has long been a major hermeneutical sore point for many theologians who are otherwise sympathetic with the traditionalist ethos of evangelicalism.

My current research grant comes from the BioLogos Foundation which was founded by, among others, Francis Collins, the current head of the NIH. This Atlantic Monthly article profiles an alternative theological culture that BioLogos and others are trying to grow within mainstream American evangelicalism.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Rotherham and the Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal

A highly disturbing case of rampant, systematic sex abuse has emerged in the city of Rotherham in northern England. The ramifications are far-reaching, with calls for high-level resignations. It seems that out of a reluctance to appear insensitive toward the local south Asian community, authorities allowed a horrific spate of rape and abuse to go unchecked over a long period of time. And, as the Daily Telgraph reports:

Many of the managers who held key roles in the local authority as gangs of mainly Asian men groomed, terrorised and abused 1,400 girls as young as 11 over a 16-year period have remained in well-paid posts.
The case is also headlines all over the BBC as well as here in North America. So, Rod Dreher, a journalist who led some of the coverage of the Catholic Church's own sex abuse scandal (and who - it should be noted - left the Catholic Church for Eastern Orthodoxy because of it), has some sharp words as to the meaning of this latest sex abuse scandal. Recall first of all that Rotherham is now the latest in a string of deeply disturbing scandals: 1) Penn state, 2) the BBC itself as well as 3) several prominent US colleges that have been unmasked by the media for their unsafe, conspiratorial cover ups of rape and sex abuse over the past few years.

But, I'll let Rod speak for himself:

British progressives, let’s not hear another word about how the sacrosanct nature of the Catholic Church contributed to the sexual exploitation of children by priests until you face up to the fact that the values of political correctness on the matter of race and ethnicity contributed to the sexual exploitation of children by these Pakistanis. Catholicism doesn’t “cause” clerical sexual abuse any more than anti-racism “causes” Pakistanis sex gangs to rape children. But a big part of the meaning of Rotherham is that Rotherham authorities were willing to sacrifice the humanity of at least 1,400 little girls to the god of political correctness.
One might expect that horrors such as Rotherham show up the extraordinary, depressing extent to which sexual abuse exists within all human societies, and not just within Catholic institutions. One might expect this inference to be self-evident were it not for a significant bias against the Church. As "defensive" as this sounds, it needs to be said.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bill 60 - Post mortem

The aftermath of Quebec's April 7 election has included all manner of strange and quixotic excuses by the PQ as to the reasons for their resounding loss. Among the items of which we have seen the last is their Charter of Values law, which would have imposed an unconstitutional and illiberal combination of measures that would have been among one of the most extreme regimes of official 'laicite'. Peter Berger has written that this indicates the death of secularism here in Quebec. While I think that is an oversimplification, I agree with his assessment that secularism thrives on an anti-democratic impulse in culture and society. 

I will be discussing this and related matters on Monday in St. John's Newfoundland at St. Bonaventure College's annual Arrupe lecture.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fr. William Stoeger, SJ 1943-2014

Bill Stoeger has passed away. His obituary is here.

Jesuit Father William R. Stoeger, 70, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory in Arizona, died March 24 at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos, Calif., following a struggle with cancer. A funeral Mass for the priest was scheduled for March 28 in Los Gatos. He had been a Jesuit for 52 years. (CNS photo courtesy of the Vatican Observatory Foundation)I first met Bill via my doctoral thesis supervisor (James Pambrun, St. Paul / Ottawa) and Bill served as the external examiner for my thesis. Bill was an extraordinary man, combining the pastoral gifts he developed as a Jesuit with spectacular talent as an astrophysicist. His scientific training was conducted - in part - at Cambridge, where he worked with Stephen Hawking, among others.

Over the years, Bill and I exchanged a number of emails and met at several conferences, among which included a Catholic Theological Society of America meeting in 2003 and a Vatican Observatory / CTNS conference in 2003 at Castel Gandolfo. Bill was encouraging me to lead a project of contributions on Catholic interpretations of scientific anthropology (evolutionary psychology and so forth) despite the obstacles that lay in my path.

Bill was a generous scholar and priest. He was not given to any of the pretense that marks so many academics. He was enormously well respected by the scholars with whom he worked in the science-faith dialogue, being one of the first to call for a greater philosophical depth to the exchanges. He was also well known as one of the first to call for greater Catholic participation in the science-theology dialogue. Bill was a remarkable person. May he now enjoy the fullness of God's grace. R.I.P. Bill.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

on Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I don't like much of what she has to say about religion, but I do like what Rex Murphy has to say about universities in the context of Brandeis University's rescinding its invitation to award her an honorary degree. And Ross Douthat puts this issue into a wider context here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Just ordered Nagel's book (finally)

This book by Thomas Nagel, titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. I will read this when spring officially makes its mark locally... which is set to happen after spring makes its mark calendrically  - sadly.

The reviews of it have been everywhere for quite some time. Love this review from Michael Chorost in the Chronicle in which he reports on the snarky comments of the strangely ideological Jerry Coyne and others before summing up the difficulties Nagel has uncovered c/o Joan Roughgarden, which seem to me spot on:

"I mean, these guys are impervious to contrary evidence and alternative formulations," she says. "What we see in evolution is stasis—conceptual stasis, in my view—where people are ardently defending their formulations from the early 70s."
And here is the ever great H. Allen Orr, in the NYRB on Nagel's book. Can't wait to read it myself.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Douthat on Gopnik on Hart

in today's NYT. Douthat is, as usual, on the mark... but it does make me want to read Hart's book!