Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It's equations all the way down.

A couple of car-fulls of us went to see the movie, "God's Not Dead" last Sunday. The main plot line follows a college freshman Christian who is bullied by his atheist philosophy professor into debating him in class on the existence of God. At one point, Prof. Radisson cites with great emphasis what physicist Stephen Hawking wrote in his latest book, The Grand Design, in which Hawking asserts that the laws of physics make God unnecessary to explain the beginning of the universe. So a few thoughts on what Hawking and co-author (and actual main writer) Leonard Mlodinow said in the book. 

Stephen Hawking is probably the best-known physicist of our day. He is the author of a number of mass-media books about science, including A Brief History of Time, which begins this way:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
The premise of Hawking's latest book, The Grand Design, co-authored with physicist Leonard Mlodinow, strikes me as not much of an improvement of the turtles thesis. Instead of turtles, Hawking has equations.

When the Marquis de Laplace presented his work,Mecanique celeste, to Napoleon, the conqueror complained that LaPlace had not mentioned of God in the text. Laplace replied,"Emperor, I have no need for that hypothesis."

That is the specific premise - nay, the very objective - of The Grand Design, in which Hawking claims that God is not needed to explain the beginning of the universe. "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing," writes Hawking. "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

It's striking how much this kind of science is coming to resemble science fiction with its own religious overtones. As Mlodinow is quoted:

We don't have a laboratory where we can control what's going on. We can't repeat the experiment and take the data. Also, the universe — since we believe in quantum theory now — is a quantum system.
What Hawking et al have done is written a form of science fiction using equations rather than prose. All their equations may work out, but that don't mean they actually know more than before or that reality has been discerned to a greater degree. Hawking admitted that postulating a universe of three or four dimension did not resolve mathematically. In fact, using up to 10 dimensions didn't work. So they tried 11 and presto! X = 0. Or something. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, "These are our equations. If they don’t work, we have others."

It's equations all the way down.

In a sense, of course, all mathematical constructs are fictional, that is, creations of the mind. However, some math is purely theoretical in ways that other math is not. Negative numbers for example, have no real-world referent like positive numbers do. You cannot point to a fruit basket and say meaningfully, "That basket contains minus four apples." Mathematicians themselves even refer to "imaginary numbers."

"All text has intention" is the basic premise of post-modern, linguistic deconstructionism (that basically, there is no such thing as objective truth, that all statements are only opinions). And so it is with Hawking's work. I've no doubt that he is impelled by a childlike curiosity about the universe that is so crucial to scientific work. But Hawking has been trying for years to establish in the popular mind his world view, which is not really a scientific one, but scientistic, a non-confirmable belief that science describes reality exhaustively and absolutely. But the scientific method cannot even demonstrate this, much less subject it to empirical verification. Scientism is a religious-type belief in science. As Mlodinow says, "We believe in quantum theory."

This is really a work of fiction, using numbers rather than prose.
And so Hawking now claims that the universe simply popped into existence from nothing whatsoever, resting his claim purely upon mathematical constructs that are no less fictional than seventh-grade quadratic equations.

Yet Hawking may have shored up Genesis’ account as much as attacked it. Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss says, "Empirically, we can actually have evidence that the universe came from nothing. One of the key things is that the total energy of the universe is zero, which is only possible if the universe came from nothing. It could have been otherwise. It could have been not zero."

So it would seem that science has confirmed what the Church has claimed since earliest days, creatio ex nihilo, the idea that the universe’s antecedent was nothing at all. (One professor told me that the only reason the Jews didn't write creatio ex nihilo was that they didn't speak Latin.) That being so, a cynic might ask why a fiction of physicists’ equations should be preferred to the  fiction of ancient priests' prose, since they both claim basically the same thing. Or perhaps the two accounts are not so separate as we think. Richard Feynman, after all, said that calculus, the basic math of physics, was, "the language God talks."

I prefer the priestly account of creation to Hawking's, since, as Mlodinow pretty much admitted, Hawking's and his concept of the universe's "grand design" is at bottom conjecture. Scientists may be able to describe how I got here, but not why. They can say what we can do, but not what we should do. Mlodinow said that there is no laboratory to research the universe’s beginning. But we live in a real-world lab with certain consequences. So we are better off heeding the wisdom of the prose than the conjecture of equations, even if they are equally false, or true.

Closing thought: Why is Hawking so willing to assume that the universe simply "big banged" itself into existence when we deny that anything else does so? And if the universe simply appeared, just popped into being, why do other such appearances not happen routinely? Why, for example, don't spherical balls (or whatever) just pop up in my front yard or yours from time to time?

But they don't. In fact, the entire universe itself consists only of contingent events that bring forth only contingent entities. But somehow, Hawking is nonetheless willing to say that the universe as a whole is a self-existing, self-created entity, but none of its components are. Ah, how creative is the atheist mind!

See also, "Stephen Hawking Should Stick to Physics" at RealClearScience.
Dr. Hawking essentially believes that the laws of physics can replace God. Apparently, in his mind, it is somehow more scientific to believe in "spontaneous creation" rather than divine creation. However, his statement is nothing more than philosophy masquerading as science. Because his hypothesis is just as untestable as any religious belief, it is well beyond the scope of science.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My wedding tips for engaged couples

Here are my hints and tips for engaged couples about weddings. These points are only advisory. I have based them on my years of experience in officiating at weddings.
  • A wedding service is a worship service which includes your wedding. Because your wedding is taking place inside our church’s sanctuary, sanctified to the worship of God, please keep in mind that music, decorations, vows, dress and everything else needs to evoke a worshipful spirit. This doesn’t mean the service need be dull! But it does mean that it must be respectful of the context and place at which it takes place.
  • Less is more; simplicity is a virtue. Keep decorations and flowers simple, especially candles. By the time the wedding day arrives, a high level of the fatigue factor has set in. Often, fancy or elaborate  wedding settings that seemed so wonderful when envisioned three months earlier become burdensome by the wedding day.
  • Take at least some photos first. More and more wedding couples are having the wedding photography completed before the wedding rather than after. There are a number reasons this idea is a good one:
> The bride’s and her attendants’ makeup is fresh and hasn’t been cried on yet. Same for the mothers of the bride and groom. 
> Couples often find that the end of the ceremony finds them emotionally drained. This is no state to be in to pose for good photos. 
>The quality of the photographs is almost always much higher. Photos taken after the service are inevitably more rushed compared to those before. 
>The guests won't cool their heels waiting for the bride and groom to arrive. When guests must wait, it is a very awkward time for them. You will always keep them waiting longer than you planned for – usually much longer. Increasingly, guests these days believe that keeping them waiting like that is simply rude. Personally, I think they are correct. 
>But it is your call!
  • Play or have sung your “special song” at the reception rather than the service. Many couples want the service to include someone singing or a CD-playing of their special song. Most of the time, there’s no problem with the song itself being included in the service, but there is no natural place in the order of the service to insert a musical interlude. The song becomes a disjunction in a carefully assembled worship service. Also, remember that “your song” really is not meaningful to anyone but, well, you. The guests will not “get it.” That doesn’t mean you mustn’t play it (it’s your wedding, not theirs!), but my experience is that the bride and groom actually become uncomfortable about halfway through the music as they realize the song doesn’t really fit the service. However, if you really do want a special song included, I am agreeable to it as long as the song is suitable for a worship service.
  • Select your music carefully. Video recording weddings is common these days, so you may be listening to your music for decades to come. Pop music, contemporary religious and most current gospel music won’t age gracefully. Classical religious music by Bach, Mozart and others has been played at weddings for centuries and will be played for centuries to come. If you use their music you will never cringe when you hear your wedding, and you will never wonder why you wanted their music played.
  • Select your wedding apparel carefully. Certain styles and colors have endured for decades. Bridesmaids’ gowns with simple lines and classic design never lose their appeal. Cutaway tuxedos in gray and black for men have been worn since the 1700s. If you wear this kind of clothing, your grandchildren won’t think you look funny when you show them your pictures – and more importantly, neither will you.
  • About alcohol. While it surely goes without saying that alcohol may not be brought onto the church’s premises, the wedding party, especially the bride and groom, should avoid it altogether the night before. Sobriety is mandatory during the wedding service! Believe it or not, a wedding conducted when either the bride or groom is still under the influence of alcohol or "hung over" from the night before is not a legal wedding! Why? A wedding is not only a spiritual union but also a legal contract between bride and groom. Valid legal contracts require consent and vows freely given and received, which civil case law has historically said is nullified by influence of alcohol. I have never had to refuse to officiate a wedding for this reason, so please do not be the first! As for attendants, their condition does not affect the legality of the wedding, but it sure makes for a bad ceremony if they are not in prime condition for the sanctity of the wedding.

  • “Top Ten” Rules for Weddings 

    1. This is your marriage, but it is not only your wedding. The wedding service should be the way you want it to be, within the bounds of Christian worship, our church’s tradition, our denomination’s guidelines and the dictates of good taste. Expectations of family and friends are not necessarily the most important ones. Remember that a wedding service at our church is primarily a worship service where two people get married.

    2. The only things necessary for a wedding in Tennessee are a bride, a groom, a license, someone authorized to perform the service and one witness. Anything else (dresses, flowers, etc.) is really ornamental and not essential for a beautiful and moving wedding ceremony.

    3. Relationships are more important than ceremonies. A wedding lasts 20 minutes. A marriage lasts a lifetime. My primary concern is with your relationship with each other under God. Hence, if all you really want is someone to lead the vows and sign the license, I am probably not your guy. That would be much more appropriate role for a civil official.

    4. A Christian wedding is supposed to transform two individuals, not merely into a couple, but into a church. A Christian wedding service is done under the grace of Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all of life, including the households of married couples. Christian commitment cannot be realized without a mutual commitment to holiness of life.

    5. Couples must worship together to maintain a mutual spiritual foundation. Participating in the life and work of a church makes marriage stronger. Attendance at worship is necessary for the vitality of a relationship both before and after a wedding. Couples who wait until they have children to become active in a church wind up with “kiddie” religion.

    6. Weddings should be fun. If you are not enjoying the process of planning your wedding, you are doing something wrong. If you and your spouse-to-be are frequently disputing about the wedding, then there is almost certainly a problem in your relationship!

    7. Something may go wrong at your wedding. Something usually does. Don’t let it bother you. You’ll still get married. It will give you something to talk about for years.

    8. Many couples miss their own wedding. The swirl of emotion and excitement tends to obscure a couple’s ability to enjoy the wedding. Take great care to work on calm centering before the ceremony so that you may enjoy it fully.

    9. Everyone gets the jitters. But feelings of dread, regret, remorse, or depression may indicate a deeper problem. Call me and we’ll talk about it.

    10. Alcohol and weddings don’t mix. See above!

    Will There Be a Rapture?

    Not tomorrow, but, you know, eventually?
    Wait, why not?
    Allow me to explain.

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    Sunday, April 20, 2014

    Why the "Easter Conspiracy" theory fails

    Nothing to see here! Move along!
    Charles Colson served Richard Nixon as "Special Counsel to the President" and was a key player in the Watergate conspiracy that finally led to Nixon's resignation. Colson was in fact one of the "Watergate Seven," the core conspirators (but not the only ones) and he was the first Watergate conspirator to be sent to federal prison.

    During this time, Colson became a devout Christian; after release from prison he spent the rest of his life in evangelism, especially prison ministries.

    Here is what he once said about the idea that Jesus was not really raised from the dead, that the whole resurrection story came from collusion by the disciples:
    I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world - and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.
    As well, the question, "Cui bono?" (who benefits?) strikes to the point. Certainly the apostles never did, not in this life anyway.

    So: The apostles made up a story about a resurrected savior who actually had stayed dead (assuming, of course, that Jesus ever actually lived in the first place). They never profited from the story, accruing neither riches nor regard while they lived. They endured incredible hardships to spread their lie but somehow kept it consistent across time and distance and then they all but one finally died painful, even gruesome deaths rather than simply recant their lie. And the one exception died in imprisoned exile. 

    Yeah, right. 

    It takes more faith to believe that than it does to believe Jesus rose from the dead.

    He is risen! He is risen, indeed!

    The two most profound events in the Bible are Christmas and Easter, the birth and resurrection of Christ. I find it odd that we have so much made them child centered, and use childish rituals to celebrate them. I think it is the way adults avoid facing the soul-shattering seriousness of them. M. Craig Barnes, pastor of National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., wrote, 
    We think of Easter as a time for bunnies and little chicks, colorful eggs, and little girls in cute new dresses. But we ought to be thinking about grown women, with their dresses hiked up to their knees, running with terror out of a cemetery. . . . Easter is not about renewal, [not about] new beginnings, [not about] the perseverance of the human spirit... .
    ... and it is certainly not about daffodils pushing blooms up through the soil or chicks hatching from eggs! None of that sentimental drivel can comfort the next of kin of the Terror War dead or the Syrian Christians being killed or exiled at the hands of al Qaeda. 
    What Easter is, is that “Christ has died, Christ has risen.” Jesus’ resurrection means that the worst thing that happens to us is not the last thing that happens to us. Christ’s resurrection reveals that we do not die, “period”; we die, “comma.” On Easter God turns pain to power; God transforms tragedy to triumph and pushes through crucifixion to resurrection.
    If Christian faith is about nothing but the here and now, then the Apostle Paul admits it isn't worth the time we spend on it. That is why the cross and the empty tomb stand at the center of our relationship with God and one another. On the cross is where the proclamation that Jesus was “God with us,” was made completely true, for Jesus died as we do. Easter's empty tomb beckons us to trust in a gracious God who provides throughout both our life and our death. 
    Yet our deepest horror is not death itself, said philosopher John Locke. It is “perpetual perishing” - the fact that nothing lasts. Everything we are and all we love fade alike into nothingness. As Ecclesiastes mourns, “The dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten” (Eccl 9:5b). The destruction of even the memory of the past is perpetual perishing. 
    The apostle Paul was under no illusions about the facts of human life. He observed in Romans that human beings "are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” But Paul denied that human destiny is to disappear into nothingness. No matter what happens in our lives, Paul knew one thing is certain: 
    Neither death, nor life, ... nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
    You can bet your life on it!

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    Friday, April 11, 2014

    Original debt

    What a newborn child owes the moment it is born.
    Anyone who does not understand the Christian theological concept of original sin need only to consider the equally real "original debt." For according to a Harvard University study, an infant born today emerges into the world already in financial debt to the amount of $106,000.
    American workers would have to cough up a one-time “debt reduction fee” of $106,000 to pay off the nation's debt that has grown 58 percent under President Obama, according to Harvard University's Institute of Politics annual report on the USA.

    The 91-page report provided to Secrets pegged the nation’s debt at $16.7 trillion, up from the $10.6 trillion inherited by Obama. “The debt has grown so quickly because of large and repeated annual deficits in federal spending,” said the report. (
    Harvard study: Your share of the federal debt is $106,000)
    Did that baby sign one promissory note? Nope. Take out a single loan? Nope. Did that newly-born infant do anything at all to be indebted to the tune of 106 large? Yes: it was born.

    Original debt is real. Likewise original sin.