In this issue:
Astrophysicist wins Templeton Prize
Missing links sought in Goshen lectures
Ecotheology as an ecumenical enterprise
ELCA to discuss social statement on genetics at assembly
NASA talk examines small pox epidemic and religion in Colonial America
Martin J. Reese, Master of Trinity College and former president of the Royal Society, has won the 2011 Templeton Prize for his work as a theoretical astrophysicist where he “provoked vital questions that speak to humanity’s highest hopes and worst fears,” according to the John Templeton Foundation.
The Templeton Prize awards exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery or practical works. It is the most prestigious award in the religion and science field. HRH Prince Philip will award the prize (valued at $1.62 million) on 1 June at Buckingham Palace.
At one of Cambridge University’s top academic posts, Rees has spent decades investigating the implications of the big bang, the nature of black holes, events during the so-called ‘dark age’ of the early universe, and the mysterious explosions from galaxy centers known as gamma ray bursters. The Templeton Foundation was drawn to the “big questions” raised by Rees — such as “How large is physical reality?” These questions reshape crucial philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual progress that the Templeton Prize seeks to recognize. Rees specifically has enlarged the boundaries of understanding about the physical processes that define the cosmos, including speculations on the concept of multiverses or infinite universes.
“Some people might surmise that intellectual immersion in vast expanses of space and time would render cosmologists serene and uncaring about what happens next year, next week, or tomorrow,” said Rees. “But for me the opposite is the case. My concerns are deepened by the realization that even in a perspective extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past, this century may be a defining moment.”
John Templeton, Jr., president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, notes that for all the discoveries attached to Rees’ career, it is the questions he inspires that qualify him for the 2011 Templeton Prize.
“The questions Rees raises have an impact far beyond the simple assertion of facts, opening wider vistas than any telescope ever could,” Templeton said. Rees has opened a window on our very humanity and has invited everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence, he added.
Rees’ postgraduate work in astrophysics in the mid-1960s coincided with an explosion of new discoveries, with breakthroughs ranging from confirmation of the big bang and the discovery of neutron stars and black holes. He also has become involved with issues of international science and public policy. In his book, Our Final Century?, he argues that civilization has no more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving until 2100 without suffering a severe setback.
Templeton officials say that Rees is optimistic about prospects opened up by science and technology, but he emphasizes the challenges to governance posed by the collective pressures humans are imposing on the environment. He also emphasizes the vulnerability of our interconnected world to disruption.
He recently discussed the challenges facing science in the 21st century in a series of lectures for BBC Radio 4. An expanded version of these lectures will be published in June as From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons.
The links between evolution and Christianity were discussed by Owen Gingerich at the Eleventh annual Goshen College Religion and Science Conference in late March.
In a series of three lectures, Gingerich unpacked the issues that much of Christianity has had over the years with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science at Harvard University, Gingerich’s latest work will be featured as a chapter in the anthology, The Missing Link: A Symposium on Darwin’s Creation-Evolution Solution, which will be published this year. It is edited by Roy Verghese.
He opened the conference with the story of how “evolution” became a dirty word in the 1920’s at Goshen College and how his alma mater later on stopped fighting evolution, but just kept silent on the topic. Opposition early on to Charles Darwin didn’t come from a literal interpretation of the bible, but from William Paley’s view of nature that proved the very existence of God.
For Gingerich, there is no reason to see evolution as contradictory to one’s faith. “God could have created creation many different ways, but it is up to science to find the way he did it,” said Gingerich. He also agrees with Asa Gray, who was a botanist and Christian in the 19th century. Gray saw evolution’s final cause in the evolution of human beings with consciousness. Gingerich says that the humanity culminates in creativity, consciousness and conscience.
On the final day of the conference, held in the science lecture hall at Goshen, Gingerich wore his hat as senior astronomer emeritus at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He walked participants through astronomer Johannes Kepler’s reflections on Genesis 1.
He also described the search for extra terrestrial life, where scientists look for a planet with oxygen and an atmosphere. At the end of the day there is something special about our universe, Gingerich said, in that it is hospitable to life. Intelligent life is another matter, but we live in a universe that is very favorable to life.
According to Harvard University news sources, Gingerich’s research interests have ranged from the recomputation of an ancient Babylonian mathematical table to the interpretation of stellar spectra. In the process he has become a leading authority on the 17th century German astronomer Johannes Kepler and on Nicholas Copernicus, the 16th century cosmologist who proposed the heliocentric system.
At Harvard, he taught “The Astronomical Perspective”, a core science course for non-scientists. The course was the longest running course under the same management at Harvard through Gingerich’s retirement in 2000. His writing has appeared in anthologies such as The Great Copernicus Chase and Other Adventures in Astronomical History and The Eye of Heaven: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler. Perhaps his most well known work is the book God’s Universe, which is a collection of lectures given at Harvard University’s Memorial Church.
Rev. Panu Pihkala of the Church of Finland, who is now studying ecumenical ecotheology and Joseph Sittler, spent a recent afternoon in Chicago discussing the history and literature surrounding ecological theology.
His proposal as a writer and trainer in Christian environmental work is that there is a need to concentrate on theology in the dogmatic sense. This is because it is very easy to put an emphasis on environmental action, but to overlook the theological component that points to our interdependence on nature. Pihkala’s intends his scholarly work to contribute to reflection on Christianity and nature. He also participated in the preparation of a manual on the environmental diploma for congregations in the Church of Finland.
Many...“Christians don’t feel that their faith is linked to ecological questions,” says Pihkala, but... “unless it is linked to faith people will not be motivated for meaningful change.”
Pihkala reviewed the history of the ecumenical movement surrounding ecotheology, focusing particularly in the speeches of Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler, who spoke of a “Theology for Earth.” In a speech given in the 1950s, Sittler indicated that he wanted to see theological work dealing with nature from an “evangelical” background rather than solely from a process theology perspective.
Sittler’s concerns were manifest later in a speech in New Delhi in 1961 to the World Council of Churches. He offered a call to unity, which elicited a mixed response, as he said that, “The way forward is from Christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions.”
Pihkala walked his audience through the emerging environmental awareness of the 1960s and 1970s through the realization in the 1980s that scientists and theologians can’t solve the ecological crisis alone.
Now, in the era of globalization and climate change, the movement has changed to be more ecotheological, which is a holistic theological approach inclusive of more than ethics alone.
Pihkala also is working on translating his book into English. Nature and the Bible — at the roots of Christian environmental education is structured to bridge the gap between academic ecotheology and practical parish life, complete with questions for discussion and resources for meditation. He is also working on a project on theology and the internet focused on theological questions about sacred “space” and what the consequences of the social media mean to the theology and life of the churches.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Churchwide Assembly in Orlando in August is expected to discuss and finalize a social statement on genetics. The statement is broad-reaching in scope and was developed through a multi-year effort lead by a task force and involving multiple points of feedback from throughout the church.
Most recently the proposed statement was reviewed by the ELCA Conference of Bishops in March and the ELCA Church Council in April. Issues addressed in the social statement include medical technologies, agricultural uses, genetic determinism, the extant of new human powers, and reproductive cloning in humans and others.
At the center of the statement is a “moral imperative” to guide humanity’s use of genetic knowledge in medicine, agriculture and social life. That imperative should be “to respect and promote the community of life with justice and wisdom.” The church’s task would be to encourage and advocate for the use of genetic knowledge accordingly.
The text of the proposed statement points out that new responsibility comes with the unprecedented power arising from genetic science and its application. That power should be viewed with both promise and caution as we are accountable before God to direct its potential good and to limit its potential harm. “Living in hope of God’s promised fulfillment and yet accountable for our actions, Christians are called to discern how God’s gifts of genetic knowledge and technology may be wisely evaluated and responsibly used to serve the good of all,” according to the executive summary of the social statement.
Janet L. Williams, task force co-chair and genetics counselor, Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, said the document is significant for the ELCA because it lays out an ethical framework for scientists, theologians, ELCA members and pastors to engage in respectful dialogue regarding the application of genetic technologies. “It provides recognition of the rapidly changing science in genetics and acknowledges that the application of the science presents challenges and opportunities that would benefit from broad consideration of impact across the interconnected mesh of life.”
Assisting Williams in the task force as co-chair was Dr. Per Anderson, religion professor and associate dean for global learning at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Concordia is one of 26 ELCA colleges and universities. “ELCA members can use the moral vision and values to deliberate as individuals and with others about humanity’s expanding powers to understand and manipulate the basic structures of life,” said Anderson.
The full text of the statement, Genetics, Faith and Responsibility, is at www.elca.org/genetics.
Last month, historian Tony Williams presented a talk entitled “The Pox and the Covenant: The Curious History of Science and Religion in Colonial America,” at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
According to Williams, the smallpox epidemic led to the first inoculation effort in America and represents the first public debate over science and religion. The smallpox epidemic of 1721 held fear and promise for Boston’s physicians and theologians and so the questions of the day were: Is inoculation a health risk and is it a gift from God or an interruption of the divine plan?
These were not idle questions of speculation. Most of the native population of North America is believed to have died from the disease. During 1721 nearly 6,000 Bostonians had smallpox and 844 died of it. Within his talk, Williams explored the hesitant reception of inoculation by the scientific community and its relation to folk medicine in Asia, Africa and parts of Europe during the scientific revolution and Age of Enlightenment.
Williams is the author of four books on colonial and Revolutionary America including “Hurricane of Independence” and “The Jamestown Experiment.” Last April he published the book, “Pox and the Covenant: Franklin, Mather, and the Epidemic that Altered America’s Destiny.” He is currently teaching history at Peninsula Catholic High School in Newport News, Virginia.
Covalence, June, 2011