Monday, August 27, 2007

POST #4: Entropy, the Concept

There is in physics a phenomenon the results of which you experience every moment of your life. With every breath, with every bite of lunch, with every synapse between brain cells, with every metabolic function in every cell, this physical principle is at work in your body. Some day, when your body lies cold in the grave, this phenomenon will still be at work in you. As you read this and listen to the gentle whirring of the hard drive on your computer, you are listening to the effects of this law of physics. The breeze outside your window, the clouds rolling by in the sky, the very light enabling you to see these things: these are all evidence that this fundamental principle is constantly at work. Einstein called it “the first law of all sciences.” It is everywhere, effecting everything.

This principle is often mentioned in the Bible. It has profound theological significance. But only in the last 150 years have we come to understand its operation. And only in the last 50 years have we come to understand its history, its origin. And thus, only in our time can we more fully connect the dots between this physical law, the Scriptures that discuss it, and the theological implications of that convergence. This principle is called entropy. You may be more familiar with its other name: The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

What exactly is entropy? The technical definition of entropy is “The measurement of randomness in a system; the measurement of the decreasing availability of useful energy in the universe.” With respect to energy and matter, our universe is lumpy. It is full of “chunks” of matter (which have not yet been converted to energy). It has hot spots and cold spots. Energy is not evenly distributed. It is this uneven distribution which provides the thermal energy to accomplish work. But this thermal energy available to accomplish work is constantly decreasing. Technically, entropy is the measurement of the “unavailability” of energy to do work. Physicists thus see our universe as presently in a state of “low entropy”, moving inexorably toward what they call “high entropy”, and ultimately leading to the even distribution of useless energy, resulting in a universe that is dark, very cold (about 2° above absolute Zero), and utterly dead. This state would occur somewhere between a trillion and 100 trillion years from now. So don’t lose sleep over it.

(Some scientists see the end of the universe somewhat differently. Instead of a cold dark expanse of nothingness, they envision a sort of reverse big bang, sometimes called “the Big Crunch”, in which all the energy of the universe converges upon a single point in an extremely hot, fiery implosion. This event would occur much sooner, perhaps in only 100 billion years. But whether a slow cold death, or a relatively quicker hot fiery death ... and there are a couple of other less popular theories also along way off ... the prospect of the “end-game” of entropy is not very inviting!)

In the figurative, or popularized use of the word, entropy refers to a lack of order, or a gradual decline into disorder. And while the technical use of “order” and “disorder”, “low entropy” and “high entropy” can sometimes be confusing, in the end, entropy simply means this: everything tends to break; my teenage son’s room only gets messier; teeth decay; iron rusts; wood rots; without the infusion of a heat source, everything gets colder; people, plants, and animals die; ultimately, planets disintegrate; stars burn out.

There is much confusion surrounding entropy, particularly among Young Earth Creationists. The law of entropy, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is often invoked as evidence against evolution. This is unwarranted. Others consider life itself to be in contradiction to the law of entropy. But the fact is, entropy is always at work, it never goes on vacation, and it does not “disprove” evolution. The Law of Entropy does not say that all things move toward disorder in all places at all times. To the contrary, we observe the organization of atoms, molecules, living cells, and a variety of other things all the time. Children grow up, exquisite snowflakes form, huge new stars are born, 747 jetliners are assembled, crystals self generate. The very composition of this article results from me organizing (some might dispute this statement!) my thoughts, and then bringing order to these letters on a page. Such occurrences, some the result of human activity, some of natural causes, might seem to defy entropy. But in each case, the Law of Entropy is still at work. As Richard Carrier (an atheistic scientist and critic of Creationism) correctly states on this page of his website. “it is still possible for a closed system to produce order, even highly elaborate order, so long as there is a greater increase in disorder somewhere else in the system.” In other words, in every process within the cosmos, there is always a net increase in entropy. When some new degree of order appears to arise somewhere, it is more than offset by increasing disorder elsewhere.

Entropy means that everything will eventually die. Our Sun will burn out. Earth will crumble into nothingness. All life forms will die. There will ultimately be no “matter”. Living in an “entropic universe” means that everything is driven by decay, by a slow wind-down, by death itself. In everything from ecosystems to the decay of the Sun, life itself is dependent upon death. In essence, we live in a “death-driven universe”

Did God create the universe this way? Was it his intention that the very driving force of all Creation would be death itself? Or is entropy part of the curse of sin? When did entropy begin? Prior to the information gleaned from cosmology over the last 50 years, no one knew the answer to that question. Theologians were free to place the origin of death and decay anywhere along the cosmic time-line that pleased them, or was consistent with their theological presuppositions. But we are no longer free to do so. We now know, with a high degree of certainty, exactly when entropy began. And the theological implications should not go unnoticed.

In the next posts, I will look more closely at the “timeline of entropy”, and discuss what this timeline suggests about our Creator, and his intentions.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

POST #3: Principles of Revelation: Progressive Revelation

In this post and the previous post, I am laying the groundwork for discussions that will follow by defining an epistemology, that is, a set of governing principles for how we arrive at knowledge. I have established the place of Special Revelation, particularly the written revelation of the Old and New Testaments. These Scriptures are our authority for all matters of faith and practice. They must be the arbiter of all Christian understandings about God.

I have defined General Revelation in somewhat broader terms than are typically used. It is my conviction that we can learn much about the Creator by studying his Creation. The cosmos offers a wealth of information which may furnish clues to his character and purpose. In addition, there is a strong linkage between the state of scientific knowledge in any given era of the church, and the theological understandings of that era. Thus, science can and does influence theology. But the church has typically lagged behind science, at times taking hundreds of years before adjusting its thinking to align theology with the more accurate understandings about the Universe. It is my contention that much of evangelical Christianity is dwelling in just such a time lag today.

We now turn our attention to Progressive Revelation.

When I first was taught the principle of Progressive Revelation, the extent of its application was limited to written revelation. I learned that later Scriptures built upon, expanded upon, and expounded upon earlier Scriptures. This can be seen readily as we read through the Bible, beginning to end. Moses lays a foundation for David. Isaiah builds upon David. By the time John wrote, he had the benefit of all of the Hebrew Scriptures and many already extant New Testament writings. Our understandings of God, his character, his purpose, his involvement in the earth grow with each new portion of revealed truth. Progressive, when used in this sense, is defined as “developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step”. Progressive Revelation, understood in this way, is widely accepted and taught. Controversy heats up quickly when the discussion turns toward the notion that revelation might be progressing still today.

Written revelation was completed in the first century. The foundation for the church, and for our age, was laid by the original apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20) and through their writings. Jesus is the Word of God. The Old Testament looks forward to him. The New Testament consists of a flurry of writings by those who walked him, or had first or second hand exposure to his life and teachings. The essence of our understandings about God are wrapped up in Jesus. No writer today qualifies to write about the Logos, Jesus, in the same way those first century authors did. I am satisfied that written revelation is, therefore, closed.

But I take a different view when it comes to General Revelation. The heavens and the firmament are “uttering speech” (Psalm 19:-2). To the degree that General Revelation affects theology, to the degree that it informs our understandings about God, and about his work of Creation, to the degree that it illuminates the Scriptures, to that degree we continue to receive revelation! And General Revelation affects theology in many and profound ways.

In addition, while written revelation is closed, it is but one aspect of Special Revelation. The activity of the Holy Spirit in believers, both generally and though the special gifts of the Spirit, includes many streams of illumination. The Spirit still speaks, still teaches (1 Corinthians 2:10-16, John 16:13, 1 John 2:27 This illumination does not add to the authoritative base of the Scriptures. It must always be judged by the Scriptures. But the Holy Spirit can refine our understandings of those Scriptures, helping us to arrive a truths contained there which we may have overlooked and/or misinterpreted in the past. In this process, the Holy Spirit may assist us in coalescing of the fruit of our exploration of Creation with the Scriptures in ways we have never seen before.

The interplay of these three elements (growing General Revelation, ongoing Spirit illumination, with the written Word giving us the anchor and setting the parameters of truth) provides us with a richly textured revelation that is dynamic, alive, and progressive.

John Polkinghorne, the Anglican Theologian / Particle Physicist, has long argued for this interplay of science and theology. He sees the two disciplines as “cousins” in search of one ultimate reality. Occasionally we encounter what first appears to be conflict. But as the conflict finds resolution (as it always will!), truths emerge which are deeper and more profound. He describes this process in five successive steps [from Quantum Physics and Theology]:
1. Moments of enforced radical revision
2. A period of unresolved confusion
3. New synthesis and understanding
4. Continued wrestling with unresolved problems
5. Deeper implications
In the last 100 years, there have been many such “moments of enforced radical revision”. Many findings of science have been at first disconcerting, and have resulted in considerable wrestling. In many cases, the wrestling continues as Bible believers come to grips with the concepts of relativity, quantum uncertainty, evolution, the big bang, the age of the universe, the timing of the onset of entropy, the incomprehensible size of the universe, the likelihood of many extra-dimensions, etc. Each of these concepts touches upon theology, how we perceive God, and his work of Creation. Each of them jolt us out of some preconceived notions. They compel us to reevaluate how we read and understand the Scriptures. They shed new light on Scriptures we could not have fully understood before. And just possibly, they lead us to “deeper implications” in theology, origins, eschatology, and even the advance of the Kingdom in our own day.

It is these deeper implications that I wish to explore. I invite you to come along and share with me some fresh new vistas offered to us through the scientific discoveries of the last two or three generations.

And, I ask you to join me in this prayer: Holy Spirit, aid us in this search. Enlighten our hearts and minds, sharpen our insights. May our discussions not become bogged down in idle speculation. Instead, I ask that you lead us to life-changing implications that will find practical expression in how we live out our commitment to the King and the Kingdom.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

POST #2: Principles of Revelation: General Revelation

God speaks! Foundational to all Christian thinking is the assumption that God is self-revealing. Jesus is the Logos, the very Word of God (John 1:1). God talks (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Greek word here, LALEO, according to Thayer, means to use words in order to declare one's mind and disclose one's thoughts. God “takes the upright into his confidence” (Proverbs 3:32). The Hebrew word for confidence, SOD, has a graphic derivation. It originally meant a cushion or couch, came to refer to sitting together in a familiar or intimate setting, then came to mean the sharing of secrets. Those who listen are rewarded ... God is not silent!

Christian theology has historically recognized three guiding principles of revelation. I use these three principles as the base of my personal epistemology (how and where we obtain knowledge). They help me to understand the various ways in which God speaks:

1) Special Revelation
Examples include the inspired Scriptures, Old and New Testaments (2 Timothy 3:16); the person and work of Jesus, declared to be the one who explains the Father (John 1:18); and the personal illumination of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers (John 16:13).

2) General Revelation
The heavens declare the glory of God in a continual flow of speech and a constant display of knowledge (Psalm 19:1-2, NIV).

3) Progressive Revelation
We see progression in the formation of written revelation. Scripture builds upon scripture. New revelation expands upon, and expounds upon earlier revelation. But did revelation cease with the closing of written revelation? No. On-going Spirit illumination continues to this day, and will up until the end times (Joel 2:28-32 which was partially fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost).

While these three principles are widely accepted and taught in the church, the specifics of how we define them, and the ramifications of each term, vary widely among believers. Epistemology is the necessary beginning point for the discussions which will follow on this site.

The nature of Special Revelation, and in particular, written revelation, has been discussed at great length, and I do not wish to rehash the Inerrency debates here. I refer my readers to a spirited discussion of these issues which occurred on the web-blog, “Chrisendom” last November, and can be found here. Essential, however, is an understanding of the Authority of the Scriptures. For the sake of these discussions, Christian theology, by definition, is sourced in, and/or tested by the Scriptures. The Scriptures have served the church well as an anchor for two thousand years. They provide the parameters of truth, even as our understandings of those Scriptures grows and develops.

Of greater interest to me, four our purposes here, is a discussion of principles two and three. Today’s post will explore General Revelation. A follow-up post will explore Progressive Revelation.

A discussion of General Revelation typically begins with Romans 1:19-20. Here Paul makes it clear that we can glean revelation about God from creation. And this revelation goes beyond seeing his glory. From the things that are made, we can discern certain of God’s invisible qualities, including his power and his divine nature. It is clear that we have a far more profound understanding of the “things that are made” today than ever before. Because of the unique position of our solar system in the Milky Way Galaxy, we have been blessed with a front row seat on the cosmos. And today, we see and understand the Universe with far greater clarity than did those who penned the words of Scripture, or the great majority of those who formulated traditional Christian Theology. In addition to this improved view of the Universe, today we are beneficiaries of a rapidly expanding knowledge of how God knit together this cosmos on the atomic and subatomic levels. Much of the traditional theology that is accepted in the church today was formulated in a pre-copernican day, a day when planet earth was widely viewed as literally occupying the very center of Creation. Other aspects of theology are based squarely upon Newtonian physics, with its rigid laws of motion, time and space. As relativity and quantum mechanics show how fluid and bending these laws are, there may be theological implications to consider. Much fundamentalist theology is reactionary, constructed one hundred years ago in response to what was then perceived as an atheistic attack upon Christianity in the form of evolution. Today, we know much more about the history of life on the earth.

Without question, the Scriptures are the ultimate source and arbiter of our understandings about God. But the Scriptures have always been read through the prism of how the world and the cosmos are currently viewed. Let’s be clear: science has no capacity to explain God, or teach theology. But down through the ages, our growing knowledge of the cosmos has often adjusted, and sometimes revolutionized our understanding of the Scriptures, and what they teach us about God. A sad truth is that the church has often drug its feet, sometimes for hundreds of years, in this task of keeping theology current with our growing knowledge base from General Revelation. Theology has a way of settling into a stubborn inertia, becoming nearly immovable. Instead of rejoicing in new understandings about our wonderful Maker, the church typically resists changes in our understandings with guarded skepticism and suspicious fear. We have been given a fixed written revelation in the Scriptures which provides a stable anchor for our faith. But on the other hand, we have a very fluid, constantly changing source of information streaming in on many General Revelation fronts which should excite every believer. As one of the world’s foremost DNA scientists, Francis Collins describes the exhilarating joy and awe which he experiences as he uncovers some new truth about Creation, and thus the Creator, to which, for but a moment, he alone among humans is privy. It is as though God just whispered into his ear.

For too long has the church viewed scientific inquiry as an adversary to be feared. Truth is truth! The exploration of the cosmos, whether by telescope or microscope, is the friend of all who would know the Creator, and would understand his works with increasing clarity. General Revelation is not static. It is supplying us with a constant fresh flow of detailed information about what our God has created, and sometimes even how he created. No one should be more excited about this process of exploration and discovery than children of the Creator!

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of Kings” (Proverbs 25:2). This suggests something more than the passive observation of Creation. It seems evident that man has an active role to take up in this field of General Revelation. This active role is largely the work of scientific inquiry. I have a friend who is an artist. Every time I walk into his gallery, I learn something new about him just by observing his paintings. The entire field of science, limited as it is to this cosmos, is a continuing study of the very work of God. With each new revelation of science, we learn something new about him. Of course, much that is new in the realm of science must be tested rigorously, and for some time held tentatively. But the certainty of such findings grows with layers of validation and confirmation. As this certainty grows, we can receive new insights into the artist behind this awe-inspiring cosmos. In turn, many of these insights will compel us to reevaluate and adjust how we interpret the Bible, and fine tune our theology. But we must pay attention! And we must be willing to think outside the artificial constraints of our theological traditions.

God speaks. Are we listening?

A note added on 9/17/2007: C. Michael Patton posted a thoughtful piece on natural revelation at Parchment and Pen after I made the above post. If you’re puzzling about the notion of God “actively speaking” to us through natural (general) revelation, check out his answers. (If you are new to blogs, you can go directly to Michael’s article by clicking on the words “piece on natural revelation” above)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

POST #1: Understandings I am Seeking

Recently, a friend was troubled by my search for understandings which, in his view, threaten to deviate from traditionally held Christian Doctrine. He asked me to define truths which I am seeking that “make a difference”. In my reply, I listed four areas in which I seek understandings that go beyond those I have received from the evangelical church. I open this blog with my response to his question ...

I believe in both Special Revelation (mainly the Scriptures, but including the on-going ministry of the H.S. as he guides us into truth) and General Revelation (truths about God and his purposes which are discernible in Creation.) I also believe in Progressive Revelation. Through the ages, believing mankind has been given the revelation required to fulfill its purpose in history on an as-needed basis. And I believe that there may be significant revelation as this age closes (Joel 2:28-32, which was not completely fulfilled in Acts 2). If you take a different view of any of these three elements of revelation, you may as well stop reading right here. They are foundational in my thinking.

1) I am seeking to understand the role of entropy in God's overall plan. Scripture gives some strong clues that there is something significant here. (Romans 8:18-25 and 1 Corinthians 15 for starters.) Only lately have we come to understand more fully what entropy is, how it works, where it is leading, and how long it has been here. Entropy is the predictable conversion of all matter and energy into useless low level heat scattered across the known universe: the cosmos is headed toward an exceedingly cold, completely dark, stable state of near nothingness. Death. And this universe has been moving in that direction since the creation moment. Entropy is itself, of course, death and decay. It therefore has great theological and eschatological significance. We now understand that God intentionally created a universe driven by death. A universe that began to die at the very moment of its inception. Death is the engine that makes this universe work. And when he finished creating the universe in this way, God stepped back and said, "This is GOOD." Now that combination of facts creates all kinds of questions for me. Does it not for you? It is strange, to me, that more thinking believers aren't, at least, puzzled. I am amazed that Zoroastrians and Jewish Kabbalists have noticed this, and have been for hundreds of years asking questions about entropy and evil. But their answers are lame in my judgment, and fail to take into consideration the New Testament Scriptures which powerfully speak to this question. At least, they are asking. I believe Christians can give better answers!

2) I am seeking to understand how a compassionate, caring God can stand idly by while children are stolen away from their homes by the sex marketeers, and forced into horrible, unthinkable lives of sex-slavery. I am seeking to understand how this loving Father could look on from heaven while Hitler's soldiers dumped, literally dumped dump-truck loads of babies that could barely talk and walk, little innocent toddlers, into raging bonfires for their amusement, using pitchforks to stop the little screaming ones who tried to escape. The problem of evil is the most significant stumbling block to faith for skeptics today. When Einstein, perhaps the greatest mind of the 20th Century, discovered relativity and described a cosmology which now necessitated a belief in God, he became a convinced theist. But because of the the problem of evil, he could never come to belief in a personal God. The god Einstein declared must surely exist was for him only an "impersonal creative force". The church has offered no satisfying answers to the riddle, or at least none that satisfy my mind. Nor the minds of the many agnostics who cite this problem as an insurmountable obstacle to belief in God. The church has offered answers which fail to uphold the integrity and character of God. Is it the best we can do to shrug our shoulders and say we don't understand? I believe that this riddle may be to some degree solvable, and that the solution may be right before our eyes; but our theological presuppositions have barred us from seeing it. So I seek a clearer understanding of what God is doing here in the universe that will explain why he is compelled to restrain his hand in the face of evil and suffering.

3) In conjunction with the riddle of evil, I seek a clearer and fuller understanding of the role and significance of suffering. Scripture is full of hints; we have been slow on the uptake, in my opinion. But when we piece together the theological implications of entropy, and come to a more complete understanding of evil, we will see more clearly why people suffer. We will see the role of suffering in the cosmic plan of God. We will see why it is necessary. We will understand its interwoven connectedness with glory. We will see that something in the spiritual realm is actually accomplished through our suffering. And we will be better prepared personally if we are called upon to suffer as this age winds down.

4) I seek to understand the profound significance of man, and the immense responsibility that believing men and women share in the purposes of God. This also relates to entropy, evil, and suffering. We have been assigned a critical role in the affairs of our planet and in the ultimate undoing of evil. This is clear in the Scriptures. But little emphasis is given to this truth in the church. It is not understood well at all, in my view. Again, our theology may be standing in the way, perhaps barring us from fully participating in the breath-taking tasks of the advancing Kingdom of God.

Well, there are four, for starters. I do not expect that all believers should seek these things as I do. It is not necessary. You need not join me. If the theology which has been handed to you satisfies your mind, there is no need to trouble yourself with my questions. But I do ask you not to scold me for asking them. Or to suggest that I shouldn't ask. That is part of the problem of this whole sea change we call postmodernism. Young people today are asking hard questions. You and I can't stop them. We must decide whether we will join them in their quest, and attempt to provide intellectually and spiritually satisfying answers, or stand back and chide them for their lack of contentedness, and watch them drift off. Which will it be for you?