Science in Review — February 2013

JESUS MAFA. The parable of the sower, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 26, 2013].

JESUS MAFA. The parable of the sower, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 26, 2013].

One of my favorite Scripture passages is the parable of the sower. It’s botany! It’s metaphor! And it’s a rare parable to include an explanation… sort of. Sure, Jesus decodes the allegory for his disciples, but what is the application? Is it a call to sow our seeds lavishly because we are not responsible for the condition of the soil, or is it a lesson on how to use our time and energy efficiently? Are we being encouraged to prepare the soil before we go about sowing? Are we being asked to reflect on the condition of the soil in our own mind?

Consider this month’s link, a conversation on Slashdot about science and religion. My initial reaction is to consider it an example of what I think the Internet does best: connect people who would never meet in physical space. Maybe that’s just me. I’ve always had my share of esoteric interests. I read comic books; I listen to modern symphonic music; I watch martial arts films. For some perspective — my favorite comic book sells roughly 25,000 copies. There are 300,000,000 people in the United States. That’s a 1 in 12,000 chance of meeting someone else who’s read the latest issue. I’m an introvert — the thought of having to meet 12,000 people is unsettling. (Knowing that I actually only have to meet 8,318 people to have a better than even chance of finding a fellow fan doesn’t make it better.)

Unless I go to the Internet; then they’re a keyword search away. And they’re looking for me too! What’s not to love about that?

And of course, any time you give a Christian a means of communicating with new people, there’s a good chance they’ll start to think of it as a tool for evangelism. So, what does a conversation like this say about the potential of the Internet for sharing the good news?

Firstly, I think it is exciting to see anything where so many points of view are represented. There were Christians from the whole spectrum of traditions, and atheists with a variety of perspectives on religion. I find that sort of diversity hard to find in a conversation in person, at least outside of an academic environment. Is the Internet the primary place for these eclectic conversations if you are not regularly part of a campus community?

Though perhaps just as noteworthy was the absence of some perspectives. There was no one who explicitly identified as a Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim, although the latter two faiths warranted a few cursory mentions. Judaism was the second most commonly discussed religion after Christianity, but even then it was frequently discussed in the context of Western civilization’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and it was not clear that any of the participants were Jewish or practiced Judaism. Are Christians especially interested in this topic? Are atheists reacting largely against Christianity rather than religion in general? Or is it just that an English-language website with a significant American audience is more likely to reach Christians than members of other religious traditions?

Second, I wonder just what constitutes evangelism in this kind of setting. Is Slashdot a modern Areopagus? Is defending the rationality of our faith the most worthwhile goal in the marketplace of ideas? The text-only format of a comments section does seem to lend itself to rational discourse, rather than relational witness. If that’s the case, is it best to engage with the discussion of origins and miracles, or should we always be angling to raise explicit references to Jesus, on the premise that this might be our one chance?

Alternatively, maybe no one comes to these websites with an open mind; perhaps they just want to make their points and be affirmed by the presence of like-minded individuals. If that’s the case, then we might need to consider spending our energies elsewhere. Or maybe in that case the most important thing is not what we say, but how we say it. There is an encouragingly respectful and collegial tone to most of the conversation — which made it all the more jarring when someone would resort to profanity or name-calling instead of making an actual point. Clearly those are beneath the standard for polite discourse. Is abstaining from them part of our witness, or should they just be a prerequisite for anyone joining the conversation?

Third, I find myself nervous and excited to see what questions the atheists are asking that I have not yet asked myself. Nervous, because this may be the question that I can’t find an answer for — and then what? Excited, because when I can answer new questions, I feel like my faith has stretched and grown. In some sense, I feel like I am closer to God because I understand Him just that much more. There was a lot of familiar ground here, but also some interesting questions about information theory and neuroscience that gave me something to ponder. If nothing else, seeking out these kinds of conversations from time to time might be worthwhile just to see what other people are thinking about.

Finally, with all the talk of whether or not science does prove or can prove that religion is false, that God doesn’t exist, and so on, I wonder — is that the extent to what we can discuss about science and religion? More significantly, when we try to prove God with science, do we subtly diminish God and elevate science? That leads me to wonder if the parable of the sower shows us another path. Jesus uses, not the method of science, but the metaphors science provides to illustrate ideas which may be more difficult to comprehend in the abstract, or less memorable when expressed directly. He realizes the aesthetic potential of science, in addition to its empiric power.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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