Summer Stargazing

Monday night, I took my son to a night of stargazing sponsored by our local library. Their summer reading theme is “A Universe of Stories,” using space to generate excitement about reading among kids. I think it’s working—Caleb keeps talking about the “Galaxy Glow Party” they’re going to have, which he’ll get to attend if he hits his reading goals. He and June even put on their own Galaxy Glow Party in their room in the dark.

As part of their activities, the library put together a night of observing at a local park, led by a park ranger who brought a large telescope and showed kids and adults how to navigate the night sky.

We arrived at 8:00 and waited patiently for the sun to go down. Well, I waited patiently. Caleb bounced all over the place when he wasn’t doing crafts.

As day became night, one of the organizers read two books about constellations. While the kids listened, I looked up, keeping my eye open for the first stars that would become visible. Before the stars came out, I saw a number of bats flitting through the evening sky overhead. I hoped they wouldn’t decide to swoop too low. Eventually I saw the first two stars. But something compelled me to keep on looking, even though the books weren’t finished and the stars would only be emerging gradually. I kept looking, directly overhead, and I swear to you that I saw a shooting star. I don’t recall ever seeing one that early in the evening before, and it was bright and clear. I pointed up, following its trail and hoping that someone else might catch it before it disappeared. If anybody else saw it, they didn’t say anything. In any event, I felt rewarded for my inattention to the book, and reinforced in my commitment to looking up more often than others.

As it got darker and the books wrapped up, the kids finished up their crafts and several of us adults compared our favorite apps for navigating the night sky (mine is SkyView Free). I looked for Jupiter, knowing it’s very bright in the evening sky right now. Walking a little bit away from our group, getting past a tree that was blocking the southern horizon, I spotted it. It was hard to miss, the brightest thing in the sky.

I’d brought my binoculars, and looked through them at our solar system’s largest planet. I could see not only the planet, but four of its moons, strung out in a diagonal line with Jupiter at it center. Four tiny, sharp points of light, two on the lower left side of Jupiter, two on the upper right side. I’d viewed them a couple of weeks earlier too, and was able to see that they had moved. I understood a bit of what Galileo must’ve felt when he first turned a telescope to the sky, found those moons, and discovered that they appeared to move around Jupiter.

“Caleb,” I said. “Come here. Look!” It was tough to hold the binoculars steady and aimed at Jupiter, but I did the best I could and asked Caleb if he could see it. “It’s that big bright star,” I said. “Can you see it in the binoculars?” After a while, he said “Yes! I see it!” I smiled, knowing that I was sharing something of my love of the universe with him.

When the sky got nice and dark, we went out into a clearing with two telescopes to look around. It was tough to get the telescopes pointed in the right direction, and the other kids were crowding around them, so Caleb and I just sat in chairs and looked for stars and constellations. We found Scorpio and the North Star, but The Big Dipper was his favorite.

Finally, I could tell Caleb was tired, and so was I. It was getting late, already well past his bedtime, so we said good-bye, thanked the organizers, and headed home. Caleb talked about constellations, and as usual asked a lot of questions, which I did my best to answer.

I’m grateful for our local library for doing what they can to instill a love of learning in the children of our community, and I’m all the more grateful that they’re doing it with space this summer. As I’ve said before, teaching our kids to wonder, learn, and be curious about the world around them is vitally important for their well-being and the future of the Christian faith.

Up next is Vacation Bible School in a few weeks, with a theme of To Mars and Beyond. I can’t wait for Caleb to tell me all about it.

Grace in the Digital World

A couple of weeks ago I posed a question via Twitter and Facebook: “Does God’s grace extend to online/digital spaces? If so, what shape does it take?”

Or, as another way of asking the question: “We can identify means of grace in human life (Scripture, prayer, sacraments, Christian community). Are there corresponding means of grace in those aspects of human life that take place online?”

This blog is usually about faith and space exploration, but I’m coming to realize that humankind’s future in space—whatever that might entail—is going to be deeply connected to other aspects of our future, including things like virtual reality, digital communication, and artificial intelligence. In other words, space exploration and colonization won’t happen alone, but will occur in conjunction with these other developments of human life and society. Asking how we’ll encounter God’s grace in all these emerging circumstances is important for Christians now and in the future.

In particular, seeking to understand how God’s grace might enter into online spaces seems critical for Christians as we learn to navigate a world in which substantial portions of our private and public lives involve interactions with digital media and digital communication. Apparently others felt like these are important questions too, since my posts generated a fair amount of conversation.

In an effort to continue the conversation and to begin articulating some answers, here are my preliminary thoughts based on the responses I saw and my own (admittedly preliminary) thoughts.

First, an experience of God’s grace in a digital context will not be confined to the digital, but will involve the physical, real-world experience as well. This is not terribly surprising, but it’s important to articulate. Much of our lives now involves a blending of the physical and the digital. Think about how your mood affects what you post online, or how what you read online influences your mood. Think about the way our real-life relationships involve texting, or social media, or email…and how connections initially established online can lead to real-world meetings. Several folks who responded to my questions indicated that digital connections led to fruitful, real-life relationships developing, and that this is an instance of Christian community at work. We might think also of apps that enable us to read the Bible or daily devotions, or other spiritual books. Such things can occur in both digital and physical media, and I’d wager that many of us employ both. I certainly do. In a world where our lives are a blend of digital and physical realities, we might expect God’s grace to extend across both of those areas as well.

Second, many of the most readily identifiable aspects of grace online are community-centric. Most of the people who responded to my question about the shape grace takes online mentioned things like groups of like-minded people, the ability to sustain long-distance relationships, and gracious engagement in conversation as opposed to uncharitable interaction. Christian community is a vital channel of God’s grace—so much so that John Wesley once said “I know of no religion but social religion.” Since much of the digital revolution in our world involves facilitating communication and connection between people, we might expect that grace in digital spaces might take shape in relationships and community more readily than anything else.

Third, the interface between the digital and the physical seems critical to me. When we think of means of grace as relates to the digital world, it strikes me that an instance of grace might involve the decision to put down your phone and give your full attention to the person or situation in front of you. Or it might involve the decision to pick up the phone and give someone a call or text, to reach out in a tangible and personal way via digital means. God’s grace might well come at the intersection where the physical meets the digital.

Fourth, few would deny that sin is present online. We can readily think of of examples where we’ve witnessed sinful behavior or attitudes in the digital world. If we struggle to identify concrete means of grace taking shape online, we might ask where and how God is responding to sin in those areas with redemption, restoration, and deliverance. This question might help point us to God’s grace where we might not expect it, or show us where and how grace is needed and how we might open ourselves up to it more fully online.

Fifth and finally, it seems to me that it’s critical for us to keep asking this question. If the online/digital space can’t or won’t be reached by God’s grace, then we ought to reject it outright and strive to encounter it as little as possible. What possible good might it be otherwise? But if, as is more likely the case, digital and online realities are an extension of human life, whatever its character, then we can and should expect God’s grace to reach into these realities no more and no less than in other aspects of human life as well. And because these realities are so new and ever-changing, it’s imperative now more than ever to seek God’s grace there.

What are some of the means of grace online? What I’ve written here is barely a start in formulating some answers. And it may well be too soon to tell—it is, after all, so very new. We’re still trying to figure out most aspects of digital life. But perhaps the rapid development of the online world leads to, even requires, rapid sense-making and, I dare say, deliverance. If so, then the act of seeking God’s grace online, wherever and however it may appear, takes on a new urgency.

Interplanetary Ecosystem

It’s the middle of spring, which is gardening season at my house. Not that I’m a gardener, mind you. My hobby is woodworking—apparently I find it easier to create things from dead plants than to keep plants alive. But my wife, Amy, loves to garden. This time of year almost always finds her outside digging, planting, weeding, or watering. In years past it’s been a vegetable garden, herbs, and flowers. This year it’s been landscaping, with more perennials than usual. The point is, she has a green thumb and likes to make things grow. While my mind is off wandering among the stars, hers, at least in the spring, is firmly on the ground. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for our marriage in there somewhere.

Because of her hobby, Amy is much more attuned to the various relationships among living things than I am. She knows which species like to be planted close to each other and which will compete for the same nutrients and should be kept farther apart. She understands and takes time to learn about what does well in shade and what needs more sun; how much water is too much or not enough; what the deer will eat and what they’ll leave alone. She’s transforming our front and back yard into a place where various plants will not only look pleasing together, but will flourish as individual organisms.

Reflecting on Amy’s talents for gardening has me thinking about what our relationship with other organisms means for humanity’s future—or rather, what humanity’s future might mean for those other organisms. I often imagine a future where humans are an interplanetary species, inhabiting the Moon and Mars and maybe other worlds in addition to Earth. Such a future excites me, even though it’s far off and I probably won’t live to witness it. Nonetheless, it’s my passion to help Christians take this long view and understand what it means for our faith, and explore how our faith can draw us forward into this future confident in God’s grace and presence.

What I forget, though, and what Amy’s love of gardening helps me remember, is that we won’t go into this future alone. Humankind will never be the sole earth-originating interplanetary species. Other species will come along with us. We simply can’t survive apart from other organisms; we’re part of an ecosystem, as much as modern life and culture might push us to forget it. When (if) some of us leave Earth, we won’t just become an interplanetary species; we’ll initiate and shape an interplanetary ecosystem, a community of creatures that succeeds or fails with the flourishing (or not) of each species that’s a part of it.

Humans depend on other organisms for food. We can probably start on another planet with preserved food that’s transported from Earth, but that’s an impractical solution in the long term. Better to raise crops in lunar or Martian soil—which will require identifying and perfecting crops that not only will thrive in their own right, but will provide us with what we need in terms of nutrients and energy.

Even discounting the food we eat, we can’t get away from the microbiome in our own guts. The moment we take up residence on another world, the various bacteria in our stomachs become interplanetary species as well. When Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind, he also made that same leap for certain kinds of microbial life that hitched a ride with him to the Moon.

That is to say nothing of the many other ways we depend on plants and animals, fungi and bacteria. They are our companions; test subjects; providers of clothing and shelter; sources of healing; givers of color, aroma, texture, and taste. The list could go on. The other organisms with which we share our world actually enable us both to live and to thrive. We can’t go somewhere else without them. We would be incredibly foolish even to try.

This means that humanity’s decisions, ventures, and journeys don’t affect only us. Our decisions about whether or not to explore and colonize space and other planets make those same decisions on behalf of many of Earth’s other species too, because we’re the only species powerful and intelligent enough to have the choice available to us and because our fates are intricately linked to theirs. We can decide to a certain extent which of Earth’s species to take with us and which to leave behind. We can decide, either intentionally or by default, that humanity and all other species will remain Earth-bound. Recognizing this increases our responsibility—it’s not just about us, it’s about the rest of our fellow creatures on Earth too.

This is one area where the excitement and trepidation surrounding interplanetary exploration converges with our humanity (though it’s surely not the only one). We have been created in God’s image with a purpose, and in Genesis 1 that purpose is to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26 NRSV). This means we have the authority, the ability, and the responsibility to exercise dominion over all the other creatures in our world—that is, to lead and direct all of creation in responding in love to our creator. In doing so we will enable all of our fellow creatures to flourish, and direct all their energies as well as ours toward the love of God and love for one another.

It’s a responsibility we can’t lay aside as we look to the stars, because to do so is to turn away from the very thing that makes us human, the very honor and power that comes to us as the creatures made in God’s image.

They Know

“Hear the birds? They know. They know.”

My pastor said that one morning during an Easter sunrise service when I was growing up. Actually he said it more than once—probably not every Easter, but enough that it eventually felt to me like a regular part of the sunrise service.

We’d start the brief service in the sanctuary with Scripture, hymns, and a short sermon, then we’d head out to the cemetery for prayers and more hymns. That was always my favorite part of the service. Amidst the graves of our church’s departed, beside three big wooden crosses, we sang of Resurrection and celebrated Jesus’ victory over death. Inevitably we’d hear birds singing too as we walked to the cemetery. “The birds know,” my pastor said. “Hear them singing? They know.”

My church in Nashville has a sunrise service too, but our family missed it this year. With 3 small kids, it’s very hard to get everyone out of the house in time. So we went to the late service, which was standing-room-only. I left after the sermon to get our daughter from the nursery so she could join us for Communion. It was a pretty morning, so I took a little detour outside to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air. On my way, I heard the birds singing and smiled as I remembered my pastor’s words. I paused and said a prayer, thanking God for this day of Resurrection and the witness of nature, of the birds who sing for their risen Lord. “Hear the birds? They know.”

As I prayed I turned my face up toward the sun, felt its warmth on my skin. “Feel the sun?” I thought. “It knows too.”

I let my mind run with that idea, let it lift up my imagination this Easter morning. The sun in all its brilliance knows that Christ is risen. So do the leaves rustling in the trees, the breeze that stirs them, and all the other trappings of spring. So does the moon on its course, the planets following their orbits, the largest asteroid and the smallest speck of interplanetary dust tumbling through space.

Of course, the heavenly bodies always move and the sun shines every day. The birds sing every morning. Easter is not for them a departure from the ordinary. But that’s the very essence of their Easter celebration. Their ongoing obedience to the laws of nature reminds us humans, who forget it sometimes, that the Author of those laws lives even though he hung on a cross and was buried three days. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the Psalmist writes. “Hear the birds?” my pastor said. “Feel the sun,” I thought. Nature bears witness to Easter for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

The sun that warmed my face is 93 million miles away from the earth. In its fiery heart, hydrogen fuses into helium and helium into heavier elements on a massive scale. Nuclear energy balances with gravity. Planets, asteroids, comets spin as they go around it. Year after year, day after day, second after second, nanosecond after nanosecond, the process continues.

It’s all an endless act of praise, has been since before the world existed, when the sun was still just a cloud of gas slowly but surely contracting in response to gravity. Every nucleus being fused, every photon released, every electron excited—I’m convinced these creatures bear witness to Easter every bit as much as we do with our hymns and prayers. Every particle flashing into and out of existence in interstellar space proclaims death and resurrection. We Easter people do no more and no less than join our song with theirs on Sunday morning, lifting up our hearts in worship and praise of the Creator whose handiwork is staggering in its beauty and immensity.

Hear the birds? They know. Do you?

Good Friday

In the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is pretty long: two lengthy chapters are devoted to the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. But when I read the story, I keep focusing on one particular scene: the one where Pilate has Jesus whipped and the soldiers beat him and mock him with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, saying “Hail King of the Jews.” It’s the scene where the crowd shouts “Crucify Him!” and “He ought to die because he claimed to be the Son of God.” I keep coming back to this scene, because it is the one, for me, that most powerfully expresses the humiliation and rejection of the one we confess is the Son of God. It’s where we see most powerfully that we worship one who suffers, and dies, and loses. And Good Friday, more than any other day in the Christian year, is a day for us to remember and reflect on that Jesus’ identity as the crucified one.

My writing here usually focuses on the identity of Jesus as the eternal Word, the ultimate source of light and life in the universe. All of that is true. But the great scandal of the Christian faith is this: we worship and proclaim as God the one who was crucified.

This message of ours that we call Good News is both offensive and foolish. It is offensive because we claim a monopoly on knowing God, boldly preaching that God—the Creator of all that is—is revealed on the cross more directly and more fully than anywhere else in human experience. It is foolish because suffering and dying and giving up all power goes against everything our reason tells us about who and what God ought to be. It’s nothing but scandalous for Christians to say, “We know who God is,” and then worship a man being beaten, wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe to show that he has no trappings of royalty other than in mockery. We say “This is God” as we point to the cross.

This jarring message becomes especially clear in John’s Gospel. John has what we call a high Christology. What that means is that John portrays and emphasizes Jesus’ divinity more than his humanity. In John more than any other Gospel, it emerges clearly that Jesus is none other than the Son of God, one with God himself. And John begins his Gospel with that profound promise of salvation, saying in the first chapter that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

That is good news. That is a message we can get on board with—that God has become one of us, has decided not to leave us alone but to visit us and take up residence in our messy and broken world full of suffering and injustice. That is a message of hope and salvation we can receive with joy.

This message of God with us resonates through much of John’s Gospel. We see even in just before Jesus’ death that the people wanted Jesus crucified because “he has claimed to be the Son of God” (John 19:7). Now, if you’ve read the Gospel of John, you know that Jesus has not just claimed to be the Son of God. He has demonstrated it, clearly and repeatedly, through the miraculous nature of his signs and the wisdom of his teachings. My favorite story from John is when Jesus heals the man born blind, which he does by spitting in the dirt and making mud and spreading it on the man’s eyes (John 9:1-12). That detail always seemed to me to be both strange and gross—until I realized that in making mud, Jesus is acting in his role as the Creator God, who first made humans way back in Genesis, “from the dust of the ground.” When Jesus heals this man, he is in a way finishing the unfinished task of this man’s creation, making the functioning eyes that he was born without. This act demonstrates for us that this man Jesus is indeed One with God, the Word Made Flesh, the Son of God. Jesus does not just make a claim to divinity, but he is in actual fact the Son of God, the Word made flesh and living among us.

Story after story in John shows Jesus’ divinity. Yet how quickly our expectations are snuffed out when we get to John chapter eighteen, where we see Jesus betrayed and crucified. As late as last Sunday, Palm Sunday, we were welcoming Jesus as Savior and God, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And then, just five days later, this triumphant cry is changed to shouts of “Crucify him!” The humble ruler on a donkey finds himself wearing a crown of thorns and a bloody purple robe, and the cries of “Hail king of the Jews” come from those who beat him and mock him. Can this really be our king, our messiah? Can this really be God? This man on the cross is God? That is offensive. That is foolish.

We instinctively turn away from a God like that. A God like that is unsettling. A God like that really and truly embodies the message of “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” A God like that means it when he says that “the greatest among you will be your servant.” A God like that forces us to take the rest of the Gospel very seriously, as if Jesus hasn’t been speaking in hyperbole all this time after all. A God like that means we have to re-think our expectations of who and what God is, and who and what we are supposed to be. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we don’t actually want a God like that. Maybe that is why we kill him.

And I say “we” because Good Friday is a time for us to acknowledge our own complicity in the death of Christ. So much of the Christian life involves finding our place in the biblical narrative—claiming the biblical story as our story and living it for ourselves in the 21st century. And friends, in this part of the story, in the Good Friday chapter, there’s only one innocent person and he’s not us. Whatever part we decide to play, we bear some responsibility in the crucifixion. At best we’re one of Jesus’ followers, perhaps the Beloved Disciple who stands by watching without doing anything about it. Or maybe we’re Peter, who denies Jesus three times because we’re too afraid we’ll end up on a cross of our own. Or we’re one of the others, who ran away and abandoned Jesus when he needed friends the most. Or we’re Judas, who betrayed him. Or we’re one of the crowd, actively yelling for this man to be crucified. When we recall Christ’s crucifixion, it’s appropriate to turn inward and examine how we have betrayed him too. And I can’t help but wonder if our betrayal stems from some sort of disappointment on our part. Because he came to us claiming to be God, and that turned out to be something quite different from what we expected.

At the same time, there is some hope in that truth—that Jesus has come to show us who God is, to shatter the figments of our imagination that would cast God in our own image. It’s hard to find hope on Good Friday, so we have to take it where we can get it. For most of the Christian year, we celebrate Easter, the Resurrection. But on that Friday two thousand years ago, Jesus was crucified and the resurrection was far from anyone’s mind. Any sort of hope was hard to come by. It was mostly a dark day, full of confusion and despair and resignation. But there is something in that ringing statement that “he has claimed to be the Son of God.” There’s something there that maybe we can hold onto as Friday turns into Saturday and Sunday feels far away. It’s a faint whisper of a shadow of a hope that maybe, just maybe, this is not an empty claim. And maybe, just maybe, what the prophet says is true, that he died not for his own transgressions, but for ours. Perhaps his death means our salvation. And maybe, just maybe, he really is the Word made Flesh. This beaten man with a crown of thorns and a purple robe might just be God after all. That would change everything.

On Looking Up

You only see shooting stars if you’re looking up.

The first time I saw one, I was in high school. My dad and I were going up to the NC mountains one Saturday for a brick-laying job, and we’d gathered with a bunch of others in a parking lot to drive up together. It was early morning, clear, still dark but the sky in the east was getting lighter. We stood around outside our trucks, chatting and looking around like men used to do before we all got phones to shove our noses into. Somebody said “Wow!” and pointed overhead. I happened to turn and look up fast enough to see the meteor still streaking across the sky before it blinked out. I don’t remember much about that brick-laying job, but 2 decades later I still recall the feeling of exhilaration at seeing something rare and beautiful because somebody had been paying attention.

Paying attention has always been a holy act, though it’s now a lost art. Maybe it always has been. Turning our attention and focus outward removes ourselves from the center of our world, often a necessary condition for encountering God. We need reminding that our desires, grievances, obstacles, worries, and pleasures are not as important as they usually feel. Looking up, paying attention to something else, helps me understand that the world is wide and most of it is not me. And when we don’t look up, we miss the opportunities afforded us by a larger perspective.

Moses paid attention. He heard God’s call in the wilderness and boldly confronted Pharaoh. He led the Israelites out of slavery and through the Red Sea, taking them to meet God on the mountain and eventually shepherding them to the Promised Land. But it’s easy to miss that Moses’ first act was simply paying attention.

He looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” (Exodus 3:2-4)

Moses’ first step was to notice, to “turn aside and look.” He saw something out of place, asked a question about it, and went in for closer inspection. Only when God saw that Moses turned aside to see did God call to him with the commission that would change Moses’ life.

I wonder if other shepherds passed by the burning bush without turning aside to see because they were too busy accounting for their herd. Perhaps Moses himself had walked past the site a few days in a row without really noticing the bush that burned but was never consumed. Or maybe not. Maybe Moses was in the habit of paying attention, looking at the mountain every day, so he knew right away when something on it was out of the ordinary. Whether it was momentary or habitual, Moses’ act of paying attention, turning his focus outward and upward, was the act that opened the way for God to speak. It brought to him an opportunity to deliver his people and take his place in God’s story of salvation.

You only see shooting stars if you’re looking up.

Looking up is something I’ve been trying to do more of lately. It’s a habit I’m striving to cultivate, and it’s been deeply rewarding. My wife bought me a pair of binoculars for Christmas, and I’ve enjoyed using them to see the night sky in more detail. Ever since, I have found myself venturing outside every time the sky is clear at night. I’ve even gotten into the habit of going onto the deck in the early morning, before everyone else is awake, to stargaze a bit before my daily prayer and Scripture reading.

The practice has nurtured my wonder at the universe, my appreciation for just how mind-bogglingly vast and intricate our creation is. But all that was to be expected. What I didn’t expect was how much I’d start to notice just because I was looking up more frequently.

I began to understand how the night sky changes in predictable ways over the course of an evening and in other predictable ways over the course of several months. I noticed that Orion was lower in the sky if I went out earlier, and higher if I went out later. I saw how Orion and Taurus moved gradually from east to west as the months progressed. I saw how the Big Dipper rotates around the northern sky but remains visible both in the evening and in the morning. I saw the Moon on one side of Jupiter one morning, and then on the other side of Jupiter the next morning. Using the binoculars, I’ve even seen some of Jupiter’s moons and noticed how they have moved from one morning to the next, but still say near Jupiter. I’ve watched Sagittarius recently become visible in the southern sky in the pre-dawn hour, and I know that it will gradually rise earlier and earlier.

None of this is new information, of course. Astronomers have watched and charted these movements in the sky for thousands of years. The slow movement of the stars has always been there to be noticed by those who look up, pay attention, and seek to understand. What’s changed has been my own attentiveness, my consistency in looking up and a more robust framework for understanding what I see.

Doing so has broadened my perspective. It’s easier to remember that the ground beneath us spins through 360 degrees of rotation once a day when you see the stars gradually change positions as the hour gets later. It’s easier to recall that our planet hurdles through space at 67,000 miles per hour when you see evidence of it in the night sky as the months pass. The world’s problems, my problems, suddenly become smaller when I consider them within this cosmic perspective. And at the same time, my impression of God becomes far larger when I realize that even these vast distances and speeds are as nothing to the Creator.

Paying attention also shifts my experience of time, attuning it a bit more with nature’s rhythms rather than measuring it solely by my watch and alarm clock. I know that soon I’ll no longer be able to see Orion at night, and the next time it becomes visible I’ll be thinking about Christmas. I know that the next time Sagittarius sits low in the southern sky at 5:00 am, I’ll have seen 12 more full moons and I’ll be a year older. Paying attention sets my problems and my joys in perspective, and helps me see how precious time is on this earth. It’s important to look up.

Do you find, like I do, that you wish you looked up more? What do you need to turn your attention away from? How can paying attention to your surroundings, whether it’s the night sky or the changing seasons or the people around you, give you a better perspective on your life? What opportunities might there be for you if you take the time to look upward and outward?

One morning a few weeks ago, I stood on my back deck with my binoculars. I was looking up through the bare branches of the trees beside my house, trying to find the North Star. But before it came into view, I saw a streak of light through my binocular lens. It flashed for a moment right through my field of vision, and then it was gone. It was too fast to have been an airplane, and too small to have been an animal up in the tree branches. I knew it was a shooting star, streaking for a brief instant then winking out. I said “Oh wow!” and offered silent prayer of thanks to God for allowing me to see something extraordinary on a routine weekday morning.

I’d gotten very lucky that I happened to have my binoculars on that narrow patch of sky at just the right time, so that I glimpsed the meteor when it passed. Then again, morning stargazing has become a habit of mine.

You only see shooting stars if you’re looking up.

 

It’s Been a While

Well friends, it’s been a while.

Work busy-ness and other life events (I’ll get to that in a moment) have left me with precious little time to write over the last several weeks. Let’s be real: when I have spare time to read OR to write, I’m going to choose to read every time. I have, thankfully, still been able to read during the past few months, and I’ve encountered a lot of fascinating ideas—everything from rocket science (literally) to the role algorithms play in our lives to the proper way to interpret the weird results of quantum mechanics. Life is calmer now, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to process and engage with these ideas as I get back to writing regularly.

For now, though, I wanted to say a little bit about where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to.

Last week my wife gave birth to our third child, a daughter. A date night to see Captain Marvel turned into timing contractions during the movie, which turned into an excited couple and a midnight trip to the hospital. We got to finish the movie, and baby girl arrived healthy the next morning. All in all, an exciting and deeply fulfilling 12 hours.

We already had 2 small kids, so needless to say life was pretty busy in the lead-up to labor and delivery. I had to set my writing on the back burner for a bit. Instead, we got a nursery ready and dug out the baby clothes. We got our 2 older kids settled into a shared bedroom and started potty training the younger one (still a work in progress). We bought diapers, after much procrastination, and installed a car seat. (Actually I did that in the hospital parking garage after the baby was already born, but who’s keeping track?) We did all the little things that need to get done when a baby is on the way, which take up far more time than you realize, and leave you exhausted—and that’s before the older two jump on your lap and ask for the attention they deserve, too.

In the meantime, I’ve had to confine my contributions to religion and science to getting our kids to church, looking up at the stars with them, and teaching them some early math. Those are the little things that are really the big things, after all. I figure if I focus on teaching my kids to love God and value learning, it’ll be time well spent.

In reflecting on all this, I’ve realized that so much of my reading and writing involves looking ahead to the future. I’m asking what changes might be coming in human life and society and how people of faith might respond and engage with them in a way that’s rooted in the Christian story and promotes love of God and neighbor. My reading and writing are my attempt to wrap my own head around these things and share them with others. Such thinking and writing is an act of service to future generations, providing some guidance either by exploring fruitful ideas or through illuminating some dead ends by my own trial and error. I write to help other Christians anticipate and think through the exciting changes that are coming and indeed, already here, so that people of faith will be prepared and not surprised by them.

But really, the top priority is always to serve those who are closest to me, the ones over whom I have the most influence and responsibility. It’s always above all about the two, now three, little ones in my life who will inherit that future, for good or for ill, and will need to be equipped to live in it with faithfulness and integrity. Their lives will be conditioned by technology in ways that mine will not. It may be that they will be the first generation to see a person land on Mars or even colonize Mars. It may be that their generation will first discover life on other worlds, fly by a distant star, or directly image another planet. Preparing them for that, or even just for plain old life with all its obstacles and delights, is plenty exciting for me. So a deep investment in those two, now three, young lives will always be worthwhile. I can only hope to invest faithfully.

So instead of writing, I’ve been reading Paw Patrol and Spiderman books. I’ve been using a rubber duck and plastic cups to conduct fun “experiments” in the bath tub, illustrating gravity and Archimedes’ principle. I’ve been quizzing my 5 year old on math (he’s getting where he can handle multiplication) and starting to introduce it to my 2 year old as well. And I’ve been reading them Bible stories, praying with them, and taking them to church.

As we settle into a new normal with our third child, I’m going to take up writing again. But it can’t be at the expense of teaching the most important people in my world what it means to enjoy learning and above all to love God and neighbor.

Daring to Dream

For the past month, my church has been thinking about God’s dreams. Our pastors just finished a sermon series called, “Dare to Dream,” exploring Scripture passages that connect in some way with dreams. We’ve read about the Magi studying the stars, looking upward and letting the heavens guide them to Jesus. We’ve considered Jacob’s dream at Bethel as God’s reassurance for Jacob’s present and future. We’ve seen John of Patmos dream of a better future through his visions in Revelation. And we’ve explored Joseph’s dreams, the obstacles he faced, and the way God brought those dreams about despite Joseph’s many setbacks. We’ve wondered about our dreams but also about God’s, and where the two intersect. For the whole month, our pastors have invited us to ask God, “What is your dream for my life?”

On the final Sunday of the series, the ushers gave us each a star as we entered worship, and there were sharpies in the pews. During a period of silence and reflection at the end of the service, our pastors encouraged us to write our dream on the star we’d been given.

I’m a born dreamer, but as I sat there with a sharpie in my hand, I hesitated. I have some dreams for my involvement in the local church and what we might do together, and some others related to my work as an editor. I have dreams for my family. I’d like to see all of those dreams fulfilled, because they are important. I work toward them in some small way every week. But in truth, none of them are the dream, the wild dream, the one that feels too enormous even to say out loud, much less try to bring about. That dream is both huge and silly, as dreams often are. Should I write it down? Or would it be better to write one of those smaller, more attainable dreams, easier for others to relate to and share?

I took a deep breath, and took the cap off the sharpie. What the heck, I thought. If I’m gonna dream, might as well dream big. Church on Mars, I wrote. It took a small leap of faith to write that down on my star. And then another small leap to put it in the basket along with everyone else’s stars and dreams.

A few days later, my wife and I were having lunch with one of our pastors. Our conversation turned to the stars from that past Sunday, and the pastor asked if I was the one who wrote about a church on Mars. “Of course,” I said with a laugh. She knows of my weird interest in all thing space.

“Were you being serious?” she asked. “Of course,” I said.

20190120_112854.jpgI shared with her that this isn’t my only dream, and it’s not the only way I’m seeking God’s will for my life. Still, I feel like it’s something that’s come from God, that blends my unique interests and ideas. I went on to explain how the end of our “Dare to Dream” series felt like the time for dreaming big, so I dared to write the big, silly dream.

In truth, that dream is what led me to start my blog last year, to start reading about space and physics, and to begin and thinking about the intersection of these things with Christian theology. I had a dawning realization that humans might colonize Mars in the next 25-50 years, and that it might happen quite apart from the Christian faith, or any faith, for that matter. I had a dream of human communities pushing the boundaries of our very existence, and I wanted to be sure that Christianity—its values, its practices, its understanding about God and the universe and what it means to be human—shapes that journey and those communities, because the Christian faith holds something valuable, meaningful, indeed vital for human flourishing. I felt God calling me in some small way to turn the eyes of Christian people toward the stars, because our fellow humans’ eyes are turning that way and we need to take notice, for their sake and for ours. I had a dream of God’s grace going on ahead of people wherever human life exists, even if it’s literally on another planet or off in space somewhere.

It’s not my only dream; it’s not even my most important dream. But it is my big one, my wild one, the one that requires a daring leap of imagination. I don’t even know what steps to take toward it, except that the first step must be to own it, write it down, and share it with somebody else.

I’m not even sure the steps matter all that much. It’s such a long-term dream. I probably won’t live to see a church actually planted on Mars, much less have anything to do with making it happen, but that’s ok. I have a hunch that the many of our big dreams get fulfilled after we die anyway. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t live to see the great nation that their children would become. It didn’t stop Abraham from looking up at the stars and hearing God’s promises. It didn’t stop Jacob from dreaming either.

 

 

Transhumanism and the Image of God

Late last year, I found out that my good friend Jacob Shatzer has a forthcoming book called Transhumanism and the Image of God: Today’s Technology and the Future of Christian Discipleship. It’s scheduled to publish in April, but I asked Jacob if he’d let me read an advance copy of the book since it intersects with my interests and, you know, we’re buddies. Plus, it’s the least he could do after beating me twice in our longstanding fantasy football league this fall.

Ever the good friend, Jacob agreed to send me the manuscript, which I finished reading just after Christmas. It is a thought-provoking, critical analysis of transhumanism and how Christians can and should engage with it—and with the various forms of technology that influence who we are and how we live, for better or for worse.

Jacob  penetrates beneath the claims and goals of transhumanism to identify its underlying values, exploring both the forces shaping those values and the degree to which they are consistent with Christianity. The book is generally critical of transhumanism, concluding that its aims are largely at odds with the Christian faith, especially with regard to what it means to be human.

Jacob describes transhumanism as a worldview that “pushes for the continued evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form—and thus beyond human limitations—by means of science and technology, which are guided by life-promoting principles and values” (p. 40). Another way to put it is this: transhumanism is a vision of humankind beginning to direct its own evolution, taking charge of a process that until now has been governed largely by environment and survival.

Jacob focuses much of the book on what exactly are the “life-promoting principles and values” of transhumanism, asking whether they are in fact life-promoting, how we can know, and who says so. Regarding the use of technology, he rightly recognizes that tools are not just tools; they shape the people who use them. (For example, if I use a hammer enough times, my hand-eye coordination and muscle memory are changed to make me a better swinger of hammers and driver of nails.) This goes for tools such as computers computers and smart phones as well. We must recognize that these tools are not neutral, and we must be responsible enough to ask how using them shapes us, and whether or not this is a good thing. Jacob’s conclusion is that today’s technology encodes within us values that are consistent with transhumanism. In other words, our use of technology forms us in such a way that we value and desire the very things that transhumanism promises to give us through that same technology. This insight drives the exploration and evaluation of transhumanism that unfold in Jacob’s book.

The values Jacob identifies within the transhumanist worldview include moral autonomy, especially as expressed in an individual’s conscience; progress, the notion that society is nearly always moving forward; longevity of human life; self-direction; rational thinking; open society; and a positive outlook toward technology. He defines and discusses all of these values within the book, and indicates a bit about how today’s technology promotes these values.

Jacob then explores 3 key areas of transhumanism with those values in mind: morphological freedom, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. Morphological freedom refers to the ability to change our bodies in some way by means of technology, whether in response to an injury or perceived disadvantage or simply out of a desire to be a certain way. The technology involved would include, among other things, gene editing, prosthetics, and radical extension of human life. Changes to humans and their bodies would include, among other things, increased strength, endurance, and intellect, eradication or prevention of disease, more “cosmetic” things such as height, hair, or eye color. There’s substantial overlap between this category and much modern medicine.

 Augmented reality refers to an interface between the digital and the biological that alters our perception of and interaction with the world around us. It includes social media and other interactions mediated by digital devices, as well as virtual reality and explicitly labeled augmented reality (AR) that overlays digital information on top of our perceptions of the world. (The popular game Pokemon Go is an instance of AR, allowing people to capture digital creatures at specific, real-world locations.)

Artificial intelligence is just what it sounds like—the creation of computers that are just as intelligent as humans or more so, or even the ability of a person to upload one’s mind to a computer, thereby extending or even multiplying one’s “life.” It would also include the expansion of human mental capacity by artificial means, such as linking a brain with a computer to increase memory or thinking (or both). If morphological freedom, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence represent a continuum of human interaction with technology, artificial intelligence stands at the far end of the spectrum. It is a thorough blending off the biological and the digital and the near-total removal of the distinction between them.

After describing and analyzing these technological factors and their implicit underlying values in the first half of the book, Jacob explores the changing facets of human life due to technology in specific instances. Through the second half of the book, he critically engages the promises of transhumanism and offers biblical themes, Christian practices, or other theological images and ideas to help Christians approach these changing landscapes faithfully. Amid changing notions of experience, Jacob lifts up the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and the art of storytelling as ways to orient us toward a life-giving view of reality. Amid changing notions of place, he calls us to see the value of “placemaking practices” such as gardening and homemaking that root us in a particular location, reminding us of our connection to a specific environment rather than striving to disconnect us from it. Amid changing notions of relationships, he lifts up real friendship and the Eucharist as ways of shaping our interactions and commitments to others. And amid changing notions of the self, he draws us back to the Christian promise of a new self, pointing toward salvation and our eschatological hope of becoming a new person in Christ Jesus.

Jacob’s key insights that tools shape us, and that many of our technological tools are shaping us to value precisely what technology promises, are an important contribution to the discussion of how Christians should respond to developing technology and to a transhumanist worldview that often uncritically accepts and promotes this technology. He takes some good initial steps toward a response by identifying various theological themes and ideas, though one senses that this discussion is just beginning and that more can and should be said in each of these areas.

One topic on which I wish he’d written more is vocation, and the particular shape that God’s calling takes in our individual lives. Jacob hints that a worldview in which we are called by God to be a certain way stands in tension with a worldview in which we have the means and freedom to be any way we choose. This seems to me to be a critical point, the resolution of which might enable Christians to engage more fruitfully with transhumanism. What is the role of human agency in responding to God’s call in our lives? How specific and direct is God’s call for an individual, and what freedom does the person have in how he or she fulfills this divine calling?

The religious transhumanist would answer, I think rightly, that God gives us considerable freedom in responding to the divine call, and that technology offers various tools at our disposal to do so. In other words, part of God’s call is for us to develop useful tools and discern how to use them well. However, assigning too great a role to human agency removes any sense of responsibility and accountability to Another, and our sense of God’s call becomes little more than what seems right in our own eyes. Articulating the balance between the role of God’s authority and initiation on the one hand with human freedom and agency on the other hand will clarify the common ground between transhumanism and the Christian worldview, both of which hold a vision of humankind that is uplifted beyond its present limitations.

I offer those last two paragraphs not as a criticism, but as a way of continuing the conversation. I appreciate Jacob’s willingness to explore underlying values rather than remain content with a surface-level analysis of technology and attitudes toward it. I also appreciate Jacob’s desire to respond to the various questions technology raises from a firm grounding within the Christian tradition. More hard work like this needs to be done if Christians are to address technology in a way that’s both relevant and fruitful. I hope Jacob and I get to continue the conversation, either in writing or in person. Preferably both.

The Reading List: Part 2

Last May, I posted a list of books I’ve read with a brief description of each one and a bit of a response to it. This annotated bibliography of sorts was useful for me, to organize my thoughts on the books and help me remember the main ideas or stories and my responses to them. I decided to share it to keep me accountable for actually writing it, and in the hope that somebody might find my thoughts on these books helpful if they’re interested in these or similar topics.

With 2018 squarely behind us, I wanted to round out the list with everything I read in the second half of last year. Here it is, in roughly the order in which I read each book:

The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson, by Stanley Hauerwas. In 2002, Stanley Hauerwas became the godfather of Laurence Wells, the son of Samuel and Jo Bailey Wells, friends and eventual colleagues at Duke Divinity School. As the boy’s godfather, Hauerwas agreed to write a letter each year on the anniversary of his baptism, describing a different virtue in each letter. This book contains the published collection of Hauerwas’ letters, written over the course of sixteen years, on a host of virtues ranging from patience to friendship. In addition to the challenging and thought-provoking reflections on these virtues from a brilliant Christian thinker, I appreciated the book’s personal tone and time-bound qualities. I pray almost daily for God to create and nurture in me the virtues of the Christian life, and trust that books like this one will help me recognize what those virtues look like.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, by Chris Hadfield. This was a fascinating read from an astronaut who traveled to space three times and served as the commander of the International Space Station in 2012. The book was very well-written and gave an insider’s view of what it’s like to be an astronaut, as well as highlighting important life lessons that Hadfield gained from his experience that can apply to just about anybody. I especially appreciated the combination of grit, humility, and perspective that characterized Hadfield’s journey from a kid who dreamed of being an astronaut to a man who saw that dream come true.

Infinite, by Jeremy Robinson. A friend recommended to me this fast-paced sci-fi book about a man who’s stuck alone on a space ship, traveling through the universe, unable to change course and unable to die. In addition to being just plain entertaining, the story raises some good questions about our relationship with artificial intelligence and virtual reality. I didn’t read a lot of fiction books this year, but I’m very glad this was one of them.

Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy, by Govert Schilling. In this book, Schilling chronicles the hundred-year search for gravitational waves, from Einstein’s prediction of their existence in the early 1900s to their eventual discovery by the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in 2016. What’s especially striking are the long-lasting perseverance and large-scale collaboration of the scientists involved in the search, many of whom waited decades to see their efforts pay off. It’s hard not to be impressed by the extreme precision of LIGO or by the multi-national effort to create it and analyze the results—to say nothing of the new avenues of astronomy that gravitational wave detection promises to open up.

Einstein’s Miraculous Year, by Albert Einstein with a foreword by Roger Penrose. I actually got this book when I was much younger, but for some reason I never read it until this year. The book contains English translations of 5 landmark papers that Einstein wrote in 1905, a remarkable year in which he published the special theory of relativity, which changed forever our conceptions of space and time, and his first explanation of the photo-electric effect using the idea of photons, a significant contribution to quantum physics for which he eventually won the Nobel Prize. These were technical physics papers and I won’t pretend that I understood all the math, but even so it was fascinating to read Einstein’s work and see his original presentation of ideas that would change our understanding of the world in such profound ways.

Modern Cider: Simple Recipes to Make Your Own Ciders, Perries, Cysers, Shrubs, Fruit Wines, Vinegars, and More, by Emma Christensen. Definitely the outlier on this list, but it speaks to another hobby of mine! My wife Amy bought me this book for my birthday, since she knows how much I love to make my own apple cider. It’s a hobby that started a few years ago, which has gotten a bit more intense each year. This year I built my own cider press (before I was boiling the apples to create the pulp I used to make the cider) and made 2 big batches, experimenting with different combinations of apples and canning about 6 gallons of cider all together. I really enjoyed the book, which contains a lot of good tips and recipes for making both hard cider and the non-alcoholic kind (which I make). Next year I’ll almost certainly increase my production and try my hand at fermenting a couple of batches using the recipes in this book.  

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, by Maryanne Wolf. In this book, a neuroscientist who specializes in what happens in our brains when we read describes the neurological changes that take place when we read on screens as opposed to paper. Wolf gives a highly accessible overview of the processes our brains go through when we read, and of the changes in our brains as we learn how to read. What becomes clear through her account is that reading is far from hard-wired into our minds. Rather, our brains are highly malleable (she uses the term “neuroplasticity”), which allows us to develop reading as an adaptation. But this very plasticity leaves our brains vulnerable to other changes when we read in other ways—which is exactly what’s happening in our culture as we move to reading shorter, simpler content on digital devices. She makes a convincing and compelling case that we are losing the ability to sustain our attention and follow longer, more complex sentences and paragraphs, and asks what will happen if these changes become irreversible. Most importantly, she advocates for protecting children from these changes by nurturing their ability to read and teaching them how to be intelligent users of digital as well as print media. I appreciated her book very much, and it’s caused me to think twice about other changes that our brains and bodies are undergoing as we race into a new, technological world—and how we might resist the negative effects of those changes.

Revelation Through Science, by James G. Martin. My aunt gave me this book, signed by the author—an organic chemist who studied at Princeton and taught at Davidson University. Oh, and also the former governor of North Carolina. The book makes the case for the ability of science and religious faith to coexist, and highlights the ways in which science points us to the knowledge of God. The book gives a wonderful introduction to major scientific fields and identifies ways they are compatible with Christianity. As someone who’s long since reconciled the science-versus-religion debate, I didn’t need any convincing to be 100% on board with his argument. Still, I appreciated the in-depth look at all these various fields from someone with a stellar science background and strong Christian faith, who also happens to know a thing or two about how politics are involved.

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek. This was a quick read, but a good one. Sinek makes a strong case for identifying one’s purpose, whether that’s applied to an individual, a community, a company, or a product, and letting that drive every decision and course of action going forward. Much of what he has to say is obviously true once he expresses it, but it’s so easy to forget that it’s important to receive the reminder and see just how critical it is to maintain a sense of “why.” The book caused me to reflect on my own sense of “why” and conclude that I’m all about learning new things—I feel energized and passionate when I’m learning something new, whether that’s about the Bible or about publishing or about science. As long as I keep that curiosity and drive to learn front-and-center of my life, chances are I’ll feel pretty fulfilled most of the time.

An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor. Our home group read this over the course of several weeks, and I appreciated the insights Taylor outlined about how we can see each moment as an opportunity to connect with God. As someone who’s constantly striving to do more and make the most out of every available minute, I found myself especially challenged by her emphasis on keeping Sabbath. It’s something I hope to be much better about in 2019.

Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, by Henryk Sienkiewicz. A fellow grad student introduced me to this book eight or nine years ago, and I found it deeply moving. It did not disappoint on a second read this year. The book tells a beautiful story of love and the power of the Christian faith as a new movement in ancient Rome. As I’m exploring connections between science and faith—asking how the Christian faith can respond to new discoveries and developments in our world—it was important reminder sacrificial love, relentless hope, and the world-changing power of the Christian faith are timeless.

For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, by W.H. Auden. When I was in divinity school, I came across a few lines of a poem:

How can the Eternal do a temporal act?
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible.

When I got curious and looked them up, I discovered that they were part of this much larger work by W.H. Auden, which tells the Christmas story in poetic form, from Advent through the holy family’s flight to Egypt. For the past four or five years I’ve made it a practice to read through the poem each year during Advent, and it still moves me every time. The idea of infinite reality meeting our finite world, a theme which runs through the whole poem, resonated with me more deeply this year after several months of thinking, reading, and writing about how the physical laws of the universe point to the God who created them.

Transhumanism and the Image of God, by Jacob Shatzer. This book isn’t due to publish until April, but Jacob is a good friend of mine from Marquette University, and he was kind enough to let me read a preview copy. In this book, Jacob gives an introduction to transhumanism and, just as importantly, insight into some of its central values and the way our cultural practices and tools lead us to adopt those same values. While he recognizes the good things that technology promises, he also cautions against the uncritical optimism of the transhumanist outlook, and reminds us that the Christian way of life values different thing and lifts up alternate practices and attitudes to shape our lives in a way that’s authentic to who we’re created to be. In my next post I’ll write up a fuller review of Jacob’s book, so be on the lookout!

Genes, Determinism, and God, by Denis Alexander. Rounding out 2018 is this book about the interplay between genetics and human free will. I found myself wishing I’d taken a few more biology classes as I was reading it. It was well-written and highly informative, but dense and at times technical in a way that left me as a non-biologist a bit in the dark. Still, the author does a fantastic job of showing just how intimately our genetics and our environment are intertwined, each contributing decisively to making us who we are. He shows how environmental factors, including everything from life experiences to molecules that interact with and within our cells, even our decisions and habits, have a profound effect on who we are—how we look, behave, think, feel. He makes a powerful case for affirming human free will despite recognizing the role of genetics in shaping who we are. He articulates a view of the human person based on contemporary science that is both hopeful and challenging, consistent with Christianity’s view of what it means to be human and the way God calls us to live.

Collecting my thoughts about the books above reminds me once again how enjoyable and fulfilling it was to explore new (to me) ideas in 2018. I have a brand-new stack of books awaiting me in 2019. Stay tuned!

What about you? Read anything good last year?