Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Monday, June 30, 2014

Transparent Moments of Scholarship when a Theologian Must Either Stay or Change, Part 1 - Introduction


In the Spring of 2011, some 3-1/2 years ago, I came to a crossroads in my life that had so burdened my spirit that all was black and spiritual night. For the past dozen-or-so-years the spiritual conflict within me had built up until this moment when I had to let all go or explode. And when I did, the entirety of my personal foundations and theological structures went knowingly with it.

This period of life (as is typical within any society experiencing a profound era change) might be known as a revelation phase. Its an intense phase of life involving mind and heart, will and spirit. One demanding a harsher re-examination of personal beliefs and assurances than had ever been previously known or felt. Its not pretty. And is fairly thorough in sweeping out all past reasonable assurances and religious necessities which had given personal meaning, theological structure, and epistemological foundation, to one's soul.

What I remember is that I felt very alone in this new world of disbelief and uncertainty. And especially so with my religious past. That I had no one to share my agony with. And that the hard work laying ahead of me would be mine alone to shoulder and carry.

It also came with a lot of personal blackness and spiritual doubt. Nor did it come for a moment and then leave as quickly. No, it stayed on for quite a long while as a curiously welcomed guest who must stay on until all personal elements of belief and meaning had been re-examined and re-cast either into a black nothingness or onto a broader plain of knowing.

Curiously, the period before this time - those proceeding dozen years or more - was the time when my spiritual agitation was at its highest. It felt like I was on a spiritual roller coaster going through the highs and lows of doubt and disbelief. I found myself thrown about a pitching car of great emotions as it rolled along the tendered tracks of theological subjects I had earlier prized but were fast becoming disconnected and unmeaningful when re-examined in this newer, unwanted, revelatory light of personal skepticism. A Holy Spirit illumination I didn't want, and very much doubted at the time, as I cross-examined each emotion and every revelatory insight with years-and-years-and-years worth of biblical study and theological training.

But when the intensity of my dilemma had come to its pinnacle, it was total. And it was unremitting. And it was not kind.

So there I stood at the questioning apex of belief v. unbelief looking down the long roller coaster tracks to its knowing bottom and knew it must be ridden roughly downwards to the end though my choice was to ignore it. Which I couldn't. Or to accept it, while trying to make sense of this jagged illumination I found myself within, as I hurtled violently downwards. Which I did. And when done, gave an immense sense of relief of completion and finality.

Ironic? Yes. I would never have expected the peace that came after the violent ride of disbelief that I had been on.

Relief? Completion? How can this be when one has come to the bottom of personal meaning without having anything left to cling to? No life raft to survive in? No personal bridges sustaining a revered past. Just a deep sense of unknowing met with a great sense that its end has been reached after so long a misery.

It was a personal space that demanded no answers and needed none being content in its unknowing.

But what it demanded next I will tell in Part 2 of this subject. Till then the following articles may help in revealing some of the pertinent issues I - and others! - were working through, when confronted by Christ and His Word, beyond the horn-rimmed glasses of our conservative religious backgrounds.

And though I felt very much alone during this time of travail, there was a large host of similarly burdened believers going through their own trials and lamentations - though unbeknownst to me (some of whom we follow on this blog site here). Not unlike the Old Testament figure of Isaiah during his prophetic time of despair and doubt, who also felt very much alone in his burden and care. It was not until much later that Isaiah discovered from the Lord the many thousands who were also going through similar torments and trials.

The mystery of it all is how the Lord works in the midst of His people. Even when we have come to the end of doubt and despair believing all is rot and meaningless. Even so, Lord, thank you for your faithfulness and goodness. Amen.


R.E. Slater
June 30, 2014

Continue to -

Index to Series - 

Transparent Moments of Scholarship when a Theologian Must Either Stay or Change

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“I was always taught the Bible says X, but I just don’t see it”

June 24, 2014

Recently at the Huffington Post, Greg Carey (Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary), published his thoughts on how the Bible itself challenges fundamentalism rather than supports it. The article, with its provocative title, “Where Do ‘Liberal’ Scholars Come From,” has attracted some attention, both pro and con.

Many (including me) resonated with Carey’s article, and though some found it unconvincing, Carey is simply rehearsing a well-worn path in western Christianity over the last several hundred years:

“I was taught to believe the Bible unequivocally says X,
but I just don’t see it, so I am going to stop believing X.”

Fill in X with any one of a number of issues.

I have known many people, and heard of many others, who have come from conservative, or moderately conservative, backgrounds and whose earlier paradigms have been seriously challenged by the simple process of paying attention to scripture in context–whether the immediate literary context or the historical context. This is especially true of those who have done higher level academic work outside of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, but is by no means restricted to this group.

Why does this happen?

I think it’s because scripture doesn’t line up very well with the conservative paradigm of scripture (some form of inerrancy). That’s why the paradigm needs constant tending and vigilant defending in order to survive [by conservative groups].

I mean, there’s a reason why Carey’s phenomenon keeps rearing its head generation-after-generation. It’s not (as I hear far too often) that the offenders are intellectually naive (or dim-witted) and have been duped or are too spiritually weak-kneed to “hold on to the truth.”

The recurring unrest with conservative readings of scripture from within conservative circles suggests that the [inerrancy] paradigm is flawed.

My plan over the coming weeks is to invite some biblical scholars from evangelical backgrounds to write about the issue(s) that brought them to reconsider the older paradigms they were taught, to let us in on their own “aha” moments that brought them to the brink of having to make a decision between staying put or moving on–and why they chose to move on.

I’ll keep you posted, of course.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Where Do 'Liberal' Bible Scholars Come From?

by Greg Carey,
Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary

Posted: 08/20/2012 11:56 am

In public conversations such as The Huffington Post, it's common to see people deriding "liberal" biblical scholars, as if the world is just full of people whose dearest wish is to undermine the Bible and turn Jesus into nothing but a symbol for a bizarre mushroom cult.

(And by the way, that Jesus-mushroom thing? It was actually proposed.)

Biblical scholarship is an academic discipline, taught and studied at universities, colleges and divinity schools all around the world. So it should be no surprise that biblical scholars run in all shapes, sizes, colors and denominations. What would surprise many people, though, is that a very large number of us love Jesus and the church, and we spend hours upon hours communicating the love and wonder we experience with the Bible. Indeed, some of our secular colleagues justifiably complain there are too many of us in the field. More surprising might be this one fact: many of us have our roots in fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. The best way for conservative churches to produce "liberal" biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.

That's how it worked for me. I didn't grow up in church, but I found Jesus and was baptized in an Alabama Baptist church just before my 15th birthday. Our pastor and youth director encouraged me to read the Bible, so I did: I got an affordable new Bible and read the Gospel of John. And I loved it! I felt that I knew Jesus more intimately and understood my faith better.

Not long after reading John, I found a little brochure that contained a schedule for reading the Bible all the way through in one year. So I took the challenge, from Genesis through Revelation, about three or four chapters a day -- and more when I missed a day. At some point I started highlighting meaningful passages. And within a year, not only had I read the entire Bible, some sections now appeared in lime green, neon yellow, and turquoise blue. I suspect that most of the verses in Romans and John are highlighted. Probably less so for Obadiah.

I read the Bible all the way through twice as a young person, not to mention the daily devotionals, Bible studies, Sunday School lessons, and youth group meetings that structure a Southern Baptist teenager's life. And along the way, a few things happened that prepared the way for my journey into biblical scholarship.

The first thing seemed little, but it proved to be important later on. Reading through Matthew, then Mark, and then Luke, a young person can get bored: Didn't I see this story before? I get it already: How many people did Jesus heal? But something else happens, too. You begin to notice little inconsistencies. Did Jesus say that whoever is not with him is against him (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23), or did he say that whoever is not against him is for him (Mark 9:40)? Who was there to visit Jesus' tomb? How did Judas die (Matthew 27:1-10; Acts 1:18-19)?

An innocent Bible reader assumes there must be satisfactory resolutions to such problems. But no such explanations exist. Different biblical books simply tell stories differently. Some offer conflicting answers to important questions. In my case this became clear when I sat in on a religious studies class during a college visit. With a colorful chart, the instructor was explaining how the Gospels were composed -- that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke relied upon copies of Mark. As soon as I saw that chart, I instantly knew where we were headed! There was no way the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses who simply remembered things differently. At that moment I had no idea I'd wind up devoting a career to biblical studies. Ironic, I suppose.

My second memory involves the one thing that most bothers pious high schoolers: sex. Our church leaders warned us not only to abstain sexual intercourse but also to avoid those heavy makeout sessions that lead to removing sweaters, exploring panty lines, and so forth. And depending on what the meaning of it is, I pretty much succeeded. But I was also reading my Bible. And nowhere did I find all this stuff about saving sex for marriage. (That's because the Bible doesn't include that message, certainly not consistently.)

Naturally, I asked one of our adult leaders, who in turn grew quite frustrated by my impertinence. A few days later a card came in the mail, signed by this adult with a simple Bible reference, Proverbs 3:5-6. I'm sure my quotation isn't exactly accurate, but I knew it in the King James Version: "Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." (OK, I checked. I only substituted a comma for a semi-colon.) This person who was responsible for my spiritual development had effectively patted me on the head and told me to submit to what the church was teaching. [That] my own reading of the Bible didn't amount to much, after all [in the church's eyes].

One more memory - [one which] I've reflected on in another blog post. A few years ago I looked back through that old Bible, with all its highlighted marks. And I wondered how a 16-year-old Southern Baptist would have made sense out of Ephesians 5:21-6:9, a passage that tells wives to submit to their husbands, children to obey their parents and slaves to obey their masters. To this 16-year-old boy, wives obeying husbands sounded like a good deal. Being pious, I even highlighted the part about children and parents. But having grown up in Alabama, with the coals still hot from Birmingham and Selma, I simply could not highlight slaves' obedience as an expression of God's will. I'd already learned an important lesson: the Bible requires responsible interpretation.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, "The best cure for Christianity is reading the Bible." If he did say that, his wisdom didn't take in my case. Though I understand it differently, I love the Bible as much as I ever have. I'm just as passionate for Jesus and for the gospel as I ever have been, though I understand them differently too. But I can say this: Reading the Bible is a terrific cure for fundamentalism. That's exactly how many of us so-called liberal Bible scholars got our start.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review - The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, Part 1

Milky Way on Leslie Gulch Reservoir, Owyhees, Idaho

A few weeks ago I made the following observations:

"God is holy. God is good. God is love. But the greatest of these is love. Love is how God makes one holy and good through Jesus. Not of human will but divine.

God's love cannot be preached enough. All Christian doctrine must proceed on God's love. All missions of the church must go at this sublime thought. No other church dogma must be higher than the grace of God. And all church doctrine must revolve around this one thought.

The holiness of God is meaningless without the grace of God. The goodness of God has no affect if it isn't bathed in God's atoning grace. Holiness without grace is austere. It proceeds in judgment first, last, and always. Goodness is without effect if not given in love. It is wholly utilitarian and bare of God's mindful relation to His creation if not met in love.

The love of God is the most sufficient descriptor of the Christian faith, of God Himself, and God's relationship to His creation. None else may proceed above this thought."

- R.E. Slater, June 2, 2014

In due consideration of today's article I think it is important to remind ourselves that open and relational theology rests in the entirety of its subject upon this sublime thought. Should it stray even an iota from the love of God than it ventures from the intentional (and some will now say, insistent) heart of God into the schemes and pretensions of men and their doctrines.

Today's article will be one of several to come. Here, we focus on what is meant by open and relational theologies when speaking to the subject of God's {open and relational} divine providence.

We will continue to discuss this important subject in the days and weeks to come.


R.E. Slater
June 23, 2014

The God Who Risks

The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence
Book Blurb

If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, can he in any way be vulnerable to his creation? Can God be in control of anything at all if he is not constantly in control of everything? John Sanders says yes to both of these questions. In The God Who Risks, he mounts a careful and challenging argument for positive answers to both of these profound theological questions. In this thoroughly revised edition, Sanders clarifies his position and responds to his critics. His book will not only contribute to serious ongoing theological discussion but will enlighten pastors and laypersons who struggle with questions about suffering, evil and human free will.

* * * * * * * * * * *

John Sanders and Divine Providence:
Points of Agreement

by Thomas Jay Oord
June 23, 2014

All who journey to open and relational theology ponder providence. Theologian John Sanders offers one of the most thorough and best-known theologies of providence written from an open and relational perspective. His book, The God Who Risks, has as its subtitle, A Theology of Divine Providence.

I am currently writing a book on providence, randomness, and evil. In it, I proffer my own version of open and relational theology – what I call “essential kenosis.” My version is similar to Sanders’s, but it also differs in important ways.

The following essay is my summary of Sanders's overall theology of providence. These are issues on which we agree. In subsequent blog essays, I highlight areas of disagreement to contrast Sanders’s views with my alternative open and relational theology proposal.

A Risk Model of Providence

Sanders understands providence as “the way God has chosen to relate to us and provide for our well-being.” He offers a “risk model of providence,” which says God voluntarily decided to create a world with free creatures. When creating in this way, God made a covenant to be open to creatures. This covenant “is not a detailed script but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how it may be reached.”

As an open and relational theologian, Sanders rejects the idea that God constantly controls others. “God grants humans genuine freedom to participate in this project, and he does not force them to comply.” Creating genuinely free creatures meant God losing the ability to control all creatures all the time.

God acts providentially, but the divine plan has “a broad intention with flexible strategies that allow for a variety of options.” God works with his creatures, seeking to obtain various goals. In this providential activity, “God genuinely enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with humans, loving them, providing for them, and soliciting their collaboration in the fulfillment of God’s purposes for creation.”

God’s providence involves risk, which means God “does not get everything he desires,” says Sanders. But this is the nature of love, because “love takes risks and is willing to wait and try again if need be.” Love may result in deep interpersonal relationship. But it may also be scorned, as creatures reject God’s invitation. This does not make God helpless, because “there is much the lover can do,” says Sanders. “But success is not guaranteed."

The risk model of providence will not appeal to everyone, Sanders admits. Some believers prefer guarantees. But the alternative to a risk-taking God is some form of theological determinism: "Outcomes are guaranteed only if God controls others entirely and fails to take risks. Robots can be trusted to comply, but free creatures may hinder divine plans."

Sanders affirms open and relational beliefs about God’s knowledge and relation to time. “God is everlasting through time,” he says, “rather than timelessly eternal.” God knows all that can be known given the sort of world God chose to create. But the future is not entirely knowable, because it is contingent upon creaturely choices. This is what Sanders calls “dynamic omniscience.” In this view, “God knows the past and present with exhaustive definite knowledge and knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open).”

The Language of Love

Love motivates Gods’ providential activity. “Love is the preeminent characteristic of God,” says Sanders. And “the commitment to love his creatures and bring them into a reciprocal relationship of love is fundamental to God.” God does not give up on covenantal commitments but responds with a strategy for redeeming each situation. Sanders believes that “God loves his creatures and desires to bless them with all that is in their best interest.” The relationship God offers “is not one of control and domination but rather one of powerful love and vulnerability.

Some criticize open and relational theologians for using creaturely analogies when talking about the Creator. The technical word for this practice is “anthropomorphism,” which means “human-like.” Open theists use images, analogies, and language to describe God, who is not a creature.

Sanders answers this criticism by saying biblical writers use anthropomorphic language. Consequently, biblically-oriented open and relational theologians feel warranted for following this biblically-derived practice. Furthermore, scripture reveals that God is like us in some respects but not in others. Our language describes at least something about who God truly is. This is especially true if, as the Bible says, we are created in God’s image.

The clearest revelation of God comes in Jesus Christ, himself human. Sanders makes a strong Christological case for open and relational theology. “If Jesus is the ultimate revelation of who God is and what humans are supposed to be in relationship to God,” he says, “then we should pay particular attention to the way divine providence works in the life of Jesus.” If we look to Jesus, says Sanders, “we see the genuine character of God, who is neither an omnipotent tyrant nor an impotent wimp.”

Jesus reveals that God intimately relates to us by giving and receiving love. “God is intimate and near, not remote or disengaged,” says Sanders. Because creatures affect God, the evangelical emphasis on “a personal relationship with God” is correct. God’s way is to respond to creatures and be receptive to what they say and do.

According to the witness of Jesus, God opposes evil. “If Jesus is the paradigm of providence,” says Sanders, “then God is fundamentally opposed to sin, evil, and suffering.” Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reveal that “God is not the all-determining power responsible for sending everything, including suffering, on us.” Rather, “the way of God is love.” “The almighty God wins our hearts through the weakness of the cross and the power of the resurrection,” says Sanders. “Love does not force its own way on the beloved.”


Up to this point in my summary of Sanders’s version of open and relational theology, I completely agree with him. I might articulate some points slightly differently. But we both endorse main themes of open and relational theology. We agree on so much!

I firmly believe many Christians are confused about issues of providence. And Sanders's version of open and relational theologies can go a long way toward alleviating that confusion. I recommend The God Who Risks!

As I said at the outset, however, I disagree with Sanders on some issues. My primary disagreement pertains to his view of how God’s love, power, and failure to prevent genuine evil are related. I will address this in subsequent blogs....


Thursday, June 19, 2014

God & Nature - Creation Care

Creation Care: What is it?
an interview with Dorothy Boorse

by Emily Ruppel and Dorothy Boorse

In your own words, what is “creation care” and why is it important to Christians, specifically?

Care of the natural world is a part of the job of all people. I think that’s the central concept of creation care.

How did you become involved in this movement and why? Who else do you see as a leader in this area, and who can become involved?

I grew up on a small farm with parents who were committed to caring for the world.  I attended Mennonite schools. Mennonites are committed to peace and justice and have a strong ethic of simple living. These things and an abiding love of the natural world born from camping trips, gardening and time with my family outdoors, gave me a drive to protect the natural world. My college mentors especially Richard Wright and Tom Dent and my experience at AuSable Institute cemented this desire.

(This is too many questions in one question!)

Anyone can get involved!

Many denominations have some type of creation care program.

Many relief and development agencies do as well.

I especially appreciate the work of organizations like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, AuSable Institute, Renewal, and Restoring Eden because of their emphasis on working with young people.

How have atheist or secular environmental science groups responded to this call to action? 

I can speak to atheists, but in my experience, secular groups have been glad to have a Christian voice calling for caring for the environment. In the last decade in particular, many scientific and environmental groups have reached out to faith communities.

What do you think is the most important habit or lifestyle choice to cultivate for Christians who want to make a daily impact on helping the environment? What else can we do?

I don’t know what the single most effective thing is, but I think we need a mindfulness continually. It’s very similar to diet and exercise.

If you live unhealthily, you have to change your lifestyle, it isn’t just one little thing.  I think we need to be “earth healthier “ I also think we will need significant new ideas. For example, having Zip cars for car sharing is a radical way to avoid having everyone own their own car. I think we need more such ideas.

What else should God & Nature readers know about Christian environmentalism in the 21st century?

I think there is support for care of the environment that comes out of a concern for the next generation. Knowing that we are making decisions today that affect the welfare not only of the poorest among us now, but of future generations, is a motivator to be more intentional in our actions.  I would want readers to connect North American evangelical Christianity to Christianity all around the world. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anabaptists, and a range of protestant groups all care about the environment.

G&N - Poetry for Scientists?

Poetry for Scientists?

At one time in my academic career, courses with names like "Chemistry for Poets" were being introduced. The idea was to teach liberal arts students at least something about chemistry without turning them off. My colleagues on the chemistry faculty used to debate whether mathematically minimal, non-laboratory courses in science would do more harm than good.

I forget which side of that debate I was on. Obviously it was better to produce liberal arts alumni who appreciated science rather than ignoring it or hating it. But would "science-lite" give them false impressions about science―and about their knowledge of it? Lately I've been thinking about the reverse situation. Would courses like "Poetry for Chemists" do much to humanize the scientific profession?

Readers of God & Nature may want to weigh in on this question. Anyone trained in science who is also a committed Christian knows that using scientific language is not the only way to say something important. God speaks to us from the Bible in an intensely personal way, sometimes in a special kind of structured language chosen for its emotive power. That's what poetry is. Actually, by even the strictest definition, poetry makes up over a third of the Old Testament, with other poetic passages scattered throughout the whole Bible. If the living God feels free to speak in poetic form, why shouldn't we? Chemists know how to speak in formulas, equations, objective analysis―why not in poetry?

To be literate, in the broadest sense, is to be educated. Literally, the word "literate" refers to an ability to read and write. When scientists complain that most of the general population is "scientifically illiterate," we mean that they couldn't read a scientific report and discuss it. Over fifty years ago, that situation was brought to public attention in a lecture by C. P. Snow, published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1959). In this famous paragraph he chided the British elite for not caring enough about science:

"As with the tone-deaf, they don't know what they miss. They give a pitying chuckle at the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English literature. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists. Yet their own ignorance and their own specialisation is just as startling. A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?' " (pp. 15-16).

Snow was not your run-of-the-lab scientist, although he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge in 1930 and spent ten years in research on molecular structure before becoming a civil servant. During WWII he was in charge of recruiting scientists for the British war effort. But he also wrote a series of successful novels about academic life in England, bridging the scientific and literary cultures himself.

Two years before C. P. Snow delivered that Rede Lecture, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made earth satellite. That feat forced the West to play technological catch-up in a cold-war space race, initiating a kind of "golden age" for scientists in the U.S. But as research surged ahead, the American public's knowledge of science lagged far behind. Citizens in a democracy must vote on policies requiring some technical understanding, including policies affecting the funding of research. Aware of its precarious situation, the scientific establishment has been trying to educate the general public ever since: "Give everybody some experience with real science and many of them will begin to think the way scientists think." The problem with that idea is that real laboratory courses are expensive to teach, and what many students in the humanities remember about, say, a chemistry lab is that "it was awfully smelly." Hence, proposals for dumbed-down, non-laboratory courses like "Chemistry for Poets."

Scientists might make a better case for science literacy if we weren't such "literary illiterates." We're all familiar with what is called the scientific literature, but it has about the same relation to literature as rap has to music: at best a highly specialized fragment of the whole, at worst a different thing altogether. A few scientists have written well enough about science to make a name for themselves (and for science) among the general public. My A-list would include biologist Rachel Carson (geographer), Jared Diamond (anthropologist), Loren Eiseley (paleontologist), Stephen Jay Gould (molecular biologist), James Watson, and a number of others. A few scientists have written widely about other things or even written fiction, like biochemist Isaac Asimov and chemist Carl Djerassi. And, of course, biologist Charles Darwin wrote "a classic."

One literary genre, science fiction ("sci-fi"), seems to have stimulated a good many scientific careers. Great, but it should be possible for scientists to broaden our horizons beyond reading technical papers and weird tales of space travel. Would literature courses for scientists be an effective way of doing that? I'm still not sure. Just as looking at science from the outside doesn't present a true picture, I doubt that dabbling in literature from an external, analytical, spectator stance would get us very far. What we would need is the equivalent of a "literary laboratory"--that is, some hands-on experience to help us think like the writers of real literature.

Poetry would certainly be a good place to begin, even though many people feel that poetry is written to be deliberately obscure. I've heard that when the Cambridge mathematical physicist Paul Dirac learned that J. Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project wrote poetry, Dirac said, "The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible." A gross exaggeration, from my point of view, even if Dirac was a genius.

A special section of Science for 13 August 2010 argued that teaching science and literature in the same classrooms, wherever possible, would benefit both kinds of education. Contributing to that issue was an environmental toxicologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Arthur Stewart. He emphasized that ambiguous words, phrases, and figures of speech enrich our communication in science as well as in poetry. Stewart has had four books of his own poems published, the first in 2003. He published his fourth collection, The Ghost in the Word, in 2013. Could more of us do that? Maybe my personal experience as a working scientist and amateur poet could encourage others to experiment with literature―by taking a stab at, say, writing poetry. Of course, producing a few good poems won't mean that we should quit our day jobs.

Scientists have a problem here. We spend much of our lives in a largely "objective" mode, keeping ourselves aloof from feelings and out of the data as much as possible. We don't want to be stirred. We don't trust our emotions. Carry that too far and we turn ourselves into soulless machines. 

Starting from Scratch

As a freshman chemistry major I took chemistry, physics, biology, calculus, German, and English. That meant five afternoon labs a week (two in chemistry, two in biology, one in physics), leaving little time to read Shakespeare even if I had had the inclination. With other classmates in science and engineering, I took the standard freshman English course along with a lot of bright English majors. That was my only English course in four years of college. What I remember is that it made me feel ignorant and stupid. That was partly because the professor continuously expressed disdain for technical professions, but mostly because I really was ignorant. I can't blame my high school teachers for that. My mind had been on other things. I couldn't see the point of literature that seemed so unrelated to my interests.

Indeed, the literature we dissected in that freshman English class was of less interest to me than the frog I was dissecting in biology lab. The prof seemed to take delight in badgering science majors, calling on us by name to confirm his poor opinion of us. Once, after assigning John Keats's poem "Ode to a Nightingale," he focused on the line, "Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards." One after another he forced the science majors to confess that they didn't know what "pards" meant. When he got to me, I recall saying (in the Texas drawl I still had), "Aw, that's easy. It means his companions—you know, his pardners." Bad guess (it's "leopards"). Only once did I score a point. In class one day I argued that science is more valuable than literature because science is based on fact. "Aha!" (the leopard pounced): "Surely you know, Mr. Hearn, that there is a difference between fact and truth." Somehow I found nerve enough to reply, "Well, I may be confused, sir. For instance, was what you just said the truth, or was it a fact?" For once it was the professor who felt rescued when the bell rang.

Actually I had an earlier exposure to poetry in a form I didn't even recognize as poetry. It was a tradition in my Boy Scout troop for young assistant scoutmasters to recite long narrative poems around our campfires, strong stuff like Percy French's Abdul Abulbul Amir, Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din, and especially the adventurous tales of Robert W. Service, like The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. As a kid I loved the sound of those rhythmic yarns spun out in the semi-darkness on camping trips. My favorite was a long narrative about trudging through Yukon ice and snow, The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill. After all these years, I can still recite the way it begins:

I took a contract to bury the body of "Blasphemous Bill" McKye,
Wherever, whenever, or whatsoever the manner of death he die . . . 

There's a huge difference between hearing a poem recited and seeing the words printed on a page. In grad school I did some focused listening. From the university library I checked out recordings of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and played them over and over again, memorizing the lyrics of a number of the funny "patter" songs. I can still come up with memorable lines from The Sorcerer:

Oh! my name is John Wellington Wells,
I'm a dealer in magic and spells,
In blessings and curses
And ever-filled purses,
In prophecies, witches, and knells . . .

Enjoying such clever word-play, it finally dawned on me that all those hymns I had sung (off-key) growing up in church, were actually poems―or at least verses. I tried writing a few verses myself, including a ballad to a folk tune then being sung by The Weavers, On Top of Old Smoky. My version began, "On top of old East Chem, there's a light burning bright: / The graduate students are working tonight."

The ballad told of my major professor dropping in for what was known in our lab as a "midnight research conference." On this occasion he offered suggestions for characterizing what seemed to be a new amino acid that I had just obtained by hydrolyzing the antibiotic streptothricin:

"Well, first I would benzoylate, then if I were you,
Get a neutral equivalent is the next thing to do."

And as he was leaving, he turned to retort,
"Have it all done by morning for the Progress Report."

In 1955 I began teaching at Iowa State College. I was assigned a biochemistry course that was a prerequisite for a nutrition course taken by all students in home economics. Most of them couldn't see the point of learning "all that chemical stuff," so I kept trying new ways to catch their interest. One year I wrote a parody of songs from Annie Get Your Gun and handed out copies of the libretto. The plot featured a coed named Fannie who had no fun, not seeing the point of it all ("You Can't Get a Man with Your Brain") until she got a crush on her lab instructor. He tried to inspire her, singing:
The girl that I marry will have to be
Loaded with glucose and ATP;
The girl I call my own
Will have adrenocorticotrophic hormone . . .

Everything ended happily, including that term's class. Another term I went high-class, with a "Metabolic Opera" condensation, Carbon, based on music by Georges Bizet. In a big reduction scene, the sexy heroine tossed valence electrons to Don CoA (coenzyme A), with glycolysis and the Krebs cycle playing out to various arias like Seguidilla, all sung by Eugene "Gino" Lazzari, a grad student of mine with an operatic range. He was at his thundering best as "Oxy-geno" in the "Toreador's Song," explaining that "Oxygen is the stuff that makes life go, / For every H, you know, / Must go to H2O." He sang that the chain of hydrogen-transfer reactions "Builds ATP, / Aerobically." And toward the end:
What comes next?
You should have read the text,
For men have written tomes
About the cytochromes . . .

My opera had a short run (the day before the final in my 8:00 AM class) but was a critical success. Thunderous applause brought people from all over the Chemistry building to see what was up.

From Parody to Poetry

In 1960, Iowa State became a university, with a new Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics. I was one of the founding members, transferring from Chemistry. For our first departmental party I wrote another libretto, The Launching of the B&B, to music from HMS Pinafore. Faculty colleagues in the chorus complained that only a tone-deaf person would have chosen the most difficult music from Gilbert & Sullivan's original.

I left ISU in 1972, moving that year to Berkeley. In 1985 I was invited back to Ames for the B&B Department's 25th anniversary, to give a talk on its beginnings. I was pleased that a repeat performance of my old Launching of the B&B was part of the celebration. In 2010 I was again invited back, this time to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of what has now become the Dept. of Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology. A "near-death experience" (from ventricular fibrillation) forced me to cancel the trip but I sent a copy of my remarks to be read by someone else on the occasion. I included a celebratory sonnet, which gave some indication that I had composed it while still in the hospital:


A wonder, is what it is, that ISU
Should boast this scholarly community
Called "BBMB," where more than just a few
Molecular explorers (of various degree)
Employ vibrational waves of varying length
To penetrate parameters unknown:
Perhaps an enzyme-substrate bonding strength
Or nucleotide components of a clone
(World-class research, I'd say, "state of the art"),
Probing more deeply than a surgeon's knife
The inner core (in metaphor, the "heart") 
Of robust fragility, which we call "life."
So here's a toast: May your "vibes" increase;
May every member's wonder never cease.

My efforts to write serious poems, sometimes with a touch of whimsy, go back to 1963. The turning point for me was hearing a real poet, Prof. Richard Gustafson of the English Department, read some of his works in progress at a monthly "coffee house" that had just been organized by students. I was the only other faculty member there, so carried away by the experience that I rashly volunteered to read my own poems the following month. Then I had to write feverishly to add to my only two attempts up to that time! "Gus" attended my reading and was surely less impressed by my poems than by the fact that a practicing biochemist had made the effort. Anyway, he invited me to submit something for Poet & Critic, a moribund little magazine he was nurturing back to life. I submitted a sonnet with an explicitly biblical theme. When it took the prize ($30) for the best poem in that issue, I was hooked.

If I had known anything about poetry, I might have realized that sonnets were out of style. I tried writing free verse, with rhythm but no rhyme or set pattern, but found that it kept getting out of control and going on and on. In contrast, sonnets were both patterned and short; when I finished line 14, I knew I was done. Somehow that format must have been lurking in my brain since high-school English.

When Ginny and I moved to Berkeley in 1972, she soon became copy editor for Radix magazine (and still is). Most magazines, maybe Christian ones especially, are deluged with poetry submissions "not quite ready for prime time." One day I saw editor-in-chief Sharon Gallagher toss a stack of them into her wastebasket without responding to the senders. I said, "Hey, you can't do that! Even an absolutely unpublishable poem may be somebody's dearest and best." Seeing that I was serious, she fished out the doomed poems and handed them to me. "Here," she said, "You take care of these." That's how I became the "Poetry Rejection Editor" of the magazine. Some poets regarded my tongue-in-cheek title as a slap in the face, but over the years they began to appreciate my efforts to encourage each one of them and offer a few suggestions. Usually my amateur critique of an amateur poem would go something like this: "Now, that's a good line (or phrase or word or metaphor); let's have more of that." Once in awhile, finding almost nothing of redeeming social value to praise, I had to fall back on, "Well, you've got the length about right." Eventually Sharon persuaded the widely published Christian poet Luci Shaw to be a real Poetry Editor for the magazine.

In a special 1980 poetry issue, Radix let me introduce about a dozen promising poets whose work I had found in the stacks of mail I sifted through. Only three or four of those talented young people had ever had a poem published before. Besides introducing them and their work in that issue, I contributed a "how-to" article that was like an essay on "the science of doing poetry," despite the fact that making a poem is an act of creation. Any creative activity, including scientific research, is governed by principles but not by rules to be followed exactly. If we had exact instructions to follow, we would be copying, not creating. That's also why we can speak of "the art of doing science."

A Laboratory Manual

My how-to article listed four qualities that help distinguish a poem from something else, or a good poem from a bad one. The best poems combine:

1) a definite rhythm;

2) evocative language rich in imagery;

3) unity of focus on a single idea or theme; and,

4) compactness or "tightness" in which every word must bear its freight.

5) Still, the most important criterion is that a poem has to "sound just right" and make sense when spoken aloud. Hearing seems to be the most basic avenue of human communication, because that's the way human infants develop language. We receive intelligence of the outside world through our ears long before we learn to read. Even after years of developing our visual sense, hearing poetry spoken aloud is more likely to stir us than anything we see or read―certainly more than most research papers in scientific journals.

Scientists have a problem here. We spend much of our lives in a largely "objective" mode, keeping ourselves aloof from feelings and out of the data as much as possible. We don't want to be stirred. We don't trust our emotions. Carry that too far and we turn ourselves into soulless machines. No wonder so many scientific societies today try to give science a human face. Christians trained in science have an advantage: we recognize our own humanity; we know that life is more than science. Yet to know a lot about the vast literature in our own language is not enough to humanize us; we must "feel it in our bones." Listening to live poetry readings is a help in that direction. I think that reading aloud our own poems, no matter how amateurish, takes us even further.

We get the word poem from the Greek ποεμα (literally, "something made"), the word the apostle Paul used in Ephesians 2:10 to describe Jesus' followers as God's "handiwork" (KJV). Making a poem takes a lot of work. Yet no matter how much effort poets expend in crafting their poems into final form, most of them speak of each poem as a gift. Such language resonates with Christians, who regard all things as gifts from God. It ought to resonate with scientists, too, since the word data comes directly from the Latin word for "given." Many great scientists have recognized that their best insights came to them from outside themselves. If we are sufficiently humble and open, poems may come to us.

A poem can begin from a striking metaphor, a bit of word-play, the kernel of a fresh concept or a new twist on an old one, or just a memorable cadence. Think of that gift as a seed to be planted and nourished to fruition. Don't abandon it; build on it. Like an airplane, a poem won't get off the ground unless the pilot goes through a sort of check-off list: Is the idea something I want to pursue? Are my words adequate to sustain the idea? Is the language rich enough to engage a listener's ear? Have I wandered away from that seed concept? Can I tighten the final product by getting rid of excess words or substituting a stronger word for a weaker one? Have I adhered to a rhythmic pattern, or perhaps intentionally deviated from it to keep it from being too predictable? Does the whole poem sound just right to me and to others? Is it time to quit?

We don't need to learn literary terms like "iambic pentameter" (which happens to be a sonnet's rhythmic pattern). All rhythms are made up of accented and unaccented syllables. Iambic meter sounds like the letter a in Morse code (dit-DAH), but there are other patterns whose names I forget, like n (DAH-dit) or u (dit-dit-DAH). In free verse, almost anything goes that sounds right, but even more rigid classical forms allow some wiggle-room. Poems can have two, three, four, or more beats per line. The pentameter of a sonnet requires five beats (DAHs) to each line, but I can get by with straying from the dit-DAH pattern with a few extra dits―if I don't overdo it. The accents should fall primarily on strong verbs or nouns rather than on weaker conjunctions or adjectives. As for rhymes, different schemes are possible, even for a sonnet. Rhythm and (often) rhyme are what make poetic lines memorable. The simplest sing-songy nursery rhymes stick in our minds throughout our lives.

Find a poem you like about something you care about and read it aloud over and over again until you get the "ring" of it. Or listen to a favorite hymn and use its pattern to write a stanza of your own. What's important is not to analyze a poem technically, but to roll up your sleeves and "get your hands dirty." You may not want to spread your first effort around, at least until you've tried reading it aloud to one or two trusted friends. Even better, get a friend to read your poem back to you. That's like sending a research paper to a peer-reviewed journal, hoping for a positive reaction to your work. You can see if your auditor/editor stumbles over any of your lines, and you may even get some helpful suggestions.

To begin, all we need is a single seed idea. Let's say that it comes to us as a rhythmic line. Now we need another line to amplify, illustrate, contrast, or play on that first one. Then we keep going. If the lines have a rhythm but don't fall into a regular pattern, call it free verse and keep going until it sounds finished, complete. It's good to put an unfinished poem away for awhile and come back to it fresh. Sometimes a poem will "come alive" and go where it wants to go, with us just tagging along. Your seed idea may not even make it into the final version. That's O.K. It will have served its purpose.

Trying to write a poem is an exercise in choosing just the right words from all possible words and arranging them in the most communicative way. Even if we find that we ourselves don't do it very well, the effort can give us an immense appreciation of what good writers do. That appreciation can lead us into reading great literature and perhaps eventually loving it. It can be the beginning of the liberal arts education we didn't have time for in college.

Would a course like "Literature for Scientists" be a good idea? Well, maybe. Scientists might learn a lot from such an experience—provided it's a hands-on, laboratory course.