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Atlanta, 19 August 2015

Hello, and thank you for reading our weekly newsletter. Every issue aims to impart something of value, whether a Bible study or a line of reasoning that might prove valuable in conversations with outsiders. I love ideas, and especially the thrill of discovering new ones. But a lot of my best thoughts are not mine; they are borrowed.

This is the case with material appearing recently at the bottom of my homepage. If you haven't yet seen the new series, Paradigm shift, let me encourage you to watch the first lesson. (I believe you'll want to keep going.) The speaker is James Robbins, a clear-thinking Canadian friend who preaches in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. If he's right -- as I believe he is -- then there's a much simpler, more effective way to "do evangelism." Don't miss this -- especially if you're a leader in your fellowship, or someone positioned to effect change!
Last night I flew in from Quebec -- late, as Atlanta was lashed with the thunderstorms so common at this time of year. This speaking trip (two days) was followed by some excellent father-daughter time, exploring Montréal (two more days).

What a beautiful city! It's multicultural, historic, and scenic. We walked and walked --over 20 miles (32 km) -- exploring the 1976 Olympic Park, residential areas, and of course Old Montreal, dating to the 1600s.

At one of the many universities (175,000 students in all!) I spoke on effective campus evangelism. You can see a few of the student leaders in the photo above. The lesson was attended by plenty of students, plus outsiders attracted by the topic. Next day I gave a sermon on loving God with all our minds (Mark 12:30), and in the afternoon delivered a class on Jesus & Islam. It was great to see so many in attendance at each event, including a number from Quebec City, several hours away by car. The spirit of my brothers and sisters in French Canada was truly exemplary: light-hearted, giving, curious, and committed. Thanks for the invitation!
Recap: The Doctrine of the Two Books
Answering Skeptics continues to draw a lot of feedback, most of it positive and constructive. As is our custom, we'll begin a new unit (the apparent design of the cosmos) only after reviewing the previous one.
  • Revelation: God reveals truth in two books, the Book of Words (scripture) and the Book of Works (nature). It's only with both books that we learn to appreciate the full grandeur of God's revelation. Exalting science above scripture isn't the way to seek all of God's truth, any more than ignoring the results of science in the name of faith. 
  • Confidence: Since God speaks truth, and he has told us that part of this truth is revealed in nature (Psalm 19), we're able to have a high level of confidence in the discoveries of science. Yahweh will not deceive us.
  • Controversy: Several of the church's historical blunders have issued from a failure to discern the two books. (Dragons, a flat earth, dinosaurs living with humans, a 6000-year-old universe, and Galileo's trials come to mind.) Criticisms of modern science (because of supposed contradictions with the Bible) are often poorly thought through, and drive many away from Christianity.
  • Harmony: The two "books" are complementary, not contradictory. A broadly educated Christian will make efforts not only to be a man or woman of the word, but also a student of the world.

Design, intelligent or otherwise

God's world everywhere shows unmistakable evidence of design: 
  • The cosmos appears to be "fine-tuned": dozens of parameters seem to have been taken into account and most of the variables adjusted with nearly infinitesimal accuracy to produce a life-sustaining universe that could give rise to science itself. For example, if someone tweaked the gravitational constant, or the ratio of the mass of a proton to that of a neutron, or the ratio of matter to antimatter, by even 1%, there would be no life in the universe. Planets would fail to form, or stellar nuclei would never produce the heavier elements needed for life in a stable environment. 
  • Further, we may observe the principle of mathematical elegance: natural laws and processes expressed in concise mathematical formulae. The laws of nature allow us to predict, to extrapolate. Without them, there would be no real science. This makes sense when we consider that the founders of modern science were nearly all believers in a deity. They expected the world to be rational, since it was created by a God of reason.
  • The argument from design (teleology, if you prefer the term philosophers and theologians use) is simple. The cosmos is either purposive or not. (If you want the platinum term, a world without purpose and God is dysteleological). Since the universe appears designed to lead to human life (what is called the anthropic principle) in turn able to observe and utilize the laws of nature -- the assumption that there is a God is at least as rational as the assumption that there isn't.
A skeptic might counter, "Yes, I concede, the world of quarks and atoms, quasars and nebulae, intelligence and personality, does look as though it's been designed by a divinity. But since the universe has been here forever, it was only a matter of time before such a cosmos appeared. And even if it didn't, there may be infinite universes, so sooner or later a world like our own was bound to come along. We don't need to bring in God to explain the world." Several thoughts strike me immediately.
  • Since the world hasn't been here forever (infinite time), but only billions of years, the confidence that such a world would occur are still remote. Some mathematicians calculate the odds of such a world without God are poorer than 1 in 10 to the 80th (the total number of subatomic particles estimated to exist in the universe)!
  • Since matter itself came into being, removing God gives no advantage to the skeptic, since he still has to account for why there's anything in the first place.
  • It seems more reasonable that a universe displaying signs of intelligence (design) and personality (consider human life) has its origin in a power that is both intelligent and personal.
  • There is no empirical proof of a multiverse. The theory is speculative. And even if there were a parallel universe (or something like that), unless it somehow intersected our own (the kind of thing parallel lines are indisposed to do) we would still be in the dark. Proposing a multiverse isn't the same as proving it. But even if there were a multiverse, the same questions about origins beg explanation. If we believe one universe requires an explanation like God, how about a million worlds, or an infinite number? The need for God would be all the greater!
  • While design is highly suggestive of intelligence and purpose, it doesn't prove (scientifically) that there is a God. Nevertheless, it makes the theist's position plausible -- in fact more plausible than the atheist's.
"Intelligent Design"?
Does the abundant evidence of intelligence in the design of the world, require us to believe in so-called "Intelligent Design" (ID)? This view, popular since the 1990s, is ambivalent towards modern biology, for it rules out the most impressive (complex) processes, unwilling to attribute them to natural causes. ID claims a miracle whenever science hasn't quite caught up with observation. In my view, it fails to honor the principle of the Two Books, and promotes skepticism when it should be saying less: that the marks of design suggest a creator.

Yet ID accepts the scientific evidence for the enormous antiquity of the world (billions of years). It allows microevolution. But when there's a gap in scientific knowledge, watch out: a miracle is inserted to bridge the distance. The problem is that, as the gaps are filled -- science explaining more and more -- the frontier retreats, and the proper sense of mystery is (unnecessarily) lost.

ID affirms God as Creator, but it underestimates the creative power of the natural processes God has facilitated in his world. The two books are in a state of conflict. The "God of the Gaps" is rightly rejected by atheists. Agreeing (as I do) that the universe displays both intelligence and design is not the same as accepting ID. 

Three possibilities
Given the stunningly complex nature of the physical world, not to mention the many intangible realities we all experience (love, beauty, truth, and so on), is there a satisfactory theory to account for what we observe? There are only three possibilities.
  • The universe didn't come into being; it just always was. So believe many unbelievers. Yet science has shown that the universe has come into being. Moreover, scientific laws require that whatever comes into being must have a cause. That means there remain only two options.
  • The universe is self-caused. This isn't much better than the first idea. How did nothing become something (at the Big Bang)?If there was nothing there, how did the universe "bang" itself into existence? As self-causation fails to persuade, we are left with only one conclusion.
  • The universe was caused by something external to itself. This can't be something physical, since that would in turn require its own cause, ad infinitum. The ultimate cause must lie outside the universe. What could be capable of creating the vast cosmos we observe, with its overwhelming complexity, order, beauty, and design, including human life? Surely God is the best explanation.
Proof, or suggestion?
This isn't a design argument (teleological), but a cosmological one. Yet it too can be used to point to the Creator, reduce doubt, or plant a seed in a thinking person that one day might germinate into faith. Our conclusion is not that the impression of design proves there's a designer; it is more modest. We argue only that design suggests a designer. The gentler phrasing of our reasoning may, in the long term, convince more people than will be won by grandiose claims. 
From Physics to Biology....
Next week we'll consider an aspect of the natural world in which the degree of design is nothing short of stunning. It is the origin and diversification of life. Just as those who feared Big Bang would overturn their faith were wrong -- since Big Bang theory strongly supports faith -- so it is with biology. We have nothing to fear from her, and especially from evolutionary ideas. Here again we will find strong support for theism. 

Curious? Until next week...
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