A Critical Examination of Two Myths that Drive Culture: the Axial Age and Dark Green Religion
Dr. Iain Provan, Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies, Regent College
Wednesday, March 12 @ 4:00 p.m. Woodward (IRC) Room 6, UBC near Gate One
The contemporary world has been shaped in part by two important and potent myths. Karl Jaspers’ construct of the “axial age” envisions the common past (800–200 BC), the time when Western society was born and world religions spontaneously and independently appeared out of a seemingly shared value set. Conversely, the myth of the “dark green golden age” as narrated by David Suzuki and others asserts that the axial age, and the otherworldliness that accompanied the emergence of organized religion, ripped society from a previously deep communion with nature. Both myths contend that to maintain balance we must return to the idealized past. In this lecture, Iain Provan will engage critically with both myths, explaining why we should not embrace them and why it matters if we do.
With his doctorate from Cambridge University, Dr. Iain Provan has been the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College since 1997. He was born and educated in the UK and retains strong family, academic, and church connections with his homeland. He received his MA at Glasgow University in Mediaeval History and Archaeology, his BA from London Bible College in Theology, and his PhD from Cambridge, where his thesis focused on the books of Kings, and was subsequently published as Hezekiah and the Books of Kings. Iain Provan’s academic teaching career took him to King’s College London, the University of Wales, and the University of Edinburgh, where he was a senior lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament Studies. He has written numerous essays and articles, and several books including commentaries on Lamentations, 1 and 2 Kings, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, and co-authored with Phil Long and Tremper Longman A Biblical History of Israel. Most recently he released Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World that Never Was., the concern of this talk. Iain is an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland; a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge; and the recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship. He and his wife, Lynette, have four children and he holds full credentials as a soccer coach in BC.
On My Book Convenient Myths: ~Iain Provan
Most people, I believe, do not comprehend the way in which each of us is inevitably caught up in what theologian Ched Myers has called the “war of myths” – a battle of overarching stories that claim to explain life (what it’s about, where it’s going, and what its purpose is). For Myers, our lives are war-zones. Very different “big stories” about the world vie for influence over our hearts and minds. But most people simply take the world as they find it and get on with their lives without reflecting too much about this battle. They simply assume that what is true about reality and about right and wrong is obvious. However, the fact of the matter is that every one of us lives in a world profoundly shaped by other people’s ideas. Everyone lives inside an (inevitably disputable) story, recounted to them in the first instance by other people. Human beings are always “storied” in this way—regardless of whether they reflect upon this fact—just as they are always “political,” regardless of whether they vote. The only question that faces us is this: are we going to make any effort to ensure that we inhabit a true and a good story, rather than a false and possibly dangerous one?
I extend an invitation to engage in the serious critical appraisal of two influential myths of our time. Both myths are stories about the past told in pursuit of present and future agendas. The first I have labeled the myth of the axial age. The idea of an axial age was first introduced to the world by the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers in the period just after the Second World War. Modern human beings stand, he proposed, on the far side of this crucial turning point in history (800–200 BC), which produced the basic categories within which we modern human beings still carry on our thinking. The cultures that experienced this new beginning constantly return to it in order to renew themselves. As they do so, they recognize what they hold in common, beyond all particular differences of faith. It is to this common past that we ourselves must now return, as we strive to make the unity of humankind concrete in the present. We must return to this axial age—the wellspring from which all faith once emerged, behind and beneath all specific religious and philosophical worldviews and their secularized, political forms. And, having gone back, we must move forward to build a new world order. We must birth a new axial age—an age of world peace. This myth has in turn been popularized by many others, including the religious studies expert John Hick and the popular religious historian Karen Armstrong. Even those who have never heard the terminology may be familiar with the myth itself as expressed in the kind of statements that often appear in Karen Armstrong’s books (e.g., the ways in which all religions “are at the core really just the same, focusing on compassion”).
The second myth, I have labeled the myth of the dark green golden age. The mythmakers in this case also believe in something like an axial age, but they do not look back to it for inspiration, because they regard it as an age, not of enlightenment, but of repression. Axial age civilizations destroyed prior societies based around natural and cosmological cycles. They broke the human connection with the earth. They also broke down human community, as individual religious identity developed. Axial age (world) religions, since they were not connected with particular places, inevitably reduced the importance of place, unless that “place” was in a spiritual afterlife. Much of what is wrong with contemporary human life results from this embrace of civilization. To recover ourselves, we must now get back behind the axial age, in order to recover a more authentic way of being. We must revisit the Paleolithic era, and reconnect with our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the state of nature. That is where we will actually find the spirituality of empathy and compassion that we need, to save both ourselves and the planet. How can we access this Old Stone Age, which is long gone, and of which there is so little meaningful trace even in the archaeological record? We can access it by way of surviving preaxial tribal peoples not yet entirely assimilated into axial reality – indigenous peoples of the modern period, who still tell truer stories about the world than we modern people do. It is by listening to their wisdom that we can save ourselves and the planet; for even into modern times, they have lived more world-affirming, equitable and peaceable lives than axial peoples, informed by a much more authentic, organic spirituality than is available in the world-denigrating world religions. In particular, even into modern times, these ancient peoples, living in harmony with nature, have displayed the ecological knowledge without which we cannot now manage. So we must listen carefully to them, reconnect with our deepest past by doing so, and in this way equip ourselves to move ahead into a sustainable future. Among the many accessible books that promote this myth are those written by ecologist David Suzuki and anarcho-primitivists John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen.
Both these stories have been told and retold in recent times by well-motivated people who want to make the world a better place. Both have proved to be remarkably influential, whether at sophisticated levels of politics and government, or at the more popular level. The popular appetite for the myths is well-illustrated in the difficulty I faced, when writing my book, in even getting access to the writings of people like Karen Armstrong and Derrick Jensen for any extended period of time, because of the demand for them in our local (including university) libraries. Certainly here in the Pacific Northwest, many people are drawn to these myths, and in recognition of the demand their proponents’ books are well-represented in our bookstores.
For my own part, I have enormous sympathy for the agendas of the writers in both camps. Nonetheless, I believe each of the stories is patently false – and that is what I try to argue in my book. But I also explore why it is that the two stories are so widely believed by so many, even though they are evidently untrue, and, most importantly, I ask whether this matters. I think it does; I think false stories are dangerous. The flourishing of our planet, and indeed of its human inhabitants, will not in the end be advanced by such.
Sponsored by: The International Bonhoeffer Society — English Section, Regent College, the Canada Research Chair in Interpretation, Religion and Culture (Jens Zimmermann), the Vancouver School of Theology, St. Andrew’s Hall, Social Cities – a Program of Cardus, and Stiftung Bonhoeffer Lehrstuhl.
Dying with Dignity? Negotiating the Moral Debate on Assisted Suicide
Wednesday, February 5 @ 4:00 p.m., Wodward (IRC), Room 6
Dr. Jeffrey Greenman, PhD Ethics University of Virginia,
Dean of Faculty Regent College
A recent video by Dr. Donald Low, a Canadian physician who became famous during the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto, has sparked fresh moral and political debate about assisted suicide. In the video, which was made just eight days before he died of brain cancer, Low expressed his worries about how he would die. He asked for support for “dying with dignity” through assisted suicide, but because such measures are illegal in Canada, he was unable to die as he had wished. Addressing those who oppose assisted suicide, Low said, “I wish they could live in my body for 24 hours… Why make people suffer for no reason, when there is an alternative?” In this lecture, Dr. Greenman will explore the most important reasons given for and against assisted suicide, looking at the current debates from the standpoint of historic Christian convictions about suffering, death, and human dignity. Greenman will offer a multi-faceted rationale for upholding the longstanding Christian opposition to assisted suicide, and provide reasons why Canadian public policy should resist calls for change on this issue.
Statement by Dr Donald Low on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3jgSkxV1rw
Jeffrey P. Greenman (Ph.D. in religious ethics, University of Virginia) is Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Regent College. He is the author of two books including Understanding Jacques Ellul, editor of seven volumes, and has written dozens of articles and book chapters on theology, ethics, education, and leadership.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44Xy5i73240 Biola Lecture/Discussion on Assisted Suicide
Read: Paul Chamberlain, Final Wishes: a cautionary tale on death, dignity and physician assisted suicide. IVP, 2000.
Edward J. Larson & Darrell Amundsen, A Different Death: euthanasia and the Christian tradition. IVP, 1998.
Response by Dr. Bert Cameron, former head of Nephrology at UBC,
To: GFCF ‘Dying with Dignity’ Lecture-Discussion by Dr. Jeffrey Greenman, Regent College
Rejoinder: “I was asked to give this response by the GFCF committee. I realize that it is not a fully considered document and that I would appreciate input particularly from those experienced in current palliative care.” ~Bert
I thought Jeff did a good job. Using the video clip as a beginning focused attention well and gave him the opportunity to make a number of significant points. First, ethical problems are always difficult because they involve a conflict of principles such as personal autonomy vs. sanctity of life. Second, the use of terms such as “maturity” and “death with dignity” are slogans that need better definition since we all want to be mature and respect the dignity of the human person.
I also thought that it was good to review the current legal grounding of Canadian laws (sanctity of life) and to point out the Hippocratic tradition and to give the Judeo –Christian basis for respect for human life, particularly the statement to Noah linking the prohibition to human murder with the image of God.
I thought the discussion was interesting, particularly the input from two doctors deeply concerned about euthanasia. They have been very vocal in the pro-life and euthanasia prevention movements. Clearly experience has shown them that when discussing this issue in society at large, the only argument likely to gain purchase is that of protection of the vulnerable in society. For this reason, much of their attention is focused on the “bad outcomes” in jurisdictions where euthanasia is practiced in the US and Europe. This moves the discussion away from principles to anecdotes and social research.
However, I think it is important clarify our interpretation of the principles so that we are honest about them. Let me explain.
It is true that the Old Testament lays the foundation that man is in the image of God and therefore human life is to be respected. Murder is condemned. However, taking life is not condemned since death was the punishment for murder and a number of other misdemeanors. Therefore, the active taking of life was not prohibited in Jewish society. The death penalty was recommended for thirty or more circumstances, which included a variety of sexual, familial, religious and legal misdeeds, some of which would be considered quite trivial today. In fact, our society seems to have a higher view of the sanctity of life than is evidenced in the Old Testament such as banning the death penalty.
Therefore, though as a Christian, I believe in the respect for life based on being made in the image of God, I find it difficult to suggest that hastening the death of suffering person who will die shortly can be equated with murder from the Old Testament perspective.
Other than the general principle of respect for human life, I find little in the Old or New Testament that bears significantly on the issue of palliation as medicine is practiced today. The argument that God determines our death is applicable in a general way but not specifically in a society that prolongs life by artificial means.
The point about the Hippocratic Oath and Tradition also has to be taken with caution. The Hippocratic Oath was a pagan oath that applied to a small group of doctors in ancient Greece. They were, in essence, setting standards for themselves in order to attract patients. Since they had access to killing agents, it was a promise not to use them. Again, it has very little to do with the current discussion. The Oath was, however, taken up by the Medieval Church and “sanctified” and has been used largely because it was in line with Christian thinking and the prohibition against murder.
As far as Canadian law is concerned, it is of course under continual change. It is probable that some sort of euthanasia will be legalized in Canada because the law has increasingly been moving to support the principle of consent and autonomy over other considerations. For example, the law against treating Jehovah’s Witnesses with blood transfusions against consent even though lack of treatment will lead to death.
Further, there are a number of practical issues involved in this complex discussion. There is a wide range of individual and family response to dying. At the end of life, some want to die, some want to live at all costs. Families are also very diverse on this issue. What constitutes medical care or negligence? Is it mandatory to put an IV into an unconscious dying person? What limits are permissible to ease suffering? Every individual case is different and often not predictable. In my experience, after each case the questions often remain as to whether the best was done.
So where does this bring me?
First, I believe that modern medicine and care is rooted in the Christian tradition, beginning with the healing ministry of Christ. It is based on Jesus care for the physical ailments of humans. Subsequently Christians cared for the sick, built hospitals and universities that cared as well as producing medical advances.
Second, death is inevitable and in some cases, overzealous attempts to preserve human life should be avoided. Having said that, this is very much a judgment issue. I have been forced, under legal threat, to keep brain dead people physically alive.
Third, within a palliative care context, wherever that is taking place, the health care team needs to be given latitude to deal with each case and family in a very individual and caring way. If this were understood and practiced, I think many situations like Dr. Lowe’s could be avoided.
Fourth, I like the phrase that Eric Stephenson mentioned to me; instead of using the term “Do Not Resuscitate” we should say “Allow Natural Death”.
Fifth, the Christian approach to the euthanasia debate should definitely focus on protection of the vulnerable. In our socialized society this can be a complex issue since we all pay for the extension of life through highly technological means.
Sixth, the question of having doctors responsible for euthanasia outside of the palliative care context is a very vexed question. I think medical societies should stand against it because it will reduce trust in physicians.
~Dr. Bert Cameron, former Head of Nephrology, UBC (professor emeritus)
The Enigma of Galileo:
Rethinking a Pivotal Episode in the History and Mythology of Science
Dr. Dennis Danielson, Department of English, UBC
Wednesday, November 13, 2013 @ 4:00 p.m. Woodward (IRC) Room 1
Recent Publication by Danielson on History of Astronomy in January 2014 Issue of Scientific American:
The better part of a century passed before more than a handful of serious scientists accepted Copernicus’s cosmology (1543) proclaiming that the Earth rotates on its axis, while also orbiting the Sun. Galileo’s important telescopic discoveries in 1609 and 1610 form the most famous early chapter in the story of the wider acceptance of heliocentrism. But in the process, something went terribly wrong. Two decades later Galileo was put on trial by the Roman Inquisition—a move damaging not only to Galileo and free scientific inquiry, but also to the reputation of the church for centuries thereafter. In this lecture, Dr. Danielson will revisit the first great telescopic astronomer and show how he “cheated” in his presentation of “the two great world systems.” He will also show how mis-readings of the Galileo episode continue to skew our understanding of the history of science. In fact, right through the seventeenth century, many of those resistant to heliocentrism founded their objections scientifically—not merely on dogmatic or traditionalist grounds. Of course, none of this excuses the persecution of Galileo by church authorities. Danielson contends that by zooming in critically on Galileo’s own writings we can gain a better grasp both of his faults and of his genuinely astonishing scientific contributions. The talk should engage anyone interested in the literature and history of science and/or cultural and intellectual history.
Dennis Danielson, professor of English at the University of British Columbia, is a literary and intellectual historian who has made contributions to Milton studies and to the early modern history of cosmology, examining scientific developments in their historical, philosophical, and literary contexts. His books include Milton’s Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy (1982) and the Cambridge Companion to Milton (1989, 1999), both published by Cambridge University Press. His subsequent work in the history of astronomy, especially The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking and The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution, has engaged both humanities scholars and scientists in dialogue about the historical and cultural as well as cosmological meaning of Copernicus’s legacy. Danielson was the 2011 recipient of the Konrad Adenauer Research Prize from Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. His new book Paradise Lost and the Cosmological Revolution is in press and scheduled for publication by Cambridge University Press in 2014.
Commentary from the Lecture: Danielson seems to be saying that Galileo in his argument with the authorities of the time (religious and scientific) was actually not presenting accurately the two main contending views of the universe: Tycho Brahe’s (Tychonic) vs. Copernican. He was instead choosing the ‘straw man’ view of Ptolemy which had already been discredited many years before. There were actually three systems to speak about if he were properly to include Ptolemy’s view. The idea that he faked the alternatives to win the debate is an astounding insight.
There was one other important point: it takes centuries to actually change the scientific mind on such an important issue as its cosmic picture. Scientific objections to the Copernican view were not fully until the 19th century.” claimed Danielson.
Dr. Danielson responds to the above commentary:
“I wouldn’t characterize Galileo’s Dialogo (1632) specifically as an
“argument with the authorities of the time (religious and scientific).”
Well, maybe with the scientific authorities (the Aristotelians). But the
religious authorities DID — I think contrary to Galileo’s intentions –
interpret the Dialogo as an argument with themselves, and hence his
trial by the Inquisition a year later.
My argument is that Galileo’s tactic in the Dialogo — of treating the
Ptolemaic and Copernican as the “two great” systems — made victory for
the Copernican system a cheap victory, because almost no serious
scientist held to the Ptolemaic cosmos any more. It was Tycho’s that was
the main contender, the main alternative to that of Copernicus, solving
as it did the appearances of Venus and NOT making claims about the size
of the starry sphere that would entail stars’ being as large in diameter
as the entire annual orbit of the Earth (according to the Copernican
system). Your term “faking the alternatives” is quite fitting. I have no
idea whether I’m the first to notice this; I suspect not. But the most
novel aspect of the presentation is the emphasis on star size. Neither
is this original with me. But the guy who has really nailed this
problem, Christopher Graney, has collaborated with me to produce a
semi-popular article called “The Case Against Copernicus” that will
appear in the January issue of Scientific American.”
See also Owen Gingerich’s writing on the Galileo Affair
Dr. Alvin Plantinga
former John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy, Notre Dame University;
currently Jellema Chair in Philosophy, Calvin College.
Topic: Science & Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies
Wednesday, October 2, 2013 @ 4:00 p.m. Scarfe Building Room 100, UBC
Taking Christian belief as C.S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’, I’ll argue that there is no real conflict between science and Christian belief. I’ll go on to argue that there is a real conflict between science and naturalism, the thought that there is no such person as God or anything like God. So if we take naturalism to be a religion or a quasi-religion, then there is indeed a science-religion conflict; it’s not between Christianity and science, however, but between naturalism and science.
Like any Christian (and indeed any theist), I believe that the world has been created by God, and hence “intelligently designed”. As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go; hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life. What does have that implication is not evolutionary theory itself, but unguided evolution, the idea that neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing or orchestrating the course of evolution. But the scientific theory of evolution, sensibly enough, says nothing one way or the other about divine guidance. It doesn’t say that evolution is divinely guided; it also doesn’t say that it isn’t. Like almost any theist, I reject unguided evolution; but the contemporary scientific theory of evolution just as such—apart from philosophical or theological add-ons—doesn’t say that evolution is unguided. Like science in general, it makes no pronouncements on the existence or activity of God.
Dr. Plantinga is professor emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, was described by Time magazine in 1980 as “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.” He is the author of numerous articles and several books, including God and Other Minds: the Rational Justification of Religious Belief (Cornell 1967), God, Freedom and Evil (Eerdmans 1974), Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford 2000) and Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford 2012 from which he draws this lecture). Among many honors, Plantinga is the past president of the American Philosophical Association, Central Division, and the Society of Christian Philosophers, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. With a PhD in Philosophy from Yale University, Alvin Plantinga is widely known for his work in philosophy of religion, epistemology, metaphysics and Christian apologetics. He delivered the Gifford Lectures three times, was a Guggenheim Fellow, 1971–1972. In 2012, the University of Pittsburgh’s Philosophy Department, History and Philosophy of Science Department, and the Center for the History and Philosophy of Science awarded him the Rescher Prize.
Handout for the Lecture Science and Religion- where conflict handout
Sample of Plantinga’s talk and good humour
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbjp9PrtPS8 Where the Conflict Really Lies @ Biola University.
See Thomas Nagel’s book which has fuelled much current debate: Mind and Cosmos: why naturalistic neo-Darwinism is almost certainly wrong.
Also see the detailed scholarly work on the subject of natural theology by Alister McGrath called A Fine-Tuned Universe. and the brilliant argument critiquing naturalism in David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss (Yale, 2013)
Dr. John H.Walton
Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College, Chicago
Wednesday, March 20 at 4:00 pm,
Woodward (IRC) Room 5 (UBC)
This lecture will reveal fresh, unexpected insights into the important and complex issue of interpretation of ancient biblical text. Dr. Walton has focused his research on the literature and cultures of the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Scriptures (especially Genesis 1-3), drawing important clues from ancient cosmology. His rigorous work offers a close reading of the creation narrative within its cultural and historical context. This reading raises important questions about appropriate biblical insights for modern science regarding the natural world (cosmology, biology, human origins). It also explores a unique and fruitful philosophical framework for thinking about the cosmos and our place in it. Are today’s scientific conclusions regarding old earth, common descent, and origins of the human race actually in conflict with the Hebrew Bible? Our speaker will explain his scholarly and critical perspective on the matter.
Dr. Walton received his PhD in 1981 from Hebrew and Cognate Studies, from the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, Ohio. He has focused his attention on studies comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the literature of the ancient Near East. He is presently a Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, a premier educational institution in Chicago. He authored the text The Lost World of Genesis One (IVP, 2009). Dr. Walton has authored many articles and books, including The Lost World of Genesis One, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. His book on Genesis 2–3, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, is forthcoming.
Similar Presentation on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FY4nKNrEZaI
Similar Dialogue between an OT professor Tremper Longman III and biologist Jeff Schloss in a Veritas Forum
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQ-l_vVo1W8 (very measured and thoughtful)
Other GFCF Lectures http://ubcgfcf.com
http://www.wheaton.edu/Academics/Faculty/W/John-Walton Walton Home Page
You might also read: Bruce Waltke, “Gift of the Cosmos” (article on Genesis 1:1-2:4) Chapter 8 in An Old Testament Theology, Zondervan, 2007.; John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has science buried God?; and Colin Russell, Crosscurrents: Interactions Between Science & Faith. Eerdmans
Endorsements of Dr. Walton’s Research:
John Walton’s thoughtful analysis of Genesis 1 is the most inspiring I have encountered. When I helped organize a major workshop on ‘Becoming Human,’ we made sure to choose a date when he could participate.
Owen Gingerich, author God’s Universe; Professor Emeritus, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
This book presents a profoundly important new analysis of the meaning of Genesis. Digging deeply into the original Hebrew language and the culture of the people of Israel in Old Testament times, respected scholar John Walton argues convincingly that Genesis was intended to describe the creation of the functions of the cosmos, not its material nature. In the process, he elevates Scripture to a new level of respectful understanding, and eliminates any conflict between scientific and scriptural descriptions of origins.
Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God
John Walton’s expertise in the Ancient Near Eastern sources enables him to shed a flood of new and unexpected light on the deeper meaning of Genesis 1. The Creator, Genesis is saying, designed heaven and earth as a great temple with the intention of coming to live in it himself—and the sabbath isn’t just a nice break after the work is done, but the moment when he takes up residence in the world he has just made. The implications of this resonate right through the rest of the Bible. This is not just a book to invite ‘creationists’ to think differently; it is a book to help all Bible students read the whole of Scripture with fresh eyes.
N. T. Wright, Professor of New Testament, University of St. Andrews