What do true beauty and happiness look like?

What do true beauty and happiness look like?Advertising, both digital and print, is replete with videos and images from the beauty industry and reflect how beauty (and happiness) are viewed in American culture. Here’s a story from a TEDx Youth at Austin talk about one young woman’s story, and how she dealt with comments on a YouTube video that labeled her “the world’s ugliest woman.”

How might this video be used in youth group and confirmation settings?

An article about Lizzie Velasquez from the Catholic News Agency: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/young-catholic-woman-with-rare-syndrome-speaks-on-true-beauty/

and her entry on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lizzie_Vel%C3%A1squez

Photo by Courtney Rhodes via Flickr

Siccar Point in Genesis

Siccar PointSiccar Point. It’s a name to warm the heart of any geologist. This location in Scotland overlooking the North Sea is where James Hutton, oft-cited as the ‘father of geology’ (at least to the Anglophone world), demonstrated the significance of “deep time” to his 18th century Enlightenment colleagues. In the photograph one can see layers (“beds”) of rock which are nearly vertical – like books stacked on a shelf. Above these beds are a distinctly different set of beds which are reddish in color and are nearly horizontal – like a book placed flat atop stacked books in an already full bookshelf. Here’s the sequence of events by which Hutton reasoned from rocks to time:

Sediment was deposited on an ancient ocean floor as layers of sand and mud. These later solidified into rock (sandstone and shale) which subsequently was folded so that the beds are now vertical. This folding resulted in these rocks being raised above sea level and eroded for an unknown period of time. Later the overlying (now red) beds were deposited in stream channels and eventually they too hardened into solid rock. Then this whole pile of strata was tilted yet again as indicated by the fact that the red beds are not strictly horizontal but slightly tilted. This is a minimum number of events which occurred; others could be added to a more detailed list. Hutton noted that in the entire history of humankind in Scotland hardly any change at all had occurred to this cliff-side exposure. Thus the full extent of human history is minuscule in length compared with the events recorded in the rocks. Hutton claimed that he saw “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end” – although this was prompted more by his Deistic philosophy than any scientific explanation of the rocks themselves. Nevertheless, evidence such as this led many to realize that they might be misinterpreting the words of Genesis 1 … a conclusion that would not have surprised many of the early Church Fathers, including Origen, Basil the Great, and Augustine.

Siccar Point

Photos by Marc Kjerland and Magnus Hagdorn via Flickr

Creatures of culture and stardust

Creatures of culture and stardustIn the April issue of Covalence Dr. Phil Hefner writes, “We are creatures of stardust, some like to say. Biologically, we declare our kinship with all life forms that emerge in the primal soup, or the primal steam vents, or whatever original conditions are denoted by the various theories of life’s origins.” Certainly this reality has lead to very public debates such as the one held earlier this month between Bill Nye, former television host of the children’s show “Bill Nye, the Science Guy”, and Ken Ham, believer in young earth creationism and founder of The Creation Museum in Kentucky. Covalence, however, remains focused on piecing the complementary nature of religion and science and this February’s edition is focused on non-other than the story of human becoming as we mark the 205th birthday of Charles Darwin.

Susan Barreto
Editor, Covalence

The cosmic pareidolia of the ‘Hand of God’

The "Hand of God" (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

The “Hand of God” (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

A recent web headline reads “’Hand of God’ Spotted by NASA Space Telescope (Photo)” (http://www.space.com/24225-hand-of-god-photo-nasa-telescope.html). The picture from NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, truly is a beautiful, awe-inspiring image that hauntingly suggests a great hand levitating balls of light. Of course, it is not really a hand, let alone the hand of God. Nor, for that matter is this a newly discovered object. NASA’s Chandra x-ray telescope imaged the same object over 4 years ago, producing a very similar picture. I found Chandra’s image so inspiring I have had it on the home page of my website for the past few years – http://www.mysteryandawe.com/. This “Hand of God”, like the famous “Horse Head Nebula” or the “Man in the Moon” is an example of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon of perceiving familiar shapes in random or vague images.

For me, this image brings to mind Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I do not in any way mean to suggest that this or any other scientific discovery will prove God’s existence. Not at all! As Hebrews 11:3 declares, it is “by faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” But for me, and for so many other people of faith, the awe-inspiring beauty and wonder of the universe, revealed by science, speaks so powerfully of the glory of God.

On a closing note, I would recommend a wonderful sermon by Frederick Buechner – “Message in the Stars” in his book The Magnificent Defeat. In it he imagines what might happen if the stars were to spell out I REALLY EXIST or GOD IS, then helps us see why perhaps God does not choose to prove God’s existence.

Finding a connection to the Holy in ancient Acheulean hand-axes

Acheulean hand-ax and iPhone

Acheulean hand-ax and iPhone

On October 4, 2006, I had the opportunity to hold in my hands three archaeological artifacts: Acheulean hand-axes. “Acheulean” is the name is given to the archaeological industry of stone tool manufacture by prehistoric hominids in Africa, much of Asia, and Europe.

As a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellows Program during 2006-2007, I participated in a weekly seminar series which brought in speakers from many areas of science to discuss issues of science, technology, and public policy. Dr. Richard Potts from the Smithsonian Institution was our guest speaker for that day. He described The Human Origins program of the Institution, specifically the various technologies used to carbon date artifacts found at Olorgesailie, Kenya, an archeological site discovered and excavated by Richard and Mary Leakey in the 1940’s. (Dr. Potts had done field work with Mary Leakey.) He presented his research about the relationship between human evolution and climate variability, and indicated how deep ocean cores were drilled off the coast of Africa to collect ancient pollen that served as a proxy record for the temperature of the African savannas.

Acheulean hand-axes date from lower Paleolithic era, dating from about 1.65 M to 100,000 years ago. According to archeologist William Calvin, “the classic ‘Acheulean hand-axe’ is what you see at Olorgesailie by the thousands. It’s like being on a cobble beach with lots of fist-sized round stones – except that most of the stones here were obviously reshaped by hominids who were obsessed with something. Old lake beds in the Sahara, uncovered by sand dunes that shift sideways, can be similarly littered with hand-axes. There’s a dig at Olorgesailie which Louis Leakey called the ‘factory site’ that testifies to the huge quantities left behind over the years. But why?” 1

Archeologists have speculated on a number of uses for the hand-axe: for butchering animals, for digging up edible roots, for scraping animal hides, as a core from which other tools were struck, as an anvil, to throw as a discus-style weapon, or as a “killer Frisbee.” 2 No one purpose has been identified. Hand-axes have often been called “the Swiss-Army knife of the Paleolithic Era.”

Dr. Potts held up the largest hand-axe he’d brought with him, indicating he’d found it several weeks earlier during recent field work at Olorgesailie, and it was not yet catalogued in the Smithsonian’s collection. The tan-colored stone was approximately 800,000 years old. The other two hand-axes he brought had collection numbers on them, as they were already in the catalogue. They middle-sized one was about 80,000 years old and the smallest one perhaps 15,000 years old, both from European archeological sites. He joked that, as with all new technologies, things start out big and get smaller (think of floppy disks or cell phones.)

After the talk, realizing that I’d never again have the opportunity to hold in my hands an artifact nearly 800,000 years old, and I asked Dr. Potts if he would permit us to touch and hold the hand-axes. He agreed. Of the twenty of us in attendance, only a few did so.

The experience of holding in my hands something that represented generations of ancestry, going back to pre-human creatures, was a spiritual experience for me. At that moment, realized I was experiencing something profound and “holy.” I also held the other two hand-axes, and looked at them carefully. But it was the largest and oldest one, the one I grasped first, which triggered a flow of deep emotion. It was quite unexpected, and I was moved to tears.

I thought of the eons of evolution that had transpired since the creation of the world, remembering scripture’s teaching that Christ had been present at the beginning of time (John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…)

I felt connected throughout all time and space to an ancestor, one that was clearly not human, but was somehow still a relative. I thought about the Cosmic Christ and the groaning of all creation for redemption, and realized that such redemption was inclusive of all life in the world, including all of the ancestral trees of human evolution.

Experiencing this connection (and re-experiencing the holiness of that moment writing about it in this essay) with something that was created by a creature, and may have been designed as an everyday tool (or perhaps even for a ritual rite), I realized how the cult of relics may have flourished in the church of the Middle Ages.

I also realized that moments when one finds connection with Meaning (Tillich’s “ground of being”) are not always describable via the written word. Yet I know intuitively that the emotion I experienced then and that I recall now was indeed “holy.” When I started the Fellows Program, I never imagined that a profoundly spiritual moment would happen during the year-long program. I’m so glad I asked to touch those hand-axes. I believe that the spiritual revelation possible through art (and artifacts) involves the five senses. But, this makes perfect sense, because our God is Incarnational — Emmanuel is “God-with-us.”

Photo by Alex Pang via Flickr

“We are all geeks!”

"We Are All Geeks!"“We are all geeks”! At least that’s how the ELCA’s general interest publication, The Lutheran, entitled a January 2014 article on ‘living lives of faith in a scientific world’. Five scientists from various fields and vocations were interviewed by author Laura Gifford. Each related how they see themselves as people of Christian faith living in an overwhelmingly scientific world. Not surprisingly – as these scientists would undoubtedly insist – they are enthusiastic about both aspects of their lives; one informs and deepens the other. It is a joy to see the The Lutheran recognizing the calls to scientific vocations of these active ELCA members.

First Compassion and Technology Conference

First Compassion and Technology Conference On December 6, 2013, Stanford University in California hosted its inaugural Compassion and Technology Conference that was presented by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) in collaboration with Facebook, the 1440 Foundation, HopeLab, and The Dalai Lama Foundation. The conference included talks by academic experts and technology industry leaders.

The Conference website defines compassion as “the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help. Compassion is a virtue that is promoted across cultures and religions” and notes that “A growing body of evidence suggests that compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival and that has benefits for psychological and physical health as well as longevity and flourishing.”

The second part of the conference incorporated a contest in which inventors, engineers and designers (who applied and were invited to participate as finalists) presented their technological designs for compassion-inspired applications and competed for best design idea before a panel of judges and the conference audience. Three winning finalists were selected to receive a 1440-CCARE Award (one $10,000 award and two $5,000 awards), an hour consultation with the operating partner of the growth capital fund, The Bridge Builders Collaborative, and the opportunity to meet His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama when he visits the San Francisco Bay Area on February 24, 2014.

Here’s a link to a story from Visual News about the Conference and the 10 finalists: http://www.visualnews.com/2013/12/06/stanford-university-holds-technology-innovation-competition-and-conference-to-promote-public-compassionate-action/.

Two views about Luther and science

Niels Henrik Gregersen is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Copenhagen.  His research areas of interest include 1) developing a contemporary Christian theology in the context of secularized and multi-religious Western societies and 2) bringing about a mutual interaction between science and religion that also allows religious reflection to be an active player.  In 2003, Gregersen authored an article for <i>The Encyclopedia of Science and Religion</i> on “Lutheran Christianity and Issues in Science and Religion.”  The article may be found online at:  <a href=”http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404200087.html” target=”_blank”>http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404200087.html</a>

Donald. R. Kobe, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics at the University of North Texas, died December 3, 2013. He was on the faculty from 1968 to 2008 and made significant contributions to quantum theory and to other areas of theoretical physics.  Kobe’s article on “Luther and Science,” which discusses Luther’s comments about Copernicus, may be found online at:  <a href=”http://www.leaderu.com/science/kobe.html” target=”_blank”>http://www.leaderu.com/science/kobe.html</a>
<p style=”text-align: center;”><img alt=”Sketch of Nicolaus Copernicus” src=”http://luthscitech.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Nikolaus-Copernicus-633×800.jpg” width=”633″ height=”800″ />Photo credit: Sketch of Nicolaus Copernicus – Popular Science Monthly, Volume 39, June 1891</p>

45th anniversary of ‘Earthrise’ photo brings new visualization

Earthrise in colorUsing data collected from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to match with the Apollo 8 still photography, NASA has issued a new visualization of the events leading to one of the iconic photographs of the 20th Century – “Earthrise” taken on December 24, 1968. The visualization allows the viewer to see from the perspective of the Apollo 8 astronauts. The video may be viewed at: http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/nasa-releases-new-earthrise-simulation-video/. Narration is provided by Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon: the Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts.

During their Christmas Eve television broadcast, the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the book of Genesis. Here is the transcript of their remarks:

Bill Anders:

We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Jim Lovell:

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Frank Borman:

“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.’
And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

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