2013 Bishop’s address to the Diocese of Rhode Island

In most dioceses in the Episcopal Church, there’s an expectation that the bishop will speak to the Annual Convention to both recap the previous year’s events and to point people toward what is expected in the coming year. Rhode Island has a long tradition of such addresses.

Last year I read a longish piece that I wrote. I wasn’t completely satisfied with how it went, though I was gratified by the response. This year I thought I might try something a little different – a “keynote” address making use of images and words in a more creative way.

The communications staff at convention, and Ruth Meteer, our diocesan director managed to capture the presentation’s audio feed and have combined it with the slides I used. Here’s the “video” of the result.

Video | Posted on by | 2 Comments

What will work and employment become?

Matthew Fox, the Episcopal priest, not the actor, is one of the few theologians I know who’s been thinking about the meaning of work and vocation within the larger matrix of an understanding of the purpose of Creation. There’s a sense in his writing, and of others, as well as that of sociologists, that human beings have a deep seated need to do meaningful work.

But there’s a problem lately. Jobs are going away. Even the cruddy, dehumanizing jobs of the sort that so many decried during the height of the Industrial revolution. With no work, and no way to provide for a family’s needs, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing a breakdown in the structures of community.

I came across this article a few months ago that points out that our increasingly sophisticated technology is perhaps driving the change. We need less workers to accomplish what we used to need…

From an essay by David Roffman in the MIT Technology Review that discusses the work of ­Erik Brynjolfsson, from the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Andrew McAfee which focuses on trying to get a handle on the shift:

“[T]he most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress. On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the ‘great decoupling.’ And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

It’s a startling assertion because it threatens the faith that many economists place in technological progress. Brynjolfsson and McAfee still believe that technology boosts productivity and makes societies wealthier, but they think that it can also have a dark side: technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before. ­Brynjolfsson can point to a second chart indicating that median income is failing to rise even as the gross domestic product soars. ‘It’s the great paradox of our era,’ he says. ‘Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.’”

More here.

(It’s a long article…)

I think the Church clearly has a need to think this through. What will say to culture when the basic need of the community to provide meaningful work is no longer being met, but we still swim in a cornucopia of material goods that threatens to drown us.

Oddly enough Gene Roddenberry (of Star Trek fame) thought about this in his wondering about the future of humanity. He imagined that technology would commodify most of industrial production – and given a limitless source of energy – no one would want for anything. He imagined that mass produced stuff would lose it’s value. Food stuff, technology, etc would be essentially free. The things that would become valuable would be things that were handcrafted, one of a kind sorts of objects. A violin by a master crafter is much more highly prized than a instrument largely stamped out by machine. A hand thrown pot made by a master ceramicist in Japan is much more precious to us than a vase we pick up at the local big box store for a buck; even though both serve the same essential purpose.

So if technology is fundamentally changing the meaning of work and, I guess by extension, the meaning of vocation, what shall we as the Church contribute to the conversation?

Does anyone know of anyone working in this area of theology?

Posted in Current Affairs, Religion, Science | 8 Comments

Why study Physics.

A truly lovely short film by a Rhode Islander – who studied physics at Brown and design and animation at RISD – both a few blocks from where I sit as I write this sentence.

Why Do I Study Physics? (2013) from Xiangjun Shi on Vimeo.

Take a few minutes to watch it and then look at the world around you with your new rational and irrational eyes…

Posted in Film, Science, SOSc | 10 Comments

Transfiguration, not Transformation

I’m making a visitation tonight at The Church of the Transfiguration in Cranston, and as I was preparing the sermon for tonight, I came across a sermon I wrote more than a decade ago on the Transfiguration. I don’t think the sermon is good enough to warrant posting the whole thing, but I rather like this little part from the introduction on the contrast between Transfiguration and Transformation:

Transfiguration does not mean the same thing as the word Transformation. Transformation implies a remaking of the nature of a person or object. Transfiguration implies a revelation of the true nature.

Jesus is not transformed on the Mount that day. He doesn’t go up the mountain like some sort of caterpillar, to wrap himself in a cocoon and emerge as a glorious butterfly, full of light and beauty. That is what happens at the Resurrection event, but not here, not today.

What happens here is that Jesus stands revealed. It is as if a mask is taken away from his face, and the disciples are granted a vision of who he really is, as God the Father sees him and loves him. I suppose that if you push me hard enough, I will admit that in my mind, Jesus’ human body contains the glory of the Godhead, and in the Transfiguration event, the disciples see through the husk of his body to the soul of his being and power. That statement by itself of course is in error, since it would deny the goodness and completeness of Jesus incarnation, but, since so little of what I am able to say about the details of the Incarnation isn’t ultimately in error, I hope you’ll let this one slide with just a minor remonstrance.

We are familiar with the same kinds of moments in our own lives, among the people we know and love. Have you ever seen the face of child transfigured with joy at some gift or unexpected event? It is as if you are peering into their very soul, through the layers of dirt and chocolate cake on their face, and seeing them as they truly are on the inside. Have you ever seen someone, beautiful to behold, so overcome with anger and frustration, that their face becomes transfigured as well? It is frightening sometimes to see how people really are on the inside when that happens, and it is certainly disillusioning as well.

The sermon goes on from there to talk about the irony that this day is also the anniversary of the destruction of the city of Hiroshima by our country dropping the first atomic bomb – and how that too is a form of transfiguration of our human nature.

Posted in Religion | 2 Comments

Science and Religion: Can There Be A Conversation?

Last week I gave a talk in Little Compton Rhode Island on the complexity involved in the conversation between the scientific and theological enterprises. There were two big take-aways I hoped people would leave with.

First was that the difficulty in conversation stems primarily from the different methodologies the two systems use in discriminating between opposing claims. Science uses the lab bench. It’s not clear what the final referee is in theological conversation is, but I made a few suggestions.

(The question in theology isn’t simply answered by claiming that you use the Bible to resolve all disputes – people interpret and use the Bible differently for one thing, and there are a number of modern questions that the Bible only speaks about tangentially if at all.)

The second take-away was that there must be a conversation. Truth is truth whether it is found within the scientific enterprise or the theological. The two “rival” systems have to take account of what the other claims. To simply ignore a claim is to place oneself into an ideological zone that strives to keep oneself pure (at best) and segregated (at worst). Essentially, when one system decides to ignore the other system’s work, we are creating intellectual ghettos (in the old sense of the word) and I will not accept that God created us to live in such ways.

If you’ve got an hour of free time and you’d like to see the talk in its entirety, the people of St. Andrew’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Little Compton recorded the presentation and have posted it:

Richard Dujardin, a reporter for the Providence Journal attended the talk as well, and did a write up that was published in the Sunday paper.

“Now I would love to tell you that there is no conflict between science and religion at all,” [Knisely] told the gathering, “but I’m afraid there is.”

He says there has been some overreaching by both sides.

Richard did a great job of presenting a rather esoteric talk in a way that I think is accessible to the general public. That’s a skill I’m not sure I’ve mastered!

Posted in Religion, Rhode Island, Science, SOSc | 4 Comments

Lucas Mix: Is Christianity Opposed to Science?

The Rev. Dr. Lucas Mix, Episcopal Priest, astrobiologist, martial arts enthusiast and now (hooray) a New Englander again, has been blogging for a while on the questions of science and religion. In his latest blog post, about the the supposed conflict between the enterprises of Science and Theology, he makes a series of interesting points.

I’m particularly taken by his response to the question of whether or not religion and religionists work to thwart the advancement of scientific knowledge.

A bit of his response:

“Prior to 1900, almost all science was done by members of the upper class (the leisure class).  The general public didn’t have the opportunity, meaning it was a pursuit for the wealthy or their dependents.  Thus the lists of early scientists are littered with the names of clerics.  Among the most notable are Copernicus, Mendel, Secchi, and Priestley.  For a list of Roman Catholic cleric scientists, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_Catholic_cleric-scientists.

I must admit to mixed feelings about the close association of privilege with the church, but it cannot be denied that wealth led to science, often through the church.

But didn’t the church suppress Galileo?  Yes, but again, this is not a function of Christianity, but of institution.  (I will argue below that Christianity favors science.)  Large authoritarian institutions stifle creativity and innovation.  They always have.  One need only look to the Soviet promotion of Trofim Lysenko in the 20th century to see a clear example of this.  Soviet biology floundered, because Lysenko, a prominent biologist, rejected certain insights of Darwin and Mendel that became central to modern biology.  Young scientists who argued against this orthodoxy were suppressed. Galileo, likewise, ran into an authority structure when the Pope favored Aristotelian orthodoxy (in physics) over Galileo’s novel ideas.

It looks as though the Christian Church, but particularly the Roman Catholic hierarchy, both collected wealth to produce a leisure class (good for science) and suppressed creativity (bad for science).  Given that the system produced Copernicus, Galileo, and Mendel (and later Lemaitre and Secchi), we’d be hard pressed to say it’s been bad for science.  [It may have been bad for faith, but that’s another article.]

Meanwhile, the Anglican strand of Christianity in England and Scotland produced many more scientists and some of the foundational philosophies that make modern science possible.”

Much more here plus the rest of the article.

(Lucas, like me, is a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists. In fact he was one of the people who managed to get me to become part of the order. I’m delighted that he’s moving back to Boston to work on a Templeton project at MIT on the meaning of life. I’m hoping to get him down to Rhode Island for a proper visit.)

Posted in Religion, Science, SOSc | 4 Comments

Response to disaster

A thought occasioned by Bishop George Councel’s meditation on loss in the time of natural disaster:

We live in the illusion that we can adapt and change the world to our purposes.

Rather than recognizing that we are made to adapt and reorganize ourselves the world’s changes.

We used to know differently.

(A meditation given at the Spring 2013 House of Bishop’s meeting in Kanuga NC.)

Posted in Religion, Rhode Island | 2 Comments