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Hello? Anybody still there?

If it updates quarterly, can it really be called a blog?

Gosh, has it been over three months already? Time flies when you're being dunned.

And I haven't had the intellectual capacity to add much more here that seemed worth adding, after a bunch of work stuff and a bunch of church stuff and some other stuff that's been taking up all my mental space.

But today's readings during Morning Prayer gave me pause, following as they did so soon after I finished The Canon, by the New York Times writer Natalie Angier. (A great book, by the way, although she's sometimes too clever and too heavy with the wordplay for her own good.) One of the things that make the book brilliant is the way it's organized. It's not original with her, but still a good idea. To give an overview of basic science, it should build up, rather than work the way it does in our elementary and high school educations. Start first with the scientific method, then explore probability, then measurement, and then, in this order: physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology, and astronomy. What you learn in each of the fields helps inform what you learn later.

Angier (properly) doesn't give any quarter to scriptural views of "creation" when discussing biology, but much of what she writes -- about evolution, but also about physics, astronomy and cosmology -- had, for me, very religious overtones. I intend to do some more thinking and maybe even writing about this, but today I was struck by what seems a very modern scientific experiment, and that from a book in the Hebrew scriptures, the Book of Daniel. This was the Old Testament lesson for today's Daily Office. It's the beginning of the familiar story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (which is strange we remember them by those names, since those were the names given them by the Babylonians, whereas their real names were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah). The Babylonian king wants the best and brightest of Israel at his court, and so orders that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah be fed the best food (presumably meat) and the best wine. Daniel says this will defile them, if they take these gifts from the king, but their refusing makes the palace master nervous:

The palace master said to Daniel, "I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king." Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: "Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe." So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.
— Daniel 1:10:16

A couple of things about that this pericope brings to mind:

  1. Daniel proposes a test

  2. The test will yield measurable results

  3. He proposes a control for the test (the young men of the same age, on a diet of royal rations instead of vegetables and water)

  4. The Babylonians did not have much of an ethical standard for clinical trials. While we don't know how much the control group knew about this test ("informed consent"?), they are still conducting tests on prisoners for one thing, and for another, after the test group showed better health than the control group, shouldn't they have offered the same diet to the control group?

  5. Interesting early evidence of the health benefits of vegetarian/vegan diets (and alcohol-free, at that) in scripture. However, it also backs up what a lot of people say, which is that a vegetarian diet, alone, may not help you lose weight.

I'm partly joking in those last two points, especially, but those are exactly the kind of issues that get discussed around clinical trials in diet and medicine even today.

Let me be clear here, which is the kind of thing I want to explore more, later, at some point: I'm not saying that the Bible is scientific evidence of anything. Or that the story in Daniel is a factual, historical account -- whether it had been informed by historical events or not beyond the accepted historical fact of the Jewish exile in what is today Iraq (and there's a whole subject worth a little more discussion, probably) I don't know. But for this particular reading, it is interesting that the scientific method has a long position in Jewish history, if we take this experiment as evidence. Which makes sense, since the Greeks and the Babylonians themselves were exploring scientific methods around the time that Israel was exiled in Babylon, or soon thereafter.

I'd never noticed this use of the scientific method in this story before in reading it in the past, but it stood out to me this morning, particularly in light of my last post, about the woman with the hemorrhage who asks Jesus to heal her. I guess you could say, if there's anything theological to these observations in these readings, it's not that "a Biblical viewpoint is scientific," but rather the opposite: "a scientific viewpoint is (or can be) Biblical." That's where I would differ most profoundly, I suppose, with the literalists. By positing science as anathema to religion, or religious faith as the opposite of scientific inquiry, they insult Christianity and the Bible's relationship to it far more than any scientific rationalist ever did.


  1. Hi Derek. I completely agree with your feelings about science and the Bible. In my opinion, Jesus' emphasis on truth - which is meant to include a depth search for truth (as in the inner person, and not only via appearances) has acted as cultural fuel to scientific inquiry in the first place.

    If you think of the story (including teachings and sayings) of Jesus as Myth in the sense in which Joseph Campbell would use that word, there is no escaping the effects of a 2000 year dominance of culture via the elements of this story. I think a dedicated search for and proclamation of truth as a "good thing" is part of that contribution. This is in the context of "truth" as that which can be obscurbed and manipulated by appearances, overzealous enforcement of rigid codes, etc. So with that emphatic and indefatigable devotion and search for truth you must also combine elements in this Myth of freedom (esp in light of the harm to innocents).

    Also, we tend to conflate some aspect of Western Middle Ages with earlier periods and places in which Christianity was adopted, but the truth is we have evidence that that Greek-speaking world knew all about, for example, the planets in their rotation (the discovery of a first century-era machine that predicted eclipses makes this quite clear). We shouldn't forget that the culture that helped spread this gospel is the one that also embraced inquiry of all kinds. Sorry for the long-winded response :-) but I emphatically agree!


  2. obscurbed = obscured

    - Janine again


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