Life & Faith

Life on Mars

An aerospace engineer and an astrogeologist discuss the whether and why of space exploration.

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"For all these wonderful technologies, for all these incredible achievements that you see - rockets that can be reused, drones that can fly long missions, every discovery by the Hubble or the Kepler - there’s this realisation that when all the really, really good stuff comes along, I’m going to be dead."

When James Garth was a young, budding aerospace engineer, he came across an ad in his copy of Aviation Week that read: "In 200 years, space flight will be routine. You, however, will be dead." It was an existential-angst-inducing moment. But it hasn’t kept him from being constantly excited about the work he gets to do now.

"My main job is to make sure the wings don’t fall off – if the wings fall off, it’s a bad day, and if the wing stays on, it’s a good day," James says. He’s not being flippant – the wings of an aircraft, he explains, are designed to not fall off, of course, but only just.

"Aerospace is a really demanding profession because you’re pushing yourself up against the extremes of what is actually possible," he says. "You’ve got to shave out weight at every opportunity, you’ve got to constantly innovate and use new materials and new technologies … and that’s actually why I love doing aerospace engineering."

In this episode, we’re celebrating National Science Week in Australia with two conversations on space travel, the wonder of the cosmos, the possibility of life on other planets, and - of course - the best science fiction on offer.

Hear from two Australians with very cool jobs: James Garth, an aeronautical engineer, and a man who has travelled to Mars. Twice. Well, sort of.

"In the Canadian Arctic the ground is frozen, there’s permafrost, and we know there’s permafrost on Mars," Jonathan Clarke says about the location of his first Mars simulation experience. "In Utah you’ve got a red, dry desert with rocks that are full of clay, full of sulphates, just like we see on Mars," he says of the second.

An astrogeologist, Jon would love to go to Mars for real one day.

"I love beautiful places. Mars has grandeur. It’s got volcanos with cliffs eight kilometres high and canyons 12 kilometres deep, it’s got blue sunsets and pink skies, and great dust storms - it’s an extraordinarily beautiful landscape and I’d just love to be able to explore that in person."

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These interviews were conducted at ISCAST’s Conference on Science and Christianity. Find out more about ISCAST here: www.iscast.org

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Same Species, Bigger Sticks

Is the human race on an inevitable trajectory onward and upward? Not quite, says Nick Spencer.

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"We are the same species but with bigger sticks, and those sticks can be used to reach further and achieve more - but they can conversely be used to beat a lot more people. That is precisely the point. Were we to find ourselves under the same pressures of resource scarcity that our ancestors endured every single day, we would probably find ourselves less moral than we think ourselves to be."

Is the world a better place to live today than it has ever been before? Some would answer this question with a resounding yes – like Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard. His latest book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress, charts improvements over time across a whole range of markers – life expectancy, child mortality, wealth and poverty, war and violence, and more – and one of the central claims of his book is that we owe all this progress to the Enlightenment.

Nick Spencer, Director of Research at Theos Think Tank in the UK and author of The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has shaped our values, says that there’s more to the story of the human race.

"The beef I have with Steven Pinker is that he traces all good things to the Enlightenment and no bad things to it," Nick Spencer says, "and as soon as you do that, you’re almost invariably oversimplifying history for your own purposes."

In the episode, we look at the positives of the Enlightenment, as well as some of its more ambiguous elements.

"You can certainly see an enormous potential for human moral progress," he says, "but you have that twin fear of technological progress that seems to continue apace, with the more ambiguous form of moral progress that may or may not happen."

"The worst possible scenario is a coincidence of significant technological progress and development with moments of human fallibility – if you get that, which is what you did get in the 1930s and 40s, the scene is not a happy one."

But even as a self-confessed "glass half-empty" person, Nick Spencer has hope for humanity, which is rooted in his Christian faith.

"I think that the human person has a malleability, a creative fluidity … the person is responsive to love," he says. "I think, therefore, the person can be redeemed through responding to the love of God, and that means the person’s future can be redeemed and can 'progress' – it can blossom and flourish in a way that it might not otherwise."

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WATCH Nick Spencer debate Steven Pinker on the future of humanity: http://bit.ly/2LI2S1e

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Guess Who’s Not Coming To Dinner

Politics, religion, and being a good guest at dinner - or a good citizen in the public square.

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"The old edict in the UK is that there are certain conversations you avoid around the dinner table: one is politics, the other is religion. Seeing as I write on politics and religion, I don’t get invited to dinner very much."

Nick Spencer says it makes sense to think that the combination of religion and politics in a conversation at a dinner party will be explosive – politics is typically about compromise, and religion, to many people, is all about not compromising. He suggests, however, that "you can talk about politics and religion without heading straight for the neuralgic issues".

In this episode, Nick explores the ways in which people can mix politics and religion well.

He also uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate ways the Bible has frequently been used (and misused), and often to great effect, by both sides of politics in the UK. On the left, it has been used to "justify bombing in Syria", and on the right to "justify materialism and voluntarism".

But his point is not that politicians should leave religion out of politics. Instead, he makes a case for welcoming the Bible – and other rich, comprehensive moral doctrines – into public debate.

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Nick Spencer’s book, The Political Samaritan: How power hijacked a parable, is available to purchase here: http://bit.ly/2LjoYuZ

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Gloves Off

The gripping, often irreverent, sometimes hilarious history of the Bible in Australian culture.

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"It’s always been gloves off when it comes to the Bible in Australia."

The Bible is the most popular book in the world. But this blanket statement hides all kinds of realities - it’s loved and pored over by some, it gathers dust on many shelves, and it’s hotly debated in parliaments and universities, at dinner parties and in churches.

In Australia, across its history, the Bible shows up in surprising places.

"A lot of people have an opinion on the Bible, and that’s been true historically too," Meredith Lake, historian and author of The Bible in Australia says. "So in a way it was an entrée to the great debates in Australian society, culture and history."

In this episode, from convict tattoos to 19th-century feminist newspapers and an iconic Melbourne bookstore, and encompassing some of the more horrific and heartbreaking moments in Australia’s colonial history, Meredith Lake takes us on a biblical tour through the nation’s history. And she’s convinced the Bible’s core messages still resonate today.

"People try to bend their lives to what they take to be its meaning," Meredith says. "For the religious, it has a kind of authority in their lives that other texts don’t, and so we need to take seriously what they think it means."

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You can purchase a copy of Meredith Lake's book, The Bible in Australia here: www.meredithlake.com/the-bible-in-australia

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Life Is But A Breath

How a near-death experience helped one man embrace all of life – the beautiful, and the ugly.

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"Real faith is to trust God in the good and the bad."

After officiating a wedding, David Robertson wasn’t feeling too well and broke into a cold sweat. He ended up lying on the ground in front of his church, in a pool of his own blood.

Turns out, the Scottish church minister had contracted a virus that created two ulcers over a major artery, which had caused the bleeding. In hospital, his condition went from bad to worse. His lungs went down to 30 per cent capacity, he got pneumonia, and he needed close to 16 litres of blood product throughout his stay. His doctors told his wife: "it’s 50-50 whether he’ll live."

It was a long and traumatic road back to health, but David is now very much alive and well – which is a miracle. In fact, his doctor told him that he doesn’t understand how David’s still alive, or at least not in a vegetative state.

During a conversation with his doctor’s wife, David told her, "your husband saved my life." She replied, "[My husband] says that God saved your life. He says there are only two people in his whole career – and he’s been a surgeon for over 30 years – that he regards as a miracle. And you’re one of them."

In this episode, David shares his near-death experience, the road to recovery, and the lessons he learned along the way.

"Life is but a breath. But also, life is filled with glorious things, as well as the ugly."

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An Astronomer’s Guide to the Galaxy

Astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman on star-gazing, human significance, and the prospect of extra-terrestrial life.

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"If you fund some level of basic science, it lifts the human spirit, it tends to give people motivation to do other kinds of science as well, it feeds a lot of other worthwhile human enterprises."

Jennifer Wiseman grew up in rural Arkansas, an experience which gave her an abiding love of nature – and introduced her to the wonders of the night sky.

"In the case of astronomy I think it feeds into art and music and philosophy and theology and all kinds of things," Wiseman continues. "So I would say that, as human beings, we need some investment in these 'spirit-lifting' activities - and certainly exploring our universe is a very basic human curiosity that I think lifts the human spirit."

It wasn’t until years later that she realised she could turn her interest in space into a full-time job. These days, she’s an astrophysicist … one who has a comet named after her.

"Science is a wonderful gift and tool to address certain types of questions. How does gravity work? How do stars form? What’s the evolutionary history of the universe? … But science is not really good at answering certain other types of questions, like why are we here, or how should I live, or can I have a relationship with God? These kinds of things I can’t measure with my microscope or my telescope."

When you get to have a conversation with someone like Jennifer Wiseman, you want to ask all the questions. How far can we see? Why is the universe beautiful? How can humans be significant, given the vastness of space? How do you get a comet named after you? And, of course: what about life beyond Earth?

"I wouldn’t be surprised if we found, maybe years in the future, that there are certainly habitable planets, and maybe biological activity on other planets. It would make a lot of sense to me."

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Jesus, Outside the Box

Will the real Jesus please stand up? John Dickson’s new book is a quest for the historical Jesus.

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“The real Jesus in the sources is far more interesting. The Jesus there is striking, dangerous, intriguing, beautiful, bizarre, scary, and incredibly comforting. You just can’t pin him down. That’s the great thing about the historical Jesus – there’s no way of fitting him inside a box.”

In this episode, we explore the major portraits of the historical Jesus and what they might mean to us today.

“I think he’s the best card Christians have – maybe the only card. People are generally positive towards Jesus and it’s partly because there is a vague memory of a true aspect of Jesus, which is that he rebelled against the religious authorities of the day. That just resonates with people.”

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John Dickson was a speaker at the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year. You can find out more about the festival here: www.swf.org.au 

A Doubter's Guide to Jesus: An Introduction to the Man from Nazareth for Believers and Skeptics by John Dickson is available to purchase now: www.bit.ly/2kJSbiH 

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A Great Spirit

Two Aboriginal women give their first-hand accounts of growing up on Christian missions.

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"I do a lot of praying. I just got to hand it over to the Lord. He understands what I’m going through and how I’m feeling. He went through a lot of grief himself and it must still break his heart to see the way some of us live."

Ngardarb Riches is a Bardi Jawi woman from the West Kimberley Coast of Australia. Aunty Maureen is a Barngala woman from South Australia. They’ve both lived on Christian missions, and they’ve both experienced the good and the bad that Christian missionaries and the government have done for Aboriginal people.

The bad includes the decimation of Aboriginal culture and language, and the removal from their land.

"My two eldest brothers went together to one boys’ home in Adelaide, my three youngest brothers went together to another boys’ home in Adelaide, and my two sisters went to a foster home in Adelaide," Aunty Maureen says. "The missionary said, 'could you take the other, the oldest girl?' And that lady replied, 'I only want the two pretty young girls.' That broke my heart because I wasn’t used to being separated from my family."

Aunty Maureen was eight years old when she was separated from her family. But somehow, she still calls the Christian mission where she lived a "happy place". She’s emphatic that, in the midst of all her loss and pain, the Christian faith was a source of comfort for her.

"We were just young kids all hurting," she says. "All we knew was the love of God and God loved us. The missionaries really cared for us and that’s the way they showed their love."

For Ngardarb, she was born in Derby during a period when her people were separated from their home, on what had been the Sunday Island Mission. It had closed down during the implementation of the Australian government’s assimilation policy.

It was another missionary couple who would later help the Bardi Jawi people return home – and Ngardarb was able to grow up on her people’s land.

"My people are the salt water people, so a lot of our living was in and around the islands and eating seafood, collecting it," Ngardarb says.

"So as a child, I still had that. Growing up I was so lucky to have those experiences where we would get the poison root from the bush, take it down when the tide went out and put it in the pools – that would stun the fish, it would take oxygen from the water and we were able to do traditional fishing. I was really lucky and it still happens where I come from now, that’s still being passed down to our generation today."

She says that if Christian missions hadn’t existed, a lot of her people would not be alive today.

"A lot of our families and tribes would have been wiped out because that was the intention of the government, because they said that we were a dying race," she says. "But we’re survivors, and a lot of the Christian missions gave us that opportunity to have our families survive, and to have that safe haven. We had to stop a lot of our practices and beliefs and stuff but at least it was somewhere safe."

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We interviewed John Briggs, Ngardarb Riches, and Aunty Maureen for our documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined - it's in cinemas NOW. To book tickets, or host your own screening, visit: www.betterandworse.film

Learn more about the long road towards Aboriginal recognition and reconciliation by listening to this episode from the Life & Faith archives: http://bit.ly/2kz3I4l

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State of the Nation

Social researcher Hugh Mackay on building a more compassionate and less anxious society.

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"Some public health experts are now saying that loneliness is a greater risk to our public health than obesity."

Hugh Mackay, one of Australia’s leading researchers, believes there’s something wrong with the state of our nation and the lives of its citizens.

"You can look at specific factors in individual cases and say, this person is anxious because of rent stress, or because of job insecurity, or because of relationship breakdown, or loss of faith … but when you’ve got epidemic proportions, I think you have to look at society," he says. "We need to live in communities that sustain us and nurture us, protect us and give us a sense of identity. When we feel cut off from the herd, anxiety goes up."

In his latest book, Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society, Hugh Mackay addresses some of the forces at work in our communities - including disappointment in political leadership, loss of faith in once-respected institutions like the church, faltering education standards, and the proliferation of social media - that are causing us to experience, sometimes paradoxically, more loneliness.

"[Social media is] training us to communicate with each other in a way that strips the process of all the nuance … all the things that imply meaning that’s not just in the words."

He also says things may have to get worse before they get better.

"It’s the death and resurrection model, in a way. There has to be a death before there’s a renewal. ... I think politics will have to become more of a shamble, education levels will have to sink even further, the epidemic of mental illness will have to become even greater before we say this is now out of control. That’s assuming there isn’t a global war or economic disaster of some kind.”

But Hugh Mackay remains confident that people will figure out a way forward, and communities will flourish.

“What I’m more optimistic about is that our sense of being human, and the sense of connectedness with other humans, will prevail - and will be the thing that pulls us back from the brink of disaster.”

And faith, he suggests, will play a role in the renewal of our communities towards a more compassionate and less anxious society.

"Even among people who don’t have any religious faith, they admire it and often envy it," he says. "People recognise that the expression of faith, whether in medical care, social services, or education, is likely to be of a very high standard because it’s driven by this faith in the higher being, this higher power."

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Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society is in stores now and available online: www.bit.ly/2s8OVRx 

Hugh Mackay was a speaker at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. To find out more about the festival, or to listen to interviews with other speakers, go to: www.swf.org.au 

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In The Name Of Christ

The greatest facepalm of the Crusades - and more stories of crusaders turning on other Christians.

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"Three days was the accepted period of a sack in the Middle Ages. They sacked it for a little bit more than that … it greatly damaged the city of Constantinople. And that ultimately was the end of the Crusade. It had never raised a sword against the Muslim, but it had actually conquered and destroyed the greatest Christian city in the world."

When it comes to the sins of the Christian church, the Crusades are one of the first things that come to mind. The scholars point out that a lot of what we think we know about the Crusades is off the mark - but sometimes, the reality was even worse than people think.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we’re looking at a lesser-known aspect of the Crusades. It turns out that not all Crusades were against Muslims - nor did they all take place in the Middle East.

For example, the sack of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) occurred in 1204. The taking of this great Christian city, and the slaughter of Christians that was the result, was far from the original objective of the Fourth Crusade. The death of Christians was - in modern military parlance - collateral damage.

"Now once the city fell there’s no doubt that the crusaders did not play by their own rules," says Professor Thomas Madden from Saint Louis University, author of The Concise History of the Crusades.

"They all swore on relics before the attack that if the city fell they would not touch the churches, they would not touch any of the monasteries or the monks or the women in the monasteries. And in fact once the city fell, it was chaos."

The Albigensian Crusade also too place in the 13th century - in southern France, not the Middle East. It was a brutal campaign against other Christians who were deemed "heretics" because of their unorthodox and "dangerous" beliefs.

The Pope resorted to a military solution to address this rival spiritual movement: kill everyone.

"The Albigensian Crusade is in many ways an anomaly in medieval Europe," says Professor Christine Ames, a historian of medieval Europe from The University of South Carolina.

"It is shocking to people at the time, the war is exceptionally brutal, exceptionally bloody."

Justine Toh is your guide on this tour of how the church has been even worse than you ever imagined - and why it’s important to remember and acknowledge such history.

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For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined is in cinemas NOW. To book tickets, or host your own screening, visit: www.betterandworse.film 

For more on the Crusades, here’s an earlier episode of Life & Faith covering the major myths and misconceptions about this period in history: www.publicchristianity.org/life-faith-crusades

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