Tag: terry lectures

The Courage to Be

Courage to BeFew thinkers, let alone theologians, have managed to inspire the popular imagination as Paul Tillich did in the mid-twentieth century. As a public intellectual, he has been compared to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose writings also gained mass appeal and whose lectures attracted large audiences in the 19th century. One of Tillich’s landmark works, The Courage to Be, was originally conceived under the auspices of The Terry Lecture Series at Yale University between 1950–1951. Though the work was published over fifty years ago, it has become a staple in college curricula. His work was relevant in the 1950s as the U.S. enjoyed a postwar boom but suffered from Cold War anxiety; half a century later, it is just as applicable in today as we deal with new and wholly different anxieties that stem from economic turbulence and the global War on Terror. But rather than explore these external anxieties caused by current events, Tillich examines our collective internal anxiety, that of our own existence, which is tied to issues of fate, guilt, and death. This book deals with existentialism and the many lines of flight that derive from this charged term. Tillich explores the idea of anxiety from a variety of religious and secular perspectives. But he ultimately seeks to encourage us—to inspire us with courage—to develop an absolute faith, a state of mind that transcends religious, divine, or mystical connotations. This absolute faith is the ultimate manifestation of courage, a self-affirmation of being in spite of non-being.

 The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.

As our world changes, so does the way we lead our lives in it. But Tillich provides a clear and sage commentary that applies to all generations on the existential challenges we face and how we can develop an honest but hopeful response to the challenges brought forth by anxiety and nonbeing, our lifelong companions. The Courage to Be is available from Yale University Press as part of the Terry Lectures Series publications.

Thomas Jefferson’s Scientific Love Affair

The name Thomas Jefferson brings to mind some of his greatest achievements: Author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, and Founder of the University of Virginia. But there’s another side to America’s Renaissance man that, though less well known, is just as praiseworthy. In his new book Jefferson’s Shadow: The Story of His Science, Keith Thomson sheds light on Jefferson’s lifelong passion for science, a fact that has been often overlooked by historians. Jefferson produced laudable findings in archæology, paleontology, climatology, and geography, all of which helped legitimize the study of American natural history in the face of European prejudice. While Benjamin Franklin is generally considered America’s first scientific philosopher, Thomson argues that Jefferson was America’s second.

In the 18th century, the boundary between the observational sciences of natural history and the theoretical sciences of natural philosophy was much more fluid. As such, Jefferson and other scientific intellectuals were exposed to research from both branches of inquiry. A lifelong bookworm, Jefferson read everything, from Newton’s new mechanics and Aristotle’s logic to St. Thomas Aquinas’s natural law and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s history of the West Indies. Behind all this scientific education was lawyer’s mind; as a result, Jefferson documented everything he learned. Scattered through his notebooks and letters are endless lists of facts, drawings, and calculations. Ever fascinated by measuring devices, Jefferson kept a thermometer in his pocket wherever he went and kept records of daily temperatures for over fifty years.

Not only did Jefferson distinguish himself in the scientific field, he also represented and championed the emergence of an American intelligentsia. Many18th-century Europeans did not believe that America could produce serious intellectuals apart from the eccentric but well-respected Benjamin Franklin. And this prejudice against America’s potential is clearly manifested in George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s iconic encyclopedic work L’Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière. This publication was seen as an authoritative text of the natural history of the world, but Buffon—who had never visited the Americas—claimed that America was a cold, desolate wasteland, incapable of sustaining habitable life. Jefferson responds to Buffon’s claims in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, which is widely seen today as one of the most influential publications in our national literature. He provides compelling arguments based on his research (including his own) and his gift for rhetorical argument to disprove Buffon’s overgeneralized claims. For the young Jefferson to successfully take on the leading natural historian bolstered the nascent America’s credibility in the in the intellectual world.

As President, Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition to Pacific Coast as both a commercial and scientific endeavor. He insisted that the explorers document all the unfamiliar species and plants they encountered, a habit that clearly stems from Jefferson’s own personal practice. The expedition’s findings introduced many new species and plants to the eastern United States and Europe. As a result, Jefferson’s efforts helped establish America as a leader in the scientific investigation of its national geography and natural history.

Through his writings, one sees that his mind was teeming in forward-thinking ideas that did not garner attention until decades later by other researchers. On the topic of Native Americans, Jefferson refuted Buffon’s claim that they are savages and defended their advanced civilizations like an anthropologist, no doubt using original research from his running list of new Native American vocabulary and languages that he discovered during his travels. He hypothesized that the diversity of Native American languages helped different communities each retain their distinct identities, an idea that would be put forward later by Charles Darwin as an “isolation mechanism.” Jeffersons also theorized that people of similar skin color are more likely to mate, reinforcing the differences between people of different skin colors; Darwin would come to similar conclusions about “mate choice and sexual selection” almost a hundred years later.

Despite Jefferson’s interest and accomplishments in the study of natural history and philosophy, he struggled to reconcile scientific ideas with religion. Jefferson was passionate about studying fossils, especially those of the American mastodon. But Thomson argues that Jefferson did not use the term “fossil” in his writings because it conflicted with his religious beliefs; the word implies an endorsement of the extinction theory, and God could not have made the mistake of creating species that could go die off. Thus, even though Jefferson was one of the first writers of American paleontology, he rejected the field’s basic premises of fossils and extinction.

Through Thomson’s written account of Jefferson’s life, photos, and original sketches, we can appreciate Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong love affair with science and how it contributed to his success a leading intellect in the emerging nation of American scholars.

Keith Thomson will deliver his final two lectures—as part of the 2012 Terry Lectures—on December 3 and 4, 2012 at the Whitney Humanities Center (55 Wall Street) at 4:15pm.

October Theme: Religion

As we consider 2012 as a whole, following closely on last month’s discussions on political economy, religion may have assumed a more central role in global culture—conflicts and revolutions, apocalyptic predictions, elections, scientific discoveries—despite an increasing insistence on secularist thought throughout much of the world.

In addition to Yale University Press’s Anchor Yale Bible Series, we publish a number of titles on religion and religious studies, crossing theology with politics, scientific thought, and philosophy, furthering the debates that fuel academic and popular inquiry alike. We began October’s Religion theme with a reconsideration of Benny Morris’s 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, in light of Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September. Next, we celebrated the arrival in English of André Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint, timed to the saint’s October 4 feast day, when pets are known to appear at church to honor this patron saint of animals.

Over the coming weeks, we will review our year in publications: John Bowker’s The Message and the Book: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions, introducing the great faiths of the world through their most important writings; Michael Meyerson’s Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, rejecting the extreme arguments of today’s debates by examining what the framers of the Constitution actually said about religious freedom and how it can inspire and unify our religiously diverse nation; and John Lynch’s New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America, encompassing the Latin American people’s reception of Christianity from the Spanish Conquest and the arrival of evangelists to the dictators and repressive regimes of the twentieth century.

New this fall are Malcolm Barber’s The Crusader States, exploring the military battles and cultural clashes as East and West struggled for dominance in the crusader states of Jerusalem, Antioch, Tripoli, and Edessa in the twelfth century. Our Jewish Lives series brings a new biography of the biblical hero Jacob, written by Yair Zakovitch. The latest in the Terry Lecture series, The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. explores the dissonance between Buddhist teachings as practiced in Asia and in the West, and demonstrates how Western notions of the Buddha have long misrepresented the traditional teachings of the religion. Meanwhile, this year’s lecture series begins on October 9, with Keith Thomson on “Jefferson and Darwin: Science and Religion in Troubled Times.”

Francis Bremer takes us on a New England tour of Puritan history and its present-day relevance, leading to the publication of his new book on New Haven co-founder John Davenport, Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds. And lastly, we’ll have an early look at The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, by Robert Louis Wilken, narrating the dramatic spread and development of a global Christianity over the first thousand years of its history and showing how it constituted one of the most profound revolutions the world has ever known.

All this in addition to our daily coverage of new books, art, authors, and publishing news—and don’t even think we’re done yet with election season!

In books we trust

3@2 Interview: Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack on The New Universe and the Human Future

Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack, credit Paul Schraub

The newest 3@2 Interview brings Terry Lecturers Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack, authors of The New Universe and the Human Future, to discuss the new scientific picture of the universe and its meaning for our lives, societies, and long-term future as a species.


Yale University Press: Why does it matter to have an accurate picture of the universe? What is the new picture?

Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack:  We need an accurate map of reality to protect ourselves and our species in our increasingly technological world in the difficult times that are coming.  Part of that accurate map is understanding how we humans arose out of this strange universe.  When we discover the underlying principles of reality, they help give us a cosmologically long term view.  When our consciousness expands to absorb that, it changes our sense of what we are and makes it not only more exciting but more accurate and thus more likely to succeed in the real world.

Everything astronomers can see with the most sophisticated instruments in every wavelength — all the stars, planets, gas, dust, and hundreds of billions of distant galaxies — totals less than half of one percent of what’s out there.  A few percent are atoms of hydrogen and helium floating around, which are invisible because they are unlit by stars.  But over 95% of the content of the universe consists of two mysterious presences that are invisible in principle because they do not interact with light.  Dark matter (23%) holds the galaxies together and protects them from dark energy (72%), which is accelerating the expansion  of the universe and tearing apart the space between gravitationally bound regions (like galaxies or clusters of galaxies).  The invisible drama between these two has at last been discovered.  It is a large part of our origin story.

YUP: Where do we come from?  What are we made of?  How do we humans fit into the Big Picture?

NEA & JRP:  Understanding the scientific story is step one.  After that, we can begin to feel our identity in the universe by sending our consciousness backward through time, down past our parents and grandparents, past the countless generations before them, our ancestors roaming from continent to continent, our primate ancestors, down through all the animals that preceded them, back through the earliest life, into a single cell, down into the complex chemicals that made it possible, down into the molten planet and the forming solar system, back to the birth of our carbon and oxygen and iron atoms in exploding stars far across the galaxy, back to the formation of the galaxy itself deep inside a giant halo of dark matter, back through the universal expansion to the creation of our elementary particles — the particles we are made of at this very moment — in the Big Bang.   We are made of history. Who we are is the sum total of our history.  How far back we understand that history—how much of our own identity we claim—is up to us.  No humans had this choice before.  We are the first to know our real origin story.  This is a very special moment.

YUP:  What is the connection between a scientific picture of the universe and the future of humanity?

NEA & JRP:  The human species is at a turning point.  We are living through the last decades of exponential growth in resource use worldwide and hitting limits.  We are changing the climate, acidifying and overfishing the oceans, and killing entire species of plants and animals at the greatest rate since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  These problems can only be solved on a planetary level, but for that we need some common ground.  It is possible that a unifying story of our origins, based on science, combined with a truly long-term perspective “could solidify the bonds of humankind,” to quote Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, who was commenting at a conference of federal judges on our earlier book, The View from the Center of the Universe.  There are also many ways that cosmological concepts can become an entirely new metaphorical language that can help free us from narrow habits of thinking about politics, economics, and identity.


Nancy Ellen Abrams is an attorney, philosopher of science, and lecturer. Joel R. Primack is Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Both are at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Watch the authors in conversation with Deepak Chopra on Deepak HomeBase or their TEDx Santa Cruz talk.

Facing the Challenges of Islam

Islam requires that its adherents pray facing Mecca, a requirement that is easily fulfilled with the help of today’s technology. In less than three seconds, www.quiblalocator.com can produce a map of your local area with a red line indicating the direction of Mecca and statistics relating to the latitude, longitude, and distance from where you are, and if you’re on the go, there’s an iPhone app that produces the same results.

Yet in the introduction to Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History, from the Terry Lectures series, author Ahmad Dallal makes it clear that calculating the direction of the quibla was not always so easy. Before advanced mathematics, precisely determining the geographical relationship between Mecca and sites beyond the Red Sea, Syria, and Iraq was almost impossible, meaning that when science progressed to the point of making more accurate measurements, the new mathematical astronomers found that many of the mosques that had been built were misaligned. Some buildings were rebuilt in order to reflect to the new measurements, but a few scholars protested that Islam did not expect all men to be geometers, asserting that the general direction of quibla was more important than perfect mathematical calculations. This debate continued for several centuries, and Dallal takes its content as representative of the larger question he sets out to explore: namely, the “the relative authority of religious knowledge and scientific knowledge” in the Muslim world.

The example of the quibla proves that tensions between science and faith have always existed; however, Dallal explains that, for the most part, the classical age of Islam was characterized by an inclination to separate the two spheres. Indeed, he writes, science was seen as a “culturally neutral or universal activity” that could be practiced by a person of any religion. By contrast, since the decline from Islam’s so-called Golden age, science has become a more contentious issue, as religious authority has pushed back against scientific theories such as evolution.

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article published earlier this year, Steve Paulson picks up on a growing interest in this tension, asking, “Does Islam Stand Against Science?” He cites Dallal, and indeed, it is clear in Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History, that Paulson’s question is not far from the author’s mind.  Citing a general dearth of funding for scientific development and education, Dallal argues that modern Muslim societies are characterized by the absence of a scientific culture. This absence, Dallal writes, places them at a disadvantage on the world stage, where science is “an instrument of power.” In order to reclaim that power going forward, Dallal proposes that Islam look back, to allow for another realignment of religion and science, one that is “rooted in a historical understanding of the relationship between” the two, the very relationship Dallal so carefully analyses and presents to his readers.

Think Cosmically, Act Globally

In his review of The New Universe and the Human Future for the Huffington Post, Deepak Chopra writes that authors Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack are “not aiming to reclaim old religious ideas;” rather, they “put great store in the unique scale of the human world and how our minds have turned to explain ourselves as well as the cosmos.” Considering the current state of science and religion, and cosmology and theology, this is a bold move to explain the origins and meaning of human life. But as the authors write:

There is a gaping hole in modern thinking that may never have existed in human society before. It’s so common that scarcely anyone notices it, while global catastrophes of natural and human origin plague our planet and personal crises of existential confusion plague our private lives. The hole is this: we have no meaningful sense of how we and our fellow humans fit into the big picture.

The story they construct, a combination of biological, religious, and cosmological thinking, relates the discoveries of the modern age with various creationist stories of our universe, observing that:

Many religious believers are convinced that the earth was created as is a few thousand years ago, while many people who respect science believe that the earth is just an average planet of a random star in a universe where no  place is special. Neither is right.

Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack, credit Paul Schraub

Instead, the authors argue that there is a solution to the contrasting opinions: we are all part of the universe and occupy a specific role within it, one that determines our relationship with the planet and the cosmos. Furthermore, a shared idea of our origins and how we can affect the changing universe around us is the key to solving global problems in this age where natural and man-made disasters present a growing challenge to our society. Recently Abrams and Primack have written on the subject for the “City Brights” blog on SFgate.com. Their latest piece addresses the inequality of wealth and how it has led to current economic problems, linking to two previous posts, “Gravity is the ultimate Scrooge principle” on how astronomy relates to financial issues.

Congratulations, Graduates! Keep Your Eye on the (Cosmic) Roads Ahead!

We’ve got graduation on the mind here at Yale today. This morning, President Richard C. Levin and many other speakers addressed the crowd assembled on Yale’s Old Campus for the university’s 310th Commencement exercises, complete with mascot, Handsome Dan.

The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World: Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack Always an occasion to reflect on past experiences and new beginnings, graduation sets us looking out towards change—how it happens, how we ourselves can effect it. This is certainly the perspective of a new book, The New Universe and the Human Future, by Nancy Abrams and Joel R. Primack, interpreting what our human place in the cosmos may mean for us and our descendants. Their incisive analysis of how far we have come in modern cosmology and biology leads to a startling conclusion: we are at a stage in both that allows for the invention of a shared creation story.

“There is a gaping hole in modern thinking that may never have existed in human society before,” the authors write, “we have no meaningful sense of how we and our fellow humans fit into the big picture.” They explore this problem as they conceive a vision of the future, with an emphasis on building a cosmic society, following the mantra that “To act wisely on the global scale, we need to think cosmically.” Within this thinking are approaches for how to solve the greater problems of our civilization and how we relate to the natural world around us. This is a lesson for all graduates today, for the book “is not about science per se. It’s about us and what we as a species need to do, now that we understand for the first time where we are in time and space.”

Be sure to check out the Cosmic Society on Facebook, and you can see a full list of YUP’s graduation gift suggestions here. Congratulations to graduates worldwide as they prepare for the challenges ahead and help us bring about the vision of tomorrow!