Monday, November 19, 2012

Strange Attractors: An Atheist, Creationism and Facebook

I have an atheist friend... ok, I have a number of atheist friends, some of whom are open and honest about it. But one friend I have known since elementary school and while we do not have regular contact, we find ourselves in interesting conversations on Facebook. So for all of the posts on Facebook that are stupid, meaningless, frustrating or the like, I get these occasional interchanges with her and others that seem to make the whole site worth it. 

It all started with an article from the website Raw Story my friend shared about Marco Rubio's recent interview in GQ where he was asked how old he thought the earth was. His response was probably typical of a politician. He remained non-committal toward either a literal seven-day creation or one as described by the accepted cosmological models. In part of his response, he said,“Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

After reading the piece, I do see Rubio as engaging in politico-speak. He simply wants to maintain distance from anything that will keep him from alienating supporters but at the same time he does not want to necessarily denigrate science.  I understand that. But I believe we need to have a society where we say what we believe and consequences be damned. Speaking in generalities and subtly changing the topic to avoid the question does not help us. Rubio claimed that he wasn't a scientist (subtly granting them authority on the matter) and didn't feel qualified. Well, the scientists do have some disagreement on finer points of the cosmological model, but age of the universe is not one of them. Just cede to their knowledge and let the chips fall where they lie. 

In my comment, I based my reproach as both a theologian and a scientist. Having worked on an advanced degree in phyiscs after an undergrad degree in physics and then moving on to seminary, I was then asked by my friend how I reconciled my faith with science. Now, I really wish I could have responded over a cup of coffee rather than on Facebook, but we don't even live near enough to do that. So I took some time to write the following. 

There is not a quick answer to that... Any answer I give will surely raise more questions... but that being said... here goes.
First... creationism is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Christianity... It is only 150 years or so old. It arises as people begin to have a more scientific view of the world. Darwin is a major player in this move. They then begin to read scripture scientifically. In many ways the battle between a theological and scientific worldview was lost long ago and science won. The attempt to read Genesis as a scientific text is proof. Augustine in his "Literal Commentary on Genesis" states plainly that if science points to creation happening some other way, we must follow science not scripture.
Second... there are two creation stories in Genesis. Genesis 1 and the opening verses of chapter 2, and then the remainder of the second chapter are separate stories. Pay attention to the detail and order of how things are created. They don't line up. But the accounts are not meant to answer the question of how creation happens. These stories and the first eleven chapters of Genesis are myth... not false stories, but stories that point to deep truth. Myths provide meaning and identity for us. In the creation stories, which are written while Israel is written in the midst of the Babylonian exile, these tales are in many ways meant to counter the Babylonian creation myth of the Enuma Elish. The story gives primary witness to the One who Creates. This God needs no death of another god to make creation. This God simply speaks and things happen. This God lovingly creates human beings as the pinnacle of creation. This God creates human beings to work and serve creation. This God lovingly breathes life into human beings, creating them in his image. This God creates humans to live in relationship to one another... and on and on... none of this is dependent on a particular scientific theory. It comes out of centuries of living in a relationship with this God... The Hebrew scriptures are not put in chronological order, so the stories they tell in Genesis arise out of long term reflection of who this God is.
Not depending on any particular scientific theory is helpful then to reach across many centuries as the science changes... However as I read the creation account in a non-scientific way, it does affect how I did science. The same God who ordered the universe, did so in a way as to make the laws of the universe accessible to humans through reason and observation. If God created a world in seven days, but made conditions look like it was much older, I wonder, "Why?" To test my faith and commitment? That unfortunately does not jibe with my understanding of Jesus and God always being the initiator of salvation and faith in human beings. Faith is a gift to us, not something we have to dig deep and find within ourselves. It comes from outside us, because we can not truly trust anything that comes from within because of the Fall and the brokenness of relationships, even my relationship with myself... in the church we call this sin, but too often we think in moralistic terms, and not on a cosmic perspective, but that is a discussion for a different time.
So I am left with two possibilities... reading the creation account in such a way that produces an inherent conflict within scripture (there are plenty of ways that happens, but you have navigate those... some are not important... this one I believe is... ) or I can read one where God initiates creation and allows it to be accessible to humans through reason and when humans screw up, God initiates a means of redemption that seeks to make a broken creation new again.
So I am perfectly capable of letting science be science... and letting God be God. The one brought the other into being... but we are allowed to peer into the wonder and mystery of creation and explain it.
Ok... that was about as short as I can get it... let me know if that makes sense. and questions are always welcome. because there are a number of us who simply seek to let others know that Christianity is not a monolithic group... Peace.

I know that there might be some who disagree with my reading. I am fine with that. What I was in awe of is how my one comment opened up space for a conversation between two people who are in two camps that many see as diametrically opposed. And yet... here. In a moment when I was honest, my friend saw something that intrigued her and she felt safe in asking more. And while I feel uncomfortable calling it "Witness" per se... it was. But I didn't think about it as such as I wrote it. I just wrote what I believed because someone who believed otherwise asked a question. 


Brandt Hardin said...

Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

Phillip said...

I think that's a good response, Brian, and I also think we of the faith who are comfortable in speaking about scientific "things" (I was a biochemistry major) probably need to take the initiative in raising these arguments and lines of thinking. It's almost like we need to take a polemic, rather than an apologetic, path of discourse in today's culture. We need to take on the purely scientific worldview, rather than always trying to defend our own. I think the purely scientific worldview is now becoming the default point of view. I don't really have a clue about how to adopt this polemic, but it's often what I think about.
I also view this false dichotomy as answers to two different types of questions: proximate and ultimate. IN regards to creation, science tends to answer proximate questions (How did this come to be? What is this?) while faith attempts the ultimate (Why is all this here? Who is behind it?).

Chuck Steel said...

Great post, Brian. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's so easy to forget that there are thoughtful well reasoned pastors out there these days. It also makes me wonder who this atheist is that's willing to enter into a real discussion, I find those hard to find these days, too.

Brian Bennett said...

Thanks all...

Yes Phillip, I believe we should in some ways be UNapologetic about our reading of scripture. I'm not sure I want to use "polemic" but I think I understand what you mean.

The other reality we must face about science, of course, is that no matter how we look at it, scientific investigation is about investigation and observation of a fallen world. This reality is difficult to discuss if our conversation partner doesn't believe the world is broken. So with all the wonders science brings us, it can only get us so far.

Chuck, I think the comments about discussion with an atheist come out well when there is a relationship first. The conversation cannot be a means to an end. The conversation must be based on some common ground. Here especially I think the question came about because I had a position which differed from the stereotypical popular media portrayals. When Christians are shown to be thoughtful in how they respond to the world around us there is an opportunity and space for dialogue.

Brandt, thank you for the link to your art. I found it incredibly interesting. I also appreciated your comments lower in your post about there being a place for religion in human life, albeit not in a public school classroom. As a scientist, I am distraught over the beating the word "theory" is taking. In everyday parlance it might have less certainty, but in science to reach the level of a theory a good deal of certainty must exist... even if there are skirmishes over minor details. Theories are from time to time overthrown, but not routinely.

Another pastor friend of mine and I were having a conversation about Marco Rubio and other elected officials who might be Young Earth Creationists. His belief is that there is very little problem in the official being a YEC. Nothing gets in the way of say being a senator and a YEC Christian. In many ways, I agree. But when such a person steps in to dictate state policy on science education, the problem becomes that what they are failing to clearly teach what is science and what is not. Want to teach YEC in history or social studies? fine. But not science because it isn't. Otherwise let's line up the Enuma Elish, Native American creation myths, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster as other viable alternatives.