Monday, 5 September 2011

an evolving account

Had a minor scribbling fit on the train last Friday as I was attempted to formulate my issue with an article which appeared in The Times that day. Friday's paper contained the always readable Eureka science supplement; one thing I like about The Times is that they include things like this.

The lead article in Eureka was promoting Richard Dawkins' new book, The Magic of Reality. The supplement's leader compared it to Ernst Gombrich's magical A Little History Of World, in which the author distilled human history down to a few hundred, child-friendly pages. Dawkin's has attempted to do something similar for fundamental science, which is commendable.

What is maybe not so commendable is his aggressive pushing of his religious beliefs through it, but we'll come to that later.

As is usual with such things, an article in the main paper was tenuously linked to the supplement as a trail. The article in question, written by the excellent Will Pavia, was entitled 'Professor quits because he can't Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,' and can be read in its entirety on the Langaa website. (Fortunately, as the Times paywall prevents linking it up there.)

Pavia reports that Professor John Schneider, of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan (alma mater of Cornelius Van Til, for all you fans of presuppositional apologetics out there - don't worry, I didn't forget you) is to leave his post in the theology department after coauthoring papers 'noting that it was becoming ever harder to maintain that all humans were descended from Adam and Eve.' He goes on to describe the events in detail.

However, this is not what I was making notes about, nor was it what the broader theme of this particular article was. The byline on the article declared "Evangelical Christians are facing a "Galileo moment" over the literal truth of the Bible...' That is, a moment compared to the moment that Galileo singularly proved that the world revolved around the sun, and was not the centre of the universe (which, you may recall, the Vatican did not take too kindly to.) It is seen as a defining turning point as European society began to look beyond the academic church for knowledge, and science became independent of theology. Fair enough.

Pavia indicates that if science proves that the Genesis accounts of creation and the fall are proven to be impossible as literal records, evangelical Christianity will be torn asunder. And this is where I have to step in. Now granted, I probably wouldn't take much issue if that byline I quoted had had an additional word: say, 'American Evangelical Christians are facing a "Galileo moment"...' I have no doubt that, in the battle between Creationism and Evolutionism for the minds of America's classrooms, such a proof would be a body blow for the so-called Christian Right.

But here - well, here on our side of the pond, I'm not so sure. Of course we debate creationism - but being crafty Europeans, we can handle subtext. We don't do shock and reaction so immediately. We like to sit in our cafes, chew on our cheeses, and mull over things a bit more.

(I appreciate the irony of a Northern Irishman writing those words, but bear with me, please. The humourous post about the leaflet that came through our door from the gospel hall is coming later in the week to make up for my apparent blindness.)

So here is what irked me. Ken Ham, President and CEO of the organisation Answers In Genesis, is quoted towards the end of the article. Mr Ham's organisation focuses partiicularly on promoting Young Earth creationism (that is, that the Earth in its entirety is no more than several thousand years old) and, obviously therefore, a completely literal interpretation of Genesis. Being much better read than I, such thinkers can give strong arguments for this, but you can find out about those yourself, dear reader. Mr Ham is quoted reacting to physics lecturer, Karl Giberson.

Giberson, 'who taught physics at Eastern Nazarene College in Boston but eventually felt pressured to leave, said:"It's clear to more thoughtful Christian scholars that Adam and Eve simply can't be historical figures and we have to deal with it. The donors who fund Christian colleges are not always very intellectual. Of course every biology department teaches evolution, and every religion department teaches a literary interpretation of the Bible. They just can't own up to it."'

For what it's worth, I think what Karl Giberson says is about what departments teach is broadly true. Mr Ham also agrees, but does not take well to it.

"'[Answers in Genesis] published a book called Already Compromised, which look at what's being taught. The majority were teaching evolution," Mr Ham said. He described scholars such as Mr Giberson as "wolves in sheep's clothing". He said, "They are undermining the gospel. If Adam and Eve aren't literal, Christianity is totally meaningless. You might as well through the Bible away."'

My apologies to readers of a sensitive nature, but at this point I have heavily underlined and circled that quote in the paper, with a tactfully massive 'WTF?' beside it. And here is why.

Let's set aside the longstanding argument that the Genesis accounts (note the plural, as it can be said chapters 1 and 2 are two separate accounts, and not a continuous narrative) were added as a prologue to the Torah by rabbinical scholars, in an attempt to distill hundreds of years of storytelling and teaching. Whilst worth pointing out, that's an article of it's own right - see the short footnote to this article for more.

As I mentioned, yes - it is damaging to the Creationism drive, particularly Stateside, if Genesis 1-3 can be proven conclusively to be non-historical. But how can Ken Ham claim that this would render Christianity to be "totally meaningless"? For even if the creation is a parable, a fable, an allegorical representation of reality - how does that in any way damage the story of Christ?

I'll give you an example from Biblical theology. Any time a prophet gets started in the old or new testament, things can get a bit... freaky. You get visions of all sorts of things. Four headed beasts. Voices out of nowhere. Heavenly fire. Inexplicable, incredibly powerful, signs and miracles. But take the Revelation of John at the very end of the Christian Bible. In that book, John records a vision he has of heaven, in which Jesus reveals signs to him - of the end of an age, an empire, maybe even the world itself.

Not this sort of description: 'I heard beyond me a loud voice like a trumpet...' (Rev. 1:10); 'I turned around to see...someone like a son of man' (1:12-13); 'His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace' (Rev. 1:15); 'His face was like the sun... (Rev. 1:16). [Italics added.]

It's (pretty much) universally accepted that John did not actually see a vision of Christ with bronze feet, a shiny face, and a voice that sounds like a trumpet. Rather, he is attempted to find some possible way of putting in to words the brillance that he witnessed. He's attempting to describe the indescribable. Augustine of Hippo famously noted that, as God is beyond our understanding, if we can comprehend 'it' fully, then the 'it' in question cannot be God. Thus, in Scripture, John of Patmos, like many Biblical writers, attempts to record his revelation in the best way he can.

And because it is inspired Scripture, we know it is true. It may not be completely literal (though there is literal truth - John had a vision; Jesus spoke to him; He told him things and so on) but it is truth in its entirety.

With me so far? You may see where I'm going with this.

I want to believe in a literal Adam. Of course I do, if it is completely literal, then it means I have a comprehension of one of God's greatest works, and the events that then transpired.

But I fear that this may be another Biblical instance where the true course of what transpired - over a week, over years, over millennia) is so mindblowing, so huge, and so much bigger than we fallen, limited people could even begin to understand the reality of, that God has instead given us this short, inspired text so that we can understand the complete truth instead.

For either way, I would argue the truth of Genesis remains the same. Regardless of exactly how it happens, we people are created in the image of God. But we are fallen, incapable of self-redemption, corrupt and bent on our own self-destructions. One does not have to look at the world long to realise a truth in that. And either way, regardless of Mr Ham's apparent blustering, Christianity is even more meaningful. We 'might as well throw the Bible away'? No, sir, we need to hold on to its core for dear life. Because regardless of how we got 'here', there's only one way out for our sorry souls.

As you can tell, I'm still fairly livid about a 'Christian leader' saying such a thing. He certainly does not represent me.

Here's what I know: like the Ark, like the Lion's Den, like the miracle of feeding the 5000 - after time has ended, after the earth has been consumed by an exploding sun, or destroyed by man ourselves, we will have an opportunity to find out the answer to such things. But you know what? I reckon we probably won't care so much about what will seem fairly trivial, in the light of the glory we might behold.


Back to Mr Dawkins to finish. Ah, Mr Dawkins. I do think his new book is, in principle, a marvellous idea. As a child, I went through several phases as many boys do: dinosaurs; astronomy; blowing stuff up. Science seems like a world of possibility and cool stuff (long before secondary school sucks all the fun out.) That someone would take the time to try and distill science's myriad, humungous, and most important theories into understandable language is brilliant.

My problem with Dawkins, sadly though, is that you don't just get that. You also get his own personal slant. His preaching, you might say. Now, I've just written what could be construed as a short sermon above - but I would argue I'm fairly open and unashamed about my motivations for doing so. Mr Dawkins, not so much when it comes to aggressively attacking one faith in order to push his own, but under the guise of... well: "Won't somebody think of the children?"

He opens his short article in Eureka with the following: '"Please tell me something I can tell Daddy, which he doesn't already know." The heartfelt plea of this child from Northern Ireland is the more poignant because his father happened to be a devout Christian - as is common in that unfortunate province. What nonsense might this boy have been fed...?'

And later: 'No educated person believes the Adam and Eve myth nowadays...'

Dawkins is crusading against parents who would even consider telling their children about what they believe. I'm all up for children learning about evolution, I am. And I'm not in favour of it being left off the curriculum altogether and replaced with a theology. But why do we have to insist that 'we' know best?

I reckon I am reasonably educated, and I definitely believe the truth of the Genesis accounts, as I've described. I studied sciences and maths for A Level. I was invited along to Scripture Union. I was allowed the opportunity, in this very 'unfortunate province' indeed, to make up my own mind. What more could I ask for?

The problem with the New Atheists is, like the Christian Right, having come to their realisation that their own theologies, or sciences (depending on their choice of words) are absolute and correct, and that therefore all others must be wrong, they then set forth to attempt to disprove, laugh off, and wipe the other off the face of the Earth. And one is as bad as the other.

In my line of work, it's considered a weakness to ever admit that you don't know something. Just say you can do it, and then figure it out afterwards. For the most part, that's ok - we all grow through it. But life should not be the same.

When it did become not OK to just admit: "I don't know the answer?"

We'll find out afterwards, anyway.


Dave said...

Well put together Pierre. Little that I have disagreement with, and (the New Atheists approach has been) a source of pain of mine for quite some time. I think Dawkins has a lot to offer to Christendom, the God Delusion is a brilliant challenge for Christians to distil their beliefs, and affirm what they do believe. But a turning point came for me when Dawkins, Fry, Pullman et al penned the open letter regarding the pope's visit - I think they just let themselves down as pushing their agenda, just as much as the fundamentalist might.

On the more broader point of truth, I completely agree with what you say. How do we measure truth? How do we define it? Just based on absolute factual information (does this even exist?)? Or is there more to it? The story of the Good Samaritan - is it true? I dare you to say there's no truth in it for someone who, in their darkest hour, has been found by someone who's reached out to them.

Gary said...

Pete, I'd typed up and posted a comment last night on the iPhone, but it was disappeared. Here goes...

The reason Adam and Eve matter is that we don't just find them in Genesis. Biblical theology assumes and requires a literal Adam and Eve - Jesus doesn't speak of them as a myth, but as real people, fundamental to his teaching on marriage etc.

Further, just think of what the apostle Paul says about Adam and how central Adam is to his teaching, as the contrast with the Lord Jesus shows in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 42-49. Adam is the first man who sinned, and by sin, brought death. He's definitely not just a literary device.

Pete @mediatree said...

Gary, many thanks for your, dare I say, informed response! Certainly some food for thought there, particularly in the letter to the Romans.

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