Monday, March 24, 2014

Some Thoughts on Genesis 1-2 and 21st Century Science

Excerpted. To read more, click here.
How then can we look at Genesis 1 and 2 as twenty-first century Christians who live in a highly scientifically saturated and technologically advanced world? (Incidentally, you'll find many more thoughtful answers to questions like this on the Scientists in Congregations website.)

Clearly, the primary concern of these texts is not contemporary scientific questions. Their main intention is to describe the creation of an ordered and habitable home for the people God creates. Thus, many contemporary readers find a constrictive literalism inadequate for understanding these texts. For example, seven twenty-four hour days of creation do not make sense in terms of contemporary cosmological theory. We probably never should have expected otherwise: In 1000 BC, no reader or hearer (since very few read at that time) could understand contemporary quantum cosmology or neo-Darwinian theory. 

Accordingly, theologians commonly speak of God’s accommodation: that the revelation of God accommodates itself to the understanding of human minds. John Calvin, writing at the time of major scientific changes in the sixteenth century, phrased it similarly, “Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons endued with common sense are liable to understand.”

Do these texts fade behind the brilliance of scientific insight? Hardly. They still radiate great power and wisdom as foundational texts for the Christian church, as sparkling insights into ours and God’s nature. One might even view it as an act of providence that these biblical texts, written long before the emergence of modern science, resonate with certain contemporary scientific theories in the texts.
First of all, Genesis 1:3—“Let there be light!”—initiates a sequence of events with the sudden emergence of light, similar to the unparalleled outburst of energy in the Big Bang. Indeed light comes first, and reminds me of  the fundamental constant in Einstein’s special relativity theory, the velocity of light. (Einstein emphasized this absolute standard. Wanting to avoid any hint of relativism, he promoted the term, Invariententheorie, “invariance theory.” His attempt to name his theory failed, and “relativity” stuck.) In addition, light was created before our sun, which came billions of years after the initial singularity of the Big Bang.
Second, the order of water, vegetation, non-human animals, and then humankind in Genesis 1:6-31 has a broad agreement with the sequence of life’s emergence in evolutionary theory. In addition, the command “Let the earth put forth vegetation” speaks of an indirect creation by God. Science describes a universe of continuity, where God creates humankind indirectly through the processes of nature over time. Put in philosophical terms, God as the First Cause, uses secondary causes to achieve divine purposes. (By the way, if we get primary and secondary causation right, a great number of "conflicts" between faith and science evaporate.)
Third and in a similar vein, evolutionary theory does not necessarily change God’s creating us, but simply the means God uses. The declaration of Genesis 2:7, “then the Lord God formed adam from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” depicts with great consonance the creation of man and woman. Once again, extreme literalism will not do: dust does not contain enough carbon nor usually sufficient silicon. The Brown University biologist Ken Miller, who combines a commitment to evolutionary science with his Christian faith, argues against such literalism and for a sensible reading of the texts:
To any biochemist, even an evolutionary biochemist, the notion that human life was formed from the dust of the earth is not only poetic, but scientifically accurate to an astonishing degree. An extreme literalist—of the sort abjured by Augustine—might use Genesis 2:7 to argue that the elemental composition of the human body should match that of ordinary dust. A broader and more sensible reading would tell us simply that the materials of the human body were taken from the earth itself, which of course is true. To understand Genesis, to find the greater truth, I would argue, all one has to do is to apply the more sensible reading throughout.
A sensible or “natural” reading (to use Calvin’s term) is a good rule of thumb. In this case, it leads to striking parallels with contemporary science. 

Nevertheless, one must apply such interpretive parallels with a light touch. We will do well not to bet the farm on any particular scientific theory. As the Oxford philosopher, Janet Martin Soskice has concluded, Darwinian science did not disprove faith. It simply took on the Watchmaker God of the eighteenth century—which incidentally neither Calvin, Augustine, nor Jesus ever presented—and demonstrated its insufficiency as description of God’s character. Soskice writes that
because the theological apologetics of the eighteenth century had been so closely wedded to the science of their time, with its support for the arguments from design, the controversies over evolutionary theory came in the nineteenth century as a powerful blow. Religion’s dearest ally had turned on it. Science, which had been proving the truths of religion only a hundred years before, now proposed naturalistic explanations for the perfections and order of the natural world. The divine clockmaker was redundant.

And so Christians confess faith not in a Great Watchmaker, but in the Lord of grace who created the world out of sheer, superabundant love. The final book of the Bible, Revelation (4:11), expresses this so well:
You are worthy, our Lord and God,    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,    and by your will they were created    and have their being.
And this is the Creator, it appears, does not think it unworthy that we discover the divine nature, not only through revelation, but through the beauty and order of creation... and thus through science.


Brian said...

The marriage of science and religion, especially religion as dictated from the bible, is simply not sustainable nor suitable. When many, if not all religious precepts are foundationally secured by faith in a deity, which is nonfalsifiable, it is really better to just keep the two (religion and science) separate, so as not to confuse an objective observer of the difference. It's not entirely surprising that religions and their theologians would want to latch on to science, given that science tends to be observationally accurate and represents the boundaries of "hard knowledge". I'm assuming, of course, that readers here understand the nature of science, that is open to change with new facts and information, but I digress. Science does not prove the "truths of religion", which as was said earlier, usually cannot be shown to be truths.

Anonymous said...

"Second, the order of water, vegetation, non-human animals, and then humankind in Genesis 1:6-31 has a broad agreement with the sequence of life’s emergence in evolutionary theory." Strict concordism, however, does not work (cf. Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture). Fruit trees are spoken of, yet these are not possible before insects which pollinate, and there were no angiosperms until the Cretaceous -very, very late in evolutionary history; there are many other examples (cf. Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture). A better explanation is based on the authors initial observation that the narrative is about preparation of a habitation form man at the end of the ice age, which would make the whole phenomenological and in a manner consonant with the most probable grammatical readings of the text according to major academic researchers for whom this, rather than harmonization etc., is the primary concern. Such exegeses cannot be presumed to be true but at best valid; if there is one secure conclusion after surveying interpretations from patristic to post modern it is that there is no unanimity or certainty about precisely how the narrative relates to what we presume or know about the world on other grounds; as has often been stated there is much more evidence here for the Who than the how. -David

Thomas Jay Oord said...

Nice post, Greg! Thanks....

Greg Cootsona said...

First to Tom, thanks back!
To David: yes, I was trying to avoid strict concordism because I'm not sure that's profitable. In fact, there's a deeper pattern some see between these days of creation and what unfolds in the balance of Genesis and the rest of the Torah. But I'll leave that for another post... My main point here is to answer those people who are really concerned about the truth of Genesis 1-2 when it's not read literally. One element is that the broad parallels with the overall story of science. It's certainly worth commenting even if it isn't a new concordism.

Anonymous said...

I think the following article by Leithart provides a critical caution for "accommodation theology."

-Bill Jackson, Oroville CA

"Galileo’s main argument about science and Scripture depended on the theory that Calvin used to explain the apparent “childishness” of biblical language. Call it the Few Good Men theory of divine inspiration: We can’t handle the truth, so God graciously speaks to us in ways we can grasp, lisping to us like a parent to a tiny child. He has always known that the solar system is heliocentric, but he pretends it’s geocentric because that is how it looks to us. For Galileo, this notion of “accommodation” was science’s declaration of independence, freeing scientists to explore the natural world without worrying that they might be mugged by the Bible scholars.

I admire Galileo, and Calvin even more, but I am wholly unpersuaded by this theory of revelation. Its weakness is evident in Calvin’s explanation of anthropomorphism...I worry too about the uses to which accommodation can be put. If the Bible adjusts to common beliefs in cosmology, does it do so with regard to history?...Accommodation is a big deal, I think. But the cultural stakes in Galileo’s letter were far bigger. His letter stood at the crossroads of two worlds, not only on the question of Scripture and science. ....

The most impressive coup of modern science, though, is the success of its imperialist claim that science provides not only a true but an exclusively true description of how the world goes. Since Copernicus and Galileo, we have a twinge of conscience about trusting the evidence of our senses. We are convinced that it is somehow “not true” that the sun rises, even though we can’t stop ourselves from saying so. We know that, in reality, in real reality, solids are not solid. Our everyday descriptions of natural phenomenon are perpetually enclosed in inverted commas.

That scientific hubris is the central issue ....Accommodation makes theology too accommodating, too ready to buckle to the imperialism of science, too willing to concede to science the business of truly describing the world, too skeptical about the truth value of everyday experience."