Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Sexual Orientation: The Scientific Evidence (Such as it is)

As I stated at the outset of this series, the term “homosexuality” is coined in German in the 1860s and comes into English a few years later.  So, the idea of someone with a sexual orientation that is primarily directed to their own sex (as opposed to same-sex acts) is a modern concept.

Freud believed it was a neurosis caused by an overprotective or dominant mother and/or an absent or abusive father.  In the 1950s, especially, psychologists blamed mothers if their children were gay or lesbian. Psychologists and psychiatrists regularly used electro-shock therapy to “cure” gays and lesbians. They also used lobotomies and “aversion therapy,” all of which would now be considered torture.  In 1973, the American Psychological Association dropped homosexuality from its lists of neuroses and psychosis and the American Psychiatric Association followed soon after. 

What changed? Not the political culture.  The gay rights movement had not yet emerged until a little later in the decade of the 1970s (immediately leading to the anti-gay “crusade” of former Mouseketeer and orange-juice saleswoman, Anita Bryant!).  What changed was the groundbreaking study of human sexuality by Alfred Kinsey and the institute he founded.  Kinsey discovered that few of us are completely heterosexual (ONLY attracted to the opposite sex) or completely homosexual (ONLY attracted to our own sex). Rather, most of us are dominantly heterosexual or homosexual.  Kinsey also discovered that, although the persecution of homosexuals by church and society often leads to attendant neuroses, there is no neurosis or psychosis in the condition itself.  That is still the conclusion of almost all psychologists and psychiatrists, and is reflected in their Diagnostic and Statistics Manual.

UPDATE: In the comments, Daniel Schweissing (Haitianministries), corrects this statement slightly. I accept it as a friendly correction and, since some readers never read the comments, reproduce it here:

While Kinsey’s groundbreaking study was undoubtedly influential in the decision of the APA, et al. to change their views on homosexuality, politics also played an important role. Gay theologian Robert Goss, in his book _Jesus Acted Up_ (Harper San Francisco, 1993 –pp.44-45), documents how gay and lesbian activists demonstrated at and disrupted a number of psychiatric and medical conferences, beginning as early as 1968 in attempt to convince them to change their views. This, in part, is one of the reasons why many conservative Christians continue to reject the professional opinions of such groups in regards to homosexuality. A better reading of this change in thinking might be that the political pressure from gay and lesbian activists forced the APA, et al. to take studies such as Kinsey’s more seriously.

Thanks, Daniel.

One often hears conservative preachers claim that “homosexuality is only found in human beings,” and that it’s claimed non-appearance in animals is proof that it is unnatural and sinful. The claim is false as anyone who has spent time around animals will tell you.  In some species, like dolphins and dogs, the majority of the males will mount anything that holds still! (Also, see what penguins are up to here!)In species that mate for life, a small percentage form same-sex pairings.  I have personally observed this in red-shouldered hawks–with two male hawks actually building a nest together!  This is always a small minority or the species in question would not survive.  But it happens.  Human sexuality is enough different from animal sexuality that this point is of limited value, but I had to refute an oft-made, but false, claim.

Among humans, approximately 90% of us are dominantly heterosexual in orientation.  About 5% are dominantly homosexual in orientation.  5% or less are bi-sexual or nearly equally attracted to members of both sexes.

Studies of the causes of homosexuality have been few and inconclusive. Several of the studies have either been poorly designed or given inconclusive evidence or used too small a sampling, etc.

There have been studies of monozygotic male twins which have shown that if one twin is gay, the other is gay 50% of the time. This has proven to be the case even when the twins were separated at birth and raised in very different environments. This does not answer the question of causation, but it does indicate something not-chosen and not environmental.

There have been studies in brain size and chemistry which purport to show differences in the brains of gay men and straight men.

In the mid-’90s, studies of birth order found that the more male children a woman had, the more likely that her last male child would be gay.  The hypothesis is that her body treated the male child as a foreign object and that, over time and with many children, the mother’s body introduced chemicals to change the sex to female–and sometimes got a gay male child, instead. The study was suggestive, but far from conclusive.

The most profitable field of research for causes is genetic.  However, many gay and lesbian people fear research in this area, because they fear that parents will either abort or attempt genetic manipulation in utero to prevent having gay children. (The fundamentalist president of my once-great alma mater, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., opined on his radio show that if geneticist discovered a “gay gene,” it would be a Christian responsibility to be screened and to have corrective procedures in utero. Way to channel the Nazi doctors there, Al!)

No “gay gene” has been isolated, but the human genome mapping project has suggested promising areas of research.  The general “consensus” (to the extent there is one) in the field is that homosexual orientation is probably caused by a variety of genetic and hormonal causes prior to birth and to some environmental factors shortly after birth. The only real consensus is that dominant sexual orientation is set by age 5 and not really alterable after that.

The scientific evidence (including recent studies on rats!) is found here.

Note on transgendered persons:  Transgendered persons have a different gender identity than their outward biology at birth.  Whereas gay men identify as male and lesbian women identify as female, but are just oriented to their own sex, transgendered persons feel “trapped in the wrong body.” We don’t know the causes of this, either, although they may be partly biological. A rare medical phenomenon is someone who is born with both male and female genitalia. They are arbitrarily assigned one sex or the other and “corrective” surgery is usually performed shortly after birth.  This suggests that transgendered persons also have some biochemical reason or genetic reason for identify with the other sex, no matter their outward primary and secondary sex characteristics.   Sometimes such persons choose sex reassignment surgery to finally find peace by no longer feeling “trapped in the wrong body.”

For more information on transgendered persons and the church, by the only Christian transgendered person I know, see here.  That is the website of Rev. Elise Elrod (formerly Ronnie Elrod), who speaks on bias, one-thing thinking (reducing people to one feature), and acceptance.

Now, why this interest in causes? Because moral responsibility usually implies choice; ought implies can.  But, this is not always the case.  Many like to compare same-sex sexual orientation to alcoholism or to violence. I may have a predisposition to violence–it does not justify my hitting anyone when I am angry.  I may be predisposed to alcoholism, but the conclusion would be that I should not drink (or if already addicted, seek help), not that alcoholism is “right for me” and I should pursue it.

This is what I meant above by saying that science itself provides no moral guidelines.  However, the relevant question to ask those who argue that “homosexual orientation is not chosen, but the behavior and can be changed,” is whether or not same-sex sexual orientation is really analogous to alcoholism or violence.  It seems to me that the conclusion of psychologists and psychiatrists that “homosexuality” is not itself a neurosis or psychosis rules out too close a similarity with alcoholism or violence.

Given the constraints in which most gays or lesbians live in our society, persecuted and outcast, subject to job loss or housing discrimination, often rejected by church and family, one would be very surprised NOT to find many gays and lesbians who have accompanying psycho-social problems. But we find such problems in heterosexuals, too. And the amazing thing is that we also find gay and lesbian Christians who lead lives of deep holiness. The ones I know personally are much better Christians than I am.

These things lead me to believe that same-sex sexual orientation is not a flaw, but simply a variation in nature, in God’s created order–like left-handedness. By itself, it is no more or less sinful than heterosexuality.

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July 23, 2008 Posted by | homosexuality, science & faith | 12 Comments

Index of Posts on Creation and Evolution

  1. Introduction and Outline
  2. Working Bibliography on Related Matters
  3. Creation Stories:Gen. 2:4b-25
  4. Creation Stories: Gen. 1:1-2:4a.
  5. Creation Psalms.
  6. Creation in Job.
  7. Creation in the New Testament.
  8. The Nature of Scientific Inquiry
  9. PBS Nova Special on Evolution and “Intelligent Design.” (This is TV at its best. Every church should order a copy and watch it as a way to start discussion.)

This series is clearly incomplete. I have several more steps in the argument, but got sidetracked (especially by the U.S. elections–oops!).

July 14, 2008 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, science & faith, theology | Comments Off on Index of Posts on Creation and Evolution

Creation and Evolution 6: The Nature of Scientific Inquiry

Opponents of evolution often try to say that it is “only a theory.”  By this they mean that it is not proven or demonstrable.  In ordinary speech we use “theory” interchangeably with “guess,” and we can spin theories with little or no evidence–as with most conspiracy theories.  But that is not how scientists use the term “theory.” For working scientists, a successful theory, one that has been tested over time by a variety of methods, is far more secure than facts–they constantly find new facts that cause them to revise what they previously believed old facts are. And facts in isolation don’t tell scientists much, but in the context of scientific theories, they say volumes.

Modern science is a product of the Enlightenment, specifically the 17th C. Scientific Revolution.  People have been investigating things, trying to find out about causes and processes, about how the world works, from time immemorial–probably since we first began to use tools. But before the 17th C., many of these investigations lacked orderly procedures and explanations that considered proximate, this world causes, were considered right along with supernatural causes.  The “science” of the European Middle Ages followed Aristotle in considering “Final Cause” a part of scientific explanation.

That all changed with the scientific revolution. In modern science, the scientist can only consider proximate or natural causes in seeking explanations for phenomena.  The possibility that God or a demon or a witch was behind some phenomenon X had to be bracketed out of consideration–it may be an explanation, but it isn’t a scientific explanation. This limitation (avoiding the supernatural or any Final Cause) is what allowed such great progress in understanding natural, this-worldly processes, phenomena, etc.  It was a trade-off–similar to the trade-off that stripped numbers of mystical meanings and symbolisms, but gave us the huge gains of modern mathematics.

Because all this has been said by others who are smarter than me, I am going to finish this post with a series of quotations by some of the expert witnesses in the Kitzmiller v. Dover (PA) case against giving “Intelligent Design” “equal time” in high school biology classes. This will all be extremely relevant later in the series when show why neither “creation science” nor “intelligent design” are scientific theories–why they fail to be science.  So, save this post for later discussion. (And, once more, I recommend the excellent program on PBS’ NOVA (which you can watch online), Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial which covers the Dover case in full and is an incredible education in both Constitutional law and contemporary evolutionary science.

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There are a lot of ways to define science. But I think the best definition is one that I’ve actually seen several states adopt for their K-12 educational programs, and that is that science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we see in the natural world. What science isn’t very good at is answering questions that also matter to us in a big way, such as the meaning and purpose of things. And what that means for the ordinary person is that there are a whole host of philosophical and moral questions that are important to us as human beings, but about which science cannot do anything more than inform us, and for which we have to make up our minds using a method outside of science.

Now, religion can also be defined in a whole variety of ways. What religion, I think, is, in a certain sense, is the attempt to account for the world which we see in terms that transcend the natural. In other words, in terms that include the natural world, but enclose it in a kind of spiritual worldview. This makes religion, I think, fundamentally a different kind of intellectual exercise from science.

There is absolutely no problem to a person of faith—and I’ll include myself in this—for positing God as a cause of certain things. For all I know, my own ability to overcome a crisis in my life when I was 24 years old was due to the support that I prayed for from God. God could be responsible, no question about it, for the first living cell, or for certain animals that appeared in the Cambrian Explosion, or for the ’69 Mets, which I’ve never been able to explain any other way. And I say that not to trivialize the idea, but to point out that supernatural causes for natural phenomena are always possible.

What’s different, however, in the scientific view of this, is the acknowledgment, by scientists such as myself, even scientists who are people of faith, that if supernatural causes are there and are active, they are above our capacity to analyze and interpret. Saying that something has a supernatural cause is always possible. But saying that the supernatural can be investigated by science, which always has to work by natural tools and mechanisms, that’s simply incorrect. So, by placing the supernatural as a cause in science, you effectively have what you might call a science-stopper. If you attribute an event to the supernatural, you can by definition investigate it no further.  —Ken Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown University, author of the standard high school text, Biology,–and a practicing Catholic Christian.

One of the core features of science for hundreds of years has been the reliance on natural explanations. And while it’s true that there’s various gray areas in defining the edges of science, in distinguishing science from pseudoscience, the issue of the supernatural is not one of those gray areas.

If you really look at the history of science, many scientific fields really didn’t get started until supernatural explanations were discarded and natural explanations were adopted. Before evolution, this happened in geology, it happened in physics. A famous example is Benjamin Franklin, who in the 1700s proposed that lightning and electricity were the same thing, and proposed that lightning rods could stop lightning bolts from hitting church steeples and burning down churches. Some people accused Franklin of thwarting the will of God by doing this, but most people said Franklin had proposed a useful, natural explanation for a natural phenomenon and come up with a solution to a natural problem.

This is really fundamental to the history of science, the reliance on natural explanations. And it’s not a trivial thing to just toss that out, particularly when the proponents of supernaturalism in science have nothing to propose except a miracle, except God did it or an intelligent designer did it, end of story, stop the investigation.  –Nick Matzke, Public Information Project Director, National Center for Science Education.

Creationists often reject evolution by saying that evolution is, quote, “only a theory.” And that betrays either a deliberate or an unintentional misunderstanding of what a scientific theory is. Gravity is a theory—gravitational theory. Cell theory—all living things are constructed of cells. Electromagnetic theory, right? Germ theory? Germs make people sick. I mean, when you call evolution a theory, when you use the term “evolutionary theory,” that’s a very, very strong thing to say.

A theory in science is an explanation. It’s a large system which has withstood some very, very rigorous testing, literally attempts to debunk it, and has survived all of those attempts. So when creationists try to dismiss evolution as “only a theory,” they are misusing the word theory. They are using it in the ordinary sense, the non-scientific sense, of a hunch or a guess, and that’s not what it means at all.

If you have a scientific theory, you have already done years, decades, of scientific work, hard scientific research that you have offered to the scientific community for their evaluation. But never a single time has any intelligent-design creationist ever done that. Yet they’ve created a public relations concoction that they present to the public and to the media that they have some cutting-edge science that really needs to be taught to children—that there is another side to this issue and it’s only fair to tell it to the kids.

Well, there aren’t two scientific sides to this issue, because there aren’t two scientific theories. There’s only one. And if you believe that children should be told the truth, you have to tell them that the only scientific theory which explains the shape of life on Earth is evolutionary theory. And if you tell them anything other than that, you’re not telling them the truth, and that’s hardly fair. —Barbara Forest, Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University with degrees in both biochemistry and philosophy. Her Ph.D. and her personal philosophical concentration is on the Philosophy of Science and epistemology (how we know what we know).

I don’t know where people get the idea that evolution is a theory in crisis. It is a theory in the sense that we use the word in science; that is, it is the strongest construct that we use.

The difference between what a theory means to the average person and what it means to a scientist is really completely opposite, because theories are very strong concepts in science. A theory is something that has been tested and tested over and over again, built on, revised. It continues to be reworked and revised.

The theory of evolution today is not like it was a hundred years ago. We have molecular genetics. We have developmental evolutionary biology. We have far more fossils than we had before. We have better kinds of phylogenetic techniques. Everything is improving through science. All of these things are becoming much better and better known.

And, so there’s no crisis in evolution. It’s healthier than ever. Do we have controversies? Sure, we do. Sure, we do. But, they’re not about whether evolution occurred, or whether you can possibly see a unity to the ancestry of life. Those issues were settled. They were settled a century and a half ago. —Kevin Padian, Paleontologist and Professor of Biology, University of California at Berkeley.

Science is characterized, if nothing else, by its methods. It’s not just the discoveries that we’ve made. It’s characterized by the way of thinking—a way of providing answers in terms of empirical evidence. And it limits itself in its explanations to those sorts of things.

There’s a big fancy term for this, it’s methodological naturalism … scientific naturalism. And it says we can’t appeal to the transcendent; we can’t appeal to the divine. Probably the simplest way to explain this is in terms of a nice cartoon that Sidney Harris did in American Scientist a long time ago. It’s got a scientist standing in front of a blackboard, and he’s obviously been working at his series of equations and it covers the blackboard, but there’s a gap in the middle. It’s been too hard; he can’t figure it out. And he’s written in there, “Then a miracle occurs.” And his colleague is looking at this and says, “I think you need to be a little more explicit there in step two.”

And that, in sort of a cartoon version, is what methodological naturalism is. It says you can’t have gaps that you fill in by appeal to miracles. That essentially stops scientific inquiry. Because if we could always appeal to the transcendent whenever we had an explanatory problem, it would make science too easy. You can’t test that. You could always give as an explanation “God did it.” Science says no, you’ve got to fill in the steps with things that we can actually test. God may have done it. God may have set the world in motion. God may have set the laws in place. God may intervene in ways that we can’t detect. That’s a metaphysical notion, though … that’s a religious notion. And that’s something that science just can’t get at. And that’s really the difference here. Science has to constrain itself in this way; those are the ground rules. And what creationists hope to do is to change the ground rules of science and to reintroduce supernatural explanations into science. That’s the thing that disqualifies it right off the board.
Creation scientists and intelligent-design creationists have always had the same kind of rhetorical strategy. One is to put themselves forward as science, the other is to say science itself is a religion. And the terminology that would be used would be to liken scientists to the priests—to say that evolution is dogma, to say that scientific materialism is the established religion of the 20th century. This is just a false charge. If you understand the difference between science as a way of knowing—science as a methodology—it doesn’t make dogmatic claims, either theistic or atheistic. It sets those aside.

Evolution is portrayed by creationists as being equivalent to atheism. But that’s not part of the definition of evolution. Evolution is just what we have discovered empirically using the normal scientific approach. One can set aside the question theologically about what that means; that’s to depart from science itself. That’s to bring in religion, to bring in philosophy—I’m certainly not opposed to any of that as a philosopher of science. But it’s important for us to keep those things distinct conceptually. Science itself, when done properly, isn’t dogmatic, isn’t religious. It’s just a way of investigating the natural world, in the best way that we natural beings are able to do it. —Robert T. Pennock, Evolutionary biologist and Professor of Philosophy of Science, Michigan State University.

Basically, what intelligent design is, is a claim that evolution can’t explain things, therefore they win by default. That’s not a scientific view. Science makes its decisions by testing its claims, not just by accepting them because they sound good. So, because we have to test our claims, we can only use natural claims, because natural claims are the only ones we can test. Natural claims are the only ones that we can hold constant variables for. They are the only claims that we can control variables for. You can’t control for the effects of God.

If you teach intelligent design as a science, you are confusing students about the nature of science, about science as a way of knowing, the scientific method. You’re also confusing students and miseducating students about the position of evolution within science.

Evolution is no more controversial in modern-day science than heliocentrism—that the planets go around the sun. There are individuals out there advocating geocentrism—that the sun goes around the Earth. But we don’t give them equal time in the high school science class just because it’s fair.–Eugenie Scott, Executive Director, National Center for Science Education.

I live in the realm of testability and prediction. If I can’t make a prediction based on an idea, or if I can’t falsify a theory based with that, it doesn’t exist to me as a scientist. What makes a scientific idea special is that they’re continually tested against the real world. And not every idea can do that. Not every idea, no matter how beautiful, qualifies as science.

It’s really important to me that the public understand evolution, because there’s great power in scientific knowledge. Evolution is the centrally unifying concept for all of biology. It unifies observations as different as genetics and ecology and so forth. Evolution is not a theory in crisis by any stretch of the imagination. But, that being said, do we disagree about how evolution acts, even some of the mechanisms? Absolutely. That’s the sign of a vital and successful theory. But does it mean we throw away scientific understanding altogether? No way, that would be a tragic mistake.

Scientific knowledge has a special place in our world because it’s testable. It’s something we always have to compare against the real world. And many of the great breakthroughs in our world are coming from science. Not only technology, but new understandings about ourselves, our bodies, our climate, our world, are coming from scientific information. If children are somehow shielded from all that, we’re doing them a great disservice.Neil Shubin, Paleontologist, University of Chicago and the Field Museum.

Sometimes ID proponents try to bring in the supernatural in science by pointing to the faith of great scientists like Isaac Newton. But no one claims that a scientist can’t be a person of faith (many are), but only that they must concentrate on natural causes in their work.  Ken Miller, the author of Biology, and a practicing Christian, addresses this issue head on:

I think it’s a gross mischaracterization to take scientists in the past who were people of faith—and Isaac Newton is a good example—and say that Newton worked on the basis of a hypothesis of design. Well, it’s true that he certainly believed in a creator, and he believed that that creator was the architect of the universe he investigated. But here’s the key difference. Newton never proposed God as a cause in any of his theories. In other words, he didn’t seek to explain the way in which the prism broke light into many different colors by saying, “Well, it happens that way because it is God’s will, and I will stop investigating.” He sought a physical explanation, and his explanation was that light, white light, is composed of many colors, and what the prism does is to bend each color by a different amount. That’s not a divine explanation. That doesn’t use intelligent design. That’s an explanation based on the principles of physics.

The point here is that what Newton and other scientists did was to assume that the universe made sense because it had a designer, and then to use what we would call ordinary material scientific methods to investigate that universe. That’s just what science does today. What intelligent design pretends to do is to be in the tradition of Newton. What intelligent design actually is, to be perfectly honest, is they’re in the tradition of the Middle Ages, where they stop investigation by saying, “We cannot answer this mystery; it is the work of God, the designer.” This is a science-stopper.Ken Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University, author of the standard high school textbook, Biology.

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How do new, originally controversial, theories become accepted into the scientific community? By doing original research and publishing the results in peer-reviewed scientific journals, debating findings at official meetings of professional societies, etc.  This is how Darwin won acceptance for evolutionary biology.  Neither Creation Science nor Intelligent Design have even attempted this. They publish only in-house, do no original research, etc. They are not persecuted geniuses having revolutionary discoveries that are being suppressed by the scientific establishment–they have waged a media campaign for public opinion (particularly in ultra-conservative Christian circles) in lieu of scientific debate with peers. Further, a valid scientific theory allows scientists to make predictions that cannot be immediately proved. When these are proved or refuted by further research, experiments, new instruments, etc., the theory is confirmed, refuted, or modified. But, as even some of the proponents of ID admit, it has not generated any such testable predictions or new insights–and evolutionary theory has done this continually.

Our next step in this series (I don’t yet know how many posts that step will take) will be to examine evolution itself:  prior to Darwin, Darwin’s breakthrough, Darwin’s “forgotten Christian defenders,” the evidence of the fossil record, the evidence of modern genetics, etc.  After that, the series will continue by comparing and contrasting the various theological positions: Young Earth Creationism, Old-Earth/Age-Day Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Theistic Evolution (my own view)–including a discussion of why all of these are rival theological positions and NONE of them are scientific theories.  Then I will take ID apart more thoroughly and explain why it would be perfectly valid to discuss in a philosophy class or a comparative religion class, but not a science class. I will conclude the series by exploring whether or not there is a political agenda behind the ID movement and why it might matter to Christians and others.

Happy New Year!

December 31, 2007 Posted by | science & faith | 3 Comments

Creation and Evolution 5: New Testament Passages

This is the last of my survey of some of the many biblical passages on Creation. In this survey, I have attempted to show that the Bible uses a variety of metaphors, myths, literary genres, etc. to speak of Creation–and the focus is never on a scientific account.  From here, I will turn to other matters: defining science and scientific theory, evolutionary perspectives before Darwin, Darwin the man, the scientist, and his contribution, and the neo-Darwininian synthesis; early Christian (even evangelical) defenders of Darwin; defining theistic evolution, creationism and “intelligent design;” why neither “creation science” nor ID are scientific theories or research programs; why “teaching the controversy” in science classrooms is neither good education, nor respects church/state separation; why ID is inappropriate for a science class but would be appropriate to study in a class on comparative philosophy or comparative theologies–views on the origin of creation and life. I will conclude the series with a look at theological challenges that evolution poses and some of the ways that have been proposed to handle those challenges.

But first, finishing up our brief biblical survey. A real theology of creation would have to survey much wider and concentrate on the texts in far more detail than I have done for this series. 

John 1:1-5. As part of the larger Prologue to the Fourth Gospel (1:1-18), the Gospel of John echoes Genesis 1, but, in language that will lead (rightly) to later Trinitarian doctrine, claims the Word (which will soon be revealed in this Gospel to be the pre-existent Son of God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth) as the agent of Creation.  This passage also goes beyond the “creation out of chaos” perspective we have found in the Hebrew Scriptures to assert the vital Christian teaching of Creatio ex nihilo, that God created the universe from nothing.  All things came into being through Him and without Him not one thing came into being. (V. 3) This is why I reject the process theology perspective that would have God, like a Platonic Demi-urge, persuade the universe into being from primordial uncreated “stuff.”

Colossians 1:15-20.  Here again, although Christ is called “the firstbon of all creation” (presumably meaning the New Creation, and being firstborn by the Resurrection), he is also “the image of the invisible God” for “in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or rulers or powers [Note that even the Powers are created by God in Christ–though they are rebellious and fallen now]–all things have been created through Him and for Him. He Himself is before all things and in Him all things hold together.” Using language from Greek philosophy, Paul gives a very exalted Christology and that also places Christ as the agent of creation. This is why, although “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” trinitarian language may be one form of inclusive language useful for worship, it is not fully satisfactory theologically.  Although some complain that recent theology has overused the term perichoreisis, that important term means that each member of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to use traditional terms–debates on inclusive language for God must await another discussion) participates in the work of the other–Creation is not the work only of the Father, but also the Son and the Spirit, etc.  Thus, the Trinitarian doctrine of God means that God is already BEFORE creation LOVE–giving and receiving love in relationship in God’s Self.  God did not create in order to learn love or because God lacked something in God’s Self.  Christ is also involved in sustaining the universe (in Him all things hold together). So, we need more than an economic Trinity–a view of God that can become Tri-theistic–but must go on to affirm an immanent Trinity–God is Triune in God’s very nature, not just in how God reveals God’s Self to us.  (This goes beyond anything in the biblical texts–Trinitarian doctrine did not become fully developed until the Council of Nicaea and beyond–but texts like Col. 1 push us in such a direction.)

In neither of these passages is the author concerned with the question of HOW God created the universe.  The authors of the 4th Gospel and of Colossians are concerned with WHO (the Word, Christ) Created and with the extent of creation (all things).  These are deep theological concerns–and worth far more time than I can give here. But the concern is NOT to describe natural processes either in astronomical terms (e.g., Big Bang vs. Steady State Cosmologies), geological ones (the ancient nature of the earth) or biological ones (e.g., the interrelatedness of all life on earth, evolving through mutation and natural selection into ever more complex forms, including humans who share with modern apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans) a common ancestor).  As with all the biblical creation passages, these NT texts are neither scientific nor in conflict with any scientific account of natural origins.  The biblical writers are concerned with other questions. 

November 18, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, science & faith | 6 Comments

Creation and Evolution 4: Job 38-41

The climax of Job is also a “creation text,” though a highly unusual one. YHWH answers Job’s many complaints from “out of the whirlwind,” perhaps an actual physical phenomenom, but certainly a “theophany,” a revelation of God’s presence.  In these chapters, God challenges Job’s limited wisdom by reference–in highly metaphoric language–both to God’s initial creating acts and ongoing creating and care for the entire Creation.  (I will not address how well or not God’s “answer” to Job does or does not solve the “why do bad things happen to good people” question which the Book seems to pose. )

Much of this Creation text is similar to what we have seen elsewhere:  38:4-6 compares the earth to a building which God created by laying foundations, a cornerstone, dimensions, a plumbline, etc.  38:7 says that at this time “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God (identical to the stars? angels?) shouted for joy.” Does anyone, even the most committed Young Earth Creationist (YEC), claim that the earth is building shaped, with an actual foundation, instead of looking like a blue marble suspended in space? Does anyone suggest that stars literally sing with voices, pitch, etc.?

The sea is described with a series of mixed metaphors in 38:8-11: It’s creation is a birth (Whose is the womb?) and clouds and darkness are its nappy. But the sea is also “imprisoned” by the “bars and doors” of the land. The kind of literalism which YECs insist on for Gen. 1 and 2 would force us to see beach erosion as escape attempts and tsunami waves as the seas’ rebellion against God’s command, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed.”  Hmm. Would that mean that all those (all of us) who contribute to rising sea levels by our greenhouse gasses are undermining God’s command?

Elsewhere in this long passage we see similar perspectives to Ps. 104–with God speaking of God’s intimate care for wild animals–apart from any value they have for humanity. 

But in 40:15-24 and 41:1-34, we have the closest approximation in our Bibles to the “combat creation myths” of other peoples.  The chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan are conquered by God in Creating order.  (I normally like the New English and Revised English Bible translations, but I object strenuously here to their demythologized renderings of “hippopotomus” and “crocodile.”) But notice that, unlike in pagan myths, God does not slay these primordial chaos monsters in order to Create order. God simply tames them (as Job cannot). Here, too, the biblical writers see Creation out of chaos in other than violent, bloody terms.

Once more we see a perspective on Creation which is neither opposed to a scientific account, such as evolution, but is itself concerned with other questions.  The Job account is true–but not scientifically factual.

November 14, 2007 Posted by | science & faith | 3 Comments

Evolution, I.D. & NOVA

UPDATE: Reminder that this is tomorrow on most PBS stations. Check local listings. Update: Wed. For those in the KY area who missed this on Tues. night on KET 1 (like me because a vandal cut my cable!), take heart: It will be shown on KET 2 tonight (14 November 2007) @ 9. p.m. EST! So, I will get to see this after all!

If you have been following the discussion on creation, evolution, and “intelligent design,” you will be interested in an upcoming episode of the Public Broadcasting program Nova.  On 13 Nov. ’07 @ 8 p.m. on most U.S. PBS stations, Nova will air the episode, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.”  This refers to the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover case in PA in which public school science teachers fought the school board over being forced to give “equal time” to I.D. in science classrooms.  The teachers won.  The Nova episode will interview Philip Johnson, the attorney who is considered the “father of Intelligent Design.” (This characterization is not really fair.  Johnson, whom I met several years ago, is a strong popularizer or “evangelist” for I.D.  But the promoters with the scientific credentials are Michael J. Behe of Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box and Paul Chien of the University of San Francisco.  They are joined by the conservative Christian philosophers, William A. Dembski; J. P. Moreland; William Lane Craig; J. Budziszewski.) It also interviews Dr. Ken Miller, biologist at Brown University who was one of the expert witnesses for evolution at the trial.  You get to hear excerpts from Judge John Jones’ (a very conservative judge appointed by Pres. George W. Bush who, nonetheless, concluded that I.D. was a theistic philosophy rather than science and, therefore, it was unconstitutional to teach it in science classrooms of public schools–since that would be to violate the no-establishment clause of the 1st Amendment) ruling and 7 experts define science and its differences from religion and why Intelligent Design does not qualify as science.  One can also find how many of Darwin’s predictions continue to be confirmed 150 years later and examine fossil evidence of transitional species that “fill the gaps” that I.D. claims cannot exist–because a key claim of I.D. is that certain complex features are so “irreducibly complex” that no intermediary development can exist since they only become useful when fully developed–but the fossil record proves otherwise.

No matter what side of this debate one takes, this looks to be an excellent episode. I know I’ll be watching and taking notes!

November 12, 2007 Posted by | science & faith | 8 Comments

Creation and Evolution 3: Creation Psalms

Young Earth Creationists (YECs), including “creation scientists” who claim the universe is only 10 thousand years old, was made in six 24 hr. days, and claim that evolution is inherently atheistic, base their claim on a very wooden, literalistic, reading of Gen. 1 & 2–as one narrative. (Intelligent Design creationists also deny biological evolution, but they accept standard geological datings of the earth and astronomical datings of the universe and are less likely to be biblical literalists. So, my arguments with them are different.)  I have already given my response to YEC readings of Gen. 1 & 2, but I also have long had a beef with the way their view of creation is based on such a small part of Scripture.  A true theology of creation would be informed by everything that Scripture says about creation–not just two chapters of Genesis. Of course, it is much easier to keep to literal 7 day view of creation if one doesn’t deal with other creation texts.  We can’t examine every biblical passage on creation, but we can widen the scope beyond Gen. 1 & 2.

There are several “creation Psalms” in the Bible–psalms inspired by God’s handiwork displayed in creation or reflections about God’s role as Creator.  At least the following psalms (maybe more) are creation psalms:  Ps. 8, 19, 29, 33, 65, & 104. 

Psalm 8 is the most well-known, having been paraphrased in numerous hymns and “contemporary Christian” songs.  It bears numerous similarities in vocabulary to Gen. 1 (but begins by invoking YHWH, not El, as Adonai or “Lord”), but instead of God speaking the universe into being, it is described as the work of God’s “hands”–demonstrating the personal care and “hands on” approach shown in Gen. 2.   The heavens, moon and stars are described as the work of God’s “fingers” and as being things God has “established,”–they are not rival gods or forces.  As in all the creation passages in Scripture, the strong Hebrew monotheism comes through–the denial that GOD is simply some tribal god of Israel whose power is limited and who must contend with other gods, demons, etc.  As with many of us who have stared into the night sky (or through a telescope), the psalmist is overwhelmed with the beauty and majesty of God’s universe and feels insignificant in comparison (“What is ‘man’ that Thou art mindful of him? The son of man that Thou dost care for him?”  N.B.: I usually believe in inclusive language, especially for humanity, but, in English, this verse loses all of its poetry and much of its literary power in more modern versions.) But the psalmist goes on to affirm (against pagan deified animals) that God has “crowned [humans] with glory and honor [all humans, not just kings or nobility]” and given them dominion over the rest of the created order. This is not because humans have earned such honor, but as part of the free grace of GOD.  That glory and honor is so great that humans are, according to the psalmist, made only “little less than God.” The KJV here says “angels,” but the word is elohim and so must mean either YHWH GOD or “gods,” such as those translations which say “heavenly beings.”  I think the RSV and NRSV are right, though: humanity has been made only a less than GOD–an amazing affirmation.  To be continued . . .

UPDATE:  Sorry, Gentle Readers,  I had meant to put this unfinished post on “draft,” not “publish.”  Oops!

Okay, as some commenters have noticed, the biblical writers seem far more interested in WHO is Creator ( YHWH GOD), not with HOW creation was done–not in any mechanical way.  If we look at the Bible literalistically and ask “how” God created the universe, then we get contradictions: Gen. 1 says God spoke the world into existence in 6 days out of watery chaos; Gen. 2 says that God formed the world from dust and used “hands” to create both man and woman (separately); Ps. 8 says the heavens are the work of God’s “hands” and “fingers.” If we accept these as poetic descriptions, then there is no contradiction.

Of course, not all “how” questions are ignored–it is important to see that, unlike the rival pagan creation myths, Jewish and Christian Scriptures affirm that Creation is not an act of violence–that it is peaceful and good.

Psalm 19 links God’s creation of the universe with God’s creation of the Law.  Here divine speech and “handiwork” are combined with the wonderful metaphor of a “tent for the sun,” that is, a home much like the formerly tent-dwelling Israelites would have known. And the sun comes forth from that tent “like a bridegroom leaving his chamber!” Notice that this is a geocentric cosmology.  The biblical writers all assumed that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun traveled around it (or across the dome of the sky).  I know of no one, not even the most stubborn Young Earth Creationist, who continues to hold to a geocentric universe–all have apparently decided that Copernicus and Galileo were right and that the earth and planets of the solar system really do circumnavigate the sun.  They do not think that they have therefore “denied the Bible.” So why do they take a different tact on evolution?

In Psalm 29 the focus is not on what we might call “large scale creation,” but on the map of the Ancient Near East.  God is praised for creating storms, fire, the cedars of Lebanon, and Syria (and God makes these nations skip!). The Psalmist here is seeing God’s presence in some of the most awesome–yet dangerous–aspects of the natural world: storm, earthquake, forest fire, and flood.  Truly the voice of YHWH “shakes the wilderness!”

We must be cautious here:  Too often people see God’s “hand” SO directly in natural phenomena that they think God causes natural disasters as punishment for sin.  Thus, according to this theology, the people of New Orleans were so sinful that they deserved all the damage of Hurricane Katrina. The wildfires of Southern California were punishment for “Hollywood lifestyles.” And the floods that have swept away most of Tobasco state and the mudslides of nearby Chiapas state in Mexico must be punishment for the way that crime and drug smuggling have pervaded these poor Mexican states.  On and on it goes.  This is wrong. While the Deists were wrong to see God as uninvolved in Creation after making it, there is a certain “autonomy” to natural laws and processes.  The issues of divine action (often called miracle) and providence and theodicy are very thorny ones–and more complex as we learn more about natural processes–and how human action complicates such forces and often increases natural disasters.  We have to find ways to affirm God’s working in the world without claiming God’s direct (and punishing?) control over natural forces that often cause great harm.  (For help in such reflections see the following:  Keith Ward, Divine Action:  Examining God’s Role in an Open and Emergent Universe (Templeton Foundation Press, 2007) & the series “Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action” published by the University of Notre Dame Press.)

Psalm 33 connects God’s role as Creator of the Universe with God’s role as Lord of History.  The God who “gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle” is the same Lord who “brings the counsel of the nations to nought;” and “frustrates the plans of the peoples.” Neither economic nor military might can prevail against the plans of God. who delivers those who fear God and keep God’s commands.  Here again we must walk a tightrope:  We cannot have a Deistic “hands off” god.  To be faithful Christians, we need an understanding of God that allows for the liberation of slaves from empires and a God who can raise Jesus from the dead.  But if our understanding of God’s sovereign power is too wooden, then we make God responsible for evil and we deny human freedom–and thus our moral agency.  It is often very difficult to believe in God’s liberating power in a world of oppression, injustice, and evil in which “what’s dead stays that way” as one poet put it. To claim with the psalmist and with Martin Luther King, Jr. that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is truly an act of faith.  Further, when see evidence of God’s sovereign power  in nonviolent revolutions or in miraculous healings, etc., it is far too tempting to conclude either that others who died of the same disease or whose nonviolent actions were crushed brutally were not faithful enough, were too sinful, did not pray hard enough, etc.  And the other temptation is to avoid blaming the victim only to make God out to be capricious by saying that God “could have intervened but chose not to for mysterious reasons known only to God.”  (In navigating these treacherous waters, I recommend especially E. Frank Tupper, A Scandalous Providence:  The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God (Mercer University Press, 1995) which has the added bonus of being one of the most “preachable” works of serious theology written! )

In Psalm 65, God’s care for Creation is linked to God’s willingness to forgive sin! 

Ps. 104 is my favorite Creation psalm and one of the longest.  It would be foolish to read it in a wooden, literal manner:  To say that God is “clothed with honor and majesty” or covered “with light as a garment,” doesn’t mean that God has a body (as Mormons believe) or wears any clothes! But if that is obvious, so should the non-literal nature of the Psalmist’s claim that God “has stretched out the heavens like a tent” or that God makes the clouds God’s chariot.  The ancient Greeks may (or may not–certainly by the time of Socrates the metaphorical nature of this language was clear to many Greeks) have considered the sun to be a literal chariot actually ridden by Apollo daily across the sky, but the Psalmist is using poetic language to describe the way Creation demonstrates the majesty and power of God. (Insert favorite praise song here. I’ll go with “Lord of the Starfields.”)

Psalm 104 also shows the continuing (post-Edenic) care of God for all of Creation–for cattle and plants and hills and birds, storks, and goats, badgers and lions as much as for humanity.  And though Ps. 104 continues the theme of Ps. 8 that humans are the special creation of God, this Psalm goes further in asserting the value of plants and animals in themselves and not just in their value to humans. God does not just tend to the cedars of Lebanon, for instance, because people like to use them for lumber, but because birds make their nests in them. The young lions “seek their food from God”–the Psalmist is praising God for providential care for a non-domesticated predator–a predator who could be a real threat to flocks or people. 

Much more could be said.  By the nature of this study, my comments have had to be maddeningly brief.  A good commentary on the Psalms would add abundantly to these reflections.

The Psalmists rightly sing of God’s Creation and how it displays God’s glory and care–but not in ways that can be put in any “Creationism museum” nor in any way which rejects or denies the natural discoveries of scientists.  Since the creation psalms are of an entirely different order than scientific inquiries, there is nothing here which either supports or denies biological evolution–the concerns of the Psalmists are elsewhere and when Christians think theologically about Creation, our concerns ought to be elsewhere, too–though the discoveries of science can certainly stimulate our theological reflection and even our prayer practices.

November 9, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, science & faith | 12 Comments

Creation and Evolution 2: Gen. 1:1-2:4a

The later creation story in Genesis, the Priestly account of Gen. 1:1-2:4a, is placed first in our Bibles.  It comes from the time of the Exile.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel is gone–destroyed by the Assyrians–and the Southern Kingdom of Judah has seen most of its inhabitants (and all of its leaders) deported into various parts of the Babylonian empire–while peoples from other conquered nations have been moved to the Holy Land of Canaan.  The devastation upon the national psyche of the people is best seen in Psalm 137: a bitterness and grief so deep that the Psalmist actually prays at the end for people kill Babylonian babies by beating their heads against rocks. (The unknown psalmist had probably seen Babylonian soldiers do that very thing to Israelite babies!)

In the ancient world, wars on earth were thought to mirror wars in the heavens between rival gods and goddesses.  We see this, for instance, in Homer’s The Iliad, where the various gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon take sides in the war between Greece and Troy.  The usual interpretation of national defeat by a stronger army was that the invaders’ god had defeated the god of the conquered people.  This was how the Babylonians saw their conquest of Judah: Marduk, the Chief god of the Babylonians, was stronger than YHWH and had defeated YHWH, allowing Babylon to defeat Judah.  The Babylonians encouraged the captive Exiles to see things in the same way so that they would give up Yahwism (i.e., developing Israelite religion, which was growing into what is today Judaism) and give up their identity as Jews and blend in as faithful citizens of Babylonia.

As the years of the Exile dragged on, the temptation to give up and merge (as the Northern Kingdom had given up and merged earlier with Assyria) must have been tremendous.  The Priestly Creation Narrative (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) is one part of a theological resistance to that temptation. 

The Babylonians had their own Creation myth which can be read in their Scripture, the Enuma Elish.  Here, the act of creation is war.  Marduk leads the gods to kill the mother goddess Tiamat (chaos waters–sometimes pictured as a dragon). The heavens and earth are made in some versions of the story out of the body of Kingu, Tiamat’s consort, and, in other versions, out of the body of Tiamat herself.  Humans are then made from this mess to be the slaves of the gods.

Genesis 1, the Priestly creation story is a theological rebuttal to this story–and a bold one.  El (God) creates not by violence, but by simply speaking.  Order appears out of chaos as a result of God’s Word (not as a result of military imposition of order).   Everything has its place and its time.  The language used here is not that of narrative saga, as in the Gen. 2 J story, but a liturgical, almost hymnlike language (“there was an evening and a morning the first day,” etc.) .

The Hebrew terms used for the various portions of creation (and of the watery chaotic “deep” that precedes it) are chosen to be very similar to the Babylonian names for their gods and goddesses:  e.g., t’hom, “the deep,” is very close to “Tiamat.” But in the Gen. 1 account, these are not gods and goddesses or monsters, etc., but just portions of the world that God creates–or from which God creates in the case of the watery deep.  The Priestly writer(s) of Gen. 1, in a very real sense, demythologize Creation–or rather, they provide a counter myth, a truer myth. 

The categories of the created order as the Israelits knew it are created in the first three days:  Heavens and earth, Day and Night,  land, seas.  In the second three days, these are populated: Sun and Moon, stars populate the day and night; birds populate the skies/heavens; fish populate the seas; crawling animals populate the land.  

Now, there is another dimension here which must not be missed: Babylon is the origin of astrology as we know it in the West today. (Other astrological systems were created in China, etc.) To the Babylonians, who already believed that they were slaves of the gods, the sun, moon, and stars ruled over their lives.  They had no free will.  The Priestly writer of Gen. 1 denies this: The sun rules only the day–not humans.  The moon rules only the night, not humans.  And the stars? They don’t get to rule anything.  The Hebrew makes it seem like a divine afterthought, “And he also made stars.”  Poof.  Astrology has no power.  Stars are just part of God’s creation–nothing more and nothing less.  They do not determine human lives.  (Whenever I see Christians today read horoscopes–even “just for fun,” I am horrified that they would submit to this pagan ideology in place of biblical freedom. I have made it a point not to even know my zodiac sign and I stop everyone who tries to tell me what it is.  I have no time for such nonsense.)

Then, at the pinnacle of creation, God makes humans–not as slaves out of the body of some slain god or goddess, but “in the image and likeness of God.” What a bold theological claim for an exiled, conquered people to make! And, in this version, men and women (ish and isha) are made at the same time. Both are made in the image of God. Some have taken the secondary creation of woman in Gen. 2, along with the man’s naming of her, to be an implication of sex subordination. (But, for a rebuttal of such a reading, see Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. ) Even if that is the right way to read Gen. 2, by placing Gen. 1 first, the Priestly writers were emphasizing the equality of the sexes (despite the subordinate position women had in Israelite society and in its cultic life presided over by the Priestly class!)–both equally made in the image and likeness of God!

What a great message! What powerful things we must learn about God and creation from Genesis 1!  But none of those things are scientific.  The P writer did not know that the stars were suns, nor that the sun was created before the earth, etc.  The P writer did not know that the moon was a big hunk of rock torn from the earth, nor that the earth was round.  The P writer thought of the heavens or skies (“firmament”) as a big brass dome with windows for rain to come to earth.  The P writer did place the creation of animals before that of humanity, but he (they?) knew nothing of the evolution of species–nor did he/they CARE!  The interest of the biblical writers was elsewhere:  Affirming the sovereignty of God (despite the claim that God had been defeated by Marduk) over all–a sovereignty exercised in a calm, effortless, nonviolent creation.  Affirming the goodness of all creation with everything in proper order.  Affirming the uniqueness of humanity as a special creation—not because we have no biological connections to other animals, but because God’s universe creating Word has declared us “image and likeness of God.”  As such, we have nothing to fear from the investigations of astronomers, geologists, and biologists.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins can claim that Darwin disproves God, but we have no reason to agree! Darwin’s discoveries–and those of his successors–tell us about our origins from a scientific viewpoint.  But Genesis affirms the theological truth that God is behind it all and God’s providence is the real power in our lives.

November 6, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., progressive faith, science & faith, theology | 16 Comments

Creation and Evolution 1: Gen. 2:4b-25

Well, it’s Sunday night in my part of the world, so it’s time for some serious Bible study.  I need to say a few introductory things about my approach to the biblical texts:  I accept the basic outline of the “Documentary Hypothesis” on the formation of the Pentateuch.  That is, Genesis-Deuteronomy were NOT dictated verbally by God to Moses.  The books are unsigned and only were called “The Five Books of Moses” in post-Exilic Israelite religion (early Judaism)–a tradition that had, nonetheless, been settled for some time by Jesus’ day.  (No, I do not think that Jesus’ ref. to biblical citation in the Pentateuch or Torah as “Moses says” means that Jesus was giving omniscient or supernaturally-informed confirmation of Mosaic authorship!) The Torah or Pentateuch as we know it was compiled of various written sources (scholars have traditionally called these the J, E, D, & P sources or the Yahwist/Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly sources) from different strands of Israelite tradition.  Those sources themselves were often based on oral tradition, stories that circulated by word of mouth for generations before being written down. (Note: The latter does not make a purportedly historical account necessarily unreliable.  It has been shown that oral cultures can accurately transmit whole libraries of data for centuries.  Changes can and do creep in slowly, but oral cultures are conservative and audiences will correct even one word being out of place in a traditional story. )

Scholars identified these sources in the Pentateuch by looking at differences in writing style, repetitions, vocabulary differences, etc.  For instance, the J or Yahwist source, which is the oldest source, consistently uses YHWH for God (reflecting a time before Jewish tradition held that God’s name was too sacred to be spoken aloud–that any mention of it risked breaking the commandment against taking the divine name in vain) whereas the E source prefers to use the term El or Elohim.  Those who reconstruct the history of transmission believe the P or Priestly writers had the final editing–after the Exile, led by Ezra and his scribes.  There may have been a core of the Torah that was written by Moses (perhaps with input from those around him like Aaron, Miriam, and Joshua), but there is also much older and much later material in the “Books of Moses” as we have them in our Bibles.

I mention all this as background to saying that there is not one but two “creation stories” in Genesis.  My summary above will be old hat to those with seminary education–and even to many laity–but it will be new to some readers of this blog as is clear from a few comments on the previous post.   There will some critics who reject the above and will therefore reject my interpretation of the Genesis texts.  Please do not misunderstand me: I am NOT claiming that they are uninspired or not God’s Word, etc. Nothing of the sort.  But to interpret the creation stories in Genesis rightly, we need to see them against their historical background–to see what the biblical writers were arguing for and against. They were NOT arguing for or against any scientific explanations of human origins.

As I said, there are 2 creation stories in Genesis:  The first is Gen. 1:1-2:4a and the second is 2:4b-25.  The second account is the older account.  It is from the J document and is, in fact, based on much older oral tradition. The story, which is part of the larger Adam and Eve saga, represents some of the oldest material in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and probably was written down in the early monarchical period–sometime around 950 B.C.E.  I am examining it first because I think it will help to see what the P writers did in placing the E creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) first in the Torah ( a move that was reinforced when the Torah was placed first in the canon–so that Scripture for both Jews and Christians BEGINS with the P creation story).

Initial observations:  This story has a flowing writing style appropriate to that of a saga.  There is a different order to creation–first man, then the plants and animals, then woman–from the first story.  We begin not with a watery chaos, but with a barren wasteland.  This creation story probably has its infancy in the days when Israel’s Hebrew ancestors were desert nomads–thus, creation is a garden very like an oasis. 

“Man,” adam (not yet a proper name) is pun on “earth,” adamah.  This is our first clue that we are not dealing with anything purporting to be an eyewitness-type historical account: The symbolic names. “Adam” for the earth-creature that becomes “man,” and “Eve” meaning “mother of all living.” These are obviously representative figures rather than simple individuals.

There are many mythic elements–by which I mean “magical” elements that recur in similar narratives in different cultures around the globe:  magical trees with great prizes (in this case, eternal life and the knowledge of good and evil), talking animals, etc. 

The larger story is what anthropologists call etiological–i.e., it explains how things commonly done “now” (the time of the storyteller or the writer) began–why women leave their households to become part of new households with their husbands; why snakes crawl on their bellies and apparently eat dust; why people and snakes don’t get along; how the wearing of clothing began, etc. 

All this is clearly to say that those who told this story and those who wrote it down and included it in our Bibles were NOT asking scientific questions.  They were asking about God and humanity and our relation to each other and the world (as they knew it).  By the time of the early monarchy when this was written, Israel was in conflict with surrounding nations who all had their own gods and goddesses.  The constant question was “Who is this YHWH of yours anyway!” since Yahwism was relatively new to Canaan.  The initial Hebrew answer, of course, was that YHWH was the liberating God of exodus who brought them out of Egypt! But the Yahwistic writer of Gen. 2 is claiming more: That the Liberator God is not just the tribal god of Israel, but the Creator of the world and Humanity!  This is quite a claim to make against Canaan’s fertility gods–a claim of former desert nomads who, now that they are settled agrarians, could be tempted to adopt the gods and customs of those who have been farmers for much longer than Israel has.

Boldly this story from J says that YHWH the Liberator is the Creator of ALL–and portrays that act of Creation as an act of love and intimate care.  Adam is formed of the ground, the dust–a humble substance, but some creation myths have humans formed from much worse–from excrement or (as we’ll see in the next installment) from the body of a slain goddess, etc.  Adam is lovingly created and given a fertile and hospitable home, given animals to name (an act of authority–in contrast to many creation myths in which humans must name themselves after more powerful creatures). Then woman is made from man in an act of love–affirming the essential unity and partnership of the sexes.  And since this story is part of the larger Adam, Eve, Cain and Able story, etc., the J writer is also boldly affirming that God created humans good–not evil. The origin of evil is not given (the idea that the serpent was Satan is from later tradition), but it is clear that it is not God’s fault, but humanity’s–from our misuse of our freedom.

Thus, this early creation story also links Creation to Salvation History. 

This is narrative theology–it is theological truth in mythic form.  It is neither a scientific account nor meant to rival any scientific account.  This will become even clearer when we turn to the other creation account in Genesis–before looking at creation passages from elsewhere in Scripture.

November 5, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, progressive faith, science & faith | 13 Comments

Science, Theology, and the Doctrine of Creation

Before beginning my “Creation and Evolution” series, here is a brief bibliography on related matters.

The best introduction to the entire field of “science and religion” is Ian Barbour, Religion and Science:  Historical and Contemporary Issues. Rev. and Exp. edition of “Religion in an Age of Science (HarperCollins, 1997).  This brilliant work is based on Barbour’s Gifford Lectures, which one can read here.  Barbour has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago and a B.D. from Yale Divinity School.  In 1999, Barbour won the prestigious Templeton Prize for his interdisciplinary work on science and religion and his advocacy of more ethics in the development and use of technology.  This book is written from a “Process Theology” perspective, but even if one does not share that perspective (I am a “free will theist” instead), the book is incredibly valuable for its historical descriptions and its analysis of issues. It is also highly readable.

A very readable journalistic account of the question of God in contemporary physics (especially in cosmology) is Kitty Ferguson, The Fire in the Equations:  Science, Religion, & the Search for God (Eerdmans, 1994) which the eminent Stephen Hawking called “A clear account of the ultimate question.”

I also highly recommend Sir John Polkinghorne’s 1994 book, The Faith of a Physicist (published in the U.K. as Science and Christian Belief). This was based on Polkinghorne’s own Gifford lectures. Polkinghorne is a renowned Cambridge particle physicist who resigned his tenured post (after publishing 5 works in particle physics that are still standards in the field!) to study for the Anglican priesthood.  After a parish ministry, he eventually returned to Cambridge and until 1996 was President of Queen’s College, Cambridge.  He was awarded the 2002 Templeton Prize and knighted in 1997.  He served for years on the medical ethics committee of the Church of England. 

One bold attempt at a “unified field theory” that includes theology and ethics in a heirarchy of sciences (and argues that, despite predation, pacifism fits the moral nature of the cosmos) is On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics by Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis (Fortress Press, 1996).  Nancey Murphy, widow of one of my mentors, the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), baptist theologian extraordinare, is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren and teaches Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. (Fuller is a non-denominational seminary from a progressive evangelical viewpoint–which means that liberal seminaries constantly wonder if it is really fundamentalist and more conservative evangelical seminaries constantly accuse Fuller of liberalism.  I was honored to be a Visiting Professor there in 1998 and 2000.) Murphy has a Ph.D. in philosophy of science from the University of California at Berkeley and a Th.D. in philosophy of religion from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. Raised a Roman Catholic, she is an adult convert to the Anabaptist tradition of which the Church of the Brethren is a part.  George F. R. Ellis is Professor Emeritus of Complex Systems in the Department of Applied Mathematics of the University of Capetown, South Africa and has been Visiting Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and held other visiting professorships around the world.  He is past president of the Royal Society of South Africa, President of the International Society for Science and Religion, has lectured at the Vatican Observatory and is considered one of the world’s leading cosmologists.  He has written numerous scientific books, including co-authoring, The Large-Scale Structure of Space and Time with Stephen Hawking in 1973.  He won the 2004 Templeton Prize.  Ellis is a Quaker activist who was one of the rare white South Africans to be a vigorous part of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and who continues to work on issues of racism, poverty, and the AIDS pandemic.  He has been honored for his social activism by former president Nelson Mandela with the Star of South Africa medal in 1999.  So both authors bring to this book: expertise in both science and theology, deep commitment to Christian faith from pacifist traditions (Anabaptist and Quaker), and an excellent clarity in writing.

Nancey Murphy’s earlier book, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion), which advances her perspective of theology as a type of science in a postmodern sense, won both the Templeton Foundation Book Prize and the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence.  It is slightly off our current focus, but is worth reading for a broader picture.   I also recommend her Reconciling Science and Religion: An Anabaptist Perspective (Herald Press, 1999). 

One contemporary theologian who has thoroughly interacted with science throughout his career is Wolfhart Pannenberg.  An excellent introduction and overview to this aspect of Pannenberg’s though is Carol Rausch Albright and Joel Haugen, eds., Beginning with the End: God, Science, and Wolfhart Pannenberg (Open Court Press, 1997).  The book begins with 4 essays by Pannenberg (“Theological Questions to Scientists,” “Laying Theological Claim to Scientific Understandings,” “The Doctrine of the Spirit and the Task of a Theology of Nature,” and “Spirit and Energy in the Phenomenology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.”) and continues with numerous expositions, critiques, and interactions by both scientists and theologians.  This one is not always for the faint at heart.  I would recommend at least some scientific and theological background before tackling this one.

Now, for help on relating contemporary science and evolution directly to the doctrine of creation, I recommend especially the following:

John David Weaver, In the Beginning, God: Modern Science and the Christian Doctrine of Creation, The Regent’s Study Guides # 3 (published jointly by Regent’s Park College, Oxford and Smyth & Helwys Press, 1994).  Weaver is a British Baptist minister trained as a geologist who was Senior Lecturer in Geology at Derby University from 1971-1978 and, at the time of this publication, was Fellow and Tutor in Pastoral Theology at Regent’s Park College, Oxford.  (Regent’s Park College is one of the most prestigious of all Baptist theological seminaries in the world.  It is a residential and theological college of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and a recognized Permanent Private Hall of Oxford University.  The faculty are also teaching faculty at the University.)

A brilliant, and very readable, guide to the “creation vs. evolution” debate in the U.S. is Del Ratsch, The Battle of the Beginnings:  Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate (IVP, 1996).  This book won the Book of the Year Award in 1997 from Christianity Today.  Del Ratsch is no flaming liberal theologian (I wrote that for my friendly critics like Looney!), but teaches philosophy at  Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI–an evangelical college almost as conservative as my alma mater, Palm Beach Atlantic College.  Especially helpful in this book are the chapters on “popular creationist misunderstandings of Darwin,” and “popular evolutionist misunderstandings of creationism.” I learned much in the latter chapter).

An insider’s view of the Arkansas evolution trial of the 1980s is found in the late Langdon Gilkey’s, Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock.  Gilkey, a liberal Baptist theologian at the University of Chicago whose theology combined Niebuhr, Tillich and process thought, had earlier written a brilliant theological exploration of creation called Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Conrad Hyers’ The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (John Knox Press, 1984) is very helpful both in describing contemporary science to laity AND to expositing Genesis 1 & 2 against their historical backgrounds for those with no exposure to historical critical interpretation of the Bible.  I have used diagrams in this book in teaching on this subject in churches.

Similarly helpful are two books by Howard J. Van Till, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College. Van Till, an evangelical Christian, member of the Executive Council of the American Scientific Affiliation (which has been relating science to orthodox Christian belief since the 19th C.), member of the editorial board of Science and Christian Belief, has been repeatedly attacked by “Creation Science” people who wanted Calvin College to fire him because of acceptance of evolution.  His two very helpful books for laity are, The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling Us About Creation (Eerdmans, 1986) and Portraits of Creation:  Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World’s Formation (Eerdmans, 1990).

David Livingstone’s, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (Eerdmans, 1987) is very helpful for reminding readers that, initially, evangelicals in both Britain and America had little trouble with Darwinian evolution. It was only after the rise of militant fundamentalism in the early 20th C. that Darwinism became widely viewed by evangelicals as “anti-God.”

Similarly helpful are the works of Ronald L. Numbers, a historian of science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Numbers has done much to de-bunk the “warfare of science and religion myth” that has harmed both. (E.g., popular wisdom to the contrary, Galileo was never tortured or threatened with execution by the Inquisition or any other Catholic body. Galileo was only placed under a comfortable house arrest and his run-ins with the pope had far more to do with his lack of diplomacy than with his scientific research.  No scientist in the Western world has ever been tortured or killed for his or her scientific work–certainly not by any church-related body or organization.  About 40% of all working scientists, according to Nature, are traditional religious believers in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam–a percentage that has remained virtually unchanged in 5 decades.) For our work, see especially Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists, originally published by Knopf in 1992 as a history of the rise of “scientific creationism.” In 2006 Harvard University Press published an expanded and updated version that also deals with the “Intelligent Design” movement and demonstrates that it is far more related to “Creationism” than proponents like Michael Behe want to admit.

Well, that’s all for now. Next installment, we begin with the biblical texts!

November 3, 2007 Posted by | science & faith, theology | 11 Comments